This article was originally posted at http://www.menzieshouse.com.au
“Your rights at work” words that in 2007 brought down the Howard government. The idea that an individual statutory contract could remove pay and condition guaranteed under industrial awards and enterprise bargaining agreements was enough to get voters to take a chance on Labor. The idea that access to service or minimum conditions are “rights” has become so ingrained in our society that almost no one has challenged the notion that such conditions are rights or seriously raised the question do such rights violate peoples’ more fundamental rights.
This issue can be understood by comparing positive rights with negative rights. From the 20th century on, the definition of what could be considered a right has changed from negative rights which protect individual freedom, such as free speech, the right to a fair trial or the right to enter a contract to positive rights, such as the right to an education or healthcare. The problem with positive rights is that unlike negative rights they aren’t a person’s by birth. Positive rights usually require some restriction on another person’s freedom. For example, for me to have the right to education, that by definition forces someone else to pay for it. By comparison the right free speech is mine and all that right does is protect me from someone taking that right away from me.
If one accepts individual freedom as basis for all rights, then workers’ rights cannot be consider rights in the traditional sense. In fact, minimum wages and awards significantly restrict individual freedom. If I wanted to start a career working for a consulting firm but my current skill set doesn’t justify the minimum pay required by industrial regulation then my freedom and the freedom of the employer would have been significantly restricted. Most likely the outcome would be that I would remain unemployed.
A more relevant example to many disadvantaged jobseekers is the Food, Beverage and Tobacco Manufacturing Award 2010 which covers most jobs in the hospitality sector. Under this award it is illegal to pay someone less than $17.88 an hour for an adult employed in a casual capacity. While this may seem to be a small amount to many of us, for some people entering the labour market with insufficient education or life skills this can be a major barrier to employment. For example, someone who has never worked before may need constant supervision, in reality the time spent supervising this person initially may exceed the value of their labour. Preventing such a jobseeker from working at a price an employer is willing to employ them for is violation of their basic right to sell their labour and to enter into contracts.
Much of the industrial relations debate has been framed in the context of international competitiveness and profitability. These arguments have fundamentally missed the point. Employers have no more right to cheap labour then employees have rights to high wages. Ultimately, both parties should be free to pursue their self-interest. The argument against restrictive industrial relations regulations should be argued on the basis of individual freedom.