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Issue #1656      September 17, 2014

Exploitation ratchets up

According to the Reserve Bank wage rises have declined to a 15-year-low. The latest figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) show the gap between men’s and women’s wages is widening rapidly. Employers are slashing wages and working conditions, the number of hours of unpaid work is on the rise. If the government’s latest plans go ahead then there will also be an influx of low wage workers from overseas on temporary 457 work visas.

The global giant Coca-Cola Amatil is typical of an offensive being waged by companies on workers. It is freezing wages of existing workers at its Victorian warehouses. New staff will be paid up to 38 percent less and employed on inferior conditions while doing the same work as their colleagues. Following the freeze in 2015, there is the promise of around $30 a week rise in 2016.

The union and its members opposed the agreement but were outvoted by a majority of workers who were not members. The company’s employees in Queensland and Western Australia are being hit with a cut of around $5 per hour, a cut of $240.

It is not alone in freezing or cutting workers’ wages. Employers are making the most of growing job insecurity and the decline in the rate of unionisation to drive down wages and conditions.

They are also pressuring the government to get rid of penalty rates, reduce or abolish the minimum wage and bring back individual employment contracts.

Lower paid workers, in particular, are feeling the brunt of these attacks. The majority of them are women. Past gains have been eroded. The average ordinary full-time wage for women is now 78 percent of that for men. It was 85 percent 10 years ago, and 83 percent in November 2013. (Source: federal Workplace Gender Equality Agency, Gender pay gap statistics, www.wgea.gov.au)

Women are also being hit hardest by the increase in part-time and casual employment and being less likely to do paid overtime – total average weekly earnings for working women are 65 percent of men’s.

Modern day slaves

Employers are increasingly seeking to import workers on a temporary basis on 457 work visas. At present, the minimum wage for skilled workers on 457 visas a year is $53,900, not that all bosses pay anything like that. The plan is to allow employers to pay 10 percent less – $48,510. In mining, construction and some other sectors where union agreements have been negotiated, wages including allowances, etc, might be double that rate or more.

So far the majority of these workers have not joined trade unions that could represent their interests. They are treated poorly, as though they are disposable, and fear deportation if they demand their rights or try to join a trade union.

The government has plans for dozens of employment categories to be opened up to visa workers so that childcare workers, disability carers, mechanics, bricklayers, office managers, carpenters, chefs, nurses and many others can be brought in for super-exploitation.

Employers would be able to sign non-union, individual agreements with the workers under new “Designated Area Migration Agreements”. As of June this year there were 108,870 workers on temporary visas in Australia. The area is not tightly regulated; workers are all too often forced to accept the most appalling conditions and lack of basic freedoms.

Apart from providing cheaper, vulnerable workers, employers aim to use these workers to drive down the wages and conditions of local workers. With over 760,000 unemployed workers in Australia, they are used to foster racism and xenophobia and pit worker against worker in a race to the bottom.

The claim is that there is a shortage of skilled labour. But the government is making huge cuts to education and training, TAFE courses are shutting down due to loss of funding. University and TAFE fees are another barrier to gaining skills.

The Communist Party of Australia (CPA) is calling for all temporary visa workers to be given permanent residency and the possibility of citizenship. Foreign workers should be paid the same wage rates and have the same working conditions and other entitlements as local workers and encouraged to join the relevant trade union.

If united with other workers on the same wages and conditions, then these corporations cannot succeed in their agenda. It will become pointless importing labour unless there is a genuine shortage.

The CPA is also calling for a public inquiry into the operation of 457 visas that investigates abuses of this system, its impact of wages and the potential role of the trade union movement in its operation.

Next article – 16 years is too long!

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