Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Assessing the Impact of Employment Regulation on the Low-Paid in Victoria

Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Assessing the Impact of Employment Regulation on the Low-Paid in Victoria

Article excerpt

Introduction

In March 2006, significant changes in Federal industrial law came into effect in Australia. These changes prompted the further decentralisation and fragmentation of bargaining. Under the title WorkChoices, the Howard Liberal-National Coalition Government claimed the changes gave greater freedom to individual employers and employees to determine the type of instrument to regulate employment conditions. Debate continues as to whether increased 'choice' and 'flexibility' for employers and employees was a reality or whether the outcome was an overall deterioration in employment conditions (Saville, Hearn-McKinnon and Vieceli 2009). In particular, under the new legislative regime, individual employees, at their employer's behest, could opt out of collective agreements and awards and onto individual agreements with inferior conditions. Awards were effectively replaced by five minimum statutory entitlements, providing a much more restricted safety net for those Australians on minimum pay and conditions. Although WorkChoices has been replaced by the Labor Government's Fair Work Act 2009, some have argued that the effects of WorkChoices will linger, particularly for the low-paid (Pocock, Elton, Preston, Charlesworth, MacDonald, Baird, Cooper, and Ellem 2008).

The 2006 changes were introduced amidst much debate, mainly negative, in the media. While the then Liberal-National Coalition government argued that they '... would create a more flexible, simpler and fairer system of workplace relations for Australia' (Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia 2004-05: Outline), various groups disputed this, among them industrial relations academics. The initial critique was based on an assessment of the legislation and its possible and likely implementation (Fenwick 2006; Fetter 2006; Forsyth and Sunderland 2006; Owens 2006). Over time, several studies appeared which have provided some empirical support for the initial criticisms. Peetz (2007) analysed the data on agreements and found early evidence of the loss of entitlements and lower pay for some. A national qualitative study of low-paid women across Australia also supported the earlier assessments of the legislation, although it revealed some variation in outcomes across states (Elton et al. 2007).

Building on this work, the current study examines the impact of WorkChoices on low-paid workers in the State of Victoria. Victoria is Australia's second most populous state and has a high level of regional settlement (ABS 2010). It also has a record of strong economic growth in recent years. In Victoria, neo-liberal restructuring began earlier and has reached further than in any other Australian state (Costar and Economou 1999). The election of the Kennett Liberal Government in 1992 led to extensive privatisation of public instrumentalities, severe cuts in government funding and an aggressive industrial relations policy that matched aspects of WorkChoices by abolishing the State Award system and ceding Victoria's industrial relations powers to the federal government.

This study employed a multi-method approach where data from a telephone survey with 250 low-paid persons was triangulated with a number of semi-structured interviews. The article proceeds by reviewing the literature on the relationship between low pay and institutional structures for regulating wages and working conditions. It provides an overview of the literature on low-paid work and employment regulation including the existing evidence on the impact of WorkChoices. This is followed by an explanation of the study's research design and methods before a presentation of findings. It is concluded that the effects of WorkChoices on Victoria's low-paid employees were somewhat masked by the fact that since late 1996, a large number of low-paid Victorian workers were protected only by minimum legislative standards under Schedule 1A and part XV of the Workplace Relations Act 1996 (Cwlth). …

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