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The value of the worker



'It's the value of the work, not the worker.' So said a government backbencher to me last week while I was speaking to him about the omnibus industrial relations (IR) Bill that has just passed the House of Representatives. 

Main image: Baker shaping dough (Thomas Barwick/Getty Images)

He went on to argue that his friend owns a bakery in a regional town and for him to make money and ‘keep the town supplied with bread and pastries’ he should be allowed to strike an agreement with his workers, who are all casuals, and mostly teenagers and women, for a flat $10 per hour.

‘It’s about the value of the work that they are doingit’s pretty unskilled work, and that’s all it’s worthisn’t it better that they’re earning something, rather than nothing, and for the community to enjoy fresh bread and cakes with their coffee?’ 

He went on to tell me that his friend had been using this arrangement for years, until one teenager had the audacity to check out his entitlements with Fair Work Australia. The consequence was that the business was found to have owed significant money to current and former employees, ‘and how is that fair, when he’s creating and keeping jobs in that town?’ 

Such are the arguments we are hearing from those in support of the Amendments to the Fair Work Act, as part of the post COVID-19 economic recovery. The Bill is based on the assumption that our economic recovery is dependent on further degrading the rights and incomes of working people and entrenching casualisation of our workforce. 

The legislation is seeking key changes — the better off overall test (BOOT) has been withdrawn. I believe it was the furphy that was never going to be agreed and was there to give the government ballast in its negotiations. The other schedules have serious consequences for working men and women in Australia.


'Fair and just employment terms and conditions remain constant in our social contract between government and society — as we work together for the common good.'


First, the Bill seeks to retrospectively legalise the unlawful use of ‘permanent casuals’ such as the exploited casual workers in the bakery and it expands the legal definition of a casual employee, which then makes it harder for them to access conversion to a permanent job. I have always believed that retrospective legislation has many unintended consequences, but this amendment has far-reaching impacts for long term casual workers, such as their capacity for borrowing, their superannuation and long service leave entitlements.

The second significant change relates to the modern award system. Twelve modern awards are identified in the Bill, and Schedule 2 of the Bill is directed at part-time employment and flexible work directions. The Bill is attempting to prescribe award conditions in the Fair Work Act that are completely at odds with the way the Fair Work Commission currently determines award conditions in an independent process.

This change would allow employers to pay ordinary time rates instead of overtime penalty rates when part-time employees work beyond their guaranteed minimum hours of work. For low paid workers, such as care workers, or those in hospitality industries, shift allowances, and overtime payments contained in the modern awards can be overridden, reducing some workers take home pay that is below the basic wage. Almost all modern awards of the Fair Work Commission specify that causal employees should receive a 25 per cent casual loading, in exchange for giving up paid leave, predictable and regular hours and the right to notice prior to termination. Research from the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Workplace Leadership, however, has found that the casual loading actually paid averages between 4 and 5 per cent, and some of our lowest paid workers are paid less than permanent workers and receive no casual loading. 

The Bill also proposes to allow employers to issue flexible work directions to an employee concerning their work duties and work location. This too relates to the 12 identified awardsso someone employed under the Meat Industry Award or the Pharmacy Industry Award, for example, could be directed to undertake double shifts, or travel to another workplace to retain their job. The Bill does not allow access to arbitration by the Fair Work Commission, unless the employer agrees.

The Bill also undermines the principles of enterprise bargaining by allowing employers to circumvent a proper, informed, collective bargaining process and instead seek agreement on terms and conditions of employment directly with employees. Just as the bakery owner had done for years denying his workers fair pay for fair work. Under this Bill, the statutory requirements that currently govern enterprise agreements will be replaced with ‘a general obligation by employers to take reasonable steps’. All these changes seek to tip the balance in the favour of employers and businesses whose ambition is in maximising profit and minimising costs.

In our discussion paper Strong Economy, Stronger Australia: building our prosperity to serve the common good, CSSA has argued that it is in fact the value of the worker, rather than the work, that will help Australia recover from the economic and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. We believe that every Australian should be able to thrive in order to meet our nation’s potential and share a common roadmap to prosperity and recovery. Fair and just employment terms and conditions remain constant in our social contract between government and societyas we work together for the common good. The church’s teachings commit us to pursuing an economic system that is inclusive and just. It obliges the state to intervene in ways to ensure those without work can find work, and those in work receive fair pay and conditions that allow them and their families to thrive. 

Pope Francis has warned against viewing labourpeople in workas another commodity to be bought and discarded at will, when he said ‘we should have an economic system that values people as it values money.’ 

Yes, indeed, we need this discussion to be about the value of the worker… not the work.



Ursula StephensDr Ursula Stephens is Chief Executive Officer of Catholic Social Services Australia.

Main image: Baker shaping dough (Thomas Barwick/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Ursula Stephens, industrial relations bill, CSSA, Strong Economy, Stronger Australia



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Existing comments

Who was the unnamed backbencher? Why should they be allowed to keep their support for systemic wage theft secret?

Robert | 25 February 2021  

The most important fact in this article in my opinion was that a young chap asked , what was he entitled to when working in the bakery? In the past in Australia workers represented themselves through trade unions, their organisations ensured that members received what they considered fair. The trade union movement has been very successful over many decades and now there is a need for workers to get themselves organised. Catholic social teaching supports workers unionising and over the world now there are many countries with Christian Worker Movements. A CWM does not exist in Australia at present but I believe we need to instigate such an initiative in Australia. The young fellow who spoke up for himself is what we need to support and encourage.

Kevin Vaughan | 25 February 2021  

This government has no respect for human dignity. Some of the practices that violate human dignity include rape, consider parliament's current rape allegations. And social exclusion, consider the new Jobseeker sum, and how it will hit many women over 50, many single mothers, and many young people the hardest. https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Animal_Farm#/media/File:Pig_roastbeef.jpg

AlyoshA | 26 February 2021  

You can’t get blood out of a stone, but if you want crush out some moisture, the way to get enough to make it worth your while is to aggregate as many stones as you can before crushing. That is why, unlike the baker here and his twin across the road, the butcher, the candlestick maker has become corporatised, aggregating the individual producers into institutions which use economies of scale and political lobbying to provide a favoured few with the conditions which the author of this article seeks, to make the only kind of candles most people want to buy, cheap candles, just as most people only want to buy cheap bread. If you want to go down the fascist road of corporatising all the inefficiencies that are inescapable at small scale, you can provide full-time jobs to a few. Otherwise, the scale determines remuneration. The scale of a small business is fixed. To know how much the staff should be remunerated, check the income tax return of the proprietor. If all s/he earns is at the range of public service middle management, low six figures, you cannot expect staff at full-time conditions unless you have very few of them.

roy chen yee | 26 February 2021  

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others?? Animal Farm, George Orwell. https://i1.wp.com/www.time24.news/img/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Wild-sheep-is-rescued-in-Australia-and-generates-35-kg.jpeg?fit=620%2C413&ssl=1 The government must give those on Jobseeker due assistance, just as it has been given to Baarack.

AloyshA | 27 February 2021  

“It’s the value of the work, not the worker.” That is probably a common attitude among the Liberals and Nats, and sadly, some in Labor as well. It is a value judgement that treats workers as just another means of production. I’m trying to picture a situation where a proprietor says “I’m paying too much rent, I’ll only pay what I think the premises are worth.” “I shouldn’t have to pay so much tax. I’ll just pay what I think is fair.” “My supplier costs are too high. I’ll just pay what I want to” (as some supermarkets already do). “Health and safety requirements are hurting my bottom-line. I’ll just do what I think is reasonable.” They wouldn’t get away with it because there are penalties for not meeting legal standards. So why are workers’ incomes and working conditions targeted? Because with the decline in unionism many, possibly most, employees either don’t know their rights, or are frightened to enforce them for fear of losing their jobs. It’s complicated and small businesses are often working on very thin margins. But where there are legal obligations, these costs have to be built into the business model, otherwise the business owner is not creating jobs for the town, the workers are subsidising their own employment. The bigger the business, the easier it is to get away with it, but it looks like all businesses are now getting a green light from the Government to treat their workforce as just another commodity.

Brett | 27 February 2021  

Thoroughly charming article and a very convincing one-sided argument for the minimum wage case... the awful bakery owner only wanting to pay a pittance, shame on them. Let's try something different; picture yourself entering the same bakery and instead of the price of the various baked items being fixed and displayed on some noticeboard that customers had to pay for each and every item based on how long it took the workers to make, plus some amount for consumables, overheads, profit and attendance - and today you got their slowest worker. It doesn't work, does it? Like a hairstylist doing a color and perm - most clients aren't prepared to pay "hourly rate" on services and they're even less likely to be enthusiastic about paying for a few hours idle time between clients that the salon owner must pay employees. Talk to an accountant about absorption costing with productive and non-productive workers/hours and you start to understand the cleaner's wages are lumped into charge out rates - and that's why most premises have contract cleaners to keep business competitive. So we introduce laws to force minimum wages, lovely. When that loaf of bread hits $7.00 you don't buy it any more...then where do the jobs go?

ray | 27 February 2021  

So Ray, if that's the inevitable outcome of our current capitalist free-enterprise economy, perhaps we need to think about how to change it to get a better outcome for society.

Ginger Meggs | 06 March 2021  

Ginger, I don't have all the answers and even less likely the right answers. I enjoy the various articles on ES and comment when inclined, sometimes to observe balance or objectivity. In a free-enterprise system almost invariably someone will end up with the burnt end of the rapidly shortening stick; I don't necessarily advocate economic "change" for better societal outcomes. One could argue that if all workers are valued equally for minimum wages that those on higher wages be cut...but I think that has been tried elsewhere unsuccessfully. I manage to dream up some Utopian scheme of equality, profitability and employment or adequate pensions for all I'll let you know.

ray | 08 March 2021  

Another thought-provoking article by CSS's new leader, Ursula Stephens, reminding us that labour isn't just another factor of production, but enhances the public discourse about the purposes and enjoyment of productive work, which for Old Testament-invoking Calvinists and Marxists alike, are often portrayed as an unmitigated drudgery. 'By the sweat of your brow you shall earn your bread' appears to be the grim philosophy underpinning the bakery owner's practice as well as that of the politician in their pocket. If we Catholics are serious about denying the equally dismal dialectical materialist views of Marx, at so early a stage in Dr Stephens' leadership shouldn't Catholic Social Services Australia take up Kevin Vaughan's suggestion here of founding and nurturing a 'Worker Apostolate' similar to the Christian Worker Movement, which was once driven to self-destruction by the DLP?

Michael Furtado | 10 March 2021  

Michael Furtado: ‘nurturing a 'Worker Apostolate' similar to the Christian Worker Movement’ Someone once asked which was easier, to say ‘Your sins are forgiven’ or ‘Rise up and walk.’ One would think, instead of going to all the trouble of setting up worker apostolates hither and yon, it would be easier to use the word processor to scrub references to abortion or matters of that nature from pages 149 and 150 of the Australian Labor Party National Platform?

roy chen yee | 12 March 2021  

That would have to be done by stealth rather than openly and honestly, El; nor for that matter would it be of interest to the Australian Labor Party, which like the US Democrats, is primarily concerned with contesting policy issues on the microeconomic front. A Christian Workers Movement, on the other hand, would be as concerned for the dignity of women workers as much as for all those other groups that we are enjoined by Catholic Social Teaching to defend on the industrial front. Wouldn't it be time, for example, that we revisited history to prevent a repeat of the embarrassing slur against Leo XIII triggered by Cardinal Bourne's infamous condemnation of the Inter-War UK General Strike? My general point isn't to task Catholic Social Services Australia with having to create such a body but simply to ask why the official structure of Commissions and Councils that are accountable for the various ministerial initiatives of the Australian Catholic Church are so seemingly disassembled. Why, for instance, is the Australian Catholic Anti-Slavery Network an initiative of the Archdiocese of Sydney and not of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council? Are we saying that some of our official structures do not work?

Michael Furtado | 15 March 2021  

Michael Furtado: ‘Why, for instance, is the Australian Catholic Anti-Slavery Network an initiative of the Archdiocese of Sydney and not of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council? Are we saying that some of our official structures do not work?’ There are two provinces of truth: that of the intrinsic evil, and that of the prudential. This is a prudential matter and on matters like these, your reasoned opinion is probably as valid as any prelate’s.

roy chen yee | 16 March 2021  

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