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25 January 2015

'WorkChoices 2.0': Unions vow to mobilise over sweeping workplace review

Unions have vowed to mobilise tens of thousands of members and to revive a militant WorkChoices-style campaign, as Prime Minister Tony Abbott signals industrial relations will be a key election battleground.

There are only going to be winners and losers from this inquiry and the government is likely to be loser from this no matter what,

Political battles of the Howard era could reignite after confirmation a major inquiry will examine potential workplace relations reforms such as lowering the minimum wage and allowing employers to set their own penalty rates.

"The union movement will mobilise against these cuts," said Victorian Trades Hall secretary Luke Hilakari, who shot to prominence last year for leading and rallying unionists in a campaign that helped oust the state Coalition from office.

"This is WorkChoices 2.0 - it has nothing to do with improving the working lives of millions of Australians; it's about cutting people's wages and conditions."

The newly released Productivity Commission papers also flag an examination of whether the minimum wage should be varied by state or by region, and possible changes to enterprise bargaining, individual agreements and unfair dismissal laws.

Mr Abbott has moved to reassure voters, saying "we might seek a broader mandate at the next election but certainly we are going to act within our mandate in this term".

And in comments that will provoke the ire of organised labour, he said penalty rates may be holding employers back from hiring more staff and opening at certain times.

"If you don't want to work on a weekend, fair enough, don't work on a weekend, but if you do want to work on a weekend and lots of people, particularly young people, particularly students would love to work on the weekend, you want to see the employers open to provide jobs," he said.

Industrial law expert Andrew Stewart said the review was always going to be a short-term fix to address criticism from the business lobby, but would deliver long-term political pain for the Abbott government.

"There are only going to be winners and losers from this inquiry and the government is likely to be loser from this, no matter what," he said.
"They are going to have to wear the fact that there will be a debate going on all year about radical changes that have the potential to cut wages and employment conditions."

Professor Stewart said he was hopeful the Productivity Commission's review would stick to its promise of being based on evidence, not ideology.

Kamal Jimi, who drives to work while most Australians are still sleeping, said the prospect of losing penalty rates would be financially devastating for him.

The 35-year-old works 60 hours a week in two jobs cleaning Melbourne CBD offices - one from 4am to midday and the other between 5-9pm. Penalty rates account for an extra $100 a week, which he says helps cover the cost of petrol and groceries.

"It is very difficult but when you have a family you have to do it," he said.

"The money is not enough as it is, but penalty rates make a difference for me, so I hope I don't lose any more."

Labor leader Bill Shorten said the review was part of the Abbott government's clear "agenda" to attack pay and conditions.

"I don't think most Australians believe that in 2015 the Abbott government is just having some sort of intellectual exercise looking at the whole workplace system," he said. "They have an agenda to attack the minimum wage and penalty rates."

Australian Industry Group chief Innes Willox said the issues being examined in the inquiry were too important for "false and predictable union claims about the return of WorkChoices to be given oxygen".