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Understanding reality missing from the modern ACTU

This article, written by our CEO, was first published as an opinion piece in the Australian Financial Review on 21 April 2020. We're publishing it here for everyone to read as we're aware not everyone has a subscription to the AFR.

On Monday night’s episode of the ABC's Q&A show [Monday 20 April], Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus launched into an unnecessary, ideologically driven attack on the small business community.

An attack that puts the health of workers at high risk. An attack that shows a lack of understanding of workplace relations, failure to recognise the value of small business and family business operators, and an absence of any understanding of how an economy works. An attack that showed little regard for the people that employ other people.

McManus must remember that it is the employer, quite often in a family business, who has their house and their own health on the line as they fight to keep their staff safe and keep them employed. They are also often fighting to provide an essential service to customers. And many are having to find extra money during a severe economic downturn to prepay JobKeeper.

I thought that McManus was part of a group that designed the present industrial relations system; she should know how it works.

McManus made the statement: “What if the employee is at home? So what? Why is that important to the employer?” There are several answers to that question. Firstly, the employer is responsible legally for the wellbeing of the employee. Is it safe for an employee to sit at home and do nothing for several months? No, it isn’t. There is a huge issue to be addressed on mental health. Being at home doing nothing is not good for anyone. Being stuck at home is not a holiday and to have the leader of the ACTU be so ignorant to the needs of workers is disturbing. That McManus would suggest that millions of workers should sit at home and do nothing is irresponsible.

Secondly, most small-business employers are close to their employees. Human beings care for human beings. We care if they are trapped at home doing nothing. We care if they lose their job. Most employees also care about their employer too.

We have been pushing hard for a training regime to be developed for those trapped at home. The ACTU has been silent on positive, constructive ways to manage mental health and maintain skills and interest for people. Yes, it is disturbing to the great majority of employers if employees are sitting at home doing nothing.

McManus also made a statement about employers not accessing JobKeeper: “So what if you have to fill out some paperwork?” That is the sort of statement made by those who are ignorant of reality, but well versed in ideology. That is the sort of statement we would hear from a person who understands only one facet of what a business person must do to survive and be compliant.

Let me spell out the paperwork that has to be dealt with and/or filled out: rent, leases, accessing finance, OH&S, workplace relations (where awards stretch to more than 100 pages and businesses aren’t sure which award to use in a workplace with multiple business facets). Dealing with suppliers. Late payments. Lack of supplies and products. GST. BAS. FBT. Payroll tax. Workers' compensation. Local health regulations. Charts of accounts. Superannuation. Centrelink payments. ABS survey activity. And so forth.

Like their employees, many business people are incredibly stressed – people sobbing as they find out they do not have the money to pay staff so they can access JobKeeper, and they cannot get the money from a bank. These people are maxing out their credit cards to pay staff, cashing in superannuation, taking money from their own nest eggs, putting their own economic future at risk to save the business and the jobs.

The ACTU sees all this as nothing really. It views business owners as just mindless robots with access to unlimited funds, and who are basically evil, greedy people.

We know there are always people that do the wrong thing. That is why we have regulators and the police. There are some employers who need the Fair Work Ombudsman to hunt them and we support FWO in that activity. Thankfully, well over 90 per cent of employers do the right thing. There are employees who steal from other employees. Yet the great majority of workers are fine, contributing people. There are jails around the country that have ex-union leaders spending time for embezzlement. The great majority of union leaders do not embezzle funds or use their union credit card to visit brothels. The great majority of union leaders are not standover merchants muscling their way into money and power.

So, let’s deal with reality, not the ideology. Let’s not create an "us versus them" scenario.

The modern ACTU sees this crisis as an opportunity to recruit members, not solve problems. They deliberately play on people’s fears and peddle false stories or exaggerate the bad stories to create angst. The ACTU is a contributing member of the ruling hegemony intent only on maintaining or enhancing its power. Workers' health is secondary. Unless sitting at home doing nothing for months is a good thing?

But the bigger question is what happens at the end of all of this? With an estimated three-quarters of small businesses still open, if small business owners find they can operate without a significant proportion of their staff who are simply paid to stay at home by the federal government – then what happens when the economy starts to recover and the government turns JobKeeper off? In all likelihood, the business will reluctantly have to let its employees go.

If Sally McManus and the ACTU were truly serious about keeping people employed, they would be working with employer groups to encourage employees to work with their employers so they actually have a job when the economy comes out the other end – rather than lose it when JobKeeper stops.

Where are the union leaders of the 1980s? Please come back, now, we need you.



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