Australia’s 330,000 outworkers are especially vulnerable and threatened by the Howard government’s proposed changes to IR legislation – anti-sweatshop campaign FairWear staged a ‘sew-in’ yesterday to get the message out …
Members of the public were invited to write messages to John Howard and Kevin Andrews on squares of calico which were then sewn on to garments by a team of ‘outworkers’ at the old City Square. The garments will be taken to Canberra in November and presented to politicians. At the same time, activists handed out leaflets outlining what the changes will mena to outworkers, and speakers including Ray Cleary of Anglicare, Martin Kingham of the CFMEU, Michele O’Neil of the TCFUA, Marc Zirnsak of the Uniting Church, and rapper Pat addressed the crowd, which was generally very responsive. Daisy Gardener of FairWear was MC, and also read a statement from an outworker. As far as I could tell, only one person took exception to the protest, a retired gentleman of obvious military background who declared that Australia was the best country in world and that this was due to the fact that John Howard was Prime Minister. But even he fell silent as Ray Cleary proceeded to explain why every church in the country was united in opposing Howard’s new laws…
From a FairWear briefing paper:
On Wednesday 24th August representatives from Fair Wear met with the Federal Minister for Workplace Relations, Hon Kevin Andrews, to give the Minister an opportunity to outline the Federal Government’s strategy to protect outworkers under the planned changes to Industrial Relations laws. Despite expressing concern for outworkers, the Minister outlined a plan that will fail to protect them.
Without these specific protections the exploitation of outworkers will be essentially legalised, as outworkers will become independent contractors who “freely” enter into contracts for $3 to $4 an hour.
The Government will also remove the mechanisms that allow monitoring of the clothing industry to identify and remedy exploitation throughout supply chains.
Furthermore the Homeworkers Code of Practice, which the Federal Government promoted and funded, will be heavily undermined by the removal of these specific protections. (The Code has been established and agreed to by the industry as a mechanism for addressing the exploitation of outworkers.)
This plan confirms Fair Wear’s worst fears, undermining all the work we have done in a decade of campaigning and the work of the Textile Clothing and Footwear Union for more than 15 years, to protect outworkers from exploitation.
HOW THEY ARE GOING TO DO IT
1.Overriding State Legislation
The Federal Government plan will override the Outworker protection Acts and other hard fought for new laws in each State that protect outworker rights and the mechanisms for monitoring the clothing industry. This is part of overriding all State industrial relations legislation in the name of having one uniform industrial relations system.
2. Shifting outworker status to “independent contractors”
The Government’s plan will also override the “deeming provisions” in the states, which ensure all outworkers are recognised as employees and therefore entitled to award wages and conditions. The Minister confirmed the Federal Government has no intention of replacing these with a Federal deeming provision. This will mean outworkers will be treated under law as independent contractors.
3. Removing minimum rights and monitoring mechanisms
The Government’s plan will disallow outwork as a matter to be covered in industry awards. This will mean the removal of the relevant clauses in the Clothing Trades Award that give details of outworkers’ rights and mechanisms the union can use to monitor the industry.
MINISTER’S EMPTY RHETORIC
The Minister stated the Government’s concern for outworkers, but provided no concrete evidence that adequate protections would be provided. The mechanisms he said the Government would use to protect outworkers could only provide a framework for INDIVIDUAL outworkers to seek out their rights, and no industry wide response.
Current laws, to be overturned, assure that all outworkers are recognised as employees unless individually proven otherwise. The Minister said these provisions will be replaced by a “definitional mechanism”, resulting in each outworker having to prove they are employees not independent contractors.
The need for an industry wide response has been recognised extensively by governments, unions, the community and even industry. When the Outworker clauses in the Clothing Trades Award were last challenged in 1998, the Full Bench of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission ruled they should be kept“in their entirety” as essential mechanisms for protecting outworkers and monitoring the industry.
The Minister either doesn’t understand or doesn’t want to understand the complexities of the clothing industry and how the web of exploitation has been able to thrive.
At worst, the exploitation of outworkers becomes legalised.
At best, outworkers will have mechanisms they can individually use to try to seek a remedy for the exploitation they experience. Migrant women outworkers with limited English skills and limited financial resources have demonstrated repeatedly that they are fearful, reluctant or unable to take such steps.
Instead of a systemic response to systemic exploitation, with mechanisms for monitoring the whole clothing production chain and regulating the rights of outworkers as a group, individual, exploited, migrant, women outworkers will be left to seek individual remedies. This is unacceptable.
Ray Cleary, CEO of Anglicare Victoria:
“Let me tell you that the proposed changes to the legislation are a draconian step to diminish the standard of living, to diminish the working conditions of outworkers, low-skilled people, those who suffer from a chronic illness, young people and children. This is an ideologically driven reform process. It has nothing to do with productivity, it has nothing to do with improving the standard of living for low-income people. It is about increasing the disparity between those who have and those who don’t …”
Michele O’Neil, TCFUA:
“John Howard and his government are absolutely determined .. to take away [these] conditions we have struggled to win. And for outworkers, workers who work at home alone, and who are aleady some of the most exploited workers in Australia, these changes will hit them the hardest … If you’re a very well-paid executive, you’re unlikely to be affected [by these changes]. But if you’re a worker who is working at home alone, and you are completely dependent on receiving your income based on whether you get work delivered and whether you can make it on time, what bargaining power are you going to have? What power are you going to have? I want to ask John Howard: What choice is an outworker going to have when she’s presented with an option of ‘You make this work for $2 an hour or there’s no work’? ‘You get it done in 24 hours, or there’s no work.’… It is obscene to suggest that home-based outworkers are in a position where they can freely bargain with their employers to get a fair deal …
“Be with us again on November 15th, when the whole of Australia will … say to John Howard and his government: We’re not going to let you do this to our country…”
Mark Zirnsak, Uniting Church Justice and International Mission Unit:
“… our faith tradition… causes us to side with the vulverable and the exploited and the weak in the community. The Bible has many passages that urge for the dignity of workers to be protected and preserved…
“These changes in the IR system that are proposed by the Federal Government, coupled with changes in the welfare system … will neither increase opportunities fot those most in need nor deliver benefits to those who need it most within our society.”
Martin Kingham, CFMEU:
Pointing to the scaffolding on St Paul’s, Martin Kingham of the CFMEU welcomed sharing a platform with the church and hoped the relationship would continue. Before turning to the question of John Howard’s proposed reforms he had a few words to say about the FairWear campaign:
&$147;I’d like to … pay tribute and acknowledge the almost heroic campaign that this group FairWear and the TCFUA have been waging for quite a few years now. Lots of people in the trades union movement described outworkers as ‘the unorganisable … end of the food chain in terms of a pretty cut-throat industry’, but against all of these challenges FairWear and its supporters, and of course the TCFUA, has struggled on in that difficult environment and created and lobbied and organised and forced [though] legislation here at the state level which gives rights to outworkers… that most people in the community take for granted, but outworkers certainly don’t … [But]the Howard government want to undo all that. .. This is a general attack right across the board against workers and against organised workers. No-one has been left out …
“This same government that is trying to undermine and remove the protection of conditions for outworkers is currently dictating with its own dollars on Federal Government projects and is now saying to employers that they will not get contracts to build for the Federal Government unless their agreements with their workers contain clauses that allow the employer to employ every worker on their workforce as a casual employee for as long as the employer feels like. It’s almost like introducing outwork to the construction industry, trying to take it back to where it was 40 years ago, when construction workers were casual, and when it rained and you couldn’t work, you didn’t get paid … That’s the sort of environment they want to push us back to.But we know that this time round John Howard is going to have a fight on his hands. He’s led our country into 2 wars, we wants in the dying term of his career as a politician and as Prime Minister of Australia to drive us into a 3rd and final war, a war amongst ourselves, a war on workers, a war on respect, on rights and on dignity at home…”
The outworker’s statement:
Some outworkers cannot speak English properly. Thye cannot tell you how they feel. They have to work because they have no choice. We beg the government to consider our situation and to look at the heart of the problem, to think for the future of tomorrow’s Australian’s. The big companies give the clothes to the factories and the factories then give the clothes to us workers. The price has been put very low. The industry system is now exploitative and has no obligations. We are very worried that under the new laws it will be easier for companies to continue treating us so bad. We refuse to be mistreated and request that equality for workers who work at home. Why does the factory refuse to take in any workers? It is because that do not want to pay us a real wage. It is much cheaper to have us work at home. As the prices of clothing go up the price of labour has decreased at a shocking rate. The price for each garment is very cheap, but the owner demands us to complete it in a very short time. We do not have any say about the prices given. Sometimes I have to stay up until 2 or 4 in the morning to finish the order for the next day. I just have enough money to spend on the monthly bills. Sometimes I want to spend time with my family and children but I don’t have any time to care for them. Let me ask you: What is the future going to be like without their parents’ guidance? This is exploitation of us workers.
Right now, the owner of the factories doesn’t have to pay anything. They don’t have to pay our superannuation, or Work Cover. But they ask us to work very hard and the pay is cheap: for example: I was asked to sew pants…One pants they only pay $1.50, in this amount, we have to pay for the petrol of delivery and the electricity. Also, this particular factory owner demanded that I have to finish 600 pants in 10 days. That is approximately SIXTY pants in one day. To finish this, we have to work very long hours, even more than the factory workers YET WE DON’T GET PAID FOR OVERTIME.
This is a big problem that needs to be resolved. The government should stand in out shoes, feel our injustice, and help us to reach a promising future.
Dissent from Howard admirer: