As Australia reels from Victoria’s two-week lockdown, influential business groups are taking advantage of the pandemic to revive anti-worker agendas. And the Morrison Government is behind them.
This week, the Australian Financial Review reported that the Morrison Government is set to revive its push for harsh new industrial relations laws, after shelving the proposals earlier this year under pressure from unions and opposition parties.
Employer groups have written to the Prime Minister, pushing for a revival of the IR Omnibus Bill, which would have made drastic changes to enterprise bargaining and ‘greenfields’ agreements – long-term agreements on large work sites – and left workers worse off.
Industrial Relations Minister Michaelia Cash says that the Federal Government will focus on introducing greenfields agreements for large construction projects. Australian Unions has previously argued the government’s planned agreements covered too many projects, for too long, and locked workers out of pay rises. Unions also demanded guarantees on hiring Australian workers, apprenticeships and workplace diversity. If the government’s revived plan goes ahead, we will see none of these safeguards put in place.
In early 2021 public pressure, pressure from unions, and the Senate’s refusal to go along with the Coalition’s attacks on workers forced the Government to withdraw the IR Omnibus Bill. We need the same effort this time around, because the attacks keep coming.
Also this week, business lobby groups made last-minute submissions to the Fair Work Commission ahead of its annual decision of the minimum wage, arguing for an increase of only 1.1 per cent. They say the Victorian lockdown has sapped business confidence and will threaten employment.
But they’ve got it the wrong way around. ACTU Secretary Sally McManus blasted the employer groups, accusing them of making a cynical attack on workers, on behalf of big employers that are hoarding profits during the pandemic. The ACTU has made its own submission, arguing for a 3.5 per cent increase.
“The 3.5 per cent increase in the minimum wage which we are arguing for would help millions of Australian workers and their families recover from a once in a hundred-year pandemic and recession, while also helping small and medium businesses which desperately need a boost to domestic spending”, McManus said this week.
“Business lobby groups have fallen in line with businesses like Harvey Norman which have seen huge profits through the pandemic but are still seeking to cut pay for workers”.
McManus is right. None of this is good for workers. It’s not good for small business, either. It’s good for big business—for big mining projects, and big retailers like Harvey Norman, whose contempt for workers has been well-documented on social media over the past fortnight.
And this government will always back big business before workers. Harvey Norman isn’t just a perfect case study of when to step away from your keyboard. It also perfectly illustrates the Federal Government’s priorities.
When Morrison and Josh Frydenburg announced their scheme for supporting Victorian workers who lost employment because of the latest lockdown, advocates, including Australian Unions, were appalled at the meagreness of the scheme which offered workers $500 a week, at most.
They were also shocked the strict criteria for eligibility set by the Federal Government, which locked out people with access to $10,000 in savings and excluded those already receiving welfare payments. The Government has also threatened applicants with punitive, retroactive compliance checks, potentially discouraging vulnerable people from applying for assistance they need.
And yet, Harvey Norman sails on (albeit with a closed Twitter account). The retail giant received $22 million in JobKeeper payments to post a profit of $462 million in the second half of 2020. It has refused to pay back the money to the ATO—and the Government isn’t asking.
Whether its workplace laws, or ensuring vulnerable workers get the support they need, the Morrison Government always puts big business first.