John Howard’s workplace laws could backfire on him at the next Federal election. New research from Griffith University academic, Professor David Peetz, suggests that women are the big losers from the new laws. This is bad news for Howard who can’t afford to alienate women in the lead-up to the election.

The female friendly Rudd/Gillard team is set to capitalise on this and highlight the negative impact of the laws on the pay and conditions of Australian women.

The problem facing many women in the new industrial relations landscape is that they are under-represented in sectors of the economy that are booming and over-represented in those that are not. This means they often have less bargaining power than men.

A shortage of skills in the mining sector has boosted the bargaining power of mining workers, enabling them to command higher salaries. In other sectors like the clothing, footwear and textiles industry, where women are over-represented, the story is a different one.

It is under intense global pressure from low wage manufacturing countries, relocating factories offshore and laying off thousands of workers. More generally women predominate in sectors like retail and hospitality where it’s difficult to achieve improvements in pay and conditions. The new laws reinforce this problem.

David Peetz’s research reveals that average weekly earnings in these sectors is around 50% lower than the all industry average. It is also clear that many women are experiencing a significant reduction in their entitlements as they come under pressure to transfer onto inferior individual contracts. They have little choice but to sign or resign.

The jury is in on the impact of the new laws. They are undermining the working conditions of thousands of Australian workers, particularly female workers. The Federal Government’s own Office of the Employment Advocate undertook a survey last year of Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs) lodged under WorkChoices.

The survey revealed that the agreements excluded important protected award conditions – 63% excluded penalty rates, 52% shift loadings, 46% public holiday pay and 40% rest breaks. David Peetz reveals that this understates the problem because the number of AWAs that modified or reduced conditions has not been taken into account, bring the proportion of AWAs that cut overtime to around 82%.

John Howard’s battlers look set to desert him.

Peter Fray

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