The recent changes made by the Fair Work Commission are but the tip of a rather large iceberg. Too long have we been the subject of political rhetoric, and I believe we should move toward actual change.
When I first entered the workforce in 1992, it was to work in a small firm in Adelaide making light fittings, aluminium saucepans and the covers for street lights. The company was small enough that at Christmas, the ten or twelve employees each received a small financial bonus and a cured leg of ham for the dinner table. We were not a unionised workplace, and OH&S was definitely an afterthought.
In 1995, I moved down the road to Mitsubishi, it was expected that I join, and support, the AMWU; and I did. I paid my dues and joined the rolling stoppages that formed the backbone of the fight for better pay and conditions for the workers building the Magna. The wage fight was won, kind of, but I was left with a bitter taste in my mouth and didn’t rejoin a union until I became a teacher in 2015.
Through the intervening period, I worked in various industries including retail and security work, worked as a funeral assistant and as an assistant nurse. Each of these jobs included night and/or weekend work. Each provided for the worker by paying for the inconvenience of premium time away from family with premium pay rates. Unionism was rarely, if ever, contemplated because I was able to sort out issues directly with my employers.
Alongside this idea was that there were other systems in place that ensured my pay was correct and that I would be able to feed my growing family.
Enter the Fair Work Commission.
To me, it has always been a voice for the worker, even when so many other voices are shouting us down. Consistently they’ve stood for workers, even when conservative governments are working their fingers to the bone for their corporate buddies, and that is the job the Fair Work Commission has: to bring some semblance of a fair playing field to the daily fight for better, not worse, pay and conditions. This job has been vital, especially to those whose jobs earn them only the minimum wage.
They need workers to be fit and healthy for productivity to be at its highest. They need workers to have money left over at the end of the week that they can spend. Workers are fighting to keep their heads above water on the minimum wage.
So, the first problem I see with the current narrative around the most recent decision of the Fair Work Commission is that this body should not be allowed, under law, to reduce the rights, pay, or conditions of workers. So much of the current narrative is around the idea of the Commission being an “impartial umpire”, that I think we need to bring the discussion back to their function as a defender of the rights of the worker. Their impartiality should never include the reduction of rights.
The second issue with the narrative is that we are losing sight of the bigger picture. This conservative government is trying to shy away from their duty to the Australian people to provide a society where the people thrive. Their job is not to provide an environment where corporations thrive at the expense of the people; the workers. This government has the opportunity to bring back some balance to the state of play, but by refusing, on the one hand, to chase up the tax breaks and loopholes that allow big business and the banks to make multi-billion dollar profits off the backs of their workers and, on the other hand, reducing the amounts transferred to the poorest in our society, they continue to work from an ideological basis.
This government has repeatedly argued that the Labor Party and The Greens base all of their policy decisions on ideology, whilst they are working from a purely logical base to form policy. I call bullshit. Both sides are working from ideological bases. The difference is that one ideology seeks to protect the workers and the environment whilst the other seeks to protect, and increase, the profits of the so-called “big end of town”, often to the detriment of both the workers and the environment.
What the conservatives forget is that they need the workers to be fit and healthy in order for productivity to be at its highest. They need the workers to have money left over at the end of the week that they can spend. They need the workers to have that extra money because the CEO, with their multi-million dollar pay deals, spend no extra money from a M$5 bonus than they would have from a M$2 bonus, and both are obscene when the workers are fighting to keep their heads above water on the minimum wage.
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The government refuses to even consider changes to negative gearing that could help stimulate the economy by lowering house and rental prices to the point where the lowest paid workers can potentially begin to see positive bank balances at the end of the week. As has been pointed out, by both pundits and workers, pay increases and lower rents make a much bigger difference when applied to the living conditions of the lowest paid workers than they do to the highest. Almost all of the extra money in the hands of the lowest paid workers is spent. When those on high incomes receive extra, it is banked. Which then is more likely to stimulate the economy?
This brings me to my third point. We need to begin looking seriously at a Universal Basic Income (UBI) as a way of levelling the playing field for workers. We need to see a dramatic shift in the levels of equality in our society so that our rhetoric about the egalitarian nature of Australia can begin to be true. As it stands, Australia is anything but egalitarian in nature. In Australia, the rich get, and stay, rich because the poor continue to leak money into the accounts of the rich.
For those new to the idea, the UBI is an amount of money paid to every citizen of a nation. It is paid regardless of income, social status, employment status, and bank account balance. It is an amount of money that allows every person the same minimum standard of living. Therefore, it must be set at a rate that allows a person to pay rent, buy food and clothes, to afford transport, and to enable more than basic survival.
A UBI is a way of encouraging entrepreneurial thinking, encouraging risk-taking, and encouraging economic growth of both the citizens and of the nation as a whole. This is the type of program that Australia needs as the opportunities for paid employment decrease and unemployment lines increase. This is the system we need to lift the morale of the people, in place of the current system of punitive measures that attempt to get our unemployment rate to zero; a rate that is both impossible and unworkable.
What the decision by the Fair Work Commission achieves is an entrenchment of the idea that workers don’t matter, when our system is built on them mattering; that worker rights are expendable within the greater system, when we know that workers who worry about their financial stability are not effective or efficient workers.
A UBI allows for people to work in a much more flexible way. Because the worker’s needs are guaranteed to be met, they have more brain space for creativity, will be better parents, and will be better workers. Because they do not need to work to sustain themselves, they also have more bargaining power with prospective employers. However, they will also pay higher taxes, incrementally, on any extra money earned by working. The tax-free threshold is equal to the amount of the UBI so a worker begins paying tax from the first extra dollar they make, and the GST remains.
One imperative in paying for such a radical change in the way money is transferred to the hands of the people is to force the money out of the bank accounts of big businesses. A new personal tax system alone is not enough to pay for a UBI. We need to begin the process of forcing corporations operating within Australia to pay their fair share. We need to make them see that, unless their workers can afford to buy the products they make and sell, they will have nobody to sell to. We need to make them see that the best possible outcome for a society that continues to operate under a capitalist system is to have the worker in a financial position that allows them room in their budget for items other than those that are necessary.
There needs to be room in every economy for betterment. A federal economy needs space to spend on infrastructure, and a household economy needs room to buy a new fridge when the old one packs it in; there must be space.
What the most recent decision by the Fair Work Commission achieves is an entrenchment of the idea that workers don’t matter, when our system is built on them mattering. What this decision reinforces is the idea that worker rights are expendable within the greater system, when we know that workers who worry about their financial stability are not effective or efficient workers. One result we will probably see from this decision is that small businesses will continue to pay penalty rates at the previous rates, and that corporations will reap greater profits as their workers take the biggest paycheque hit, further enabling the corporations to win the fight for the consumer dollar over the small business owners so many of our politicians claim to champion.
In the end, Australian society is poorer, and that helps nobody.