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Victoria: Left-wing unions release discussion paper on wages policy and claim enterprise bargaining has disadvantaged women

MONICA ATTARD: Well, an important trade union group has called for significant changes to the Federal wages system. In a move critical of the Federal Government and the ACTU, Victorian Left unions have distributed a discussion paper on wages policy and enterprise bargaining. The paper claims that enterprise bargaining has disadvantaged women workers and helped employer groups in their moves to de-unionise their workplaces. Victorian Left union's convenor, Jane Armstrong, told Peter McCutcheon that there's a need to move towards industry or sector collective bargaining.

JANE ARMSTRONG: Naturally, you've got more of a chance if you can sit down and negotiate with an employer body or a State Government that covers a whole range of workers rather than just a very small number at a local enterprise. But for the vast majority of workers, nearly 65 to 67 per cent of workers, haven't been able to achieve that simply because the capacity to sit down and negotiate on an industry basis is just not there.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: But what about the argument that we need flexibility at the workplace in order for Australia to be truly internationally competitive?

JANE ARMSTRONG: Well, the award system in my view, and in the view of a number of unions and other progressive people throughout Australia, is that the award system in fact has always been there to offer flexibility. It is not a rigid system, despite the propaganda of those who would like to see it destroyed. And so again the paper raises that whole issue about the integrity, maintain the integrity of the award system and making sure that it's there not just as a minimum standards safety net, but it in fact remains what it always was, which is the best and fairest and most equitable support and protection for Australian working men and women.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: So, would Victorian Left unions prefer a return to a more centralised system where there were across-the-board wage increases?

JANE ARMSTRONG: What is being said in the paper is that we need to have a range of mechanisms for workers to achieve wage increases, to take into consideration all of those special circumstances that exist in multi-varied workplaces. For the vast majority of workers, and it depends which figures you take - if you take Laurie Brereton's, he's saying 47 per cent of the workplace is covered by enterprise bargaining agreements. I think that's a gross exaggeration. I think the best you could say is that 37 to 39 per cent of workers are probably covered by enterprise agreements, which leaves about two-thirds of workers not covered. And it's been in existence now since October 1991 which means it's been in existence for three years and still 70 per cent of the work force have not had a wage increase of any kind, in some cases, up to about five years. So there needs to be a range of ways in which workers can access wage increases, to take into consideration the various circumstances that exist for working men and women in Australia.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: But the ACTU and the Government would argue that there is a mechanism for that - the $8 safety net increase. Why isn't that good enough?

JANE ARMSTRONG: Well, mainly for the reason that it has not to date applied to all those workers who haven't been successful in gaining wage increases either under enterprise bargaining or through the other wage fixing principles that have existed in the past, and so it is not, I believe, fair to say that the $8 exists to act as a safety net for workers because in fact a lot of workers have not gained access to it and are unlikely to.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: The discussion paper also says that women are being disadvantaged by enterprise bargaining. So what's your view of the recent paper put forward by ACTU Assistant Secretary, Jenny George which argued that women have not been substantially disadvantaged over the last couple of years?

JANE ARMSTRONG: I think the difficulty for all of us in this environment of enterprise bargaining is, and I think Jenny summed it up at the end of her paper by saying the jury is still out, and I think there are a range of views as to whether women are faring well or faring badly under enterprise bargaining. Some anecdotal evidence exists to say they're not doing well, and according to Jenny's paper, it says that they are in fact not faring as badly as people expected that they would. I'm not sure whether that means they're doing better than we hoped or expected to do, but let's hope that the jury doesn't stay out too long on that question.

MONICA ATTARD: Jane Armstrong, convenor of the Victorian Left unions.