Information Digest – December 2023

Unions exist because we combine to combat the power of bosses and to expand the rights of workers. The union is the workers who are members.

This month we look at the basics starting from teaching worker rights at school. Protecting rights around gender, hours of work, health and safety and respect. The nitty gritty of your work and life.

Resources

Women and low-income earners miss out in a superannuation system most Australians think is unfair

Antonia Settle

Most Australians think the superannuation system is unfair, with only one in three agreeing the retirement savings scheme is fair for most Australians, according to a survey conducted for the University of Melbourne.

In fact, only about half of those surveyed agreed superannuation works well for them.

These results contradict a conventional view based on earlier studies and held by academics and many in the personal finance sector, that Australians give little thought to superannuation.

One in five Australians see the superannuation system as well suited to the needs of women and of low-income households, while 70% believe super favours wealthy households.

Read the full article

Labor Education Starts in School

Sonali Kolhatkar

Giving K-12 students the language, information, and tools they need to protect themselves from workplace exploitation is a critical tool to reversing the nation’s capitalism-fueled inequality.

American society is steeped in narratives about economic prosperity shaped by capitalist ideas of individualism and a corporate culture of exploitation. Children are exposed to such ideas in schools and via pop culture and are required to put them into practice at a young age by proving their worth in ever-competitive environments to win college entry or employment. But rarely are young people taught about their rights as workers and about the naturally adversarial role between employers and employees. In California, thanks to labor organizers, that’s about to change.

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Fast Fashion Is Antithetical to Workers’ Rights

Sonali Kolhatkar

Bangladesh is the world’s second-largest exporter of apparel in the world, after China. It is the South Asian nation’s largest industry, employing more than four million workers, a majority of them women. The largest share of Bangladesh-made garments is bought and sold by United States retailers, which include recognizable name brands such as H&M, Zara, Calvin Klein, American Eagle, and Tommy Hilfiger.

Garment workers had been taking home a meagre pay of about $75 a month, and have demanded a nearly threefold increase to about $205 a month. When the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) initially set new wages at $90 a month, the mass protests began. When the BGMEA then responded by raising wages to $112 a month, the protests actually intensified. According to Al Jazeera, “more than 10,000 workers staged protests in factories and along highways to reject the panel’s offer.”

The industry has been steadily growing and, thanks to the cooperation of government heads such as Sheikh Hasina—who has been fixated on “growth” at all costs—it is expected to more than double its market size over six years, growing from $91 billion in 2021 to a projected $185 billion by 2027. Meanwhile, the workers who fuel the profits behind that expansion are facing starvation.

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Here’s what happens to workers when coal-fired power plants close. It isn’t good

Dan Andrews and Elyse Dwyer

Another 18 coal-fired power plants are set to close in coming decades. Our study suggests that while these closures will benefit the nation as a whole, helping fight the existential threat of global warming, they may impose foreseeable and long-lasting costs on an identifiable group of workers.

workers made redundant in coal-fired power plants did much worse than the overall average. They earned 69% less in the year after they lost their jobs, earning a mere third of what they had.

Some of the loss would have been due to earning less in new jobs, and some of it would have been due to working fewer hours in new jobs. The tax data doesn’t enable us to tell which is which. Both would be important.

And for workers who lost jobs in coal-fired power plants, the effects lingered.

Four years after being made redundant, the workers in coal-fired power plants earned 50% less. On average across all industries, the workers made redundant earned only 29% less.

There are at least four reasons why the incomes of displaced coal-fired power station workers are likely to be lower than the incomes of other displaced workers.

One is that many coal-fired power plant workers possess highly job-specific skills (related to operating specialist equipment) that aren’t readily transferable to other jobs, or at least not to other jobs in that location.

Another is that many coal-fired power plant workers derive high wages from strong union representation, meaning they are likely to earn less if they switch to less-unionised sectors.

Yet another is that coal-fired power plants are often a major source of local employment and provide support to other employers, meaning that when they close the overall unemployment rate in their region increases, making it hard for the workers they displace to get good jobs unless they move.

And another is that they are usually older. Bureau of Statistics data suggests that in 2010 55% of workers in coal-fired power plants were aged 45 or older compared to 35% in the economy at large.

Workers aged 40 and over do much worse after redundancies than younger workers, and workers in coal-fired power plants even more so.

Half a century ago when Prime Minister Gough Whitlam slashed tariffs on imports by 25% in an effort to fight the lesser threat of double-digit inflation, he extended special support to those the decision would put out of work.

Whitlam offered every displaced worker retraining and “a weekly amount equal to his [sic] average wage in the previous six months until he obtains or is found suitable alternative employment”.

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NZ’s always-on culture has stretched the 8-hour workday – should the law contain a right to disconnect?

Amanda Reilly

When Wellington carpenter Samuel Parnell began the struggle for an eight-hour working day back in 1840, he could have never foreseen how modern work culture would evolve. But he would no doubt empathise with the challenges faced by today’s workers.

History tells us that Parnell, recently arrived from London, agreed to take a job building a store on the proviso he only work eight hours a day. He reportedly told his would-be employer:

“There are twenty-four hours per day given us; eight of these should be for work, eight for sleep, and the remaining eight for recreation and in which for men to do what little things they want for themselves.”

But despite New Zealand workers being among the first in the world to fight for and claim the eight-hour working day, the right to disconnect has not appeared anywhere on the local policy horizon. It’s a conversation the country should have.

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The first New Organising Conference

Jane Holgate

Workers [in the UK] have lost nearly £10,000 in the last nine years. Guardian journalist Aditya Chakrabortty has shown that if the same share of Gross Domestic Product was paid out in wages today as it was in 1976, the average working-age household would have an extra £9,744 a year. This is why many people don’t have enough money for life’s basics.

Workers haven’t lost this £10,000 a year through laziness––it was part of a calculated strategy to shift more wealth to capital.

This conference was held in September 2023. The Ella Baker School of Organising has various online resources here.

It all looks a bit stop and start but this conference obviously aims to reactivate things.

Ella Baker “played a key role in some of the most influential organizations of the time, including the NAACP, Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee”.

She was a largely behind-the-scenes organizer whose career spanned more than five decades. In New York City and the South, she worked alongside some of the most noted civil rights leaders of the 20th century, including W. E. B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, A. Philip Randolph, and Martin Luther King Jr. She also mentored many emerging activists, such as Diane Nash, Stokely Carmichael, and Bob Moses, as leaders in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Baker criticized professionalized, charismatic leadership; she promoted grassroots organizing, radical democracy, and the ability of the oppressed to understand their worlds and advocate for themselves. She realized this vision most fully in the 1960s as the primary advisor and strategist of the SNCC.

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Should we abolish the TUC?

Callum Cant and Geoff Earl

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) was formed in 1868 as an umbrella organisation for trade unionists in the UK. Its purpose was to bring unions together and ‘take action in parliamentary matters pertaining to the general interest of the working classes’. Today it has 48 affiliated unions representing over 5.5 million people – almost 90 per cent of all trade unionists in the UK. It describes its mission as to ‘campaign for more and better jobs, and a more equal, more prosperous country’.

With industrial action on the rise and many unions struggling to defend workers’ real-terms pay and conditions, let alone secure improvements, we asked Callum Cant of the University and College Union (UCU) and Geoff Earl of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) to explore the role of the TUC in today’s industrial landscape. Despite the recent wave of strikes, union membership remains in decline and anti-union legislation continues to be passed, is the TUC up to the challenge or should we abolish it?

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Gender equality: focus on the world of work

Barbara Gerstenberger

According to the European Working Conditions Telephone Survey, men and women do not work in the same sectors, the same occupations or the same workplaces. The EWCTS conducted in 2021 found that 60 per cent of workers in the European Union were surrounded by more co-workers of their own gender than of the other. Only one-fifth worked in mixed-gender workplaces where the shares of women and men were roughly equal.

And two-thirds had a male boss. For a woman, there was at least an even chance her manager was female but only 20 per cent of male workers reported working for a female boss.

Working time is another big divider. On average in the EU, in 2021 men spent nearly six hours more per week than women on paid work: men reported working a little over 42 hours, while women worked close to 37. This is largely explained by the fact that women are more likely to work part-time.

Of course, this does not mean women work less. The survey also asked about hours spent on unpaid work, such as housework, cooking or caring for children or other relatives. Here the picture was more than reversed: women spent on average 13 hours more than men on unpaid work each week. Add the hours spent on paid work and women end up with the longer working week—a combined 70 hours compared with men’s 63.

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Pay transparency: closing the gender pay gap

Jane Pillinger

The gender pay gap in the European Union remains stubbornly high at 12.7 per cent, while the pension gap between men and women is far wider, at 29 per cent. The problem of unequal pay for work of equal value is structural and can be addressed only if feminised jobs can be compared with jobs in other, higher-paid sectors.

Deeply rooted, historical pay inequalities, as well as women’s predominance in low-paid and precarious work, account for a significant part of the gender pay gap. Prejudices and stereotypes have led to the undervaluing of predominantly female jobs, with the skills women acquire through their life experiences underrated or even overlooked. Gender pay inequalities widen even further when we take account of mutually-reinforcing discrimination faced by racialised, migrant, disabled and LGBT+ women workers.

Data from the International Labour Organization show that the higher the proportion of women in an enterprise, the lower their wages compared with sectors with similar numbers of employees and coverage by collective agreements.

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Stress levels in Australian workplaces among the highest as we battle constant interruptions and irritating colleagues

Libby (Elizabeth) Sander

As staff have returned to the workplace they have been confronted with the thing employees dislike most about open plan offices, according to research: noise.

Noise has significant implications for both employee well-being and performance. Our research found relatively moderate levels of open-plan office noise caused a 25% increase in negative mood and a 34% increase in physiological stress.

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Climate change and PPE combine to increase heat risks

With environmental temperatures rising, certain workers face an increased risk of heat strain made worse by PPE requirements, increasing the likelihood of health problems and highlighting the need for “adequate cooling provisions”, a study has concluded.

Focusing on the healthcare sector, the study found workers’ core body temperatures, heart rates and skin temperatures all significantly increased when they completed care-related tasks in relatively high temperatures.

Prolonged exposure to such conditions places healthcare workers at a greater risk of heat strain and its effects, the researchers say.

Effects of heat and personal protective equipment on thermal strain in healthcare workers: part B—application of wearable sensors to observe heat strain among healthcare workers under controlled conditions.

Razan Wibowo, Viet Do, Caroline Quartucci, Daniela Koller,  Hein A. M. Daanen, Dennis Nowak, Stephan Bose‑O’Reilly, Stefan Rakete.

(via OHS Alert)

Read the full article

Respect@Work

The Federal Government has introduced the “final legislative reform” driven by recommendations from the landmark Respect@Work report, with a Bill removing a deterrent to workers bringing sexual harassment claims.

The Australian Human Rights Commission Amendment (Costs Protection) Bill 2023 constitutes the Government’s response to recommendation 25 of the report – that the Government amend the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986 to “insert a cost protection provision”.

This reform will overcome the deterring effect that the risk of having to pay a respondent’s costs has on victim-survivors seeking justice by commencing unlawful discrimination proceedings in Federal courts, Federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus told Parliament.

“This Bill would ensure that where an applicant is successful in proceedings on one or more grounds, the respondent would pay the applicant’s costs. This would operate to protect applicants from an adverse costs order where they are successful in a case,” he said.

“However, if the applicant’s unreasonable act or omission caused the applicant to incur costs, the court would not be required to order the respondent to pay those costs.”

The Federal Government last year passed laws implementing seven of the report’s recommendations (see related article), and the changes came into effect in December, making amendments to the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984 and the AHRC Act.

The most significant of these amendments adopted Jenkins’ recommendation to impose a positive duty on employers to take reasonable and proportionate measures to prevent sexual harassment, sex discrimination and victimisation.

The legislation expressly acknowledged that the new duty “does not limit, or otherwise affect” their duty under WHS laws.

The new laws also prohibit conduct creating “hostile” workplace environments, which includes displaying obscene or pornographic materials, engaging in general sexual banter, or making offensive jokes, which can result in people of one sex feeling unwelcome or excluded.

Also in 2022, the Government passed laws expressly banning workplace sexual harassment under the Commonwealth Fair Work Act 2009.

Read the full article

A Worker-Driven Model for Protecting Labor Rights Is Successful — and Expanding

Derek Seidman

Unlike corporate models, “worker-driven social responsibility” puts workers at the center of protecting their rights.

If you consume products from capitalist markets today — and, of course, most of us do — you’ve surely seen your share of labels on name brand items promising that your purchase is “ethical”: fair trade coffee, sustainable clothing. The list goes on.

Many of these efforts, however, amount to little more than corporate marketing, a kind of image control that became fashionable beginning in the 1990s with the exposure of horrid labor conditions across global supply chains. But one model has built up a proven record of upholding crucial protections for the most at-risk workers within those supply chains: worker-driven social responsibility (WSR).

Born out of bottom-up struggle at the turn of the 21st century by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), WSR models are based on legally binding agreements with key supply chain actors that uphold worker-shaped codes of conduct that are strongly monitored and enforced, often by workers themselves, and are backed by market sanctions against violators. While corporate-aligned models have failed, numerous studies show that WSRs have been profoundly effective, in no small part because, for workers, “the need to develop and pursue an effective strategy to define, claim, and protect their human rights is existential, affecting their very lives,” writes Susan Marquis, a Princeton University professor, in a recent report.

Read the report here.

Marquis’s report, published by Harvard Law School’s Center for Labor and a Just Economy and Clean Slate for Worker Power, surveys the failures of corporate social responsibility and multi-stakeholder initiatives against the successes of the WSR model. Marquis, who also wrote a 2017 book about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, shows how the WSR model is expanding, and argues that U.S. federal policies could support its further growth.

Read the report here.