Corporations exist to deliver profits to their shareholders. Unions exist to deliver fair wages, access to benefits like annual and sick leave to workers and to ensure workplaces are safe for all employees.
The inherent conflict is obvious – keeping wages low or sacking workers can increase profit. A casualised or sub-contracted workforce has access to less benefits than a permanent one and is therefore cheaper, while cutting corners on workplace safety can also help save money and deliver greater profit to shareholders.
With workers receiving the lowest share of national income since the 1960s, wage growth being massively outpaced by productivity and CEO’s receiving huge salaries and bonuses while lobbying against minimum wage rises and collective bargaining there’s growing sentiment that the deck is stacked against average Australians.
This week will see the biggest union rallies across Australia in more than a decade. More than 150 000 workers marched in Melbourne today with rallies taking place across Australia in the coming week.
Far from siding with workers feeling cost of living pressures, Prime Minister Morrison has chosen to try to reduce the power of Australian workers to bargain for fair pay and secure jobs with legalisation like the “Ensuring Integrity” Bill he is negotiating to move through the Senate.
Warnings have been issued to workers intending to join the protests. Australia has some of the strictest industrial action laws in the Western world – if people believe they are being underpaid, that their workplace is not safe or that they are being otherwise treated unfairly they can’t stop work without the permission of the government’s Fair Work Commission.
Yet when banks and other companies announcing multi-billion dollar profits choose to simultaneously sack thousands of workers they don’t first need to seek the blessing of the government or any other official body.
Despite the Royal Commission into the financial sector revealing widespread criminality at the expense of every-day Australians driven by the greed of for-profit companies it’s the not-for-profit unions fighting for Australian workers that the Prime Minister is determined to undermine and weaken.
This is no surprise. Around seven years ago a friend of mine paid for me to join a charity fundraising lunch with a dozen South Australian business leaders. The draw-card was an off-the-record conversation with a prominent then-Shadow and now Federal Minister. One of those present suggested that Australian business couldn’t compete with foreign competition due to the low cost of labour in other parts of the world. The Minister’s response surprised me at the time, “You’re right – China and others are lucky because they can pay people $2 a day,” he said, “We won’t be able to call it Work Choices of course, but when we are in government we will deliver you a low-wage economy.”
I had never heard the corporate agenda described so explicitly and without shamelessly, with no recognition that delivering lower wages literally means imposing greater hardship on Australian workers and their families. I joined my union the following day.
The Coalition government has reminded us that they are for bigger business profits but against those fighting for higher wages, better conditions and safer workplaces. Australian businesses should be healthy and profitable – but when this is at the expense of our collective well-being and ability to thrive something has gone drastically wrong.
Giving the already wealthy more power to profit at workers’ expense will not build the future Australians deserve. It’s time to change the rules.
Brad Chilcott is the Founder and Chair of Welcome to Australia