Both the Prime Minister and Joe Hockey have rushed to deny that the NSW election result had anything to do with WorkChoices. Hockey has apparently attributed the Liberals’ poor performance to the power of negative advertising, begging the question of why advertising targeting WorkChoices would work at all, if there weren’t highly negative community perceptions of it to start with.

It’s commonplace to observe that there is little publicly available data on the impact of WorkChoices. In his 7.30 Report debate with Julia Gillard on 14 February, Hockey claimed that it would be too cumbersome a task for the Office of the Employee Advocate to analyse the effects of AWAs signed.

Tomorrow, WorkChoices will have been in operation for a year. The Victorian Government has just released new research examining the evidence that does exist on its impact. The full report, compiled by Professor David Peetz of Griffith University, can be downloaded here.

The report emphasises that aside from the unavailability of much data, many of the effects of WorkChoices will take some time to flow through the system. But it is possible to isolate the effects on particular groups of employees. Wages have been declining for employees in retail and hospitality, and in the lowest paid occupations in the private sector more generally. Peetz ascribes much of this decline to the loss of penalty rates in these industries, which were already among the lowest paid.

Survey evidence suggests that the gender pay gap has widened considerably, and particularly in the private sector. Women and casual employees (often overlapping categories) are the biggest losers under WorkChoices.

Data which includes AWAs signed before WorkChoices came into effect (thus presenting a rosier picture of AWAs than would now be the case) suggests that the disadvantage women and workers in non-standard employment face on individual as opposed to collective agreements is not limited to workers in low wage industries or casuals. Female full time employees are 8% worse off on AWAs than on collective agreements, and permanent part time employees and casuals are both 17% worse off. These figures take into account both additional hours worked and lower pay rates per hour.

The report emphasises that Australia currently has both low unemployment and many labour market shortages. Nevertheless, the wages share of GDP is “at a nearly 35 year low”.

The general thrust of the report is to emphasise the negative impact of WorkChoices on those already disadvantaged in the labour market, and to suggest that the legislation is doing what it was designed to do – restraining wages growth in a tight labour market and enabling corporate profits to continue to soar.

No doubt Peetz’s study will be met with the same ad hominem attacks previously dished out with reference to his research from Costello and Hockey. But polling during the NSW election found that 30% of respondents knew someone personally whose conditions and/or wages had suffered through WorkChoices.

If the Federal Government is inclined to dismiss the importance of industrial relations on the NSW election, they’re free to do so, but there’s no doubt that they will be held to account one way or another in the federal election. And with economic management supposedly being Howard’s trump card, he might ponder as to whether voters who’ve taken a direct hip pocket hit themselves, or know someone else who has, will be sanguine about the ostensible “economic reform” benefits of WorkChoices.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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