The Dilemma

Jim McIntosh is a former locomotive driver and lifelong unionist.


The Issue

As ordinary working Australians, do we have a basic right to be happy and prosperous? Is it a given that our children might expect a better life, with elevated opportunities and better outcomes than the one that we had? Do opportunities still exist, generally, for people within our society to increase their wealth and prosperity?

Australia as a wealthy and socially advanced nation remains prosperous. Since the 1950s and prior, each generation has held expectations of being better off than the one before. Generally, those expectations have sustained. But although the overall wealth of the nation has increased, that same wealth is now held in fewer hands and the opportunities for working Australians to improve and increase their share of it have markedly declined. Here, I want to look at the issue of wage decline and to posit some the reasons that underpin the phenomenon. My focus is on casualisation of the workforce, increasing use of imported labour in the marketplace and widespread wage theft. In doing so, I propose that this issue be seen in the larger context of class war against the Australian working class that has been evident and increasingly overt since the late 1980s.

The Problem

As in much of the developed world, neo-liberalism has taken a foothold in Australia and has set about by philosophical (or propaganda) and instrumental (lobby and other influential) methods to strangle those opportunities that most Australians have come to expect. Through our elected officials we have allowed the Friedmanite philosophies of privatisation, trickle-down economic theory, deregulation of the finance sector, tax reductions and breaks for business and market-based ‘solutions’ to a wide range of activities to dominate the economy. In effect, we have allowed corporations to smash the old rules that held them in check, while selling them our public assets either for less than what they were worth or with huge contractual liberties attached to the sale. The net effect of this has been a massive transfer of wealth and political power from the public landscape into the private sphere. Accountability has diminished. Crucially, instrumental power has been transferred from workers and their representatives into the hands of employers. As the momentum for this has increased, peak bodies for employers have successfully lobbied government for tighter controls on labour unions, restricting the ability of workers to withdraw their labour. Large sections of the media have used oligopolistic echo-chamber methods to propagate anti-worker, anti-union and pro-market positions. Union membership has plummeted at the same time that labour hire firms have proliferated.

The effects that these factors have had on the industrial relations landscape and on working Australians are only now becoming painfully evident. Over the past four or five years wage growth has stagnated; full-time employment has fallen; more and more workers have found themselves working longer hours but not being adequately compensated for the time that they work. Further, the ‘free movement’ of labour in the context of ‘open economy’ and globalisation has been a scourge that has seen rampant exploitation and underpayment of foreign labour in an overt attempt to drive down the wages and the conditions of Australian workers. While the Coalition governments of Abbott and Turnbull have devoted much time (and public funds) to demonising both unions and former and present ALP leaders and other figures, with Royal Commissions and attacks on union offices, virtually nothing has been done by the government to rein in the increasing problems associated with foreign labour or its often shadowy labour hire firms.

Once dismissed as laughable conspiracy theory, class conflict in Australia, waged by capital against the working class, has become clearly evident. Braham Dabscheck was among a number of commentators from the late 1980s and 1990s who observed that the Coalition, then in opposition, proposed radical restructuring of the Australian industrial relations system. The traditional use of tribunals to mediate industrial disputes was to be replaced by legislative rules for industrial activity and far greater use of common law provisions. Upon coming to power in 1996 The Howard Government steadily applied these new provisions, even in the face of hostility from the Senate over much of the legislation. In its final term the Howard government, now holding a majority in both houses, introduced WorkChoices. This legislation transferred most of the power of industrial relations into the hands of employers. Although this was later watered down by the incoming Rudd Government in 2007, much of this legislation effectively remained intact.

Australia was left relatively intact by the chaos of the global financial crisis. By ‘relatively’, I mean that while the national economy actually grew in contrast to most of the rest of the developed world, the division of the spoils from the biggest earner, mining, became increasingly one-sided. Additionally, technology changes spelled the start of mechanisation of traditional jobs on a larger scale, from automated haul trucks in the mines to the start of automation of huge ore trains, and beyond. Profits soared. Proportionately though, less and less ended up even in taxation coffers, let alone trickling down,  in the shape of a greater share in the production of surplus, to those workers still on the ground. But I digress. Because, while some enjoyed relative prosperity in FIFO mining jobs, most were by now confronted with the reality of the changes to industrial relations wrought by the Howard Government and essentially carried on by successive ones.

The issue though, as stated, is the run-down of wages and conditions plus the outright theft of wages that has become common as a result of changes that have occurred in recent years; unpaid overtime, unpaid penalty rates, theft of superannuation and a growing number of other events that effectively dud the worker of his and her rightful income. These changes aren’t all intentional; there have been unintentional changes brought about by new technology and other factors. But, intentional or not, the advantage has always been on the side of the employer. Those workers who have suffered have not had significant recourse from any established body except, to a very small degree, the trade union movement, and that assistance has been stymied in large part because of new laws, new legislation as well as consistent attacks from broad sections of the popular media against attempts by workers to redress both the growing imbalance and the orchestrated propaganda attacks led by those media attached, for the most part, to the Murdoch empire. And finally, the current government has been less than active in its duty to restore fairness and balance into the system-at-large.

The Outcome

It isn’t the intention here to speculate on the future or to predict what is likely or not to occur there, either into the foreseeable hereafter or otherwise. I set out in this piece simply to outline events that have been and are happening throughout Australia’s industrial landscape. Australia, moreover, is by no means alone in the matter of declining standards, diminishing wages and reduced conditions for workers throughout the industrial spectrum. Importantly, I believe that the current Australian government, as the principal arbitrater of responsibility in the matter of protecting the interests of its constituents, has abrogated that responsibility in an almost hyper-partisan way. While occasionally paying public lip-service to the problem of underemployment and unemployment, wage stagnation and other problems outlined here, it is scarcely audible on the more serious matters of wage theft and unfair competition from imported labour or other aspects of the same thing, including off-shoring of Australian jobs. While the government is prone to making proud boasts of vast numbers of jobs that have been ‘created’ under its watch, the details are usually always obscured by the facts out in the workplace; reduced hours, reduced wages, attacks by employers on Enterprise Bargaining Agreements in order to bring down their own labour costs which also sometimes entail the use of foreign, exploited cheap labour after locking out their legitimate workforce in an attempt to bring them to their knees.

There is nothing left to do now except for the working classes to fight back as best they can, and perhaps the best weapon to fight with will be increasing education of workers at the coalface of the new regime of worker exploitation. This entails a significant re-activation of unionism and a new way forward for politically active workers, their families and other remnants of a class that is in danger of being forces back into the serfdom of previous centuries.

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