Sacrifices: Women are often the ones who work in low-paid sectors such as childcare. Photo: Glenn Hunt
Imagine a job where your boss could choose how you were going to be paid. And then imagine if he didn't have to tell anyone about what he'd done. Didn't have to register those arrangements with anyone. Didn't have to get the all clear.
Didn't have to worry about minimum conditions or wages.
Now, that might work perfectly well if you are in a job where there are skills shortages. Where you have experience. And when you don't feel as if any discussion with your boss about your wages and conditions will end up with you having your head bitten off, or worse, dismissed.
Illustration: Pat Campbell
Remember the furious response to WorkChoices before the 2007 election? The Australian electorate got mad and then got even.
And this is why I am completely baffled by the silence over the Fair Work Amendment Bill.
Today, the Senate votes on this bill. And Australians barely know a thing about it.
Rae Cooper, associate professor in employment relations at the University of Sydney's Business School, says of the failed WorkChoices laws: "There was a massive outcry about the effect of AWAs, particularly on those most vulnerable in the labour market."
She says there are more protections in the present Fair Work Act than under the WorkChoices arrangements, but there are still some challenges. Sure, employees have to put in writing that their flexible work arrangements will leave them better off. But, seriously, unless you are a person with a great deal of power in your workplace, how are you going to argue with your boss?
"Frankly, how will a mother seeking flexibility to fit with care arrangements and who is desperate for her job manage to genuinely negotiate on an individual basis?" Cooper asks.
"The disparity of power regardless of signatures on contracts is still significant."
She is also particularly concerned about young people, particularly those working in service industries.
The difficulty here is that so many people with no power try to represent themselves. Solid unionisation is low and individuals have few bargaining skills and little leverage. The big unions, with significant bargaining experience, have been able to ring fence particular issues through the bargaining process (and some believe they've done too much).
But I swear, I'd rather have someone overprotecting me in the workplace than throwing me to the dingoes of downtown. These changes will make it possible for employers to offer individual contracts that will cut take home pay and go below the award minimum. Basically, offering pizza for pay.
Pizza won't pay the rent. Pizza won't pay the bills. And pizza won't feed the kids every night.
Why are these changes an attack on women?
More women are paid at the award minimum than men. Women are the ones who work in the cafes, community workers, childcare workers, cleaners.
Now Eric Abetz, the monster who claimed abortion was linked to breast cancer, claims these changes are good for women. He says women will be able to trade their penalty rates for flexible working hours.
When Abetz was trying to sell this concept last year, he said: "It stands to reason that [a mother] would be trading up by sacrificing penalty rates two days a week for the non-monetary benefit of spending time with her children."
So, we are more poorly paid, we are more likely to work at award rates, and less likely to have the opportunity to advance. And somehow, now, we are expected to make another financial sacrifice.
If this gets through, no one will be monitoring these arrangements. As Cooper points out, "What we really need is to protect employees, we need some mechanism for lodgement and review of content. You can't have protection unless you have compliance and overview."
Sounds like a recipe for exploitation and victimisation. Michele O'Neil, the national secretary of the Textile Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia, says she believes it's worse than WorkChoices. She says the concept of having to reveal that you have invited the union into your workplace - one of the proposed changes - is terrifying.
Now, I belong to two unions and I'm a pretty strong person. But imagine if you didn't have that kind of personality and you were wanting to invite the union into your workplace. If you are worried about being bullied by your boss, there's the recipe right there.
"We saw that the workers identified with the unions were the ones that were punished," she said.
O'Neil is also concerned about the path these changes pave for low-paid workers to lose money.
"We have already seen K-Mart vouchers for work on a Saturday. This is exactly the sort of trade-off that companies will try and impose on workers."
She says her union's experience is that these conditions are imposed on workers and the implication is that employees will lose jobs unless an agreement is made.
So cutting the minimum wage and offering vouchers and food for work. Sounds like income management to me. From the very people who can't manage their own business costs in the first place.
I'm with the Unions Australia campaign. Write to the crossbench senators right now and tell them to vote no.