The controversy surrounding the government’s Same Job, Same Pay measure and the big businesses behind it

June 10, 2023

Woodworker using power saw

BANK robber Willie Sutton, arrested in New York City in 1952 after being placed on the FBI’s 10 most-wanted fugitives list, had a real taste for expensive clothes and an impressive aptitude for acting.

The latter couldn’t save him though when the former led to his downfall, having been spotted on the subway by a tailor’s son.

Famously, when asked why he robbed banks, Sutton calmly and matter-of-factly replied: “Because that’s where the money is!”

Sutton’s answer might sound like a vapid dad joke but it was the first thing that came to mind when considering the pre-emptive campaign against the federal government’s yet-to-be-drafted same job, same pay legislation by business groups such as the Minerals Council of Australia and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

No, I am not comparing the business groups to bank robbers, although it does look suspiciously like they are defending a legalised means of robbing workers. As for any comparison with Sutton’s calm and matter-of-fact reply, the business groups’ response to the government’s consultation paper is anything but calm, and matters of fact are conspicuous by their absence.

The Department of Employment and Workplace Relations’ consultation paper advises that: “The government’s Same Job, Same Pay measure seeks to address the limited circumstances in which host employers use labour hire to deliberately undercut the bargained wages and conditions set out in enterprise agreements made with their employees.”

The multimillion-dollar campaign against the measure appears to go valiantly into battle against something utterly different and glaringly non-existent, namely the fictitious proposition that workers should not be allowed to be paid according to their experience and qualifications, a proposition that no one, not the government and not the unions, are even remotely suggesting. In other words, a furphy of the highest order, albeit a somewhat vapid one. As Industrial Relations and Employment Minister Tony Burke wryly observed: “If they want to run a big TV campaign, campaigning against something we’re not doing – then go hard.” The campaign is clearly designed to generate public discomfort about a measure which is actually about shutting down a lucrative loophole.

As Treasurer Jim Chalmers explained on ABC Radio: “This isn’t about stopping businesses rewarding experience. It’s about making sure that workers are eligible for the pay and conditions that the employers have agreed with their workforces. It’s about closing loopholes to make sure that labour hire or casual workers or gig workers are used in the way that they’re intended.”

Why would these employer groups want so desperately to stop the government from fulfilling its pre-election promise to protect workers who are currently being legally underpaid? Because, and this is where they remind me of the bank robber, that’s where the money is.

It turns out that the use of labour hire and other non-standard forms of employment such as sham contracting to undermine wages has been where the money is since neoliberalism barged into the labour market and into our lives with reckless abandon.

Which tells us a lot about what we can expect from those who have enjoyed the unparalleled benefits over the past few decades of the incremental but radical shift toward atomising and undermining working people and their pay and conditions and who have grown accustomed to neoliberalism being writ large across our legislature.

When a government makes even the most modest of changes to this neoliberal trajectory we should not be surprised to witness the unedifying spectacle of capital’s captains scrambling to protect what has been, and continues to be, a spectacularly bankable racket.

As Sydney University’s Professor John Buchanan explained on the ABC earlier this week: “Since the eighties we’ve seen a steady rise in involuntary part-time work, a rise in casual work, and labour hire is a big part of that,” he said. “So people who have only a weak form of employment, a casual form of employment or a labour hire form of employment, they miss out on many of the protections that people on standard contracts have.

“The overall costs associated with employing labour have been undermined over the last 30 years and this is catch-up. This legislation isn’t … breaking out in a whole new area and making Australia uncompetitive. It’s making up for 30 years of neglect in how the workforce has been treated.”

For example, the ACTU has pointed out that Qantas, which is on track to post a record net profit of $2.48 billion for this financial year, has split its cabin crew workforce across 14 companies and contractors to drive down wages and conditions.

Workers are being forced to live with the destructive effects of the inflationary cost-ofprofits crisis. As for the purveyors of what is arguably a campaign to save neoliberalism, their fondness for super-profits and aptitude for crying foul should not be accepted as a protective shield. No one should make a mint out of misery.

The union movement’s response to this systematic attack on the wages and conditions of working people is summed up with great conciseness by ACTU secretary Sally McManus: “We’d like that to stop.”

Originally published 10 June 2023, by John Falzon in The Canberra Times and AMC network.