A win for workers—and another betrayal by the Morrison Government

The Morrison Government’s IR Bill passed the Senate yesterday, stripped of all but one of its major provisions. This was a win for unions, workers, and the community who campaigned against the changes.

Since the Government announced the legislation last year, Australian Unions, Labor, and the Greens have consistently opposed the Bill. They were joined by thousands in the community who saw these “reforms” for what they were: a dangerous attack on hard-won rights, that would entrench casualisation and shape workers’ conditions for decades to come.

The failure of the Bill is a vindication of their efforts, but it came at a cost. So, what happened?

Labor and the Greens opposed the Bill from the outset, meaning its passage would depend on the Senate crossbench. Senators Rex Patrick and Jacqui Lambie did voted against.

Earlier this week, One Nation senators agreed to support the Bill, making minor changes to new, punitive rules for “greenfields” agreements and casual workers that left the substance of the Government’s attack on working people intact.

This left the amended Bill in Senator Stirling Griff’s hands. Yesterday morning, Griff called the Government’s actions “shameful”. Nonetheless, he agreed to pass changes to the rules on casual employment contained within the Bill.

Griff and the rest of the Senate all supported the one, good thing in this Bill: higher penalties, and the criminalisation of wage theft.

Yet even a bill slimmed down to two, core components—one bad, one good—wouldn’t make it to the Senate floor. At the last minute, the Morrison Government removed the new wage theft laws from the Bill – which passed, thanks to One Nation and Sterling Griff.

Some of the worst aspects of the original IR Bill have been fought off. There will be no changes to greenfields agreements for major construction works, which would have seriously impinged on workers’ wages and rights. There are no changes to bargaining, and no changes to rights for part-time workers.

The Bill will now return to the House of Representatives, where it is expected to be passed into law. Morrison says he is unlikely to push through the defeated provisions. That doesn’t mean, however, that the fight is over, because the his government’s commitment to casualisation is very much intact.

Under the new rules passed with the Bill, whether a job is “casual” or “permanent” is decided at the start of the relationship between workers and employers.

That is, employers will be able to define “casual” work—and this doesn’t have to reflect what a worker actually does on the job. So even if you are working ongoing, regular hours, over a long period, you will not necessarily qualify as a permanent worker, with the security and rights that entails. The implications are dire, as ACTU Secretary Sally McManus told media after the vote.

“What they’ve done is overturned the rights of casual workers,” McManus said.

“[The Morrison government has] stripped long term casuals of rights that they do have; rights that they have won over years in court and meaning, into the future, employers will be able to label people casual—even when they’re not.” So what’s the state of play? The defence of workers was won. The fight for secure work, and to improve workers’ pay, conditions and rights continues.

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