Wednesday, January 24, 2007

What to preach about workplace relations
7 December 2005

By Brian Edgar

Having suggested what not to preach on workplace relations, I should also suggest what I would preach. I would mention the issues raised in the previous Soundings, and relate them to the following.

The stated aim of the Australian workplace relations changes is enhanced economic development through the simplification of the award system, resulting in more jobs. Some commentators doubt the effectiveness of this approach. A business saving on employment costs through a simplified system will not necessarily employ another person.

For example, while research indicates that a 10% increase in average wages increases employment, changes to the minimum wage hardly affects the overall employment rate as ‘the effect on the average wage is small and, thus, the impact on total employment and unemployment is also small.’ (1)

In order to put the government’s proposal in the most positive light, let us initially say that Lewis is wrong and assume that there will be some reasonable benefit in terms of the number of jobs available. I would want to relate this to passages in Genesis, Proverbs and the New Testament which affirm that work is a good and healthy part of God’s plan for humanity. Government policies which maximize work opportunities are to be encouraged. But even if more jobs are created, the economic lever being pulled to assist business development puts in question a significant number of existing working conditions and employee benefits.

The government’s own example of ‘Billy’ is instructive. Under the new laws, to get a job as a retail worker Billy has to sign an individual contract that removes his rights to public holidays, rest breaks, bonuses, annual leave loadings, allowances, penalty rates, overtime and shift loadings – conditions which other retail workers in the same business retain. The defence of this is that Billy would prefer to have a job. The implied assumption is that he is probably a teenager beginning his working life. However, ‘Billy’ could be a 36 year old father of two who has worked in a hardware shop for 20 years which has now closed down and he is looking for a new job in a large chain store.

The proposed ‘simplification’ affects workers’ pay, their social stability (by potentially affecting job tenure) and their relationships and lifestyle (through changes to their ability to control working times). Most employers will assume that ‘simplified’ actually means ‘reduced’. Unless they are reduced there would be little advantage in proceeding. I would note that according to Jesus economic issues are not the only, or the most important, issues of life. And the effects of the industrial relations proposals on other dimensions of life must be carefully watched. Our relationship with God and our relationships with others come ahead of our relationships with possessions.

The terminology used in the proposals is significant. The stress is on the ‘simplification’ of the numerous awards and pieces of legislation which control wages and conditions. The present system is complex and there are serious problems for employers in some regards. It appears that there are situations where owners and employers of small businesses are significantly disadvantaged. But one could ‘simplify’ in other ways, such as by consolidating workers on a reduced number of awards with better conditions for all.

Even when it is argued that the ultimate aim of the present proposal is to enhance the lives of the worker, it is clear that the methodology used involves a reduction in benefits of those who are unskilled and low paid and who have the least bargaining power in their relationships with employers. The claimed benefit to some disadvantaged people is obtained through further disadvantage to other disadvantaged people and through potentially significant changes to social structures which have not been the focus of public discussion. In relating this to biblical principles I would note that the weakest and least advantaged members of a society are the ones which Jesus calls us to serve the most. His own life was an example of this.

I would preach that the proposals lack consistency with the best biblical and theological principles. But then I would ask what the implications are for our life together as a church as well as for our broader social life. By placing the matter in a broader context which includes the church and assumes that listeners are to test what is said, and by exposing my own reasoning to public scrutiny, the worst excesses of dogmatism and divisiveness can be avoided.

This approach is informed by two other convictions. First, it is wrong to assume that the only alternatives in this public debate are to accept or reject the proposals. Unfortunately, the present highly polarized political atmosphere is not conducive to the introduction of alternatives. But it would be wrong to assume there are no alternatives.

Second, it is wrong to assume that a job at any cost is better than no job. Indeed, it is wrong to assume that a job necessarily takes a person or a family out of poverty. In developed countries such as the USA there are millions of ‘working poor’. It would be a regressive social step to allow this to develop in Australia. Although the USA, the most powerful economy in the world, is sometimes held up as an exemplar of labour market reform it has developed many inequalities.

Having just lived for six months in Kentucky, one of America’s poorest states, I am aware of the huge disparity in that country. It is observably and statistically far less equitable than Australia. Under their ‘Fair Labor Standards Act’ the minimum adult wage of $5.15 per hour has not changed in eight years. Economist James Galbraith says the USA is actually an example ‘of full employment achieved by accepting poverty’, an approach which ought never be acceptable and which must be resisted in Australia. When considering the Australian proposals for our Fair Pay Commission we must not accept disadvantage to the least able as an appropriate price for economic growth.

(1) Philip Lewis, “Low pay or no pay: Economics of the minimum wage,” Policy 221 (3), Spring 2005.

Rev Dr Brian Edgar is Director of Public Theology for the Australian Evangelical Alliance. The first part of his article, titled ‘Five reasons not to preach on workplace relations,’ appeared in the previous issue of Soundings. The full text is available at

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Soundings is a publication of the Centre for Christian Ethics, edited by Rod Benson. Soundings welcomes submissions of 750 to 1000 words that seek to facilitate debate and explore issues of religion, ethics and public policy in Australia and internationally. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. Columns may be quoted or republished in full, with attribution to the author of the column, Soundings, and the Centre for Christian Ethics, Morling College, Sydney Australia. Views expressed in Soundings articles are not necessarily those of the Centre for Christian Ethics, Morling College or the Baptist Churches of NSW & ACT.

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