Australia’s Industrial Relations System Is Designed to Enrich Capital at Workers’ Expense

Since the 1980s, workplace law in Australia has crippled the union movement. Today, it’s a finely tuned machine that exacerbates inequality in order to enrich a small minority of bosses.

Laborers secure freshly harvested bananas at the Liverpool River Bananas farm near Tully, Queensland, Australia, 2015. (Carla Gottgens / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Ben Schneiders’s recently released book, Hard Labour: Wage Theft in the Age of Inequality, is labeled “a dispiriting story of the concentration of power and wealth.” While true enough, it’s also an undersell. Hard Labour is the first honest mainstream depiction of how big capital steals billions from ordinary Australians on a daily basis, aided by conspirators including weirdo ideologues, parliamentary representatives, and henchmen in corrupt mega-unions.

As an investigative journalist for the Age specializing in industrial reporting, Schneiders has form on the topic. Over the last decade, he’s broken countless news stories about some of the largest dodgy employers and wage-theft scandals in Australia. And on top of this, he’s among the minority of Australians who have taken unprotected industrial action in defiance of the nation’s draconian workplace relations system. Schneiders isn’t just an old school journalist who’s done the hard yards digging up the dirt. He’s also a journalist who has stopped pretending that “we’re all in this together.” It’s a neat combination that makes Hard Labour thought-provoking reading for unionists and leftists nationwide.

The Age of Inequality

Hard Labour is largely structured around four well-known industrial scandals. The first explores celebrity chefs exposed for exploiting kitchen staff, while the second investigates retail chain 7-Eleven’s entrapment of vulnerable international students. In the last two, Schneiders probes the corrupt industrial deals signed by the Shop, Distributive and Allied Association (SDA) and the systematic hyperexploitation of migrant workers on Australian farms.

Indeed, Hard Labour paints a grim picture. Even if you’ve followed his reporting over the years, the picture Schneiders paints is worthy of a late-’40s film noir. For example, take the pro–free market H. R. Nicholls Society that plots away so thoroughly in “a fusty, old Anglo-Melbourne” restaurant that it renders itself triumphantly obsolete. Or there are the celebrity chef-backed shell companies that are headquartered in the Caribbean to avoid scrutiny and their legal obligations. Like a magical house of cards, they collapse at the slightest touch — and somehow remain completely unscathed.

Schneiders courteously lampoons the army of lawyers who defend illegally low industrial agreements put forward by major employers. One such agreement cuts wages so badly that in order to be paid the minimum wage, a hypothetical teenage worker would need to take every type of leave in the contract, including blood donor, carer’s, defense, natural disaster, and unpaid leave. And on top of this, they would also need to be off work injured for six months and be made redundant — all in the space of one year. Schneiders reports how one of the solicitors responsible for defending the deal gallingly huffed in court that “the value of intangibles is as old as accounting itself.”

To his credit, Schneiders never brushes over the human toll of the noxious affairs he exposes. He has personally interviewed many of the workers involved and quotes a fair few of them. He doesn’t gloss over their pain, suffering, despair, or perfectly righteous outrage.

In a way, however, the human parts of Hard Labour are there for illustration. What Schneiders really wants is for his readers to focus on a system that is rigged against ordinary people. As he explains, he’s on a mission to reveal

a whirring, self-perpetuating inequality machine . . . that runs from cradle to the grave, creating a parallel society for those who have the good fortune to access the gilded system or are born into it. The machine now appears nearly impossible to stop or slow.

This system has transferred billions from labor to capital and will mount ferocious campaigns to defend its right to continue doing so. Indeed, Schneiders details how he has become a minor victim of such campaigns. He also notes the implicit assumption made by those responsible, that “those with money and connections almost have a right to steal, unlike those with nothing, who can be jailed for far smaller thefts.”

The problem is structural, he argues, and it makes us all “accept the complete lack of democracy in much of our daily lives as the natural order of things.”

The State of the Unions

Apart from neoliberalism and corporate greed, how did we get here? Schneiders offers several suggestions for how to answer this question. The most prominent is the dire state of working-class consciousness and organization.

Hard Labour presents, without a doubt, the most thorough overview of the state of the union movement in a mainstream publication. While sympathetic, it is not flattering. Schneiders doesn’t bother pandering to right-wing talking points; in his view, unions are a force for good. “More than a century ago,” he argues, “the labour movement transformed the country, no matter how unevenly, for the better. It used strikes and the collective power of workers to create an Australia partially in its own image.”

That is, until it didn’t. Schneiders explores the deliberate demobilization of the labor movement in the 1980s, carried out quite openly by the Australian Labor Party (ALP), under the framework of the 1983 Prices and Incomes Accord. This is where he pulls his punches somewhat. Although his account implicitly blames Labor, he remains politely agnostic on the extent of its culpability for our plight.

For example, Schneiders briefly compares socialist Liz Ross’s Stuff the Accord! Pay up! Workers’ Resistance to the ALP-ACTU Accord to conservative Paul Kelly’s The End of Certainty: Power, Politics & Business in Australia. He concludes the comparison by arguing that “neither narrative tells a fuller story of the contradictions arising out of the period, of the costs and benefits.” The section ends with a story about a misguided communist trade union leader who enthusiastically endorsed the Accord. This could gel with arguments put forward by some in the labor movement, who see the Accord as a genuine collective answer to global instability. Such analyses typically maintain that it’s a “vulgar Marxist morality tale” to blame Labor for Australian neoliberalism.

Despite Schneiders’s circumspection, however, on a closer reading he is less sympathetic to the Accord’s apologists, it appears. He is also scathing in his depiction of the large unions that dominate the ALP. Schneiders gives an account, for example, of how leaders of the Australian Workers’ Union forced Labor PM Julia Gillard to maintain the exploitative piece-rate system for fruit pickers. Then, after the Conservatives regained power, the same union leaders pretended to have been against it all along. The result is a convincing portrait of these powerful union leaders as unreliable opportunists.

Schneiders also correctly depicts the SDA as far-right Catholic ideologues who seized control of Australia’s biggest union before offering the nation’s major retailers $40 million per year and zero industrial action in return for exclusive access to new members. Having inflated its membership in collusion with the bosses, the SDA uses its industrial clout in the Labor Party to wreck progressive policy. If it sounds like a genuine conspiracy, that’s because it is — and Schneiders even includes the SDA leadership’s secret Vatican society membership cards for good measure.

Only three unions are held up for any praise, and two of them are independent of the Labor Party. Schneiders congratulates the ALP-affiliated United Workers Union for modest growth and for their willingness to engage in the occasional strike. A nitpicker might argue that the strategic details — “the strike succeeded!” — are a little bare. Similarly, the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) receives praise for having grown its membership and being willing to criticize sellouts like the SDA when needed. The near-complete omission of any discussion of the nation’s most powerful union, the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), is perhaps due more to the domestic violence scandals involving its former leader than a lack of industrial relevance.

However, the real hero of Schneiders’s show is the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU), which emerged in 2016 in opposition to the SDA. Without exaggerating, Hard Labour appreciatively outlines the gains won by RAFFWU while also quoting the union’s secretary, Josh Cullinan, extensively. This makes it clear that Schneiders is sympathetic to the idea that for unions to have a future, they will have to both maintain independence from the Labor Party machine and be willing to engage in industrial militancy.

OK, so What Is to Be Done?

Despite everything that has gone wrong, Schneiders notes accurately that “workers are not storming the barricades” and that “major political change on inequality, for now, appears unlikely.”

Schneiders’s proposed solutions are cautiously diverse and are clearly based on discussions he has had with various labor movement leaders, activists, and experts. It can at times be a little contradictory. For example, the reader is told that “fundamental changes to the workplace relations system are required . . . to allow workers to build power from the ground up.” At the same time, Schneiders also asserts that “the legal and industrial system shifting is often a manifestation of social and economic pressure, rather than the other way around.”

Another example of this confusion is from a union leader that Schneiders quotes who warns that it took revolutions to end the last gilded age — and then advocates for agricultural cooperatives. At one point, Schneiders himself proposes that Australia should emulate “Scandinavian societies,” before suggesting later that richer unions like the CFMEU could just sell their assets to fund worker-owned companies.

But these issues aren’t the main point; Hard Labour is not intended as a manifesto. And it’s admirable that Schneiders expresses support for “a slow rebuilding of activism, of ambition, of a broader project than just refining workplace law.”

It will be interesting to see what follows in mainstream publishing, now that the politely partisan Schneiders has let the cat out of the bag. We might see a flood of titles emulating his talking points. A more depressing possibility is Hard Labour will become an outlier as most journalists and labor movement talking heads fall in silently behind the new Anthony Albanese government. In the end, however, the most important audience for Schneiders’s book is the working people whose story he tells. In their hands, his suggestions could help lay the basis for a revival in union power.