Australia’s workplace laws: a narrative tragedy

Please be advised this article contains movie metaphors (PG).

In 1989 Melbourne was becoming a livelier metropolis, inner-city rents were affordable, Australia still laid convincing claims to being an egalitarian society, and I started work as a casual storeman.

I was employed directly by the company, earned fifteen dollars an hour (good pay then), had union representation and the flexibility to decline shifts without fear of retribution.

As unskilled labour goes, warehouse work is usually enjoyable and, on this occasion, it coincided with my attempted foray into the world of television writing (another variation on casual work). In many ways it was idyllic – ride the treadly to work for a morning shift, be creative in the afternoon. I was money-poor, but time-rich, and it was my choice.

Those times weren’t without turbulence, though. Entrepreneurs like Bondy and Skase were about to come a cropper and, due to their penchants for purchasing TV networks, many dramas were axed and burgeoning writers, myself included, were left languishing on waiting lists. But that’s another story. Other financial headwinds would approach, and how we were to deal with them was crucial.

Fast forward twelve years to … 2001: A Workplace Odyssey. Topping the employment box office was The Casualisation Con starring a John Howard ensemble. In this fantasy, as the trailer touted, casual work offered the people of Australia generous remuneration and flexibility; it was a workers’ paradise in which employees could labour the hours of their choosing and have ample time for domestic chores, shopping needs and recreation.

The plot twist was clever, though, and the joke was on workers. The flexibility, power and financial gain, as it turned out, mostly went to employers.

I returned to casual warehouse work some time after this to encounter wages less than they were in 1989. I was hired by an employment agency, working without union representation, under industrial awards that had become industry- rather than role-based, and rights and conditions had been bargained away for little in return.

What had happened in the intervening years was a sordid tale in which protagonists had become antagonists, and antagonists had become more antagonistic.

Australia wasn’t perfect in 1989 by any means, but something approximating that could be imagined. However, there was a change of emphasis, as if the toss of a coin had landed on the side of economics instead of people. We could find our own way, or we could copy the US and the neoliberals. We chose the latter, via Margaret Thatcher.

What followed was akin to an existential attack on the notion of the working class, where individualism replaced collectivism, and where risks and costs previously borne by employers were carried by employees. In this disaster movie, all actors had to buy their own costumes, and perform their own stunts, regardless of risk.

In my own twenty-first century casual melodrama, plot points turned on danger (think workers packing boxes in cramped spaces, wielding razor-sharp pseudo-Stanley knives under duress in disorganised environments, and being encouraged to drive forklifts unlicensed); espionage (longer-term staff, or managerial sidekicks, acting as spies  exchanging clandestine looks and whispers, helping bosses decide which workers to call back the next day); and punishment (workers sacked or denied shifts for minor indiscretions – often dobbed in by the resident spy, and informed via an after-work phone call from the employment agency, explained euphemistically along the ‘no work available’ lines).

Combine this with inflexibility (workers expected to be available as if full-time employees, but to work random casual shifts at short notice, with refusal risking exclusion from further offers); irrationality (no matter how good a worker is, the boss’s ego can overrule common sense, and new workplace laws give them the power to exercise it) and the small things (fifteen-minute morning and afternoon smokos, for instance, bargained away for a single ten minute break – at one workplace, half the break is consumed hobbling to a distant tea room in steel-capped boots). There was little laid-back about this casual-work narrative.

The storyline could have been a take on Titanic, if the metaphorical iceberg was a mountain of poverty and inequity floating in a sea of debt and corruption, and the Good Ship Australia’s course was being directed by property developers, mining magnates and media moguls with a crew of lobbyists and vested interests (needless to say the passengers are citizens largely oblivious to their fate, and the unions were stranded on the shore).

Reality, though, was a co-production. In the first act, Labor, under Hawke and Keating, stepped to the right, allowing the Liberal-National Coalition to run with that premise, and privatise right, left and centre.

Unions were reduced to bit-part players due to their affiliation with Labor, as workers’ rights were made increasingly subordinate to political ambitions.

And the Accord failed to deliver promises to employees. In Victoria, cue Jeff Kennett and the abolishing of State awards. Nationally, later, John Howard strode in from stage right and delivered Work Choices. Economic rationalism was the theme, and those making decisions lacked the imagination to see another way. Globalisation and rapid technological advance were also changing the landscape.

‘Profit-sharing’ was a buzz-phrase to enter the lexicon during this workplace revolution. But, sardonically, the bounty was mostly lavished amongst corporate executives in the form of share bonuses and the like, the ultimate insult being that it was largely accrued off the back of worker sackings and redundancies.

The ‘need’ for international competitiveness, justifying many workplace changes, became a race to the bottom for Australian workers’ pay and conditions, and a sprint to the top for executive salaries.

Various visa schemes allowed companies to employ foreign workers vulnerable to wage exploitation, while other businesses shipped Australian jobs offshore.

But in my opinion the major cause of our new malaise were the inadequacies in our democracy. It’s hardly representative or participatory, and power is slanted in favour of the few, at the expense of many.

I prefer a happier ending, however. We may have started out along the neo-lib route, but we haven’t gone all the way – yet.

Most of us love a redemption story. And there’s potentially one for Labor – the step to the left in the Turnbull budget earlier in 2017 (whether perceived or real) offers Labor a chance to run with it and reclaim that territory.

Meanwhile, perhaps unions can find liberation? Cut ties with the ALP and free themselves from political ambitions to focus on workers’ rights? The controversies regarding businesses’ political donations could be used as additional motivation and reason to do so.

However, meaningful, long-lasting reform will require the advent of a truly participatory democracy. If we are going to advocate for something, perhaps that’s where we should be concentrating our energies.

In another tale, Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed by divine intervention. But we can write our own ending.


Image: Bob Hawke at a backyard BBQ – Rhonda Senberg / ABC

Paul Spinks

Paul is a Victoria-based writer who has worked, performed and published in various mediums.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. I’ve had similar experiences and you have articulated them really well. I love the movie metaphors, in particular the one used to elaborate on the social shift between 1989 and 2001: “In this disaster movie, all actors had to buy their own costumes, and perform their own stunts, regardless of risk.”

    And you are so right to focus on these twelve years. They are incredibly crucial, as you have so eloquently described.

    Thanks for a great article!

  2. Yes, more writing like this.
    Australian workers are crying out for leadership to turn things around, lift wages and change the balance of power in the workplace.
    What is needed are some big blues. An obvious place to start is foreign labour rackets.
    Starmart (Caltex servo shops) have been exposed following workers to ATMs to take back half the pissy award wages they have to appear to be paying and when the poor foreign workers arc up their family back home get a visit from the Pakistani mafia. Yet ‘Australian Unions’ haven’t lifted a finger against them. FFS!
    Problem is much wider however and workers know it and want something done. Maybe if enough of a groundswell gets going union leaders will follow

  3. Thanks very much for your comments and compliments, Dan and Ashley, and sincere apologies for my very-delayed response (an earlier one seemingly didn’t process for some internet vagary beyond my cognitive powers).

    Recent developments had me thinking about this piece again – there’s been superficial progress with media exposure of labour fraud, franchises etc and the unions seem a little more emboldened.

    The banks are copping a right whack now, though they’re just the tip of the neo-liberal iceberg, if you’ll excuse the pun. A royal commission into corrupt employment practices would be a sight to see.

  4. You gotta wonder, don’t you …

    With institutional corruption and workplace thuggery of one sort or another so rife (yeah, we’re looking at you Liberal Party) and the whole crony capitalism model collapsing societies across the world, how culpable are the people who work in these departments / agencies / businesses / etc.

    Apparently more than 1.4million people had the same security clearance as Edward Snowden. That’s 1.4million people who knew what they were doing on a daily basis was in breach of the Constitution as well as being plain morally abhorrent. Yet only Snowden did anything about it.

    “Look for corruption in Australia and you’ll never be disappointed. Indeed, it’s been normalised.”

    Perhaps a Security Clearance should be renamed a Complicity Clearance or Corruptability Clearance.

  5. Well now …

    Seems Messrs Phillipson and Quaedvlieg (a name I’m sure was invented during a game of SCRABBLE) are testing the strength of their Complicity Clearances.

    But of course the big game we’re all waiting for is when Senator Lucy Gichuhi names the Liberal Party thugs next week in Parliament.

    Is it wrong to hope the whole reveal is played out like a game of GUESS WHO ?

    Does he wear glasses ?
    Does he have facial hair ?
    Does he speak with a strange inflection or have an annoying verbal tic ?
    Does he claim to be a Christian when his every attitude and behaviour contradicts the message and example of Jesus Christ ?

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