By Belinda Scott
Federal changes to policies on wages and salaries in Canberra may seem high and far off, but they have the potential to have profound effects on most people on the Coffs Coast.
The majority of the region's workers are on award wages or centrally-set minimum wages.
Once the Federal Government gains control of the Senate in July, it is planning to introduce wide-ranging changes to industrial relations laws affecting both award and minimum wages.
These plans include:
n Creating a new system for setting minimum wages which will involve a panel of independent experts.
n Measures to exclude trade unions and third parties from being involved in wage agreements.
n Relying more on mediation of disputes over wages.
n Removal of unfair dismissal laws for small business.
n Using the award system only as a 'safety net' for minimum terms and conditions of employment.
n Using its authority over companies, through the corporations law, to override State industrial relations laws. (It is expected this would cover 90 per cent of award-wage workers).
The Federal Minister for Workplace Relations, Kevin Andrews, will present some proposals for workplace changes to cabinet this month.
The Federal Government believes the proposed changes will boost productivity, an important driver of economic growth.
The Prime Minister has said Australia is 'running out of workers' and has flagged an overhaul of the welfare system to increase worker numbers.
Unions and the State Government believe the changes will trample the rights of vulnerable workers and force down the minimum wage.
Coffs Coast workers are vulnerable to the changes because jobs in the region are scarce and unemployment high. Many workers are already being paid wages at or below the official minimum, and conditions in workplaces vary from excellent to thoroughly unsatisfactory, reflecting a large number of small businesses where the working conditions depend on the owner.
Hospitality, tourism, farming and security are among industries with high levels of casual labour and many poorly-paid workers.
Under the proposed changes, anyone looking for a job in this environment is unlikely to 'rock the boat' by trying to demand more money or better conditions than are offered if the employer can simply bypass them and employ the next person in line.
Many workers, especially young workers, have no experience in negotiating individual contracts and are unlikely to understand the implications of the clauses in their contract, but they will not be able to get advice or support from unions or outsiders. As employment contracts are confidential, they will not know if the deal they are being offered is better or worse than others doing the same job.
Mediation is unlikely to solve all workplace disputes. The changes may benefit Coffs Coast workers by creating more jobs if companies decide to add more workers to their workforce or the move encourages new businesses to establish in the region.
Coffs Harbour employers have identified the removal of the unfair dismissal provisions as allowing them to employ more staff.
The North Coast regional organiser of the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union, Steve Klaassen, said the changes would have a big impact on the Coffs Coast workers he represented, many of whom were on minimum wages.
He said people simply did not realise the long-term impact on their lives the proposals would have.
The president of the Coffs Harbour Chamber of Commerce, Sonja Wallis, said streamlining industrial relations would be beneficial but they were concerned about the (proposed) abolition of award and minimum wages.
"Particularly in regional communities we want to ensure the workers are looked after," she said. "(Loss of awards) could have a serious impact on these communities."