In all the commentary on the Qantas dispute, perhaps the most salient point was raised by journalist Claire Harvey. She was on the Meet the Press panel on Channel Ten, where the principal guest was the Workplace Relations Minister, Senator Chris Evans. Discussion soon turned to the issue of job security.
There are numerous disputes between several trade unions and Qantas management over a range of issues. However, the gist of the various disagreements turns on the assertion by Qantas’s management of its right to manage and the demand by trade union leaders that their members should enjoy job security.
This is an unusual industrial dispute in that pay is not the principal driver.
About halfway through the interview, Harvey asked the telling question: ”How can any private company guarantee job security into the future? Isn’t that an impossibility?” To which Senator Evans replied: ”Look, I think that’s right. I think Qantas are saying that they’re under commercial pressure to change their business.”
Evans went on to refine his answer. He declared that ”the 30,000-odd employees of Qantas have a right to pursue their job security”. The minister added that ”those clashing objectives . . . have to be resolved by either negotiation or before Fair Work Australia”.
The problem with the second half of Evans’s answer is that it completely contradicted the initial response.
The fact is that, in an increasingly globalised world, it is impossible for a private company, such as Qantas, to guarantee job security.
Only the public sector – where employment is funded by the taxpayer – can deliver permanency in employment.
Qantas is an international airline competing on the world markets in an industry that historically returns small profits on funds invested. It cannot guarantee jobs without inhibiting its business operations.
Trade unions – representing pilots, engineers or baggage handlers – cannot prevail in the face of this economic fact of life. Nor can tribunals such as Fair Work Australia.
If the Qantas dispute is not settled by negotiation between the parties and it goes to arbitration, Fair Work Australia cannot guarantee job security.
It’s possible that Fair Work Australia’s tribunal, which is comprised primarily of former barristers and one-time trade union officials, might direct Qantas to preserve jobs in Australia. However, it cannot deliver on such a ruling since no tribunal can stop any business from scaling back on employment or going out of business due to its inability to compete on world markets.
On ABC TV news on Friday, the serial shareholder media tart Jack Tilburn got prime coverage when he declared outside the Qantas annual general meeting: ”The workers aren’t getting proper salaries and wages and conditions. They’re being strangled, they’re being bulldozed, they’re being knocked over.”
Tilburn ended up talking of himself in the third person when he said about Qantas: ”It’s a board of dictators, says Jack Tilburn, not a board of directors.”
The fact is that Qantas pilots, engineers and baggage handlers enjoy some of the best pay and conditions in the international airline industry.
And that is precisely why Qantas management cannot guarantee that all future employees in all Qantas businesses can be remunerated at similar rates.
Journalists and editors should know this better than anyone. There is no job security in the Australian media industry – outside the taxpayer-funded ABC.
Likewise, there is no job security in financial services or retail or agriculture or construction or even mining.
No private industry that competes in the marketplace can guarantee job security.
However well-meaning, governments cannot prevail against markets.
It is not surprising that the Gillard government’s decision to re-regulate the labour market under the Fair Work Act has been accompanied by an increase in unemployment and part-time and casual employment.
The Herald’s economics correspondent, Peter Martin, in his analysis of the recent Bureau of Statistics figures commented that ”Australia has created so few jobs in the past three months that at the present rate it would take a quarter of a century to reach the 500,000 promised in the federal budget”.
In April, Julia Gillard delivered a significant speech to The Sydney Institute on the dignity of work. Her message was that it was in the interests of all Australians that the long-term unemployed should find jobs. Good point. The problem with the Prime Minister’s address was that it focused on only one side of the problem.
Sure, the unemployed should be encouraged to work. But who is going to give them a job, particularly full-time employment?
Here the unfair dismissal laws provide a real disincentive for small business operators to give a long-term welfare recipient a job. Why should anyone take such a risk if the government makes it harder to terminate employees for poor performance? Fine sentiments do not make, or retain, a job.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.