Aussie wages higher because of strong collective bargaining
Sunday 6 October, 2013
Australian Union Leader suggests Aussie wages higher because of strong collective bargaining
Australia’s industrial relations framework is one of the keys to its ‘decent’ wage levels, according to ACTU President Ged Kearney.
Speaking on TVNZ’s Q+A this morning she said Australia did not go down the path of New Zealand’s Employment Contracts Act in the 1990s.
“We still have a very strong collective bargaining system here in Australia,” she said.
“We don’t rely terribly much on individual contracts. We have a framework that allows unions to actually organise and get their works better pay rises. We have a very strong minimum-wage case that we run every year, and, of course, we have our award system, which have stayed pretty much intact.”
Ms Kearney said collective bargaining is the way “workers get a premium on their wages, and one collectively bargains with the help and assistance of organised labour through
Australia’s robust mining industry was helping the country’s strong economy, she said, while the manufacturing sector was ‘weakening somewhat’ influenced by the Australian dollar and the global economy.
The ACTU is concerned that the new government of Tony Abbott will move the country to an individual contract style of employment arrangements, Ms Kearney said.
“We are very concerned about the direction he is taking with respect to enabling trade unions to organise and collectively bargain. We are concerned about a number of things within the industrial relations framework with an Abbott Government that will drive wages down and cause concerns for workers in Australia.”
Australian trade unions are campaigning to combat the trend of employing workers as casuals or contractors, now comprising 40% of the workforce.
“This is a big concern for productivity,” Ms Kearney said. “It’s a concern for the standard of living that we have in Australia. It’s a big concern for the coherence of our communities and our family units. People employed in casual jobs, they can’t get home loans, they can’t get car loans, they can’t get paid holidays, paid sick leave, paid carers leave.
“All those things that we enjoy as permanent employees are swept out from under us when we’re employed in insecure work.”
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SUSAN WOOD INTERVIEWS GED KEARNEY
A very good morning to you.
GED KEARNEY - President, Australian CTU
Good morning. Thanks for having me.
SUSAN Why, simply put, are Australians paid so much more - on average 25 per cent - than New Zealanders?
GED Oh, well, I think you have to look at this through a historical perspective. Way back in the ‘90s, of course, NZ had the Employment Contracts Act which radically changed the industrial relations framework, I guess, for workers in NZ. In Australia, we didn’t go down that pathway so much. We still have a very strong collective bargaining system here in Australia. We don’t rely terribly much on individual contracts. We have a framework that allows unions to actually organise and get their workers better pay rises. We have a very strong minimum-wage case that we run every year, and, of course, we have our award system, which have stayed pretty much intact. You will recall that during the Howard years there was an attempt to break down our system, much like what happened in NZ in the early ‘90s, but that was swiftly rejected when he was unelected through the unions campaign, Your Rights At Work Campaign here. So whilst we are seeing the advent-
SUSAN So are you saying that NZ needs to move back into a unionised workforce to get any real wage gains? Is that what you’re saying?
GED Uh, look, I think that you need to look at how wages are established in NZ, and I think unions are a very important part of that. Collective bargaining really is the way that workers get a premium on their wages, and one collectively bargains with the help and assistance of organised labour through unions, absolutely.
SUSAN Productivity, we are told, is a big issue, and we are told that Australia has leapt ahead in terms of productivity. How has the Australian workforce achieved that?
GED Well, you know, again, I think it’s through the bargaining process. I mean, we are very lucky in Australia. We have robust industries. We have the mining industry, of course, which is helping our economy. We have a history of a strong manufacturing sector, which is weakening somewhat now with the Australian dollar and the global economy. All these things contribute to the decent wages that we do have here and our strong economy. But productivity, I think, is something that often gets confused with profits. I was listening to the conversation before about paying people decent wages and investing in your workforce, investing in skills, making sure you have a loyal workforce underneath you that raises productivity. But it is a complex question, that of productivity, but I think paying decent wages is an important part of that.
SUSAN You have got a big campaign, the Australian Trade Unions, on casualisation at the moment. How concerned are you about it? I mean, why is it an issue anyway?
GED Well, it is an issue for those very things that we have been talking about, because, as we heard with the discussion before, and I honestly believe that a secure workforce that feels invested in, that feels well-paid, that feels secure automatically raises productivity. What we’re seeing in Australian, though, is a shift to an insecure workforce. Nearly 40 per cent of our workforce is employed in casual, as casuals, in short-term contracts, in what we call sham contracts where they’re forced to become so-called independent contractors rather than employees. This is a big concern for productivity. It’s a concern for the standard of living that we have in Australia. It’s a big concern for the coherence of our communities and our family units. People employed in casual jobs, they can’t get home loans, they can’t get car loans, they can’t get paid holidays, paid sick leave, paid carers leave. All those things that we enjoy as permanent employees are swept out from under us when we’re employed in insecure work, and that causes not only a breakdown of the economy and productivity problems, I think it also causes a lack of cohesion in our communities. So Australian unions are very worried about this, and we are running a very strong campaign to combat this problem.
SUSAN Speaking of insecurity, there are many New Zealanders- [LINK BREAKS] We seem to have lost our link to Australia. Well, look at that. She’s gone. I was about to ask her the hard question about 200,000 New Zealanders living in Australia and not being looked after, and she just disappeared. I don’t think I can probably hold her responsible for that, though.
SUSAN We’ve got the satellite back up, so let’s get back to Ged Kearney. I’m sorry about that, Ged. I was assured we are paying the bills at this end, so something went wrong. What I was about to ask you was there are many New Zealanders living in Australia who do not have the protections, they are not citizens, they do not have the protections of other workers. The Prime Minister told me this week it’s about 200,000. How is that fair when these people, these New Zealanders, are working, living and paying taxes in Australia?
GED Yes, it’s a good question. I will come to that in a second. But I would just quickly like to address one of the comments that your panellists said - because I could hear while I was here, we still had the link - about capital is the reason that we have productivity. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The main drag on productivity in Australia was actually due to capital. At the moment, labour productivity in Australia is the highest it’s been since the 1960s. Labour unit costs are actually the lowest they’ve been since the 1960s, and the drag that was actually bringing our productivity growth - because we’re still growing - was actually a massive capital investment in huge mining products that were yet to come online and actually be productive. So I just wanted to fix that.
SUSAN Ok. Now on to the New Zealanders in Australia.
GED On to the NZ ones, yes. Look, absolutely. Australian unions have long been very concerned about, I guess, guest workers, you could call them, in Australia and the fact that they can be vulnerable, they can be exploited, that they have hanging over their heads like a sickle the fact that they can have their job taken away from them and then have nothing because they have no rights, they have no access to anything here.
SUSAN We would not regard ourselves as guest workers in Australia, New Zealanders, though. I think, certainly from our perspective, feel we have a very special relationship with you. I’m talking about people who are maybe there a decade or more. Their children don’t get the same benefits as other children. Is it something that you would look at campaigning on, or do you just lump the New Zealanders together with other ‘guest workers’?
GED Uh, well, there are certainly a large number of New Zealanders working in Australia. We know, and I think it’s interesting that you’re having this discussion, because you need to ask why. Why is that so? And I think a lot of it is because of the conversation you’ve been having earlier with your other panellists about the low wage in NZ and perhaps lagging productivity, and perhaps industry needs to be built up, skills need to be invested in, etc. But certainly what we would like to see in Australia is at least access to health care. We think that that is very important, and there is certainly an argument if you do lose your job that you can get some relief or some welfare payments while you’re here. I think it is a very complex problem. We have a softening labour market in Australia. We have some 60,000 workers out of work here, so it is complex, and I think what we need is a very mature conversation between the NZ Government and the Australian Government about how we can support NZ workers here together in a good comprise in a way that actually makes sure people are cared for.
SUSAN Sure. I just need to jump in because I know we’re about to run out of satellite again. I want to ask you what are you expecting from Tony Abbott? Go fast.
GED Ok. We are expecting workers to have some concerns with the Tony Abbott Government. We know that he is committed to moving us back to an individual contract style of employment arrangements. We know that there’s no commitment to very important institutions like penalty rates. We are very concerned about the direction he is taking with respect to enabling trade unions to organise and collectively bargain. We are concerned about a number of things within the industrial relations framework with an Abbott Government that will drive wages down and cause concerns for workers in Australia. But we are prepared to work with the coalition to make sure that these things don’t happen and that there are solutions to the things that he has concerns about as well.
SUSAN Ged Kearney, thank you so much for your time this morning and for being such a great sport.
GED My pleasure. Sorry about the link. It’s our fault.
SUSAN Not your personal fault, that’s for sure.