Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

The Victorian Labour Hire Maintenance Workers' Strike of 1997

Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

The Victorian Labour Hire Maintenance Workers' Strike of 1997

Article excerpt


This article discusses an extended strike by Victorian maintenance workers employed by labour hire firms. The dispute was remarkable mainly because of the kind of workers involved--a group usually considered incapable of any industrial action, let alone lengthy strike action. For this reason, the dispute merits close attention. Let us begin by outlining the salient features of the industry in which it occurred. Outsourcing maintenance work has become increasingly common in Australian industry. Often this work is outsourced to labour hire firms which specialise in the supply of tradespersons. Whilst the extent of maintenance outsourcing cannot be estimated accurately,, anecdotal evidence suggests that manufacturers employing their own maintenance workers are becoming uncommon. A recent survey of labour hire firms supplying trade-based workers indicated that 19 per cent of respondents found most of their clients in manufacturing. This level of usage was matched only by construction (KPMG, 1998, 19). Labour hire firms' activities extend from providing temporary maintenance workers to annual maintenance shut-downs and re-fits, through to responsibility for the whole, maintenance function.

This trend to outsourcing appears to have facilitated the growth of a large number of labour hire firms. One of the largest of these, Skilled Engineering, employs over 10,000 workers. In Victoria alone, there are estimated to be approximately 3,000 maintenance tradespersons employed by just over forty labour hire firms operating in the unionised sector of manufacturing. Another seventy or so labour hire; firms operate in the non-unionised sector (Interviews, AMWU Organiser, 2nd December 1998 and MTIA Industrial Officer, 8th December 1998).

Since the 1980s, the union with the largest membership amongst maintenance tradespersons, the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union (AMWU), has developed policies and practices to accommodate and regulate the employment of workers hired under outsourced maintenance arrangements. In Victoria, the major labour hire firms have in turn developed a working relationship with the union, accepting their continued representation of labour hire maintenance workers. But in 1997, this relationship was ruptured by a major dispute over wages and working conditions. The dispute arose out of enterprise bargaining over pay. It resulted in a seven week strike by more than 2,500 labour hire workers employed by forty-three labour hire firms. This article examines that dispute. It begins with a description of labour hire employment practices and regulation amongst labour hire firms in manufacturing maintenance, including a brief history of their collective agreements. The story of the 1997 dispute is then presented, followed by an analysis of how the union organised industrial action and how the employers responded. The conclusion explores some questions about collective action by labour hire workers, and highlights some problems of dispute resolution under the current regulatory regime.

How labour hire works in Victorian manufacturing maintenance

Labour hire firms supply labour to another company, their client, instead of such businesses hiring employees of their own. Most workers employed by labour hire firms are paid an hourly rate and hired on a casual basis. Such employment is typically characterised by impermanence and by poorer terms and conditions of employment than are found among comparable direct hire employees (Quinlan, 1998). Such impermanence is also inherently antithetical to unionism. But not all labour hire firms operate in the same manner with respect to employment conditions and unionisation. Two modes of labour hire can be found governing the hire of tradespersons in manufacturing. The first is found only in non-union manufacturing, while the second operates in both the unionised and non-unionised firms.

The first model of labour hire firms involves the labour hire firm contracting with self-employed workers who are then hired to the client. …

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