Wednesday, December 3, 2003

WA public servants strike

By Chris Latham
PERTH — On November 27, public servants escalated their campaign for a new certified agreement (CA) with a 24-hour stoppage.

The government attempted to put off the strike by making a late offer on November 25. Community and Public Sector Union/Civil Service Association (CPSU/CSA) branch secretary Toni Walkington told Green Left Weekly that the offer was a "last-minute stunt" which did "not resolve the issues of workload, job security and incentives for people to work in regional areas. Those issues ultimately affect community services and the quality of services to the public."

Premier Geoff Gallop's Labor government has dismissed the strike as a dismal failure, claiming that only 700 workers participated. The CPSU/CSA claims that 7000 workers participated in the strike action with services stopped or reduced in 20 sections of the public service.

In the centre of Perth, five pickets were held with the largest being outside the state parliament. The union had requested that MPs not cross the line. However, following a directive from Gallop, most Labor MPs either crossed the picket line or entered parliament before 8.30 am when the picket started.

Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union state secretary Kevin Reynolds told the November 28 West Australian that the CFMEU would not support the re-election of any ALP MP who crossed the picket line. He called on other unions to do the same.

The government's arrogance and intransigence can only strengthen the resolve of public servants. When the city picket lines converged on the government's ministerial offices at Governor Stirling Tower, Walkington told the gathered unionists that while in opposition, "Gallop had said he valued the work of the public service... Well, Geoff, you haven't done that, you have offered us the crumbs after you have made an agreement with the police."

The government is rapidly developing an image of intransigence towards workers' conditions in order to protect its budget surplus and subsidise business development in the state.

With more and more public sector workers enterprise agreements and CAs expiring, the government faces growing industrial unrest. As a result, the employing class is getting worried about the future of the government. The November 22 Financial Review outlined its concerns over what it sees as the bogging down of the government agenda and growing community opposition with an "almost daily queue of protests outside Parliament House".

From Green Left Weekly #564

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Wednesday, November 26, 2003

11,000 teachers strike in WA

11,000 teachers strike in WA
Wednesday, November 26, 2003 - 11:00

BY CHRIS LATHAM

PERTH — Despite heavy rain and a fierce campaign of misinformation by the state Labor government, 5000 teachers attended a rally on November 18 as part of their campaign for a new certified agreement.

The first full-day strike by Western Australian teachers in eight years involved half of WA's 20,000 public school teachers.

In the days leading up to the strike, state education minister Alan Carpenter, education director-general Paul Albert and WA Council of State Schools Organisations president Rob Fry all made statements in the West Australian condemning the strike as unnecessary and being against the interests of students. Carpenter has also claimed that as conciliation was beginning it was unnecessary for the teachers to strike.

However, as Dave Kelly, general secretary of WA branch of the Australian Education Union (AEU), told the rally, the government has been steadfastly refusing to enter negotiations with the AEU, although a framework for conciliation had been agreed to in August.

Under the pressure of the strike, the government approached the AEU and the Australian Industrial Relations Commission to initiate conciliation on November 17, with meetings to occur on November 24, 25 and 28 if necessary.

The key issues identified by the AEU have been pay levels for beginning teachers; primary school teachers receiving equal levels of duties other than teaching (DOTT) as other teachers, to allow for class preparation; and reduction in class sizes.

Following Kelly's address, the teachers marched to Parliament House. Contrary to the government's hopes, the marchers received a warm response from passers-by, with motorists tooting and construction workers on city building sites cheering the marching teachers.

From Green Left Weekly #563.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Andrews plans new wave of attacks on unions

Chris Latham

On November 6, federal Coalition workplace relations minister Neil Andrews introduced a new raft of anti-union legislation in federal parliament.

The federal government's Building and Construction Industry Improvement Bill 2003, and its associated Building and Construction Industry Improvement (Consequential and Transitional) Bill 2003 were both read for a second time. In addition, the Workplace Relations Amendment (Choice of Award Coverage) Bill and a revised version of the Workplace Relations Amendment (Termination of Employment) Bill 2002 were reintroduced into parliament. The new Workplace Relations Amendment (Better Bargaining) Bill was introduced into parliament for the first time.


These new pieces of legislation are central to the Howard government's new assault on the ability of workers and their unions to organise to defend their existing wages and working conditions and to fight for improvements.

The employment termination bill has three aims. The first is to continue the government's attempt to exempt “small business” from unfair dismissal legislation, reducing job security and protection for workers employed by businesses that have fewer than 20 employees. Under the bill, such workers will need to have been employed for six months before having access to any unfair dismissal provisions.

The bill will allow the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) to deal with cases without a hearing, and to halve the maximum compensation that can be awarded to unfairly dismissed workers.

The bill also limits access to unfair dismissal entitlements for all workers — where redundancies are occurring in a workplace, there will be no access to unfair dismissal provisions. If workers find alternative work after being unfairly dismissed, the amount of compensation will be deducted from any back-pay order by the commission.

Most significantly, if passed, the bill will expand the number of workers covered by federal legislation, using the federal government's corporations' power, to include all those workers who are employed by incorporated companies. This represents approximately 85% of Australian workers, up from the 50% or four million workers currently covered.

Workers shifted to the federal system will lose their access to state legislation. If passed, the bill will strengthen the federal government's plan to create a single nation-wide industrial relations system.

The Choice of Award Coverage Bill is aimed at reducing the access of workers in small business to award coverage. When unions attempt to “rope in” workers into the award using a log of claims, it must be demonstrated that the union has at least one member in the workplace.

The Workplace Relations Amendment (Better Bargaining) Bill is aimed at building on the restrictions on protected industrial action passed in 2002. The legislation would ban all industrial action that occurs prior to the expiration of an enterprise agreement. Currently, industrial action taken to resolve issues not covered in an agreement prior to its expiration, is still protected action.

The bill will also empower the AIRC to impose “cooling off” periods during bargaining, which will make any form of normally protected action taken during this period illegal. A “cooling off” period can be imposed where protected action threatens to cause significant harm to any person (in reality, to the profits of an employer) and where suspension of bargaining would not be against the “public interest”.

Application for a “cooling off” period could be made on behalf of, or by, persons directly affected by industrial action or by the relevant federal government minister. The effect of this provision for workers in education, health and the fire services, is that the government can move to revoke access to protected action, greatly reducing their ability to win decent agreements.

The government has also identified the vehicle manufacturing industry — in which the use by employers of “just in time” work practices means industrial action at a single components manufacturer can bring the entire industry to a immediate halt — as a key target for the legislation.

Furthermore, any industrial action that affects parties not directly involved in the dispute will not be considered protected action.

In his speech introducing the legislation to parliament, Andrews made it clear that this section of the legislation is aimed directly at blocking the use of pattern bargaining. However, its effect would be much greater, as any picket line that involved workers not directly involved in the dispute would also lose its protected action status.

The legislation would mean that establishing a community protest line such as at Morris McMahon in Sydney earlier this year would open workers and their unions to AIRC fines and civil suits by the employer.

Labor and the Greens have stated they are opposed to the legislation, and the Democrats have indicated they do not support some provisions in the Better Bargaining Bill.

Originally published in Green Left Weekly #562



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WA teachers escalate industrial action

BY CHRIS LATHAM

PERTH — On November 6, the Western Australian branch executive of the Australian Education Union (AEU) announced that a 24-hour strike would be held on November 18 to support the teachers union's campaign for a new certified agreement.

The strike will be the first full-day stoppage by WA teachers for eight years, and has been called in response to the state Labor government's attempt to take the AEU into arbitration following the union's rejection of the government's second offer.

The strike has also been called in response to the government's attempt to suspend the bargaining period for a new agreement. Premier Geoff Gallop's government claims that the industrial action that is being taken by teachers in support of their campaign is disrupting and adversely affecting the schooling and education of large numbers of students.

However, the industrial relations commission has postponed any decision until a hearing on December 1-3.

Teachers are not alone in seeing their campaign for better wages and conditions being frustrated by the WA Labor government. Since October 23, members of the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union (LHMU) who work as cleaners, gardeners and education assistants in WA schools, have been conducting work bans in support of a claim for a wage rise of 15% over two and half years.

According to Sue Lines, acting LHMU state secretary, the government has refused to negotiate with the union, but instead has sought to have the Western Australia Industrial Commission lift the bans.

Members of the Civil Service Association (CSA) have imposed bans targeting government revenue-raising as part of their campaign for a new certified agreement.

On November 7, workers in the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages issued certificates for free. According to the CSA, the public response was so overwhelming that management decided to close the doors of the registry early. Workers at the registry told the union that by midday revenue losses exceeded the registry's maximum daily takings of $5000.

From Green Left Weekly #562.

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Wednesday, October 1, 2003

WA Labor maintains antiworker bias in compo system

By Chris Latham
PERTH — During the 2001 Western Australian election campaign, the ALP campaigned on the basis that it would ensure the "maintenance of a fair and efficient workers compensation system". Central to this system would be a "better balance between statutory payments and common law" which would "open up greater access to common law for injured workers".

In March of this year, Premier Geoff Gallop's Labor government released an updated version of its intended amendments to the Workers Compensation and Rehabilitation Act. The proposed amendments are centred on four areas — changes to statutory benefits; coverage for medical treatment; dispute resolution; injury management and the access of workers to common law.

Labor plans to increase the cap on weekly payments to two times average weekly earnings from the current cap of one-and-half AWE, increasing the maximum benefit from $977 to $1303. This payment will be reduced by 15% after eight weeks; it is presently reduced after four weeks.

The extension of the period of payment is expected to benefit some 4800 injured workers annually. After eight weeks, the injured worker's overtime earnings will not be included in calculations for weekly benefits.

The length of time that benefits can be received is governed by the prescribed amount, which will remain at a maximum of $130,609. For workers with permanent total incapacity the maximum prescribed amount can be extended by 75% or $97,956.75, to $228,565.75 (previously the maximum extension was $50,000).

The prescribed amount is the total amount available for any injury; if an injured worker subsequently dies then his or her dependents receive the prescribed amount, minus any weekly payments already received.

Under the proposed amendments, workers in receipt of statutory benefits will be allowed to exceed the maximum medical entitlement of $39,182.70 by $2000. In exceptional circumstances, workers will be able to receive unlimited coverage for medical expenses; previously this could be increased by $50,000, although there are no specific criteria provided in the government's proposal for when this would occur.

The amendments propose restructuring the way in which disputes over workers compensation will be resolved. These changes include the reintroduction of lawyers into the whole system (rather than simply during final appeals) and the creation of a new Workers' Compensation Dispute Resolution Authority, which will oversee a process of conciliation conferences and arbitration.

Under the existing legislation, "injury management" — the process by which injured workers return to work — was voluntary and only vocational rehabilitation was required. Labor's amendments would require large employers to develop their own policy and procedures for injury management and encourage insurers to provide resources for smaller companies to develop these as necessary.

Labor also proposes that injured workers be legally required to participate in injury management and rehabilitation activities. Failure to do so could result in the stoppage of payments.

While workers should have the option of returning to work, and employers be legally required to make arrangements to facilitate this process, Labor's amendments are not aimed at giving workers greater options. Instead, they are aimed at saving employers and insurers money by compelling injured workers to participate in attempts to return to work, and allowing an earlier reduction in the level of weekly compensation payments. The government's estimates indicate that compulsory injury management will deliver a saving of 2.5% on the total cost of the workers compensation system.

Labor proposes to maintain the "two-gate" system for access to common law introduced by the state Coalition government in 1999. Under this system, injured workers assessed to have a "whole body impairment" (WBI) of greater than 25% (currently the threshold is 30%) are eligible to receive uncapped compensation payments.

For workers assessed to have a "serious impairment" of between 15% and 25% compensation is capped at a maximum of $274,278; this is a reduction of the threshold, from the current act, by 1%.

Not only does Labor's proposal fail to reverse the restriction in access to common law introduced by the Coalition government, it extends this restriction by stopping the inclusion of secondary and consequent impairment, particularly psychological impairment, from being included in any assessment of WBI (as is presently done), although these can be included in considerations of the amount of compensation.

This is justified in the proposal on the basis that it is difficult to obtain consistent assessment of the level of this impairment. While the government's proposal does bring consistency, workers will be consistently denied the right to seek common law damages.

The proposed amendments will extend the deadline for seeking common law damages to 12 months, extendable by an additional six months for workers who can demonstrate their condition has not stabilised.

Workers with a serious impairment will also no longer lose their entire statutory benefit. Instead, all coverage of medical and other expenses will cease and weekly payments will be reduced to 70%, then to 50% after three months and cease after six months.

As common law damages are reduced by the amount of weekly benefits that the worker has already received, the phasing down of compensation payments and ending of coverage of medical expenses can only be interpreted as intended to dissuade injured workers from making common law claims.

From Green Left Weekly #556.

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WA teachers rally for public education

By Chris Latham

PERTH — On September 24, 500 angry public school teachers rallied outside the Western Australian parliament to demand that Premier Geoff Gallop's Labor government agree to the log of claims their union has put to the government.

Singing "Wake up Geoff", the teachers demanded that Gallop, treasurer Eric Ripper and education minister Alan Carpenter face the rally. However, no representative of the government was willing to either address the rally or listen to the demands of the teachers.

Australian Education Union state secretary Dave Kelly reported to the rally on a meeting between the AEU's negotiating committee and the state education department over the government's new offer for a certified agreement with the teachers. Kelly said that while the new offer was a "step in the right direction", there were three outstanding matters that meant the union's executive could not endorse it.

These were around the offered wage increase, primary school teachers' duties other than teaching (DOTT) and class sizes. The government is now offering a wage increase to teachers of 9.27% over 30 months. This would amount to a 1% increase in real wages.

The government proposes the primary school teachers' DOTT be increased by 20 minutes to 200 minutes per week, which falls well short of the claim of 320 minutes DOTT to achieve equity with secondary teachers. The government does not address the need to reduce class sizes.

Kelly told the rally that the AEU branch executive would discuss an escalation of "industrial action to bring a firm agreement home for educators across the state".

WA AEU vice-president Mike Keely announced that the government had dropped its push for a flat pay rate for casual teachers. Such a flat rate would have represented a pay cut for more experienced teachers.

From Green Left Weekly #556.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2003

8000 teachers rally in Perth

By Chris Latham

PERTH — Eight thousand members of the Australian Education Union (AEU) attended a vibrant stop work meeting at Subiaco Oval on September 17, as part of a half-day stoppage to win a 30% pay rise over the next three years. Hundreds of AEU members also met throughout regional WA to discuss the union's industrial campaign.

The teachers attending the rally were in a defiant mood, following the hostile media statements made by education minister Alan Carpenter prior to the strike. These statements included urging teachers to "call off this totally unnecessary strike" and telling the media on September 9 that the AEU's state executive had endorsed the government's offer.

The stop-work was addressed by UnionsWA secretary Stephanie Mayman, AEU national president Pat Byrne and AEU (WA) general secretary David Kelly.

Mayman told the teachers that they had the "full support of public and private sector unions across Western Australia, in your fight for what is a fair resolution".

Byrne pointed out that the government had been elected on a platform of supporting quality public education, but, with the current wage offer of 9% over two and half years, would only provide wage maintenance as the "consumer price index indicates that for 2003 inflation in Western Australia was 2.9%. [The state government] can genuinely seen by the electorate as reneging on its platform.

"Given also the billion dollar deals in the Pilbara being made; the GST benefits to state governments starting to kick in and the fact that this state's economy has grown by 9.3% during the last twelve months, public sector workers have every right to be cynical. Three per cent is treading water", she added.

The WA government's offer includes a pay cut for relief teachers, incredibly given the teacher shortge makes relief teachers hard to find.

The AEU (WA) branch executive moved resolutions that: condemned the government's intransigence and failure to provide an offer that addresses teacher shortages; rejected the present offer from the government; empowered the AEU (WA) branch leadership to continue negotiations; initiated further industrial action, which will begin in term 4; empowered the executive, in the event of the government moving to suspend the bargaining period, to begin a political campaign to achieve adequate resourcing for public education and called a protest rally outside state parliament for 4pm September 24.
From Green Left Weekly #555

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Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Workplace safety: Workers die, bosses profit

Chris Latham

Between July 2000 and June 2001, more than 300 workers were killed and more than 220,000 workers were injured in Australian workplaces. This is on top of the 2254 workers killed, and the 900,000 workers injured, during the previous six years. Yet, despite this being responsible for many more deaths than terrorism, many who suffer from workplace accidents are left bereft by employers and the state.


For workers and their families, workplace injury is something to be dreaded. Aside from the pain and suffering, income lost from time off work is combined with increased expenses for medical treatment often leading to considerable financial strain. This hardship is being made steadily worse as state and federal governments have reduced payouts for workers’ compensation.

Federal workplace relations minister Tony Abbott has plans to make it even worse. He is keen for the federal government to take over state workers’ compensation schemes, claiming this would ``simplify’‘ the scheme. But, while workers’ compensation schemes are a maze of different rules, the federal government’s rules are among the worst for workers. Without proper compensation, workers injured because the bosses couldn’t care enough can have their lives ruined, if not ended.

At the moment, the amount that injured workers can get varies widely depending on which state they live in, and whether they are employed under a state or federal award. The Comparison of Workers Compensation Arrangements: Australia and New Zealand, published by the Heads of Workplace Safety and Compensation Authorities, summarises the situation.

The death of a family member at work is devastating. Dealing with the emotional cost, however, is made much harder by the financial instability caused by losing a wage earner.

Workers in Western Australia run the greatest risk of financial ruin. The maximum available for the family of a killed worker is $130,609 plus $34.30 per week for each dependent child. The highest payments for death are those in Queensland and New South Wales.

In Queensland, the family can receive up to $263,255. For dependent children there is an additional lump sum of $9875 and a weekly payment of 7% of average Queensland ordinary time earnings. In New South Wales, payment is capped at $275,350, with a weekly payment of $86.60 for a dependent child.

But death is not the only fear of workers. Injury, with the resulting pain, family reorganisation, and financial strain affects thousands of households every year.

In Tasmania, incapacitated workers receive 100% of their normal weekly earnings (worked out on an average of the last year) for the first 13 weeks after injury. Between then and the end of a year after the injury, they get 85% of their normal earnings. Then they receive just 70%, which cuts out altogether 10 years after the injury first occurred.

In South Australia, incapacitated workers get the equivalent of their average weekly earnings for the first year after injury. This has a cap on it set at double the South Australian average wage. After the first year, a totally incapacitated worker will get 80% of their average earnings. This is capped, however, much lower, at 80% of the states average weekly earnings. Partially incapacitated workers receive the difference between this cap and what they could still earn in employment.

In Western Australia, the cap on weekly benefits is set at $977.80. During the first four weeks following injury, workers’ payments are based on their average earnings over the previous 13 weeks, including overtime, bonuses and allowances. After the fifth week off the job, only ordinary earnings are included. An analysis of the Australian Bureau of Statistics data suggests that injured workers would have a roughly 4% drop in income then. This would be even more dramatic for workers in the construction, manufacturing, mining and transport industries, where the majority of work place injuries occur. Their benefits would be reduced by 8-10%.

Western Australia also limits the maximum total benefits to $130,609. Permanently and totally incapacitated workers (who can’t work again) can have this increased by $50,000. This translates to about three years and seven months on the maximum allowance. After that, these people are on their own.

Those on the federal award can get their normal weekly earnings for 44 weeks, although this is capped at $1300 a week. After that, they get 75% of their former wage.

But it isn’t just the income drop that hits the families of injured workers. It is also the cost of medical care. All workers’ compensation schemes have an allowance for this, but, again, the amount varies considerably.

The federal government, the Northern Territory government and the state governments in South Australia and Tasmania place no cap on refunds for medical care. Queensland’s legislation places no limit on the amount of medical and rehabilitation costs, but limits the amount of private hospital fees to $10,000. The Victorian government cuts funding for medical services 52 weeks after the end of income payments.

In New South Wales, workers can receive up to $50,000 in treatments. This can be increased by the Workers’ Compensation Commission. Occupational rehabilitation is capped at a further $1949.50.

In Western Australia, workers can get up to $39,182.70 in medical services and the Conciliation and Review Directorate can increase this amount by $50,000. In the ACT, employers are liable to pay for the cost of treatment in relation to injury. This includes the cost of replacing glasses, contact lenses, prostheses and other artificial aids and the cost of wages lost, transport and accommodation.

So while workers’ compensation laws offer some protection to injured workers, they still enshrine a drop in income for the sick and injured.

This can put injured workers on the scrapheap, struggling to meet mortgage repayments and pay bills. Some workers have to increase their debts, in order to redesign homes to fit wheelchairs or buy new cars.

Lump sum payments provided through some workers' compensation schemes, or fought for through civil court actions, can alleviate this. These payments can also provide compensation for the pain and suffering that workers may have experienced.

Lump sum payments vary considerably across states. In Western Australia, while there is a lump sum of up to $130,609 for workers with permanent injuries, accepting it requires both waiving the right to take legal action and a reduction in the weekly income payments.

In Queensland, workers can get a maximum amount, in either lump sum and weekly benefits, of $157,955. This can be doubled for workers with a work-related impairment of 50% or more.
In both Victoria and NSW, the governments have moved to increase the total lump sum available to injured workers. In 2001, the NSW government doubled the maximum from $100,000 to $200,000; while in Victoria in 1997 the payment was increased to $337,380 from $104,990. However in both cases the threshold at which these payments are available was significantly increased. These larger lump sums are only available to workers with almost total impairment, in Victoria 80% and New South Wales 75%.

Under the federal government scheme, the maximum payment for permanent impairment is $127,063.76, with an additional maximum of $47,648.94 for non-economic loss. To be eligible for a lump sum payment workers must have an assessed whole-body impairment of 10%; an exception is made where the loss is of fingers, toes, hearing, taste or smell.

So even lump sums do not provide workers with funds when they need it most. Access to civil damages to ensure financial security, including recovering lost earnings and the restoration and maintenance of quality of life, are important to protect workers.

In addition to payments that are part of the statutory benefits that injured workers are entitled to, workers can take civil cases of damages to the courts. However, state governments have sought to limit this, placing legal barriers in the way.

This is outrageous. Far too many workers are injured and killed on work sites because employers cut corners, do not provide adequate safety training or put pressure on employees to unreasonably increase the intensity of their work. To deny workers whose lives have been all but destroyed access to the courts to relieve the financial pressure of injuries is below contempt.

Common law rights to sue employers for injury have been abolished federally, in the Northern Territory and in South Australia. This was done federally by Labor governments, in the Northern Territory from 1987 and in South Australia from December 1992. Common law rights were abolished in Victoria in 1997 by the government led by Liberal Jeff Kennett; they were reinstated when Labor won power in 1999, but with reductions in maximum payment for pain and suffering to $14,000.

In 2001, the NSW state Labor government passed legislation that limited access to common law rights. Only workers assessed to have lost 15% of their whole body are now able to go to court. The legislation limited compensation awards to those based on loss of wages and future loss of earnings. In order to receive any award, a worker must prove that his or her employer was negligent.

In Western Australia, workers have access to two “gates” for common law. The first “gate” is for workers with a disability assessed at 30% or more, there is no prescription on the level of award. The second is for workers with “significant disability”; (impairment of between 16% and 30%) who may receive a maximum of $274,278. Workers must decide to access common law within six months of injury, those workers with a “significant disability” must elect between receiving statutory benefits and instituting civil law proceedings: if they take court action, their benefit is stopped.

In Queensland, civil law proceedings are available to all workers who suffer a permanent impairment. Workers whose impairment is below 20% must make a decision between a lump sum payment of $263,255, less any money received as weekly payments, or accessing civil law. Workers who suffer a permanent impairment of more than 20% are entitled to both the lump sum and civil damages.

In Tasmania, common law damages are only available to workers with a 30% permanent impairment. Civil proceedings must be started within two years of receiving the first statutory payment.

In the ACT there is no restriction on accessing common law proceedings.

The drive to reduce the level of compensation payable to injured workers is aimed at reducing the premiums paid by companies to workers’ compensation programs, and increasing their profits. The Melbourne Age reported on August 15, 2002, that between December 31, 2000 and 2001, Victorian Workcover had halved the unfunded liability from $1074 million to $533 million, and that it was expected to have sufficient assets to cover total liabilities by 2004. This has been improved largely as a result of restrictions in compensation.

Many unions have been trying to fight this drive to take money from the workforce’s most vulnerable and put it into the bosses’ pockets. These fights need your support.

Originally published in Green Left Weekly #554



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Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Workers to strike over workplace deaths

BY CHRIS LATHAM

PERTH — Four-thousand members of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) are expected to strike on September 8, demanding safer working conditions in the construction industry, following citywide stop work meetings on September 4 and 5.

The strike is part of an escalating campaign of industrial action that began when 1000 construction workers walked of the job on August 29 and occupied the foyer of the state Labor government's ministerial offices. Four days later, 350 workers on seven Perth building sites staged a 24-hour strike in protest at unsafe working conditions.

The demonstrations have been called in response three incidents. The first was the decision by the Builders Registration Board to drop charges of negligence against a builder on whose site a worker was killed in September 2002 in an accident.

CFMEU construction division assistant state secretary Joe McDonald, speaking at a Socialist Alliance-organised forum on August 30, said that WA employment protection minister John Kobelke had promised the union that the government would strip the builder of his ticket.

Instead, the builder had been allowed to continue operating. This is despite the CFMEU having to conduct 16 separate stoppages over unsafe work practices on the builder's site in the last 12 months.

The second incident was the decision by Transfield Engineering to appeal a conviction for the workplace death of construction worker Joseph Guagliardo in 2000. This appeal is holding up the compensation claim for Guagliardo's widow.

The final incident was the death on August 28 of a worker on a Robe River construction site, bringing to 23 the number of workers killed on construction sites in the last 14 months in WA.

From Green Left Weekly #553.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Howard's attacks on construction workers must be defeated

Lisbeth Latham

It is expected that during the current session of federal parliament, a range of new anti-union legislation will be introduced by Prime Minister John Howard's Coalition government, including legislation aimed at “reforming” the construction industry. This legislation will be based on the recommendations from the royal commission into the building industry.


The majority of the 212 recommendations in commissioner Terry Cole's report are aimed at protecting the bosses' profits by limiting the ability of workers and their unions to organise and by increasing the ability of the government to take punitive action against militant unions. The recommendations include:


  • Establishment of an Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) with powers to investigate and prosecute breaches of law. It would have powers similar to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and have the power to enforce the Trade Practices Act against unions that block the ability of companies to operate. The ABCC will offer free legal advice to those who want it. It would also supersede the Office of the Employment Advocate, which would then focus on other industries.
  • Drafting a Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act, which would override the Workplace Relations Act (WRA) if the two clash.
  • Increasing fines for violating the WRA, the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act or the Trades Practices Act to $20,000 for individuals and $100,000 for unions.
  • Outlawing industry-wide pattern bargaining. In order for enterprise agreements to be registered with the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC), they would have to be proven to be not part of a pattern bargaining campaign. Unions that conduct pattern bargaining campaigns could face deregistration.
  • Making unions and individual workers liable for the losses they “cause”.
  • Disqualifying officials who “engage in unlawful conduct” from holding office.
  • Giving the ABCC the power to cancel a union official's right of entry to building sites where it is “abused” and making all such visits subject to the ABCC's supervision.
  • Mandating secret ballots before any industrial action is undertaken.
  • Limiting unions to two weeks of protected industrial action followed by a three-week “cooling off” period. If industrial action is voluntarily ended prior to the two weeks then the three-week cooling off period must be completed before further action is taken.
  • Stripping from the National Building and Construction Industry Award (NBCIA) and state building industry awards all allowances except four — a general allowance payable to all workers, a living away from home allowance, a meal allowance and a travelling allowance.
  • Stripping from the NBCIA any limitations on the time that work can begin, days that can be worked or clauses specifying when rostered days off will be taken.
  • Limiting the awarding of federal government building contracts to contractors and sub-contractors who adhere to the government's National Code of Practice for the Construction Industry.

If implemented, these recommendations would drastically reduce the capacity of construction unions to win and maintain decent conditions of employment for workers in the industry. Banning pattern bargaining would mean that conditions of work would be dependent on the strength of the union on individual building sites and create large variations in employment practices between sites.

The Master Builders Association's support for almost all the recommendations demonstrates that they are biased in favour of the employers. The MBA only has a few small quibbles with the recommendations. For instance, the MBA argues that the ABCC should be empowered to initiate and conduct civil litigation against unions on behalf of builders rather than simply give advice on legal action. It also opposes the recommendation that the AIRC set a maximum of overtime hours to be worked per week.

Senate
The Howard government is hoping to get legislation incorporating these recommendations approved by the Senate, using the argument that greater powers are needed to “re-establish the rule of law” on building sites because of the royal commission's finding of 392 cases of alleged unlawful conduct. In nearly all of the cited cases, however, union members and officials had attempted to enter building sites to hold stop-work meetings, seek strike pay or seek to ensure that all workers on a site were union members.

It is in the interest of all workers to stop the Howard government's attack on the construction unions. If the government is successful with its attack on construction workers, then it will be in a far stronger and more confident position to attack other workers — it could move to have the construction industry laws extended to all other industries to “ensure uniformity and consistency” in the industrial relations system.

Importantly, Howard and workplace relations minister Tony Abbott know that if the construction industry legislation passes in the Senate, it will be harder for the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) to provide solidarity with other unions under attack, such as it did during the 1998 waterfront dispute.

During the campaigns against the WRA in 1996 and the “second wave” of Howard government industrial relations legislation in 1999, the ACTU focused on lobbying the opposition parties in the Senate, particularly the Australian Democrats, to block the legislation. This approach failed when the Democrats did a deal with the Howard government in 1996 to pass the WRA.

Although the government does not have a majority in the Senate, it would be dangerous to rely on this to block the anti-union legislation. Since 1996, Howard has succeeded in getting most of his government's major pieces of legislation through the Senate. On the great majority of legislative bills, the independents, the Democrats and the ALP have given the government the numbers to pass particular pieces of legislation.

Democrats
When Green Left Weekly approached the Democrats and independent senator Meg Lees for comments about the government's intention to introduce legislation restricting the industrial rights of construction workers, they declined to comment until the exact details of the legislation have been provided by the government.

Although the government hasn't produced the exact details of its legislation, it has made it crystal clear that it intends to drastically reduce the ability of construction workers and their unions to fight for improvements in their working conditions and wages.

In a number of public statements the Democrats have indicated that they support some of the recommendations of the Cole commission. In an address to the MBA in Queensland on May 22, Democrats' leader Andrew Bartlett argued that his party sees the “restoration of law in the construction industry as a key outcome”. To achieve this, Bartlett argued for the introduction of private-sector whistleblower legislation to enable individuals to make anonymous allegations of misconduct, and ensure that unions are made responsible for the “unlawful” conduct of officials and members.

There are a number of problems with the Bartlett's approach. Firstly, whistleblower legislation would reproduce the procedures of the royal commission where allegations were made against unions without any opportunity for unions to test the truth of the allegations.

Secondly, the Democrats' approach is to ensure that no violations of the WRA occur, regardless of why they occur. Within the construction industry, like all industries, employers are constantly devising ways to increase profits — by driving workers to work faster or for excessive hours, by failing to pay appropriate wage levels or entitlements, and by taking shortcuts around occupational health and safety.

In order to fight these attacks on working conditions it is necessary for unions to identify them by gaining entry to work sites and accessing relevant documentation, involving members in stop-work meetings to determine a course of action and then by taking industrial action.

The WRA deems almost all industrial action to be illegal, so it is almost impossible for workers to defend their rights without taking “illegal” industrial action.

The Cole commission found that 230 of the 392 findings of “unlawful” conduct committed by the construction unions had been committed by the Western Australian branch of the CFMEU. But the overwhelming majority of these were for union officials insisting on their right to enter building sites and visit their members despite WA industrial legislation banning the right of entry. This was an undemocratic law which had to be broken if the union was to organise its members.

Bartlett's speech to the MBA indicates that his call for harmony on building sites is really a call for unions to give up industrial action. Although he did make some small demands on employers regarding health and safety and the payment of entitlements, they are demands which cannot be achieved without strong unions that are prepared to take action to ensure employers' compliance.

Bartlett's comments to the MBA indicate that it would be a serious mistake for unions to rely simply on lobbying the Democrats to block the government's anti-union legislation in the Senate.

It is much more likely that the Senate would block the legislation, or the government not introduce it, if the building industry bosses know they will face a massive national campaign of strikes, workplace bans and public rallies organised by the entire union movement if the government attempts to put the Cole commission's recommendations into legislation.

In 1995, a united campaign of sustained industrial action and street protests by the union movement in Western Australia stopped the state Coalition government's proposed “second wave” of attacks on union rights. This campaign included rolling strikes and 24-hour stoppages.
However, in 1997, when the WA Coalition government again tried to put the measures through parliament, the trade unions failed to continue the campaign and the government was able to get the legislation passed.

While the construction unions in Western Australia and Victoria have mobilised against the Cole commission, it is vital that the entire union movement commit itself to take sustained action to defeat the Howard government planned attack on the construction unions.

Originally published in Green Left Weekly #550


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School teachers announce strike action

BY CHRIS LATHAM

PERTH — On August 11, the Australian Education Union's Western Australian branch executive announced that a half-day strike is to be held on September 17. The strike will intensify the AEU's industrial campaign to win a new certified agreement.

The WA Labor government has offered a 9% pay increase each year, for the next three years. This is short of the AEU's claim for 30% raise over the life of the agreement.

AEU WA president Pat Byrne described the offer as an "insult to teachers". It fails to address issues of "workload, teacher supply especially in country area, it does nothing to attract and retain teachers. It barely meets cost of living increases", Byrne said.

The AEU's log of claims focuses on reducing teachers' workloads, particularly non-teaching duties, to allow more teaching time. The union has imposed a series of work bans on non-teaching activities since August 7.

From Green Left Weekly #550

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Wednesday, August 6, 2003

Unreasonable hours: Why we work longer and harder

Chris Latham
On July 11, Workplace Standards Tasmania delivered a notice to Tasmanian mining companies, directing them to end their dangerous work patterns. The problem was not equipment or training, it was working hours so long that workers’ lives were endangered. This is just the extreme tip of a general trend: most Australians are now working longer and harder.


The notice was a response to the “Struggle for Time” report prepared by the Australian Centre for Industrial Relations Research and Training (ACIRRT), in collaboration with the Centre for Sleep Research. The report found that workers in the Tasmanian mining industry work, on average, between 42 and 56 hours per week, with some working as many as 70 hours in a week.

Since the 1980s, the proportion of all employees working more than 40 hours a week has increased from 31.0% in 1998 to 37.4% in 2001. In 2000, 2.2 million workers — almost half of all full-time workers — worked more than 40 hours. The average weekly hours worked by full-time workers has increased from 38.2 in 1982 to 41.3 in 2001.

At the same time, there has been an increase in the number of workers in Australia who are employed on a part-time basis. Between 1981 and 2000, the proportion of workers working less than 35 hours a week increased from 16% to 26%.

Working longer hours greatly increases the likelihood of fatigue. High levels of fatigue have similar effects on concentration and coordination as high blood-alcohol levels.

This is often exacerbated by other factors. Manual work tends to be more fatiguing, and lack of proper sleep means workers get more fatigued, faster. Humans sleep more easily at night than during the day. Added to this, we get fatigued faster at particular times, especially between 2am and 7am. Longer working shifts also often adds to stress, because of the reduced time available for everything else.

This means that the extended periods of night shift that are increasingly common in manual jobs, such as in the mining, manufacturing and maritime industries, are making worker fatigue much worse.

In a review of different shift rosters in the Tasmanian mining industry, Sally Ferguson from the Centre for Sleep Research found that at some sites workers would have been experiencing dangerously high fatigue by the second shift of their roster, and that in the majority of rosters there were periods where it could be expected that the work force would be highly fatigued.

Whose fault?
It is often assumed that working hours are getting longer because workers want higher wages. However, it is wrong to place responsibility for longer hours with working people. Overtime is necessary because employers do not hire sufficient workers to get the work done in standard hours. It is easier, and, as overtime payments are wound back, increasingly cheaper, to employ existing workers for longer hours.

While many workers do rely on overtime to ensure a liveable wage, for many workers this is not the reason they “choose” to work such long hours. For mine workers, the standard hours of work — which include shifts of between 10.5 and 12 hours — are already excessive, with overtime pushing working time up to peaks of 70 hours in a single week.

In its “Reasonable Hours” submission to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) estimated that, in 2000, only 38.4% of those workers regularly working overtime received overtime payments, down from 40.1% in 1993.

Of the remaining 61.6%, 21.2% had overtime factored in to their salary package, 5.2% could take time off in lieu and a staggering 33.5% simply did unpaid overtime. Unpaid overtime is more prevalent among women workers.

In 2002, employers attempted to vary awards for ACT retail workers, and for Victorian clerical staff, to increase the standard working week to 39 hours, including one hour of overtime and incorporating this into the weekly wage. Additional overtime would not be paid until the end of the year, when total overtime hours worked (including the standard one hour a week) would be tabulated. If the total came to more than 48 hours, then this additional time would be paid as a lump sum.

Work rich, work poor
The trend towards longer working hours may be masking some of the impact of falling real wages, which is felt not by those who are working too much, but by those who are working too little.

The average adult weekly wage (before tax) of all workers in 2002 was $702.50, $229 less than the average of full-time workers. For women, the average wage was $550.10, $259.40 less than the average of women working full-time. This huge gap reflects that increasingly women have either low pay and part-time work or more pay but with ever longer hours. As a framework for deciding how to balance work and family, this “choice” sucks.

The ACTU claim for reasonable working hours began before the Australian Industrial Relations Commission in 2001, and the decision was handed down on July 22.

The ACTU had requested the setting of reasonable hours of work; reasonable overtime; and paid breaks after extreme working hours. If the test case was granted, these could be inserted into awards where appropriate.

While in many countries, excessive working hours, often defined at 70 hours a week, are illegal, the ACTU did not request this. Instead, it argued that employers should be forced to provide workers who work excessive hours with sufficent paid time off to recuperate.

The commission rejected this, pointing out that it was inconsistent to argue that these hours were dangerous and then ask for provisions to be made for working them. It also argued that this may “reward” workers who worked excessive hours. It did not, however, make such hours illegal.

The commission did rule that workers had the right to refuse overtime on several grounds, including a risk to health or safety due to an excessive number of working hours, personal circumstances including family responsibilities, lack of adequate notice from the employer and an inadequate need for the work.

However, while a step forward, the decision still places the onus on workers to prove that overtime is unreasonable, and relies on assertive, confident workers.

An alternative approach to reducing hours is included in the enterprise agreement for Australian Workers Union maintenance workers at the Kwinana BP oil refinery in WA.

In this agreement, adopted in July, the workers have reinforced their 35-hour work week with a 32% wage rise over the next 3.5 years. The workers also won the a provision that requires the company to hire more workers if the average overtime worked by workers is greater than 12 hours per year, per worker.

While the circumstances of the oil industry, with its high profits and stable working conditions, made this a good place for a test case, this sort of example is a good one. It will take struggle on the ground to reverse the trend of bosses making workers work longer and harder to survive.

Originally published in Green Left Weekly #548


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Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Can unions Stop the spread of casual work?

Lisbeth Latham

During the past two decades, the number of Australian workers employed as casual workers has grown dramatically. More than 2 million workers — or a quarter of the workforce — are now employed on a casual basis.


“Casual employees offered cheaper labour costs, they offered greater ease of dismissal, they offered the opportunity to match labour time to fluctuations in demand, they offered greater administrative convenience, and they offered a greater opportunity for enhanced control of employees”, Dr Ian Campbell, a lecturer at RMIT, explained in a submission to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC).

While casual employment may be good for company profits, it increases work stress and uncertainty for workers, and exacerbates income inequality. According to the Australian Council of Trade Unions' (ACTU) Future Strategies report, during the 1990s almost three out of every four jobs created were casual or part-time. Eighty per cent of the jobs created paid less than $26,000 a year. This lowering of income partly reflects that most casual workers are part-time, but a hefty 39% of casuals are full-time workers.

Casual employment is not, as many believe, used mainly as a temporary stop gap. Tony Abbott, the federal workplace relations minister, told parliament on June 23 that the majority of casual workers have worked for the same employer for the last 12 months and have regular patterns of work.

The federal government, and employer organisations such as the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Australian Industry Group, justify the increasing casualisation of work with the claim that a “flexible” work force will ensure business competitiveness.

This just means that denying workers’ holiday and sick leave means bigger profits. In the NSW TAFE system, for example, there are more than 15,000 casual part-time staff. According to July 4 episode of the ABC’s Stateline program, casual “part-time” teachers working full-time hours earn approximately 30% less than their full-time colleagues employed on permanent basis.

The growth in casual employment also undermines conditions for permanent workers, who are driven to become more “flexible” in order to compete. In the stevedoring industry, for example, the current P&O agreement creates a new form of work — “permanent irregular”. While they have a guaranteed annual income, these workers will not have a roster. Instead, like current casuals, their shifts will be irregular and impossible to plan around.

A large number of different employment conditions makes it harder to develop solidarity in a workplace. It’s easier for bosses to play the different groups against each other.

There have been a variety of different responses to casualisation from its opponents. Unions have tried to improve conditions for casual workers, limit the spread of casual conditions and ensure casual workers can move into permanent positions relatively quickly.

To achieve this, unions have pursued clauses in enterprise agreements and rulings in the AIRC that limit the proportion of a work force that is casual, limit the amount of time a worker can be employed casually and make casual workers more costly to employers.

Casual employment conditionsIn 1999, the metal division of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union applied for a variation in the metal and engineering award, in order to improve the working conditions of casuals. The AMWU wanted to increase the casual loading to 30% and establish a minimum daily hiring period (“engagement”) for workers.

Casual loading compensates casual workers for their exclusion from award benefits such as sick and annual leave. The union estimated that anything less than 30% meant casuals would be worse off than permanent workers.

One of the worst pitfalls of casual work is the lack of certain income. The daily minimum engagement was designed to limit this, and ensure that workers knew they would be paid enough to offset the costs of going to work, such as transport and childcare. The AMWU applied for a minimum engagement of six hours, and a maximum of one engagement per day.

While the AIRC accepted the AMWU’s arguments, it granted an increase in loading to 25%, and a minimum engagement of four hours, with workers able to be engaged more than once a day.
Despite the short-fall, this case provides a basis to argue for such changes for all casuals. The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) is attempting to use the decision as a precedent to win a 25% casual loading as part of its national pattern bargaining campaign for new industrial agreements. The Australian Workers Union (AWU) has also won an increase in the casual loading to 25% for horticultural workers and shearers.

An alternative approach is being followed by the New South Wales Teachers Federation. In a claim going before the industrial relations commission in September, the federation is asking for casual part-time TAFE teachers to receive pro-rata conditions such as holiday and personal leave. The claim is for staff who work eight or more hours a week, and will affect 5200 teachers in New South Wales.

Limiting casual employment
In the 1999 metal and engineering case, the AMWU unsuccessfully attempted to ensure casual employees were only employed to meet short-term work needs, in emergency circumstances, or to perform work unable to be practicably rostered to permanent employees. The union wanted to ensure that permanent employment remained the standard form of employment.

The NSW Public Service Association (PSA) won an alternative limit on casual employment in the libraries of the Illawarra TAFE Institute during 2001. The institute's management had attempted to reduce permanent employment by replacing retiring permanent workers with contract casual labour. Through a persistent industrial campaign, the PSA's members were able to win a 5% cap on the proportion of workers that could be employed as casuals.

Converting casual to permanent employmentDuring 1999 and 2000, three landmark award decisions gave casuals the right to transfer to permanent employment after a period of time. These were the graphic design award, the South Australian clerks award and the metal and engineering awards.

On the graphic design award, the AIRC ruled in 1999 that after 12 weeks, casual workers would automatically switch to permanent employment. This could be extended, if the worker, union and employer agreed, by a further 12 weeks — if the work was ceasing during that time.

In a 1999 case before the South Australian industrial relations commission, workers covered by the clerks’ award were given the right to “voluntary conversion” after 12 months, although this could be extended to two years. Under voluntary conversion, workers must apply to be made permanent, and can be refused if “reasonable grounds” are given.

In the 1999 metal and engineering award case, the AMWU applied for automatic conversion to permanent employment after four weeks, extendable to eight weeks. However the AIRC ruled that in order maintain “employer flexibility”, voluntary conversion would apply after six months, extendable to a year.

The AMWU wanted a shorter pre-conversion period in order to discourage bosses from laying off workers instead of making them permanent, then hiring new casuals. The shorter the period, the more often bosses would have to hire and train workers in order to keep rotating casuals.

Since these decisions, conversion rights have been inserted in a number of awards. In May 2003, the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union (LHMU) won voluntary conversion after 12 months for workers in the hospitality industry. Casual horticultural workers in New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria now have voluntary conversion after 12 months. The NTEU is also seeking conversion rights after 12 months in its pattern agreement.

According to Professor Barbara Pocock from the Centre for Labour Research at Adelaide University, voluntary conversion provisions have had limited success. “This is not surprising when you look at the workers who are in casual employment, and the precarious circumstances of their employment”, she told Green Left Weekly. “There are two reasons for this low uptake. Firstly, any casual worker applying to their employer to [be made] permanent is sticking [his or her] head out, so it would take a very brave person to do so. Secondly, most casual workers are on low wages, so the move towards permanent employment means a 20% cut in take home income that they cannot afford”. Pocock's research indicates that many casual workers underestimate the risks of casual work, which has no sick leave.

Pocock argues that casual work should be “strictly limited to truly temporary work, and any work that extends this should automatically convert to permanent employment. This would allow workers to factor into their budgets the move to permanency and would eliminate an abuse of the industrial relations system”.

The AIRC might be unwilling to allow short-term, automatic conversion to permanent employment, but the Victorian AMWU has shown it is not impossible to win it. In the branch’s metal division Campaign 2003, the model agreement includes automatic conversion from casual to permanent employment after 12 weeks. Through militant industrial action, this has already been won at a number of work sites.

Originally published in Green Left Weekly #547


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Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Solomons: Troops should not go

By Chris Latham

In the lead-up to PM John Howard's announcement that Australia would send troops to the Solomon Islands, the mainstream media was filled with the lurid descriptions of violent criminal gangs terrorising the Solomons' population, and warned of the dangers of the tiny country becoming a terrorist breeding ground. Perhaps unable to see past this propaganda, Australia's parliamentary opposition parties have accepted the need for an intervention, restricting themselves to debating the best framework for implementing it.


It is unfortunate that there is no parliamentary party outright opposing the intervention, as Howard is likely to use it as an opportunity to initiate a more active role through which to assert Australian big business dominance within the South Pacific.

The ALP quickly indicated it was keen to get “bipartisan” support for the intervention. In a statement issued on June 30, Labor's foreign affairs spokesperson, Kevin Rudd, explained that the party's support for the operation would be based on it meeting three criteria: “An invitation from the Solomon Islands government; consensus among the Pacific Islands Forum countries; and an appropriate force composition for this policing action, together with well-defined exit conditions.”

The latter condition is unlikely to be an issue, the second was met on June 30, and the first is likely to be met on July 8. Instead of challenging the intervention, Labor has attempted to “score points” by disagreeing with foreign minister Alexander Downer's argument that the intervention shows that national “sovereignty is not absolute”.

On June 27, Rudd stated that with the “intervention into the Solomon Islands, the question of sovereignty does not arise because the intervention is to be based specifically on the request of a sovereign government in a matter of domestic security”. Rudd's concern is that, if Canberra openly disregards national sovereignty, the same arguments may be used by “great powers within our region against Australia's sovereign interests in the future”.

The Greens have expressed concern at the Australian government intervening in the Solomon Islands without the support of the United Nations. Greens senator Bob Brown was quoted in the June 27 Sydney Morning Herald saying: “Australia risks being seen as a mini-imperial outfit in the South Pacific. That is not something that Australia wants to do.”

However, UN endorsement of Canberra's military intervention would not alter the Solomons' neo-colonial relationship with Australia.

The Solomon Islands, like the rest of the South Pacific island nations, are heavily dependent on Australian aid and trade. In 2001, according to the CIA's World Fact File, the Solomons' government budget revenue as A$58 million — Canberra's aid allocation to the country for 2003-04 was $37.1 million.

According to an AID/Watch June 13 briefing paper, Solomon Islands: Should Australia send a peace keeping force, this aid is contingent on Solomon Islands' commitment and progress in restoring law and order and improving economic management. This is reflected in the growth in governance building to 22% of Australia's aid program, including $17 million over the past four years to Kerry Packer's GRM International to increase the capacity of the Royal Solomon Islands Police.

In sending troops, Canberra intends to make the islands safe for Australian big business investment. A UN-endorsed intervention, which would still be led by Australian troops, would have the same aim, and would reinforce the same dependent relations.

The government and a number of media commentators are tripping over themselves to distance the deployment from the label of colonialism. But that is exactly what it is — and why it must be completely opposed.

Action in Solidarity with Asia and the Pacific's Iggy Kim told Green Left Weekly: “Howard and Downer know that there is a strong opposition, both within Australian and the Asia-Pacific region, to Canberra's economic domination and exploitation of its neighbours. So they're trying to sell the intervention as a `rescue' of the Solomon Islands. We need to be clear — Australia already dominates and exploits the Solomon Islands government. What is changing is that Australia is moving from indirect domination towards direct colonial domination, through controlling the arms and the economy.”

This may not stop at the Solomons. In an address to the Sydney Institute on July 1, Howard commented that the Solomon Islands was “not the only country in the region” that is “at risk of failing”.

Further Australian interference in the islands is unlikely to help — the dependent economic relationship is part of the problem. AID/Watch's Tim O'Connor explained to Green Left Weekly that the communal tension is a direct result of the Australian aid program that is “developing a dual economy between the elites who have access to aid money and the benefits that flow from it such as education and health, and those that do not”.

This is exacerbated when the key objective of Australian aid is to increase the exports of Australian companies. This aid, O'Connor argues, “acts as a boomerang, with an estimated 70% of Australia's aid being tied to specific Australian companies”. This makes the practice of giving aid “simply an elaborate form of corporate welfare. The Australian aid program to the Solomon Islands should be focused primarily on alleviating poverty. This would promote sustainable development and attack the problem of internal conflict directly by addressing the urgent needs of the people”.

From Green Left Weekly issue #545

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Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Have you got what it takes? Joining the Australian killing machine

By Chris Latham

In 2002, 5836 people joined the Australian Defence Force (ADF) as regular members -about 700 more than joined in 2001. The vast majority of them were young people between the ages of 18 and 24.

While no survey has been taken of the young people who have joined the ADF in recent years, a glance at the pitch made in recruiting advertisements does not support the idea that there is any significant increase in support for the Australian military among young people.

During the last financial year, the ADF spent more than $33 million on recruiting ads in newspapers, on TV and at movie screenings.

The thrust of this advertising is not aimed at telling the truth. It does not try to convince young people to become part of the Australian military machine to kill people in other countries in order to protect Australian businesses' overseas investments. Nor does it aim to convince young people to become part of the ADF to fight "terrorism" or "rogue states": the current establishment justification for imperialist military intervention in the Third World.

Rather, ADF recruiting advertisements focus on how being part of the ADF enables young people to get fully paid training in some highly skilled, technical job or to help poor people in other countries rebuild the basic services. (Recent ADF ads highlight Australian military personnel's role in rebuilding East Timor's roads, schools and health services in the wake of the devastation caused by Indonesian occupation of that country.) The ADF's combat role is only alluded to through scenes of war games - never images of real combat situations.

Historically, the bulk of general enlistments, that is non-officers, of the world's armed forces, have been drawn from the working class, usually its poorest sections. General enlistment in the army and navy by young people from impoverished working-class families is motivated, much less by patriotism, than by the desire to obtain a regular, guaranteed income. It is for this reason that African and Hispanic Americans make up a considerable, and increasing, proportion of the soldiers and sailors in the US armed forces.

The ADF chiefs are well aware of this. That's why their recruiting ads emphasise the amount that recruits will get paid. According to the comparative employment value adjustable model (CEVAM), an 18-year-old ADF recruit who has completed basic training can expect to take home at least $690 per week.

CEVAM is a spreadsheet on the Stay Army web site that allows ADF personnel to work out what they would need to earn as a civilian to receive the same financial remuneration and benefits they receive in the ADF.

In the case of the hypothetical 18-year-old, to receive the same level of income (take-home pay and other benefits) in civilian employment that he or she would get in the ADF, they would have to earn $45,927 per annum, putting them in the top 3.5% of wage earners for 15-19 year-olds.

The desperate financial situation that the majority of university students face, whether they are working part-time or living on the poverty-level income provided through the Youth Allowance, makes joining the army reserves an attractive financial proposition. It is for this reason that army recruitment stalls are becoming an increasingly common sight on university campuses.

These stalls target students who are desperate to make ends meet with tax-free pay that doesn't affect Centrelink payments. The army reserves' advertisement of a commitment of "one weekend a month and two weeks a year" adds to the attraction of the army reserves. The time required is actually higher, including at least one night a week and the possibility of being called up to full active service.

In 2001-2, there were 1034 reservists in regular service out of the total reserve force of 21,001. This is likely to be much higher this year with the war on Iraq. On January 7, Britain announced it was calling-up 6000 of its 40,000 reservists.

The financial motivation for enlistment in the ADF increases the possibility of a growth of opposition to war within its ranks and those considering it as an employment option, as occurred in the US army during the Vietnam War.

The growth of anti-war sentiment within the US army, of course, reflected the growth of anti-war sentiment in the general population. But it was also encouraged by sections of the anti-war movement seeking to convince the ranks of the armed forces that the war was unjust and supporting the right of military personnel to publicly express their political opposition to the government's foreign policy.

From Green Left Weekly issue #522


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Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Cockburn to become US Navy base

By Chris latham

FREMANTLE — On January 6, the USS Abraham Lincoln, the world’s largest aircraft carrier, returned to Fremantle just two weeks after its last visit. It had been scheduled to return to the US, but was ordered back to Fremantle to prepare for deployment to the Persian Gulf.

The Abraham Lincoln’s return to Perth signals both the imminence of a war on Iraq, but also the state and federal governments’ desire for Fremantle and Cockburn Sound to play an important logistical role in support of the US’s war drive.

On January 13 the destroyer USS Fletcher will arrive in WA to conduct a sea swap. Sea swap is the term used by the US Navy to describe the changing over of crews and resupplying of its ships. The Western Australian, federal and US governments agreed to the first swap on October 24, more are expected to take place, with US ships to be docked in Cockburn Sound south of Perth.

Ongoing sea swaps with the US seventh fleet will require the conversion of the Cockburn Sound into a US naval base, which would include the deepening of the channel in the Cockburn sound from 12 to 16 metres, to allow aircraft carriers to dock. Also included in the agreement is the opening up of the Lancelin, north of Perth, for the US Navy to conduct live fire practice of sea and air bombardments and marine amphibious assaults. Lancelin is already used by the Australian Defence Forces for live fire exercises.

State and federal governments’ public motivations for the proposal have been based around the possible economic benefits of gaining access to part of the US Navy’s US$100 billion budget and an expansion in tourist spending associated with an increased presence of US naval personnel.

The biggest carrot to accept the sea swaps has been the prospect of jobs growth in Western Australia’s ship industry through demands for the repair of US ships. The Fremantle Anti-Nuclear Group (FANG) has suggested that there is unlikely to be any significant increase in jobs due to US “Title Ten” laws. These state that repairs must be carried out in US ports or in foreign ports if the ship is based there, leaving only repairs essential to keeping ships operational available to be conducted in Cockburn Sound.

Irrespective of any possible local employment opportunities associated with a sea-swap, it should be opposed. The proposal is aimed at strengthening the US navy and its ability to enforce US foreign policy. The push to conduct sea swaps in Fremantle and other Australian ports, such as Darwin, reflects the continued focus of US operations in the Middle East and southwest Asia, which require increased deployments in the Indian Ocean; Red Sea and Persian Gulf.

Shifting operations to Cockburn Sound will dramatically increase the turn-around time for US naval battle groups that at present return to San Diego on the US west coast, or Hawaii.

According to an October 24 press release from Australian defence minister Robert Hill’s office, the swap “will enable the US Navy to transfer crews without the need on every occasion to return the ship to the United States, allowing a more efficient use of navy assets. The sea swap agreement demonstrates Australia’s support for a principal ally and friend”.

The establishment of a permanent US military installation has raised a number of environmental concerns for both Cockburn Sound and Lancelin. According to the FANG spokesperson Scott Ludlum “The US military is the single largest source of industrial pollution in the world. Many US bases in other countries and the US have been closed by public demand, leaving a legacy of radiological and chemical contamination which the US refuses to take responsibility for”.

From Green Left Weekly issue #521

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Revitalising Labour attempts to reflect on efforts to rebuild the labour movement internationally, emphasising the role that left-wing political currents can play in this process. It welcomes contributions on union struggles, internal renewal processes within the labour movement and the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

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