Home > Politics (general) > The servant problem

The servant problem

June 29th, 2006

The Howard government’s IR reforms (including, but not limited to, the most recent instalment) are a curious mixture of deregulation and compulsion. On the one hand, all sorts of conditions and requirements are stripped away, but in their place there has been created an array of new criminal and civil offences, prohibited terms in contracts, requirements to offer particular employment forms such as AWAs and so on.

To make sense of this seeming contradiction, we need only observe that the deregulation is all for employers, and the regulation is all imposed on workers and, particularly, unions. Lockouts are now almost unrestricted, but strikes are subject to strict regulation. Employers cannot be sued for unfair dismissal, but employees are prohibited from including protection against unfair dismissal in a proposed employment contract and so on.

An obvious interpretation is the Marxist one, that this is class-based legislation, designed to increase profits and reduce wages by driving down workers’ bargaining power. That’s part of the story but not, I think, the most important part.

The real issue, I think, relates to the personal power relationship between employers and employees. The complaints of employers (some of them can be read in comments here) about bad employees and the difficulty of sacking them echo very closely the complaints of a century ago that ‘you can’t get good servants any more’. The changes made in the IR laws make most sense if they are read as an attempt to remove constraints on the day-to-day power of bosses to be bosses, whether these constraints are imposed by law, by collective agreements or by individual contracts with workers.

This also helps to explain some of the class alignments we see in politics. While political alignments continue to be determined to a significant extent by income, there are groups with relatively high incomes, such as academics and other professionsals, who tend to support Labor. On the other side of the fence, managers tend to vote Liberal more strongly than their incomes alone would suggest. The obvious point is that managers are, by definition, bosses. Professionals, who mostly in hierarchical institutions, can identify either as bosses or workers, but with the rise of managerialism, most professionals find themselves on the workers side of the divide.

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  1. observa
    July 1st, 2006 at 23:30 | #1

    “My point is that many who support removing financial stability from workers, allegedly on grounds of economic purity, have quite a different view when their own financial stabilty is at stake.”

    Limited liability has some major pluses for our economy Tony. For the owners of capital it should only be their capital at stake(and naturally that should not be evaded), while for labour it should be limited to their employment/remuneration(which govts should not underwrite arbitrarily and whimsically). Of course you can make both employers and employees open to unlimited liability, but that has some serious drawbacks as you could well imagine. While workers and their unions are happy for such laws to impact on management, they naturally have an aversion to similar laws that make them liable for their own mistakes or oversights in the work environment. (Drove the company truck and crashed it while you were pissed did you? Well you’ll have to come to some agreement with the company insurers on that, as I’m afraid it’s totally out of management’s hands now)

  2. brian
    July 2nd, 2006 at 00:35 | #2

    After some of the more inspiring contributions to this column,I was emboldened to ask The Butler,to go down into Servant’s Hall,and I had him put up a lovely picture of John and Janet Howard,to encourage the others..as it were.
    Some of our staff have requested little bedside pics of John, to as it were ,help them to slip off after their long days’ world,,,stirring times indeed !

  3. Bill O’Slatter
    July 2nd, 2006 at 11:57 | #3

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Class-consciousness
    Even though it’s an excellent notion it really needs liberating from the 19th century philosophical claptrap.

  4. July 2nd, 2006 at 13:19 | #4

    “One problem employee could destroy my business within a month” (Razor, presumably talking about his medium-sized business, before the latest changes exempted such (as well as small-) businesses from unfair dismissal jurisdiction).

    To single-handedly destroy a medium-sized business within a month (or at year, for that matter) would be quite a feat. It would certainly be hard to do without criminal conduct; i.e. hand-in-the-till as opposed to just not turning up to work, and/or turning up without ever lifting a finger.

    As steve at the pub suggests (June 30th at 2:59 pm) summary dismissal rules have *always* protected employers (large and small) from potential dismissal liability in cases of criminal conduct, and more (he cites “fighting, stealing, not turning up for work, rudeness, chronic laziness & many other deeds of that ilk�). Barring questions of degree around the non-criminal items on this list, I don’t think that anyone disagrees that such employees should be dismissible beyond recourse.

    Tellingly, steve at the pub then acknowledges that this list is not watertight, and cites two examples of where summary dismissal may be successfully challengeable by the sacked employee: stealing from the staff room, and bullying & harassing a colleague. Given that these are *criminal* acts (albeit the second one not automatically so), I’m puzzled as to how these come to be used as supposedly borderline examples of unfair dismissal’s overreach, aka summary dismissal’s toothlessness.

    Without a logical/legal explanation here, there must be a cultural one, I figure. From casually perusing pseudo-current-affairs TV (which runs occasional stories on this very topic) and the direct experience of Ken Parish as employer (although here I’m guessing the bookkeeper’s gender), http://www.clubtroppo.com.au/2005/05/30/a-dissident-view-of-wrongful-dismissal cases that involve (or potentially could have, in Ken’s case) employees with elephantine hides – sacked for criminal conduct, but suing for unfair dismissal – seem invariably to feature females as protagonists (= the employee). Since steve at the pub is an employer, I’d be interested in his practical experience of this gender-weighted theory.

    If it’s true, then the legislative crackdown on unfair dismissal has obviously been barking up the wrong (= gender-blind) tree. The correct remedy should be gender-specific statutory horses-for-courses here, and/or for employers to rationally price such risk into their hiring decisions. (E.g: a male bar-person may well be less agile, pervable at, and generally smiley than a female one, but the latter (only) carries potential business-destroying, macro-risk.

    If nothing else then, the Right should be decrying the latest changes for the way they bury, and so misprice business risk. Or do they regard it as the Government’s job to stop them from employing potential toxic time-bombs?

  5. observa
    July 2nd, 2006 at 13:30 | #5

    An interesting insight into how big unions (and big business) really take the beggar thy neighbour path. ABC’s Inside Business with Alan Kohler doing a rundown on the problems of the US car industry, in particular GM’s problems. When the industry was making good profits, the companies and the unions did lavish deals on medicare and pensions for workers. Now the change in market conditions sees one auto worker supporting 3 pensions nowadays and placing uncompetitive lead in US auto companies’ saddlebags to the tune of $1500-$1600 per car produced. You don’t have to be a mechanic to work out who pays that lavish union due now, with another 50,000 layoffs predicted in the next year. Unions-spreading the pain!

  6. stoptherubbish
    July 2nd, 2006 at 16:10 | #6

    Observa,
    You really should read something before you rush to print. In the US business successfully evaded such socialistic and enterprpsie destroying notions as universal health care and industry super funds. So guess what? These benefits were included as part of the remuneration deal that auto and steel unions made with their employers. Now the companies are crying ‘poor’, because they say they can’t afford these liabilities. Whether this is true or not, I have never been in favour of enterprise based deals such as pensions and health care for precisely the reasons that are now becoming clear. Health care and pensions should be provided by the state, and should be paid for by universal contributions, so that risks and costs are as equitably shared as possible, providng both cheaper and more effective coverage across the board.

    The CEO of GM said exactly that about health care when explaining his decision to move GM ops from the US to Canada.

  7. observa
    July 2nd, 2006 at 16:55 | #7

    “In the US business successfully evaded such socialistic and enterprpsie destroying notions as universal health care and industry super funds.”

    But apparently the unionised auto and steel industries didn’t. Would there be any particular reason for that? Did the local corner store or mum and dad business accede to such ‘enterprising destroying notions’? Pity their kids have to pay the price now of all that big biz, big union intertemporal price fixing wouldn’t you say?

  8. July 2nd, 2006 at 18:24 | #8

    Paul Watson, not only have you completely missed the point, you are talking through your hat.

    Despite all those reasons (ie, criminal offences) for which an employee could be dismissed, the reality was somewhat different.

    As anybody who was in Australia during the time of dimissal prohibition, it was near impossible to dismiss a recalcitrant, lazy, sour or uncooperative emloyee.

    There was the “three written warnings”, the “counselling” to be provided, & all the other rot, at the end of which, if there was still a dismissal, there was quite likely an automatic appeal funded by a union. This served to hold to financial ransom enterprises which did not have a dedicated legal department, or had less funds than the union.

    The unions funded these unjust claims purely as a way to shakedown honest & hardworking employers. Usually such cases were settled by an out of court payment to the employee which was less than the amount required by the employer to fund the case & win. The unions counted on this, and they can only blame themselves for the change of laws.

    NO OTHER ACTIVITIY in this country has ever been as reprehensible, as disgusting, or as deserving of contempt, as the union behaviour during the time of the unfair dismissal laws.

    Only the supremely stupid, or those who desire a soviet style of disaster inflicted upon australia, could possibly support such insane laws.

  9. Stephen L
    July 2nd, 2006 at 18:39 | #9

    I’m no expert in unfair dismissal laws, but I’ve set out below the cases of sacking I’ve witnessed. For those who can’t be bothered wading through, the clear pattern is that the higher up the organisation you are, the more likely it is that you will come out of things fine if you are sacked, even if your offence is far more serious than the person well below you.

    I note that no one seemed at all worried about unfair dismissal laws when summilarly sacking someone for some minor theft. To be clear, I think theft is a perfectly good grounds for sacking someone, even if the amount is pretty small, but my experience certainly contradicts those who claim to not be able to get rid of criminally inclined staff.

    At a medium sized employer I used to work for (about 100 full time staff and 200 casuals) there were four cases of people being dismissed, (aside from a whole bunch made redundant when income fell).

    One senior manager committed serious fraud and was sacked straight out, but was never prosectured for clearly criminal offences. Given the scale of the fraud a lot of people questioned how the CEO could not have known. Investigation demonstrated that the CEO had been turning up for roughly 3 days a week for some months, was charging extraordinary amounts for business lunches, ane had fluffed some easy opportunities to save tens of thousands of dollars. He was sacked for all this, but the specific grounds were that some of his lunch expenses were clearly fraudulent – in one case he charged for two lavish lunches on the one day, one in Townsville and one in Melbourne.

    The next person was a low level staffer who was caught stealing some biscuits. He claimed he was taking them for his child’s birthday party and intended to replace them the following Monday.

    The third was a middle manager who turned out to be taking major kickbacks to buy food that was passed its use-by date.

    All pretty open and shut cases in a sense, but there was a clear difference in what happened to them. The low level individual lost his job over a few dollars worth of biscuits, and was never heard of again. The CEO sued on the basis of his contract and was paid a substantial amount to settle, despite the fact that more evidence of fraud had emerged after he was gone. A couple of years later I was at a new employer and found myself a few desks away from the middle manager, who was in a position which would have paid at least as much as her old job. I have no idea if she committed fraud there as well, but I got to hear her having personal conversations for most of the day and never seeming to do any actual work.

    It seems as though once you reach a certain level you are a protected species, and even if you lose your job you’ll get a good reference if not a big payout, but that those at the bottom get no second chances.

  10. SJ
    July 2nd, 2006 at 22:36 | #10

    SATP Says:

    As anybody who was in Australia during the time of dimissal prohibition, it was near impossible to dismiss a recalcitrant, lazy, sour or uncooperative emloyee.

    There was the “three written warnings�, the “counselling� to be provided, & all the other rot, at the end of which, if there was still a dismissal, there was quite likely an automatic appeal funded by a union. This served to hold to financial ransom enterprises which did not have a dedicated legal department, or had less funds than the union.

    What rubbish. I’m a director of a non-profit that employs about a dozen people at any one time. Staff come and go, and some had to be dismissed. We keep proper records, and there was never any umming and arring about dismissing someone because of the unfair dismissal provisions.

    Sounds to me like you’re possibly:

    a) Incapable of dealing properly with staff, or
    b) Incapable of dealing with the regulations, whether by personal failing on your own part, inability to delegate, or financial precariousness.

  11. Terje
    July 2nd, 2006 at 23:05 | #11

    I’m a director of a company and I think that many times I probably fit into catagory b. Like most people in business (and most people on the planet) I have a number of personal failings, I periodically suffer an inability to delegate and at various times the financialy position of the company has been precarious. Which all contribute in part towards the reason why I am glad the regulations are now gone.

  12. SJ
    July 2nd, 2006 at 23:51 | #12

    I also have to deal with OHS laws, which are intended to reduce injury and death in the workplace.

    The OHS laws are necessary, in order to prevent callous jerks such as yourself from causing injury to others, because of your personal failings.

  13. July 2nd, 2006 at 23:54 | #13

    I can only agree with you Terje.

    SJ, you got no idea if you suggest it was easy, trouble free, or simple to dismiss troublesome or useless employees during the unfair dismissal laws time. The antics & attitude of the idle, useless and scheming has been discussed aplenty, I don’t need to go into it again. If you don’t remember the reality, you weren’t in Australia, either as an employee or an employer.

    The most avid supporters of the law changes are my long term employees, who had to work(?) alongside and deal with as an equal, all those whose idling, scheming and bludging was protected by the unfair dismissal laws.

    I must confess to being outcome driven, rather than procedure driven, a trait which is rather common once you are dealing with your own money, and economic survival is paramount. B would certainly apply to me, I cannot even keep track of the number of acts & laws I am supposed to comply with, or even who the regulating authorities are. Each is a complex set of regulations, which serve no actual purpose other than to cost me time & money, the complete removal of almost every regulation I comply with would not alter the standard of service I deliver to my customers one iota.

    Your category A, dealing with staff, is not a template operation, it is never simple, each person is an individual, & anyone who treats all staff the same, or believes that all staff can be “handled” is going to have a lot in common with Mr. Bean.

    To you they may be “staff”, but to me they are people, and standard people handling skills apply. No matter what, there are going to be people who are difficult to deal with.

    Perhaps you would be able to “deal properly” with many of the staff I am forced to deal with in the circumstances of an adversarial dismissal situation. I hope that you have never had to deal with such situations, & I hope you never do. The underclass can be a handful for anyone who has to deal with them.

  14. July 2nd, 2006 at 23:58 | #14

    Whoa! SJ, who are you calling a “callous jerk”? Looking into the mirror are we?

    Please list the injuries which I or Terje have caused others, and how they are due to our/my personal failings.

    If you know about regulations, you know this will not end here if you are referring to me, and you know what the penalties to you will/can be.

    Time to put your money where your mouth is: Or admit you have bitten off more than you can chew.

  15. SJ
    July 3rd, 2006 at 00:03 | #15

    The most avid supporters of the law changes are my long term employees, who had to work(?) alongside and deal with as an equal, all those whose idling, scheming and bludging was protected by the unfair dismissal laws.

    This is just standard right wing bullsh*t. It’s no more true now than it was when I first heard it when I started work almost thirty years ago.

  16. SJ
    July 3rd, 2006 at 00:07 | #16

    SATP Says:

    Whoa! SJ,…

    Time to put your money where your mouth is: Or admit you have bitten off more than you can chew.

    What a tosser.

  17. July 3rd, 2006 at 00:09 | #17

    You best way out of your predicament SJ is to (due to the time of night) confess to posting under the influence. It is quite believable.

  18. SJ
    July 3rd, 2006 at 00:16 | #18

    Predicament?

  19. Terje
    July 3rd, 2006 at 00:25 | #19

    The OHS laws are necessary, in order to prevent callous jerks such as yourself from causing injury to others, because of your personal failings.

    SJ,

    Did you just call me a callous jerk. Would that be another example of your pathelogical tendency to hurl abusive names at people? You really should get some professional assistance.

    Regards,
    Terje.

  20. July 3rd, 2006 at 00:26 | #20

    Your posting at 11:51 pm SJ.

    I have already called upon you to put forward examples of the injuries I have caused to others due to my personal failings.

    In the morning your legal counsel will advise you of your predicament.

    However I am prepared to forgive you, as your responses are clearly those of someone who is posting when in their cups.

    Meanwhile we are being very naughty, getting away from the topic. JQ is sure to awaken tomorrow & be so startled he shall spill coffee & scrambled eggs into his beard when reading what on this thread.

  21. July 3rd, 2006 at 00:27 | #21

    Rather discredits everything else you have posted on this (& any other) threads SJ. Quite a shame, as you were plausible, until the bottle took control.

  22. jquiggin
    July 3rd, 2006 at 09:23 | #22

    OK, this one seems to have got out of control. I’m closing comments now.

  23. July 12th, 2006 at 13:31 | #23

    Posted here orignally by mistake. My apologies

    Support Fight of Australian Seamen
    Against Race to the Bottom

    Here’s some links :

    Fight to save seafaring jobs ruled ‘illegal’ by IRC

    Australian Seamen strike against replacement by foreign crew

    I suggest messages of support be sent to the Maritime Union of Australia.

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