By Jeffrey Phillips SC*
Since the electoral debacle caused by the Work Choices legislation, no major political party has sought to address workplace reform in any significant way. Bernard Keane, writing for crikey.com in late May, attacked the industrial relations Jeremiahs who are now only found in the business media. He suggested that workplace reform is difficult to justify in a climate where industrial disputation is low, very strong employment growth is evident and the much heralded wages break out has refused to take place.
Irrespective of the current state of the economy, I believe that workplace reform has to be a high priority for political parties and industry groups. This has come about with the rise of the internet and in particular the ubiquitous nature of online shopping, especially with eBay. Earlier in 2011, Solomon Lew and Gerry Harvey took on the international online industry, once again raising the spectre of protectionism. Despite what the retail moguls in Australia say, internet retail marketing is here to stay and its effect will only increase. Whether workplace reform itself can successfully save the retail and other internet-exposed industries is a moot point. One might also suggest that the local retailers themselves should embark upon the serious discounting which is found particularly in American shopping centres and outlet malls. How can Australian retailers compete with overseas shops that have no idea what penalty rates are, let alone pay them? One wonders how many members the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association has just lost from the demise of the bookstore giants Borders and Angus & Robertson? As reported in The Australian on 20 June 2011, a Mosman and Warringah Mall jeweller Peter Dracakis closes one of his stores on weekends and has family members working the shifts that attract the highest penalty rates. In another example, a golfing buddy told me that he won an eBay auction for a set of TaylorMade irons delivered for $A400 less than the best purchase price in Australia. He purchased them from a US golf wholesaler that had a 100% positive rating on eBay from a feedback of 60,000 purchases at 1 am on Saturday (Sydney time). The irons were delivered by UPS to an office in the Sydney central business district the following Monday at 10 am. Such examples are being repeated across the country.
However, it is not just the retail industry which is under threat by the internet, but also secretarial and even legal services. Some firms in Sydney have their routine typing done with a same-day turnaround in English-speaking Third World countries such as the Philippines and India. Some document-based legal work is now being outsourced to Indian law firms at a fraction of the cost in Australia. Websites can be designed in developing countries for less than a quarter of the cost of having a website designed by local web developers. With the low-cost speed of the air couriers, such as FedEx and UPS, you can have a tailor-made suit fitted and measured in Melbourne or Brisbane, have the first fitting a week later, and wait another 10 days for the finished product at a fraction of the price. If a tailor in an Australian capital city charges $A2000 for a bespoke bag of fruit, a $A250 price tag in Bangkok can even make a weekend return flight to the Thai capital cheap. On the other hand, perhaps all this is part of our foreign aid to developing countries? That is, not just giving formal aid packages, but in effect exporting jobs? An unintended consequence or what?
Workplace reform is always a debate worth having.
The citation for this comment is (2011) 2 WR 82.
*Jeffrey Phillips SC is a Barrister with an employment law practice at Denman Chambers, Sydney. He is a General Editor of and a regular contributor to Workplace Review. For more information visit www.jeffreyphillipssc.com.