Over the last few decades, the way we live and work has changed, and our workplace laws have not kept up.
The Fair Work Act, which sets out the laws for employers and employees, is not fit for purpose in Australia and must be dramatically overhauled so work really is fair.
The loopholes in the Fair Work Act have enabled employers to replace a permanent, directly employed workforce with casuals engaged by labour-hire agencies and franchisees.
4 in 10 workers engaged precariously have very few protections in our workplace laws, including no right to secure employment, no right to participate in collective bargaining with a host employer and no protections against dodgy labour-hire firms.
What we have in Australia is a system that has both facilitated the growth of an insecure workforce through legal loopholes, and one that is utterly inadequate at protecting the rights of the same insecure workforce it has had a hand in creating.
The National Union of Workers (NUW) has many members for whom a secure job feels impossibly out of reach and who go to work every day knowing that Australian law is stacked against them, and they have no rights in the Fair Work Act to enforce.
Daniel, who works in a cold storage facility, is one such worker.
The large company that employs Daniel has constructed a perfectly legal system designed to disenfranchise workers. The company almost exclusively employs workers through various agencies the cold storage facility has set up, and excludes these workers from the company’s own agreement. The company then shuffles workers like Daniel from sham agency to sham agency, moving workers on to new agencies at around the time the old agency’s enterprise agreement is about to expire. These agencies almost always share the same director.
Critically, before workers are moved from one operation to another, a non-union enterprise agreement has already been negotiated. This model coerces workers into accepting wages conditions they are not able to negotiate, and is specifically designed to prevent workers from ever having the chance to bargain collectively.
Daniel has worked for the cold storage facility for 4 years, engaged by 4 separate agencies.
The legal con perpetuated by the company is disgraceful, and is only one case for a change to our laws to give workers enforceable rights and to make it harder for companies to exploit loopholes.
And, if workers like Daniel did want to stand up collectively against unfair treatment at work, the law has made this extremely difficult.
Workers cannot legally withdraw their labour and stand up for their rights unless a number of bureaucratic conditions are met, with the rules very much in corporations’ favour when it comes to taking collective action.
Australia’s workplace system has not only facilitated the growth of insecure work, and fails to protect every worker; it also outlaws workers standing up for fair, safe and respectful workplaces.
If we want genuinely fair workplace laws that promote secure jobs, protect every worker and empower workers to stand up for their rights, then we need to rewrite the rules.
Presently, millions of workers in Australia experience our workplace laws as the arbitrary and dictatorial authority of their management.
We cannot hope to have the rule of law in our workplaces without democracy at work.
We need to make it easier for casuals to become permanent employees, to regulate the labour-hire industry, to expand the legal understanding of employer and employee relationships so that they resemble those that actually exist in our workplaces. There’s a lot more we could do too, if workers were able to help write the rules. For too long, the laws have been written by those who seek to exploit working people in Australia.
It’s time for workplace laws every worker can count on.