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Thursday, September 07, 2006

Morally Wrong

You're probably all tired of hearing myself and other bloggers drone on about how bloody awful WorkChoices is, but here's the thing: WorkChoices is bloody awful. There's not much else you can say, really, and the latest industrial dispute to hit the headlines is a great illustration.

Workers at Melbourne's Heinemann Electric have gone on strike after they were docked a week's pay for refusing to work overtime.

Now, naysayers are pointing out that this in fact is legal and was before WorkChoices. This is correct, but it doesn't make it any more pleasant. When I was working as a workplace delegate, I handled a case in which workers were told, with little notice, that they were to be paid in arrears rather than in advance. Therefore, to even everything up, you'll just go without pay for a week, said the company. The workers were aghast. It really provided an insight into how tightly some people live - how some people literally stand at the ATM once a week, waiting for their pay to come through, and deduct the lot of it as soon as it does.

What has changed under WorkChoices is the notion of liking it or lumping it. The sense of moral obligation to workers has not only been completely obliterated, it's been replaced by a mentality that not exercising your full power as an employer - that letting the heart dominate the head - is gravely remiss on your part.

We live in an age where the notion of values has, in a sense, replaced morals. The idea of morality implies an absolutism - some things are `right' and some things are `wrong', and that's it. The concept of `values' is more subjective: under my perception of the world, this is wrong and this is right. Therefore, what was `wrong' once is OK now. Moral obligation is seen as retrograde. Should I invest in property even though it deprives my own children of affordable housing? Absolutely, because making as much money as possible is `right'. Should I bother visiting an elderly relative? No, because putting other priorities ahead of such a moral obligation, such as my own leisure time, is no longer `wrong'. I may appear to be extrapolating this rather father, but in the end, it is the mentality - the values - that lie at the root of a great deal of social inequality.

Do the workers also have a moral obligation to their employer? Of course. But in the WorkChoices world, the playing field is more uneven than it ever was. When the ACTU's Greg Combet describes the action Heinneman are taking against their workers as `morally wrong', he's talking about something that goes beyond laws, and touches on the reason why a lot of people are concerned about WorkChoices - not only the hardcore unionists and usual suspects, but representatives of major churches and social services. WorkChoices is not only an unfair law, it's one which enshrines certain values in the running of a country. Some of the values would once have been considered unfair, even - yes - `wrong'. If refusing to pay people who have done an honest day's work isn't wrong, in any construction of the concept, I don't know what is.

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