Hypocrisy storm for Bill’s bus

The Australian, April 28, 2017:

Bill Shorten’s campaign to stop penalty rate cuts has been ­labelled “hypocritical and shameless” after North Queensland retail employees had their weekend pay slashed and fixed at below award rates when the Opposition Leader ran the Australian Workers Union.

Before Mr Shorten entered parliament, his union negotiated cuts to Sunday penalty rates, ­entering a series of enterprise agreements in which loadings were routinely reduced in central and northern Queensland, leaving workers up to $55 worse off per Sunday shift.

Earlier this month, Mr Shorten travelled to Cairns to ­promote his campaign against penalty rate cuts in “Bill’s Bus”, visiting north Queensland where the AWU represents ­retail workers.

Mr Shorten has mobilised the industrial union movement to pressure Malcolm Turnbull by railing against a Fair Work Commission decision to reduce penalty rates for full-time retail and hospitality workers on Sundays from 200 to 150 per cent.

The former AWU national secretary is building his next election campaign on a dire warning to workers about a hit to their weekend penalty rates.

The Australian can reveal that under Mr Shorten’s watch in 2006, the AWU hatched agreements covering workers at Target, Big W and Just Jeans, where penalty rates were cut at the same rate recommended by the Fair Work Commission in ­February.

A separate 2007 agreement with the Rydges Tradewinds in Cairns saw Sunday penalty rates removed in return for an “all-­purpose hourly rate” that meant a standard rate was paid for overtime and across weekends.

Employment Minister Michaelia Cash yesterday told The Australian the AWU’s record in Queensland undermined the “Bill’s Bus” campaign, saying it exposed Mr Shorten as ­“hypocritical and shameless”.

“When he was leader of the AWU, Bill Shorten oversaw the approval of enterprise agreements which reduced or abolished penalty rates for some of Australia’s lowest workers,” Senator Cash said.

“Mr Shorten shamelessly drove his ‘protecting penalty rates’ bus through areas in north Queensland where his own union struck deals which reduced or abolished penalty rates for local workers.”

A spokesman for Mr Shorten did not deny the former union leader knew of the agreements but described attempts to link him directly with the AWU deals as “ludicrous and laughable”.

“Bill had no personal involvement in these negotiations,” the spokesman said.

“Work Choices, which ­Malcolm Turnbull voted for, stripped away minimum pro­tections and fundamentally weakened the bargaining ­position of workers and their ­representatives.”

The agreements covering workers with Target, Big W and Just Jeans were modelled on nat­ional deals negotiated by the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association and in passages replicated them word-for-word, including pay rates in the Big W and Just Jeans agreements.

The pay regimes were implemented by the AWU in central and north Queensland where the union claims coverage of the retail sector. An analysis of the agreements showed that on Sunday shifts, across an average working day of 7.6 hours, workers covered by the AWU deals were between $46 and $55 worse off. The union deals included a higher base rate of pay to compensate workers during the week — a practice known as the “rolling-up” of weekend rates — and which Labor says is a key ­difference between union-negot­iated deals and the industrial ­umpire’s cut to pay-packets.

The agreement for Big W workers in north Queensland, which covered about 780 employees, set Sunday pay at time-and-a-half, meaning a level-one store associate received $192.52 for a full day’s work. Under the award, an employee was entitled to double time, meaning they could receive up to $244.40 for working Sundays — a difference of nearly $52. The higher “base rate” in the AWU agreement — used to justify the cut in Sunday penalty rates to 150 per cent — meant a level-one retail associate at Big W who worked from Monday to Friday was just over $30-a-week better off. Retail employees covered by the AWU agreement with Target (capturing about 129 people) were left more than $55 out of pocket for working on a Sunday when compared with the award, taking home $179.13 rather than $234.96 they were ­entitled to.

The AWU agreement with Just Jeans, covering 119 workers, left a level-one sales assistant more than $52 worse off for working on a Sunday. Under the AWU agreement, the sales assistant would have received $188.49 instead of the $241.07 specified in the Victorian Shops Interim Award, which was specified by the union in the agreement as the relevant point of comparison.

The AWU agreement with the Rydges Tradewinds in Cairns was not based on a model SDA agreement, but removed penalty rates and replaced them with a standard rate that rolled up ordinary pay, weekend penalties, overtime and meal allowances. Under the Queensland Hotels and Resorts Award, Sunday penalty rates were set at 150 per cent, meaning the AWU agreement left workers more than $46 worse off for working Sunday.

A union source said yesterday that while Mr Shorten might not have been directly involved in negotiations, he was likely to have known about the AWU practice of adapting SDA agreements to cover Queensland retail workers.