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Abetz says flexibility, we say insecurity.

The Abbott government’s proposed changes to the Fair Work Act pose a real threat to basic employment rights. When understood in the context of an increasing casual and short-term contract workforce, Australian workers –  and the families and communities that rely on them – should be very worried.

The justification for these changes is, predictably, “flexibility”. But flexibility for whom? The proposed legislation will enable employers to make individual flexibility agreements (IFAs) that remove basic conditions (such as overtime and penalty rates for working weekends) and to drastically alter an employee’s hours of work.  While IFAs ostensibly must leave an employee “better off overall”, the proposed legislation clarifies that this will not equate to calculable monetary entitlements. Rather, being “better off” may entail more dubious benefits such as pizza, movie tickets or even unpaid “family” leave.

The fundamental problem with IFAs is that the transaction presented between an employer and an individual worker is clearly unequal. In many cases the employer holds all the cards. When individual contracts were rolled out under WorkChoices, workers most negatively affected were women, employees in small firms, migrant workers: workers with little bargaining power.

What is very troublingly is that, thanks to the sharp rise in insecure work over the last decade, there are more workers than ever who have little or no bargaining power. And let me be clear here – when I say more workers than ever, I am talking almost half the workforce. Insecure work includes casual, labour hire, short-term contract employees, and independent contractors. Workers engaged in insecure work now make up a staggering 40% of the workforce in Australia. We are talking about teachers and academics on short-term contracts, casually employed paramedics and nurses, “independent contractors” in food manufacturing and warehouse workers engaged through labour-hire companies. If you yourself aren’t in insecure work, you are sure to have a close friend or family member who is.

Workers in insecure work are in a highly vulnerable position.  Let me give you an example. A few weeks ago I spoke with an NUW member who was being sexually bullied by a male work colleague. He was sending her a stream of sexually abusive text messages and making explicit comments to her at work. She was beside herself with stress, humiliation and anxiety. But she did not want to make a complaint. As a labour-hire employee she believed that if she made a complaint she would lose her job. If she did lose her job, as a labour-hire employee, she would have no access to unfair dismissal, or any other remedy under the Fair Work Act.

This scenario is not at all uncommon.

The point in relation to Individual Flexibility Agreements is that, any worker who is constantly under threat of not having their contract renewed is in a very vulnerable situation, with little bargaining power.  The idea that workers who are too vulnerable to raise complaints about bullying, occupational health and safety or sexual harassment, would somehow be able to negotiate individual contracts with their employer, is thoroughly implausible.

The increase in insecure work in Australia poses a major threats to our society that has received little public attention, and has not to date been understood in a human rights framework. The reality is job insecurity is major contributor to inequality, and the changes proposed by the Abbott government will further divide our workplaces into those with secure jobs and entitlements, and those in insecure work with few employment rights.

The National Union of Workers’ “Jobs You Can Count On” (JYCCO) campaign is directed at addressing the inherent power imbalance faced by workers in insecure work. JYCCO opens a conversation where casual and permanent employees stand side-by-side in solidarity to protect each other. The JYCCO campaign has successfully changed the power balance in workplaces across Australia.

However, the threat of insecure work, and the dangerous changes to the Fair Work Act proposed by the Abbott Government, need a broader political response. We need to take this fight out of the workplaces and into our communities. Because of this belief that progressive Australians need to stand together, the NUW now has a community membership program. This means that even those who are not directly involved in our workplaces and industries – our friends, neighbours and families – can join the fight for equality.

Secure jobs are at the heart of a strong, equitable society. In the face of a Government that is trying to further fracture job security, we must stand together to fight for a future Australian workforce that consists of secure jobs you can count on.

PHOTO CREDIT: Mark Phillips/ACTU

About Susie Allison

Susie Allison

Susie Allison is the Assistant Victorian Branch Secretary of the National Union of Workers, and has been with the union for 12 years. Susie has worked with the labour movement globally, in East Timor and Hong Kong, and prior to working at the NUW was an Associate to a Federal Court Judge. Susie is part of the Fellowship Program with Australian Progress, undertaking a program on campaigning for social change. Susie has written on insecure work, and her play The Winter Solstice, based on a picket-line, has been performed at the Arts Centre in Melbourne. Susie particularly passionate about how insecure work impacts on women, families and communities.

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