The Wizards of Oz

Down under, they know how to work people!

June 11th 2011

 As American labor drifts slowly into outright servitude, Australia is trying something different, and it seems to be working.

Australia passed the Fair Work Act of 2009, which took effect in the form of the National Employment Standards on January 1, 2010. The act covers roughly 2/3rds of Australia’s workers (about 27% of the workforce are deemed “casual workers” defined by a tautology; they are called casual workers because they are paid as casual workers). Some of the provisions are, by American standards, utterly amazing.

The minimum wage is $569.90 per week. (In Australian dollars, which are presently a bit over $1.05 in US dollars, so that wage is $600.56). A work week is defined as being 38 hours, and for part timers, the minimum wage is $15 an hour. It’s higher for temps.

As for the other provisions, here’s what the NES website says:

The NES are set out in the Fair Work Act 2009 and comprise 10 minimum standards of employment. In summary, the NES involve the following minimum entitlements:

  1. Maximum weekly hours of work – 38 hours per week, plus reasonable additional hours.
  2. Requests for flexible working arrangements – allows parents or carers of a child under school age or of a child under 18 with a disability, to request a change in working arrangements to assist with the child’s care.
  3. Parental leave and related entitlements – up to 12 months unpaid leave for every employee, plus a right to request an additional 12 months unpaid leave, and other forms of maternity, paternity and adoption related leave.
  4. Annual leave – 4 weeks paid leave per year, plus an additional week for certain shift workers.
  5. Personal / carer’s leave and compassionate leave – 10 days paid personal / carer’s leave, two days unpaid carer’s leave as required, and two days compassionate leave (unpaid for casuals) as required.
  6. Community service leave – unpaid leave for voluntary emergency activities and leave for jury service, with an entitlement to be paid for up to 10 days for jury service.
  7. Long service leave – a transitional entitlement for employees who had certain LSL entitlements before 1/1/10 pending the development of a uniform national long service leave standard.
  8. Public holidays – a paid day off on a public holiday, except where reasonably requested to work.
  9. Notice of termination and redundancy pay – up to 4 weeks notice of termination (5 weeks if the employee is over 45 and has at least 2 years of continuous service) and up to 16 weeks redundancy pay, both based on length of service.
  10. Provision of a Fair Work Information Statement – employers must provide this statement to all new employees. It contains information about the NES, modern awards, agreement-making, the right to freedom of association, termination of employment, individual flexibility arrangements, right of entry, transfer of business, and the respective roles of Fair Work Australia and the Fair Work Ombudsman.

Very few jobs in America have four weeks’ vacation leave a year, let alone five. Such would be sneered at as “Cadillac benefits” by Republicans. That’s in addition to the average of 8 paid holidays per year (it varies by location in Australia but is at least 7), plus up to ten days for personal leave for medical appointments, voting, handling family emergencies and the like.

When I was in the public sector, we got up to three weeks vacation, six paid holidays, and four personal leave days. That put us near the very top of what American employees could expect. And if you got called in for jury duty, you could burn off vacation and personal leave days. In Australia, a worker can get up to ten days paid leave for THAT, above and beyond the other benefits.

It doesn’t offer health benefits for the simple reason that it doesn’t need to. Australia has a universal health system that covers 100% of in-hospital costs, 75% of General Practitioner and 85% of specialist services. There is also a universal program that heavily subsidizes prescription costs.

The mentioned casual workers (in America the equivalent is temporary workers) get between 20% to 25% above the minimum wage (“casual worker loading”), parental leave and, under the new Fair Work laws, casuals are protected from being sacked unfairly. None of those are available to American temps. Further, they are entitled to a safe workplace, freedom from discrimination, long service leave and parental leave, and in some circumstances, the ability to request to be converted to permanent work. In America, those are subject to the whim of the employer, which pretty much makes them non-existent. Casual workers get credits toward their pension fund (superannuation pay) and the employer may not dictate what times they must be available to work. If a casual can’t work a certain shift, he won’t be paid, but he can’t be sacked for not showing.

So, after a year and a quarter of operation, have the National Employment Standards shattered the Australian economy?

Not so’s you’d notice. Australia’s unemployment rate historically ran about 7.1% between 1978 and 2010. By November of 2010, it had dropped to 5.4%, and for 2011 has varied between 4.9% and 5.0%, compared to the US, which is running about 9.1%

The Australian economy did slow slightly in 2010, but nobody blames that on the NES. Between a series of natural catastrophes and the economic turbulence affecting most of the world, Australia’s economic growth was a reasonably healthy 3.95%.

What of the rest of the Australian safety net? According to the Wall Street Journal, ( spends less on welfare than almost any other advanced country but manages to provide better protection against poverty, particularly for families.” The WSJ went on to say, “A married couple with two children and dependent on benefits received almost half the median household income in Australia, compared with only 20 per cent in the US.” A family of four on welfare in Australia gets about $32,000 a year. And for some reason, the Australian economy hasn’t collapsed, and the population hasn’t rushed out to get on the welfare rolls.

The WSJ also noted, “The study found that Australia’s support for families with children made it easier for them to escape poverty than single people or childless families. In some countries, including the US and Spain, the reverse was true.”

These benefits are subject to rigorous means-testing, and as a result, family services in Australia is only 17.1% of GDP, compared to the US which is 15.6%, and the median for developed countries, which is about 25%.

So Australia has a robust safety net, labor laws that would be the envy of nearly any labor union in America, and a healthy, growing economy.

And yet, oddly enough, you never see billionaires and hedge fund traders standing on corners selling apples at five cents each or queuing up for jobs picking vegetables at the local supermarket, as libertarians in America assure us will be the case if America were to employ such decent and humane standards. Maybe the Australians ground them all up into food for their pet kangaroos or something.

Australia has its flaws. The way it treats its aboriginal population is still a disgrace. The country has become somewhat puritanical in recent years, although not as bad as the United States. As a result, civil liberties have eroded.

But it has a strong middle class, and a healthy and contented labor class. Australia’s economic outlook is much brighter than that of the United State’s which is still playing the role of food source for major corporations and the ultra-rich.

Unions aren’t a problem in Australia, by the way. There is an umbrella organization, the Australian Council of Trade Unions, which comprises some 800 unions, and has 1.4 million members, a relatively small percentage of the work force. Their main mission is to lobby Parliament on behalf of trade workers’ issues, educate the work force, and tabulate violations of the NES. As a result, they generally do not have an adversarial role with most employers.

American right wingers will scream at Australia’s system for being “Marxist” and Australians will just laugh. For one thing, a typical Australian has the advantage of knowing what the fuck Marxism IS, and will get a grin out of the ignorance of the right winger. They understand that social programs are not socialism, and that they make an capitalist economy STRONGER, not weaker.

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