Red Ant Union Watch #2: Unions Face Many Challenges in 2023

By Andrew Martin

“Union membership has been in precipitous decline for almost 50 years and now lies at a historic low of 12.5%”. Photo credit: Dean Sewell

As the world ticks over into 2023, the global workforce faces increasing uncertainty and turmoil. The share market remains volatile, there is growing political unrest in much of the global south, and Europe is battered by climbing oil and gas prices due to the war in Ukraine. Everywhere workers face a cost-of-living crisis.

Yet Australia, at least for now, remains relatively stable, with most economists putting forward a positive economic outlook with strong growth, particularly in the resources sector. But this economic stability is not across the board. Many industries, such as the domestic building trade, have been hit hard by the rise in costs, with many high-profile construction companies going bust.

One of Australia’s oldest construction companies, Clough Group (102 years old), entered voluntary administration in December, leaving 1250 of its workers without entitlements. The company was building the Snowy Hydro 2.0 Energy project. This follows the collapse of WA-based Firm construction in late November, which had a turnover of $100 million a year. Its subcontractors are reportedly owed hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Another riches-to-rags story is that of Privium, whose owner and CEO, Rob Harder, made a last-ditch effort to save the company by pouring $3 million into a Gold Coast based cryptocurrency. Almost certainly, because he knew of his company’s doom, he diverted over half a million into a Christian charity, Love Your World – of which his wife happens to be a director.

One of the more spectacular collapses has been Condev which is constructing $1 billion of projects on Queensland’s waterfront. Some of these have now been abandoned.

The switch to renewable energy sources, which preceded the current ALP federal government, is now gaining pace with the approval of major infrastructure projects. So too is the expansion of significant gas hubs – despite the rhetoric of the federal election in which the ALP committed itself to combat climate change.

Western Australia continues to be referred to as the resource state, and not without reason. WA is set to go through another boom, but in some ways, it will differ from the previous booms of the 2000s and 2010s- the projects themselves are different, but there are expectations now that these investments must deliver fairer outcomes for workers and the communities in which they take place in. Each project will be under closer scrutiny. The Brisbane Times reported that there is $63 billion worth of projects in construction with feasibility studies for another $147 billion of investment.

The spin from the resources companies is that gas extraction reduces climate change as it displaces coal. That justification is fuelling major oil and gas projects such as Woodside’s Scarborough gas project, worth $18 billion. According to the Australian Conservation Fund (ACF), it is “the most polluting fossil fuel project currently being proposed in Australia.” Its annual greenhouse gas emissions will be equal to that of 15 coal-fired power stations.

The project also threatens ancient Murujuga Aboriginal rock art, which depicts ancient megafauna and the first sightings of European ships. Given Rio-Tinto’s destruction of Juukan Gorge in May 2020, political activists and conservationists will be determined to ensure this heritage is protected. Where once the mining giants may have been embroiled in what polite society would call controversy, now they will face conflict.

Labour hire under scrutiny

It remains to be seen if unions will regain a foothold in what used to be their strongholds – the Pilbara and the goldfields of WA. That would require some serious organising, but given the profitability of the resources sector and the shortages of labour, there is no better time than now.

For years, the mining giants have gotten away with sham contracting arrangements and the overuse of labour hire. Despite the high wages of the resource sector, most workers are entirely powerless to raise concerns about their treatment or OH&S issues. Even for permanent workers, that is difficult, particularly for women. If they are labour hires and subject to Fly-In-Fly-Out (FIFO) arrangements, then they suffer a trifecta of precariousness.

A WA parliamentary inquiry into sexual harassment of women at FIFO sites released in September 2022 found widespread cases of sexual abuse, misogyny and sexist behaviour that was pervasive and normalised. The inquiry also uncovered racism and bullying towards both men and women.

The inquiry noted that labour-hire practices “diluted lines of responsibility”, and those mining companies, although expressing regret, were more interested in preserving their reputations than combating sexism.

Labour-hire work has existed in Australia since at least the 1950s, initially supplying clerical and administrative workers, but it has grown to encompass communications, mining, engineering, manufacturing, and the financial sector – these sectors have much higher concentrations of labour hire than the average workplaces. In engineering or construction sites, it is not uncommon to find that the workforce is made up of 50% labour-hire, even where the workplace is unionised. Where there are restrictions on the use of labour-hire in Enterprise Agreements, businesses flaunt them with no repercussions and generally without resistance.

This underlines the importance of the victory of the workers at Knauf in the Port of Melbourne, who beat back a lockout and held on to the clauses in the EA that restricted the use of labour hire. Given the unity and solidarity of the workers who picketed for 40 days, it is unlikely the company would dare use labour hire – but it is interesting to note that labour-hire was the central sticking point in negotiations. The workers were also able to secure better conditions in many areas, including penalty rates and the rights of union delegates.

The most vulnerable labour-hire workers are farm workers. More than eighty agricultural companies were recently investigated by the Fair Work Ombudsmen. The worst regions were Victoria’s Sunraysia region, South Australia’s Riverland, and NSW Coffs Harbour and Grafton areas. According to Staffing Industry Analysis, almost $80 000 in fines were issued to farms and labour hire agencies for breaching pay slips and record keeping laws.

These fines are minuscule for what are primarily big agri-businesses that have taken advantage of migrant workers. They indicate that correct pay rates, loadings, penalty rates and allowances are being withheld. One can only guess how much pay employers are deducting from workers for expenses such as rent or transport. More than likely, these breaches are the tip of the iceberg for a sector where wage theft is systemic.

Aged-care and child-care workers still vulnerable

Last year saw mobilisations of child-care and aged-care workers before the federal election. United Workers Union (UWU) members took strike action and protested in Canberra in September, raising many outstanding grievances relating to childcare. These workers, who are primarily on a minimum wage, will have placed their hopes in the Albanese government to deliver some meaningful reforms. He promised that he “would have these workers’ backs”.

The government pledged to put more money into both sectors, which face staff shortages and high turnover. In May, aged-care workers took similar action. For many of these workers, it was the first time they had taken strike action. They have been on the front-line during the pandemic, which continues to take a toll on the elderly. Covid deaths currently surpass 100 per week in aged care. Last week there were 738 outbreaks in residential aged-care facilities (down from 915 in the week before Christmas), with almost 4 000 residents affected.

The Fair Work Commission has handed down a 15% pay rise for workers in this sector, but it only covers some professions, such as nurses and personal care assistants. It does not apply to lifestyle assistants, cooks, cleaners, or homecare domestic workers- all of which are integral to the care of the elderly.

The treasurer Jim Chalmers has admitted the whole sector is a mess, with seven out of ten providers facing financial losses. The latest Stewart Brown aged-care financial performance survey sector report, which analyses records from 1182 of Australia’s more than 2500 nursing homes, found that 70 per cent of aged care homes ran at a loss over the third quarter of 2022.

The report stated that staffing levels were a significant concern. As residential care receives funding per bed occupied, deaths from Covid have impacted the sector’s profitability. While the ALP government has admitted the sector is in crisis, it has yet to reveal any sort of plan to fix it. Aged care is funded through a combination of subsidies, supplements, capital grants and various government programs which prop up private providers.

If a society can be measured by how, it treats its most vulnerable, Australia does badly, to the point of being pathetic. Leaving the elderly and children to the whims of the profit-motive has been a failure for working-class people. These issues must be a rallying point for the union movement not just before elections but for achieving genuine social justice.

Where to now?

The latest workplace relations reforms passed by the government did so without so much as a murmur by the working class, who were excluded from any meaningful consultation or participation. Most workers are not aware that any changes were made or if they are applicable to them.

The passing of the new laws came down to wranglings between crossbenches, pressures from business groups and negotiations between the ALP and the trade union bureaucracy. The laws will potentially improve workers bargaining power, but is Big Business worried about them?

Probably not. Union membership has been in precipitous decline for almost 50 years and now lies at a historic low of 12.5% (down from 51.6% in 1975). Membership has dropped 2% in two years despite workers having a stronger bargaining position. Only 2 per cent of 15-to-19-year-olds are union members, and 5 per cent are 20 to 24. Will the new laws stop this decline?

Whether industrial laws are good or bad, unions still need to organise. The law is meaningless if it only exists on paper. There are still questions about how multi-employer bargaining, which the new laws allow, will work. While they may allow for a template to bargain across whole industries, what role will workers themselves play in this process?

The national secretary of UWU, Tim Kennedy, has said that multi-employer bargaining is not “sustainable” without significant growth in membership. The new laws will enable the federal government to have a seat at the bargaining table, directly affecting the outcome of negotiations. The trade union bureaucracy complains that it doesn’t have the resources to engage in industry-wide negotiations.

Sally McManus, national secretary of the ACTU, has called for a levy on all workers who enjoy the benefits of union negotiations. Blue-collar unions are calling for right-of-entry laws to be changed.

Union leaders will need to start pushing against the boundaries and emphasize that unions are more relevant than ever. They need to remember the language of class and their historic role as defensive organisations of the working class.

In England, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) has led impressive rail strikes that have captured public opinion despite causing major disruptions – because its leaders have spoken out for the needs of all workers. We need that sort of fighting spirit here.

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