Penalty rates and #lastpeoplesday

I’m off to speak to young unionists today as part of the #lastpeoplesday campaign on penalty rates.

Under John Howard the Liberal National Coalition brought in AWAs. These were individual agreements in which employers had all the power. They could, and did, expressly strip away penalty rates. As Bill Shorten has pointed out, under Work Choices, 63 per cent of AWAs ripped away penalty rates.

The Liberals want to widen Individual Flexibility Agreements and weaken the better off overall test to take into account “non-monetary benefits”. They will not admit to wanting to bring back AWAs because they know that AWAs are forever associated with Work Choices. But the Australian Retailers Association has already been reported as saying it wants to use the changes to individual flexibility agreements to strike deals with workers to get rid of penalty rates.

The justification for these deals is usually that they would be voluntary. But how ‘voluntary’ is it when an employer wants to change your conditions, if the employer’s a business and you’re a young worker? AWAs were generally ‘voluntary’ in the sense that you could take the job, with the AWA, or leave it. The fact is, industrial relations is often about power. Individual workers generally don’t have much. Undue influence and coercion laws are scant protection in the face of the power differential between businesses and their young workers.

Work Choices wasn’t a new idea that John Howard had in 2005. The changes he made to the Workplace Relations Act in 2006 were changes that he had wanted to make in 1996, but couldn’t because he didn’t control the senate. And back in 1993, the Liberal leader wanted youth wages of $3 per hour. That was low, even back then. In other words, the Liberals have a long history of wanting to weaken working people – especially young workers – to make it easier to reduce their conditions.

We can’t trust the Liberals and Nationals when it comes to penalty rates. We know that retailers want to get rid of them – as United Voice’ national secretary, Louise Tarrant, has said, Restaurant & Catering Australia has asked Fair Work Commission to change the national Restaurant Industry Award to remove a lot of people’s penalty rates. The Liberal party is the party of big business and they have been obsessed with changing labour laws, to weaken conditions for employees, for decades. It’s pretty plain that they would support employers using individual agreements to undermine penalty rates.