Australian Unions Fight For Workers’ Rights

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The UNI Communicators Forum, attended by union communicators from across the globe, has received a report on Australia’s unions’ battle for the rights of workers as they face an unprecedented attack from the conservative Howard government.

Rod Masson from Australia’s Finance Sector Union, informed participants that the Howard Government has introduced industrial laws that strip away the rights of workers won over 100 years.

Rights to overtime, penalties for shift work, weekend work and public holidays, allowances, input into hours of work, leave loadings, parental leave and redundancy pay are now no longer protected by industrial awards and are up for grabs as employers move to using individual contracts.

Trade union rights to represent workers are also under attack with restrictions on their capacity to bargain, to enter workplaces and to promote union cultures in workplaces.

But unions are fighting back by running a well resourced public campaign including TV advertising, print advertising and web based campaigning.

With a Federal Election only six months away, the success of the campaign will be measured at the ballot box, say the unions.

The campaign has shown that rights at work are worth fighting for, the next step will be to convince working people that their rights are also worth voting for.

Meanwhile, an Australian Senate committee has heard that more than 2.5 million workers currently on state awards will not be covered by the federal government’s new fairness test if they move onto Australian Workplace Agreements.

The federal government’s WorkChoices safety net is far below the standard of the old no-disadvantage test, the Australian Congress of Trade unions (ACTU) says.

The safety net, effective since May 7 this year, applies to workers on individual agreements earning less than $75,000.

The government says the new test will protect employee benefits like overtime and penalty rates from being unfairly traded away in a similar way to the former no-disadvantage test scrapped under Work Choices.

But speaking at a Senate committee on the bill, ACTU president Sharan Burrow said the bill falls far short of the standard of the old test.

She called on the government to make a number of amendments before it is debated in the Senate.

‘As a means of protecting award conditions, it (fairness test) has an enormous set of loopholes,’ Burrow told the committee.

‘It (the fairness test) doesn’t apply to all agreements.

‘It doesn’t apply to all conditions.’

Burrow said the test would not address paid maternity leave and excludes 2.5 million workers employed under state awards.

She added that the fairness test would not guarantee long service leave entitlements, retrenchment arrangements or full monetary compensation.

‘These things aren’t picked up even as a base intention of this fairness test,’ she said.

‘No monetary compensation means people can still be worse off.’

Burrow said the bill’s personal circumstances criteria could also be used as a loophole to underpay workers.

‘I could be working alongside another worker at night or at the weekend but because I am not giving primary care at that time, because I have the support of my partner or indeed my family, then I am earning less than the person who is working along side of me,’ she continued.

‘It (the fairness test) has no review and of course, as we have already pointed out, that it’s just a very bad joke to suggest that to get any kind of review working people would have to go to the High Court.

‘These amendments fall far short of the standard of the old no disadvantage test.’

In Western Australia (WA), more than 200 miners have signed a petition saying they fear the possibility of a serious accident.

Mining union, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) says it fears workers on Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs) at a Western Australian mine in are at serious risk of an accident because they are too scared to speak out about safety concerns.

The CFMEU says many workers at BHP Billiton’s Mount Newman mine say they have been disempowered because they are on AWAs.

More than 200 workers at the mine in WA’s Pilbara region have signed a petition saying they work in an environment of intimidation and fear the possibility of a serious accident.

CFMEU national president Tony Maher has alleged that the union has been demonised.

He said: ‘At Mount Newman, they’re dominated by AWAs

‘People don’t have the protection of a union, they’re not able to speak up on safety concerns and what’s happening is that the management are ruling by fear.

‘They’re intimidating people, daring them not to raise safety issues.’

BHP Billiton Iron Ore president Ian Ashby claims there has been no victimisation of workers who report accidents.

• In New South Wales, Byron District Hospital nurses have refused to allow cost-cutting bureaucrats to put the security of staff and patients at risk.

Backed by the union, the nurses forced North Coast Area Health Service (NCAHS) to re-employ a security officer on the afternoon shift.

NCAHS had removed the security officer because of ‘insufficient funding’.

This left a nurse working alone in the emergency department from 3pm to 10pm in an environment of increasing aggression towards staff especially by mental health patients.

The NSW Nurses’ Association (NSWNA) branch at the hospital decided to take industrial action to regain round-the-clock security coverage.

The branch decided to: restrict triage to life-threatening or serious categories (all others would be diverted to other services and facilities); refuse to receive ambulances transporting mental health patients; and turn away drug and alcohol admissions by ambulance and police.

The union tried to settle the dispute with senior officers of NCAHS and the NSW Health, but got no result.

Shortly before industrial bans were to start on 21 May, NSWNA General Secretary Brett Holmes asked NSW Health Minister Reba Meagher to intervene. She instructed her department to immediately reinstate a security officer on afternoon shift.

Byron Hospital has 26 beds but funding is restricted to staff sufficient for only 16 beds.

There is a two-bed high-dependency unit and an Emergency Department (ED) with three beds and one resuscitation bay. There are lots of elderly patients and an increasing population of homeless people and mental health patients.

NSWNA branch secretary at the hospital, Liz McCall, said hospital management set out to improve security last August by implementing the recommendations of a security review.

These included putting a Health Security Assistant (HSA) on afternoon shift and designating wardsmen with security licences rostered on morning shift as HSAs.

‘However NCAHS overruled hospital management and ordered the changes be scrapped by 15 January,’ Liz said. ‘The Area said there weren’t sufficient funds to pay for the improvements.

‘Byron once had a very good mental health acute care service but it’s been pared to the bone.

‘We used to admit mental health patients who didn’t really need to go to a psychiatric unit because we knew we had adequate backup – the acute care person would come in and settle the patient down.

‘Then the health service decided to cut the acute care service staff.

‘Mental health presentations in ED have accelerated since acute care staffing was reduced. Acute care staff are very frustrated by inadequate staffing which prevents them from properly caring for all their mental health clients.

‘People are no longer adequately cared for by community mental health so they are coming into ED.’

NSWNA Assistant General Secretary, Judith Kiejda, said the Byron Hospital branch had shown a keen sense of responsibility to their fellow nurses and patients by refusing to allow a lone nurse in ED to be put at risk for the sake of cost-cutting.

‘The situation at Byron Hospital was unworkable and unsafe for our members and patients. Our members tried to negotiate a solution but were met with bureaucratic resistance all the way,’ Judith said.