Outdated workplace laws deny the dignity of work

One of the great sources of human fulfilment is the dignity of work. It establishes independence, the means for material sustenance and allows us to provide for our families. The most effective way that employment opportunities can be harnessed is for government to get out of the way to allow job creation by liberalising industrial relations laws to encourage employees and their employers to determine the terms of their own relationship.

History attests to this with record-low unemployment at 4.3% during the Howard era after he deregulated workplace laws. Similarly, we see booming job reports under the Trump administration with his pro-enterprise agenda that involves cutting business red tape. Unfortunately, with election season around the corner, there have been worrying proposals from Oppositions both state and federally, that will return us to the bad old days of inflexible labour markets, disruptive industrial action from militant unions, and businesses tied down by restrictive employment practices. This will lead to people locked out of work and into indignified welfare dependency on the state.

Worryingly, Bill Shorten has hinted that a Federal Labor government would introduce sector-wide bargaining and more prescriptive workplace regulations bolted onto the already vexatious Fair Work Act. This would grant a monopoly to unions in the negotiation process, even though they barely represent 10 percent of the workforce. While this has been dressed as good for workers’ conditions, it will ultimately serve only a small segment of workers who are union members. It comes at the expense of everyone else, with the burden disproportionately falling upon aspiring graduates and unemployed locked out of the job market due to restrictive hiring practices. Sector-wide bargaining means workplace laws will be indiscriminately applied across all businesses regardless of size, meaning a small suburban grocery has to contend with the same onerous compliance and paperwork in hiring as Woolworths or the big four banks. This reduces incentives for small businesses to hire, in a labour market that is finally on its feet, with the impact most acutely felt in regional areas in which family-run small businesses provide the lion’s share of employment. How exactly do these changes create a fairer society as promised if it obstructs the transition from welfare into work by sapping an employer’s ability to employ? The change will only licence unions to create ‘closed shops’ with cosy arrangements for their members while excluding everyone else.

Sadly, the contagion of ill-thought out policy has spread to the state level. In NSW for instance, there are plans by Michael Daley’s Labor Opposition to effectively ban certain types of work if elected. The most notorious example being is his plan to regressively repeal the sensible laws that allowed Boxing Day shopping outside the Sydney CBD to bring trading hours closer into line with workplaces and shoppers preferences in the 21st century. To appease the peak retail union SDA, coined the “Shoppies Union”, Daley plans to restrict Boxing Day trading to the CBD and Bondi Junction. This denies businesses outside these areas such as in Western Sydney or urban centres such as Newcastle, an immense amount of revenue from Boxing Day sales. It also deprives workers of wages and jobs since many are rostered on specifically for days like the Christmas period and boxing day. The only beneficiaries of returning to the restrictions of before are the unions, and ironically, multinational e-commerce companies such as Amazon that don’t operate under such rules which will service those customers instead.

Spurious claims that having employees work on Boxing Day is exploitative ignore the fact many choose to apply for Christmas Casual roles knowing they will be expected to work on Boxing Day and during the Christmas period. This is a voluntary decision with employers for the return of adjusted wages that well-compensates the inconvenience of working on such days.  

Daley also plans to virtually ban unpaid internships, slap licencing requirements on internship brokers, and have invasive inspection by the Industrial Relations Commission in the drafting of internship agreements. Internship laws are already prescriptive and creating greater inflexibility will discourage employers from offering internships. In a job market where experience is highly sought, internships, even if unpaid, provide valuable workplace exposure and develop skills that can help in eventually gaining a paid full-time job. Restricting such an avenue makes the pathway towards work more arduous. The law already mandates guidelines that prohibit genuinely exploitative internships and the failure to enforce the law cannot justify more laws which cross the line into hurting interns by denying them genuinely beneficial and often vital opportunities to progress in their career or gain skills.

The interests of workers in having the opportunities and freedoms that uphold access to the dignity of work must supersede the moral posturing of unions who only represent a minority of workers, and whose interests lie in tipping workplaces to their favour.

Rohan Indra

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