Friday 24th of May 2024

My Restaurant rules! - thanks to cheap labour!

Last week the industrial relations debate found an unlikely forum in the reality TV show of "My Restaurant Rules" when the owners of the Sydney contender attempted to put their staff on AWA's (Australian Workplace Agreements) and cut their pay. Only after popular outcry did Channel 7 step in and reverse the decision. See SMH and the LHMU website for more information. (The LHMU is the union for hospitality workers)

This is a topical time to discuss industrial relations as working Australians are about to experience the most radical "reforms" to laws underpinning their basic employment terms and conditions in Commonwealth history. In my previous job I was employed under an AWA and have first hand experience on how AWAs undermine collective bargaining, the Award System, including access to penalty and shift allowances and allow the employer to impose and change employment conditions on the fly, without any need to consult or negotiate with employees.

After July 1 when it has control of the Senate, the Coalition Government will introduce Industrial Relations legislation that will override State Industrial Relations jurisdictions, further weaken the award system and make it easier for employers to impose AWAs. Since the first round of reforms in 1996, it was obviously hoped that AWAs would be the way forward for employers to opt out of awards and union agreements but the uptake has been disappointing. According to the Office of Employment Advocate (OEA) site since the introduction of AWAs in March 1997 there have been 635, 409 AWAs lodged and approved. The OEA is the certifying authority for AWAs. More about them later! As each AWA expires every two or three years, this figure does not even represent the number of people currently on AWAs. That figure is buried on page 3 of their confusing statistics pages and is 388,900. Given that there are over 10 Million working Australians that is not even 4% of the working population.

While it is not clear exactly what form all the reforms will take, I believe it is worth while going into some detail of what an AWA is and how AWAs actually operate in workplaces to get an insight into the types of employer / employee relationships the Coalition Government hopes to foster with their new reforms.

Language seems to be the key to understanding what is going on. The Industrial Relations (IR) changes are always headlined as "reforms" yet in reality they are a winding back of rights and conditions that we and our parents fought for. By "framing" them as reform it is an easier sell -only people who don't want to "move forward" are opposed to reform. See Hamish Alcorn's great piece in Webdiary regarding Lakoff's linguistic / cognitive frames.

Language has never been kind to workers: we are "employees" which implies passive recipients of work. Even worse in German: Arbeitnehmer = "work taker" = employee, Arbeitgeber = "work giver" = employer. Yet is it not we who are giving our labour to the boss? (These are Whorfian cryptotypes rather than Lakovian frames but that's another story!)

Ok let’s forget the fancy schmancy academic stuff. In simple terms the AWA framework uses comforting and familiar IR / HR type words such as "negotiation" "no disadvantage" to camouflage the real nature of the employee-employer relationships. As we shall see the employer can assign meanings and uses to these words that differ wildly from the commonly assumed meanings

So what is wrong with AWAs?

1) The negotiation myth. AWAs are supposed to be the result of individual negotiations between the employer and employee. In the brave new world of AWAs, "Do you want the job or not?" is now a negotiation. The OEA website proudly announces that no one can be coerced into signing an AWA but admit "New people joining the company can be offered the AWA as a condition of them taking the job. So they have less options." Less options??? Language slips and slides all over the place.

Even though current employees cannot be coerced into signing an AWA to take them off an award or certified agreement they are rarely invited into a genuine negotiation about their terms and conditions. I worked for TeleTech, the company that provides the inbound "help desk" call centre services for Telstra BigPond. When our first generation AWAs expired in 2003 we all had individual one-on-one meetings with HR "specialists" who explained to us that our new AWAs had been negotiated "on our behalf". When we asked with whom they had been negotiated; for example a committee of staff representatives? the union? no one could give us a straight answer. At one stage we were told they were negotiated with the OEA "But aren't they the certifying authority? Why would you negotiate with them?" Silence. In 2005 the employees at TeleTech are still waiting for an answer. Again "negotiation" takes on a new meaning - one so mysterious that even the HR “specialists

Work Place Agreements.

AWA's or Australian Workplace Agreements are nothing of the kind.

I worked for a state railway, and fought tooth and nail, to prevent such agreements ever being applied.

I experienced first hand how the Government employed Chief Executive Officers (CEO's) and shafted the workers on behalf of their bosses. Might I add here, the "bosses" were from both camps, Liberal and Labor.

We used to work 38 hrs a week, and the week consisted from Monday to Saturday, Sunday was a rest day.

Similarly, the hours required to work were 38 hrs, though previously we were required to work 40 hrs, and were happy to do so.

However, when the Labor party came to power, we were actually forced into the Industrial Relations Commission and forced to accept a reduction of hours from 40 to 38 simply on the basis of a Labor Party policy.

Now go back to AWA's and we find ourselves once more, being taken to task because we only have a 38 hour week.

Funny thing, all of a sudden, the management have forgotten who was responsabile for that.

Now we're told they expect us to work seven days a week. No such thing as a weekend will exist anymore.

Further, public holidays will also cease to exist for all intents and purposes, though a monetary component will be calculated into our wages to compensate.

And, on top of that, we will now be expected to work a minimum of 12 hour shifts.

The AWA was supposed to last for two years, and with "consultation" renewed if called upon by either party.

Sounds cool hey? On the surface it looked OK, and many of my fellow workers fell for it, without checking out the detail.

Sure, they put a few extra bob on the table, and my work mates saw that and wanted to grab it and run. But when it was explained to them that the extra hours they would be required to work, at the rate being offered, was actually less than we had been earning previously, very few of them could understand it.

When it was explained to them that there would be no more days off, and they could be called into work even when rostered off on a rest day, none of it seemed to compute. All they could see was the flash of a few more dollars in the pocket come payday.

The straw that broke the camel's back in all this was when a worker approached me advising me of a financial problem he was experiencing and whether I could assist him in some way.

Turns out he wished to buy a home, and had applied for a home loan. Consequently the lending institution requested a copy of his AWA as they felt it similar to a contract.

His application was rejected on the basis that his contract only lasted for two years and the housing loan would have been a 30 year loan. The institution found he posed a severe risk indeed and refused him.

I came across this twice more, once again with a housing loan, and another time with a personal loan from a bank.

Again, each application being refused on the basis of a short term contract and no future prospects of employment.

At my regular "consultation" meetings with the employer representatives, these cases went down like the proverbial lead balloon. As these very same officials were also on an AWA, they also saw quickly the threat they posed for themselves as well as the lower echelon. Much consternation ensued thereafter, but after a State election and change of Government, the AWA issue seemed to quietly disperse and fade into the background.

Even when it came to renewing said agreements, no one appeared in too much of a hurry to revisit the issue.

Suffice to say, the work force had surrendered everything their Union had ever worked for over the last 100 years, and I'm not kidding here. They have nothing else to surrender, so it would be quiet a challenge to see what an AWA mark II would offer.

Make no mistake, AWA's do not ever benefit the employee. Ever.

The Chamber Of Commerce in our state also became aware of the inconsistencies these AWA's imposed, and realised they were killing the goose that laid the egg.

After all, if the workers are not able to spend their money by obtaining long term finance, doesn't that mean businesses miss out in the long run?

Well, I Puked!

Well, I puked as soon as I saw your subject line - didn't even read what was written below. :) As an Australian you should know, that 'Labour' is spelled 'Labor' <smile> Or are you a Yank? The least you could do is adjust your spellchecker before you post.


Wolf, you're wrong about this one, or at least that is my honest understanding.

In British and Australian English, the noun is spelled 'labour'. Ironically it is actually the American ("yank" as you say) English that spells it 'labor'.

It is by some quirk of labour history that the Australian Labor Party spells its name in the American fashion. Is there a labour historian who would care to explain this to us?

I hope you feel better

Hey Wolf, before you bring up your lunch again you should check your facts. Labour is actually the British and Australian spelling. Go to any online British news service and you will see that it's called the British Labour Party. For some strange quirk the ALP likes to distinguish itself from "labour, work, toil" in general by calling itself "Labor" (some would say this party spends too much time trying to distance itself from workers). Variations in spelling can be used to make subtle distinctions in meaning. When I was growing up a programme was what was on TV but computers ran programs. Unfortunately the American spelling seems to have won over in both cases. You might like to now read the blog and contribute to the debate.

Labor or Labour

Wolf, just for your information the Australian Labor Party is so spelled because it took a lead from American radicals of the last centrury, a time when spelling was a fair bit more flexible as well!

Identify Yourselves!

Hmm, it doesn't look like I'll be participating in Your Democracy very much. I refuse to share ideas with people who don't respect the other party enough to identify themselves. If you're so afraid of your own comment, then why stick it in my face? Sheesh, it's not like we're squeeling on drug barrons.

Wolf, itchyvet. What are you, some sort of subspecies?

James Woodcock,

James Woodcock, this comment could have been so much better if you'd kept your bias in check. I found it painfully difficult to read as it seemed little more than an outpouring of bitterness on many occassions, which is a shame because you raise some very interesting issues.

The Australian working class, as a generalisation, are a bunch of over-fed, over-protected prima donnas with serious narcissistic tendencies. Their gross inneficiencies have done considerable damage to the health of Australia's economy and infrastructure, both of which exist to benefit them as much as anyone else. (How does that grab you James?)

But that doesn't mean that they have no right to protection and your concerns over AWA's seem quite valid, particularly in regard to their lack of transparency.

Perhaps we could see more objectivity and less left wing radicalism on these pages in the future.

Please explain

Phil I do tend to write in a fairly embellished way and as I was writing it, I found myself getting angrier and angrier at the ways AWAs give employers a carte blanche to write their own contracts. I am not sure about the objectivity charge as it all happened the way I said it did. And how can you make sweeping comments about the working class without any evidence and accuse me of not being objective? Please reply back and explain exactly what you mean with your slur on working Australians.

A post script to the My Restaurant Rules story is the owner's blog about the whole pay issue Evan claims that he had an agreement with his staff that they would be employed on an AWA. Yet this seems to contradict the OEA press release in which they claim Pink Salt has lodged no AWA's with them. If the AWAs are not lodged and approved then they have no force. The employer needs to give his/her staff time to consider an AWA before they sign (5 days for new staff, 14 for current staff). I doubt that "having an agreement" for staff to go on AWAs without the staff actually having seen or signed the AWA is something even the employer friendly OEA would sanction. Yet other than trying to deflect the bad publicity this fiasco gave AWAs in general, the OEA did not at any stage jump in to help the employees. How many AWAs have been forced onto staff in similar circumstances without the protection of exposure of national television? Starting to see Phil why I got a bit hot under the collar, while writing this?


James, it's fine to get angry but I think it should be kept out of your writing. It doesn't do much for your credibility to make emotionally charged statements. Your points would come across with a lot more potency if they were cold and calculated. I misused the word 'bias' last time, when I really meant 'emotion'.

I made the comment on the working class just to prove my point. See how bad it looks when you make unqualified, emotionally charged statements? It was an exaggeration of course - your article wasn't anywere near that bad.

Having said that, I don't think it would hurt if Australia's full-time unskilled labour force engaged in some introspection, and looked at the value they add to the country in comparison with the returns they receive. It will never happen of course, thus the ridiculously scathing comment I made.

Finally, I admire anyone who goes to the trouble to get information to the public the way you are. All the best.

AWA and the new "Sweatshop"

Well Itchyvet, I read your tale and was saddened, both by the outcome for the person trying to borrow for his house, and that Australians have put themselves in this position.

I won't go into a complete diatribe yet (I'll save that for another, more considered occasion), but I can only say it was the voters who obviously wanted this outcome by voting for John Howard and his cronies!!

What do you expect? This is exactly what the Liberal party wants - a workforce which is cowed, frightened and completely disempowered! (There is no easier way to subdue an person than by taking away their basic needs - think Maslow's heirarchy here - food shelter and clothing. The Liberals have obviously got the wages and housing parts buttoned down). If you think it's bad now, wait until they get control of the Senate and slip through their "Industrial Relations Reforms" (think German Shepherd dogs, and aggressive thugs a la Peter Reith on the Victorian waterfront). Then try to question your right to work and minimum standards of pay etc. - you'll be out the door quicker that you can say "arbitration".

I won't say "I told you so" yet, I'll wait until the LIberals have constructed their iron grip on the subjugated populace and their ability to earn a decent living. (Although I won't hold my breath for a positive outcome there either.)

Identity Issue

It's my identity and I'll do with it what I like. Margo insists that I identify myself too. Does knowing the name of a poster modify the meaning of the post you read? If so, is it the words that change meaning, or your interpretation?

In my opinion, if you want to have a serious think about issues on a given topic then sharing your thoughts whilst excluding labels that can assist in providing a bias on the readers part is beneficial.

Perhaps an extreme example however, do you believe that readers of a post written by John Howard would view the ideas contained within it in the same as if it were written by Wolf, itchyvet or James Craig?

Anonymity of ideas is a powerful tool if your desire is to have the best idea win.

(Ed: name supplied)

Won't Face Us

Anonymity does change the meaning of writing if you read your post, "Q".
Words change with anonymity as you are playing against people and not their argument.
You name four writers in four paragraphs plus John Howard.
Also, there is no way that anyone can block reader's bias, labels or no labels.
You are into "power" but your last line destroys your credibity. That is where you lose it.


The cloak of invisibility

I think posting anonymously probably is significantly different from posting under your real name.

Anonymous posters tend to be tempted to take less responsibility for what they're posting - go into any chatroom and you'll see exactly what I mean. It's as if Harry Potter's cloak allows their mouths to trip the light fantastic; there's a certain extravagant fancy, perhaps a capriciousness or impulsiveness. Now that doesn't necessarily mean that what anonymous posters are posting is wrong. But I think obvious anonymity often reduces our sense of obligation to to keep things honest, fair and truthful. It adds a certain raciness to the conversation, about the equivalent to having three drinks at a party!

I'd be the first to admit that it's a perception thing though - even if you posted under your real name, it's unlikely I'd know who you were, or care for that matter. It's just that I'd not be able to help myself according you more credibility if I believed the name you used was your actual name!