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Issue #1631      March 19, 2014

Abbott’s Green Army

Smashing wages, not helping the environment

The Abbott Liberal-National government is setting up a “Green Army” of 15,000 young people who will be paid as little as half the minimum wage for a near full-time job.

Most importantly, an Abbott government “volunteer” Green Army creates a sub-class of low paid workers.

“Weeding, planting, fencing” – back to the good old days

Green Army recruits – aged 17 to 24 years of age – will “volunteer” to work 30 hours a week for up to six months, in teams of ten, cleaning up creeks and waterways, planting trees and putting up fences. The program will target Indigenous Australians, people with disabilities, gap-year students, graduates and unemployed jobseekers.

Green Army workers will earn $304 to $494 a week, compared with $622 a week for the minimum wage and a basic rate of $250 week for a single person on the dole.

They will not be covered by Commonwealth workplace laws – the Work Health and Safety Act, Fair Work Act, or Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act – because they are deemed to be volunteers, not employees.

Abbott Environment Minister Greg Hunt claims the Green Army is a “voluntary environmental and training program, not an employment program”, but tell that to a jobseeker, constantly threatened with being thrown off the dole if they miss a job interview or knock back a job offer, that the Green Army is voluntary! What’s more, the government will use these “volunteer” jobs to cut the official youth unemployment rate, currently more than 12 percent.

Green Army 2014 is a new, meaner version of Abbott’s 2010 work-for-the-dole election campaign proposal, but with a $100 million smaller budget. The only person with a real job in this program is the team supervisor who will collect an annual salary of more than $60,000 and be covered by work laws, including workers compensation.

Abbott’s Green Army program aims to give the impression of doing something substantial about climate change without doing anything much at all – it is more like a permanent “Clean Up Australia” project!

A government with real concerns for the environment would be investing in new industries, new technologies, new infrastructure, better design and real jobs to steer society’s transition from fossil fuel based energy sources to solar and renewables. It would be aiming for a more equitable and frugal society based on principles of energy efficiency, not excesses of wealth and consumption for the few on one hand and deprivation and lack of public services and amenities for the great majority on the other.

Most importantly, an Abbott government “volunteer” Green Army creates a sub-class of low paid workers.

Over the medium to long term it will push down wage rates and conditions of other workers, especially those on or around the minimum wage.

To do this the Abbott government targets the most vulnerable and marginalised in society and blackmails them into “volunteering” to do full time work for little more than the dole.

This is not a one-off. This reactionary government wants to bring workers under the employer’s thumb: it wants to drive down wages, cut conditions and increase profit rates – despite already high productivity gains, wage increases below the rate of inflation and soaring profits and executive salaries.

The Green Army is just one of the ways the Abbott Liberal-National government is attacking workers and our ability to organise, or bargain. It is trying to criminalise unions and industrial action through new “WorkChoice” laws, industrial courts and criminal investigations of unions.

Abbott attacks workers and unions, to accelerate the shift in wealth to capital from labour that has been the hallmark of neo-liberal economic policies, whether under Labor or Coalition governments since the 1980s. Less wages for us means more profit for them.

The jobs slaughter across manufacturing, aviation and the public sector in Australia and elsewhere in the “developed” world also puts downward pressure on wages and conditions and accelerates growth in global profit rates.

Can we resist a green army operating on poverty wages? Can young workers get wage justice and real jobs?

Yes, but it involves more than talk. It requires serious campaigning. Young workers targeted by the program need to reach out to the groups that support a struggle for work justice; they need to gain active union involvement, and build community awareness and support. Union and labour activists have a responsibility to reach out to young workers in the Green Army program, to support their cause for recognition as workers with workers’ rights, as well as advocate better alternatives for green job creation!

Some critical views on Abbott’s Green “Volunteer” Army

Ged Kearney, ACTU President: “This is about taking away well-paid, well-protected jobs from people and replacing them with low-paid, unsafe jobs. This is not about getting people on the margins of the workforce into work; this is about providing a low-paid workforce.” (the ACTU sees this program as threatening to reset youth wages sharply lower).

Greens MP Adam Bandt: “Only Tony Abbott could create a ‘workforce’ where workers aren’t legally workers and have no workplace rights. If a green army supervisor and a worker under their command get injured … the supervisor will have the same safety net and compensation protections as ordinary employees but the worker won’t.”

Murdoch University Professor of Sustainability Glenn Albrecht: “The Green Army ... would never make a long term difference … it’s really just weeding and tree planting ... None of these things is going to make one iota of difference if we have an environment that’s heating to the point where all of the major ecosystems of Australia change.”

Neil Perry, University of Western Sydney: “from a political perspective, it can certainly be seen as green washing. If they’ve got pro-polluter policies, then this is a nice little program that’s hard to argue against and takes the focus away from the Coalition’s other policies, which potentially encourage carbon emissions.”

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