Politics, it seems, is often a repetitive business, with the same message being hammered over and over again. Take John Howard for example. On September 7, with new unemployment figures just released, Howard claimed that “we now have a climate which is encouraging workers, and one of the explanations for that is the combined effect of the government's industrial relations changes - you know, the ones that were going to ‘throw millions out of work’”.
Last time such figures were released, in August, he told us that the “real message out of these figures is that the mass sackings did not come”. He wasn’t alone. Piers Ackerman complained of “the opposition’s steadfast denial of industrial relations reform despite the absence of the mass sackings the ACTU and Opposition Leader Kim Beazley have promised”, while Andrew Bolt let it be known that there was “no evidence of the mass sackings we were warned of by the ACTU”. That, apparently, “was bull”.
The proponents of WorkChoices have thus far shown themselves to be far from averse to peddling distortions and inaccuracies. Piers Ackerman, for example, recently claimed that “with union membership rapidly eroding the die-hards are trying to staunch the flow and save their jobs by pandering to youthful insecurities”. This is simply not true. Union membership was subject to erosion throughout the 1990s but has now stabilised. Unions NSW Secretary John Robertson has reported that in 2004 union membership in NSW grew by 12,000 while Australian Workers Union Secretary Bill Shorten says that AWU membership in Victoria has increased from 16,000 to 22,000 since 1998.
Given this mendacity, not to mention the seriously inflated claims about the likely economic impact of WorkChoices made by some, their claims about mass sackings should be taken with a pinch of salt. Certainly mass sackings have not occurred, but it was never the contention of the ALP that they would.
Kim Beazley has consistently described the impact of WorkChoices as a “slow burn”. Delivering the Kingsley Laffer Memorial Lecture in April, he said, “John Howard's laws mean less job security, a loss of basic entitlements for working people, and a bigger gap between the well-off and the battlers”. Note the lack of any claim that they would lead to mass sackings.
The ALP website elaborates on these claims, saying that WorkChoices will “cut penalty rates and overtime, make it harder to balance long hours and family life, force you to sign unfair work contracts, allow you to be sacked unfairly, slash your pay and conditions and exploit young workers”. Again, talk of “mass sackings” is conspicuously absent.
Indeed during the aforementioned lecture, Beazley explicitly stated that the impact of WorkChoices would extend well beyond those who were actually sacked. He said, “the effect of these changes goes far beyond those workers who actually get sacked. There's another impact that will be slower, more subtle and more insidious. It's how these laws will change the unwritten rules of how Australians relate to each other at work.”
Beazley’s subsequent claim that WorkChoices will undermine the respect shown by employers to employees is reasonable enough; however, there exists a still nastier way in which these changes will affect workers without inducing mass sackings. They will lead to increased insecurity.
Most of the economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s were certainly necessary. Indeed today’s prosperity can, at least in part, be attributed to these reforms, but there can be no denying that they have made Australians feel less secure about their jobs.
Insecurity can have a devastating effect on the mental health of workers, as Brain and Mind Research Institute director Ian Hickie made clear earlier this year when he told The Australian that, “chronic anxiety about the certainty of your continued employment is a major cause of stress” rather than actually being fired. He said, "it's the continuous worry that kills you". According to Hugh Mackay, “anticipation of redundancy is at least as distressing as the experience of unemployment itself”.
Unfair dismissal laws, all but abolished under WorkChoices, can help keep this sort of anxiety in check. Not only is this a positive outcome in its own right, but it also helps reduce the costs to the economy and health system of stress-related illness.
Perhaps one or two off-the-cuff mentions of “mass sackings” were made by some, but what the Right has been suggesting is that this was the mainstream message of the labour movement in its campaign against WorkChoices. It’s not, and never has been, about mass sackings. Unfair sackings, yes. Sackings for the purpose of forcing people onto AWAs, yes. But mass lay-offs all around the country, no. To suggest otherwise is, well, bull.