Tuesday 30 August 2011

To do More With Less

ABC News and Current Affairs has a proud tradition of excellence and impartiality in journalism.

That's why I am loath to criticise that organization. However, I regret to say that their reporting quality seems to have fallen dramatically.

In these pages I have already commented on occasions where the reporting was less than stellar (see here and here).

Again, I'm forced to comment on a quite deficient report: last Monday (29-08-2011) 7:30 segment entitled "Industry Calls for Fair Work Review", by Hayden Cooper.

The segment was introduced by Chris Uhlmann thus:
"Pressure's growing on the Federal Government for a review of the nation's workplace laws. Businesses of all sizes, industry bodies and economists have told 7.30 the system lacks flexibility and they fear Julia Gillard's re-regulation of the industrial landscape could cause serious problems in another downturn. As Hayden Cooper reports, the Reserve Bank governor says he's getting the same message."

During the segment, Mr. Cooper talks, among others, to workers from an unnamed tea house in Canberra, to Scott Norris (general manager of Norris Cleaning Company Pty Ltd), Steve Knott (Mines and Metals Association) and Chris Evans (Workplace Relations minister). I'll limit my observations mainly to Mr. Norris and to the tea house workers.

It's interesting that of all business managers in Australia, Mr. Cooper chose to talk precisely to Mr. Norris.

Don't get me wrong: Mr. Norris' opinions are as valuable as anyone else's. However, I would have thought that a long time supporter's view of Work Choices and opponent of Fair Work and would be biased... against Fair Work. But what do I know about journalism, right?

Had Mr. Cooper or his production team done something as simple as a Google search (see here) they surely would not have failed to notice the first item returned by that search was the 2007 submission (PDF format document housed by the ACT Parliament) Mr. Norris issued to the Select Committee on Working Families in the ACT in Relation to the Workplace Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005.

Now, if Mr. Cooper or his production team were too busy to do a Google search, it seems excessive to expect of them to actually read the submission, where Mr. Norris candidly admits not only his opposition to amendments to the WorkChoice legislation, but also to having problems with the LHMU (union currently known as United Voice, covering cleaners, among other workers) for the union's "abusive" initiative to promote a Code of Best Practice among employers and endorsement of those employers who do sign the Code:
"Over the past few years, I have found the LHMU to be more and more unapproachable, and they have made it clear that they intend to make life very difficult for companies such as ours who refuse to sign their 'Code of Best Practice' document."

But even if Mr. Cooper had known about Mr. Norris' submission, or the LHMU, would he have reported that United Voices still promotes a campaign called Clean Start? By the way the Clean Start's objectives don't seem to me to make life difficult for companies like Mr. Norris':

"Cleaners are committed to quality cleaning in order to provide a safe and pleasant environment for Australian families. However, many of us have no job security, have experienced or witnessed harassment and sometimes do not receive our proper salaries. We therefore support the Clean Start campaign as the way to improve our industry nationally and meet the high standards that are expected of our work. We deserve better."
Incidentally, given Mr. Cooper's question to Mr. Evans (Workplace Relations minister):
"Hayden Cooper: But is it [my comment: Fair Work Act] fulfilling the promise? The current Workplace minister believes it is. [my comment: Mr. Cooper asking now the minister] Do you concede that your workplace relations laws are causing real distress for many small businesses?"

The viewers are left to wonder if Mr. Cooper considers a company that employs "140 people at his four decade-old cleaning business" a small business, when even under the much more "flexible" provisions of WorkChoices a small business was defined as one employing at most 100 people.

But let's leave the cleaning contractor aside.

Mr. Cooper opened his report by representing how busy the tea house young ladies were:
"Hayden Cooper: But for the workers, it's busier than it used to be. This business was set up when there were no penalty rates on the weekend. Now, there are. And meeting the extra cost means something has got to give and the staff are doing more with less.
"Justine Lejano, employee: There has been, like, kind of a noticeable change in how many people are working and we've had to, like, cut back on the longer shifts and less people working, which has been a bit of a struggle 'cause, as you can tell, it gets kind of busy. So, it's a bit hard.
"Hayden Cooper: It's a story that's repeated in small and large businesses right across the country, as employers complain of a system that's inflexible and costly."

Mr. Cooper probably doesn't know it, and maybe it would be too much to expect he did, but when "staff are doing more with less", as he said, bosses and economists alike say "staff are being productive". See here.

And the original and generalized outcry by bosses and economists, alike, was that Australian labour productivity had fallen. I could look for examples, but Mr. Cooper kindly saved me the trouble:
"Hayden Cooper: But it's not only small business that's complaining. The mining sector fears the return of union access is crippling productivity and it worries that rising wages in some operations could filter through to others."
Thus, based on the young ladies example, I'd say that the Canberra tea house must be exceptionally lucky: it almost alone in Australia cannot complain about lack of productivity.

However, given that Mr. Cooper generalised that situation for other business, I would say that it's highly dubious that there is a genuine productivity problem.

So, maybe what bosses are demanding is not so much productivity, but "flexibility", after all. You know, the flexibility required to avoid "those rising wages in some operations [that] could filter through to other sectors".

In this sense, it's interesting to consider this fragment of the report:
"Hayden Cooper: Enter the Reserve Bank governor. In a climate of economic uncertainty, even he has now gone public, giving voice to some of these very concerns, and suggesting a review of the laws might help.
"Glenn Stevens, Reserve Bank Governor (Friday): But what people do say and, you know, this is what they say to me - I can't verify it, obviously, from their individual businesses - is they find it harder to get flexibility. They find it harder to negotiate flexibility. That is something that is - if that's true, then that I think is a matter for concern."

Curious then, but try as hard as I did, but I can't remember Mr. Stevens ever mentioning the need to review IR laws. Neither would I say he went public: that was not an statement he offered publicly without being prompted.

More curiously, though: the fragment containing Mr. Stevens answer mysteriously failed to include the following lines:
"What businesspeople say to me - and I think this would be a theme I have heard from a number of quarters - is not so much that wages are excessive and indeed at this point in time the aggregate data on wage growth which is probably fourish, a touch under maybe, is on a par with what we have seen over the years. What people say to me, I cannot verify it obviously, from their individual businesses is that they find it harder to negotiate flexibility. That is something that is said. If that is true that I think is a matter for concern... If they are wrong, then it would be good to get the heads together and show how the system is actually very flexible, because I think there are people whose instinct is that it has gone back the other way." See here. Emphasis added.

So, I'll be damned, but it's not higher wages, either!

But perhaps the most strange passage in the whole report is the statements by two of the young ladies towards the end:
"Hayden Cooper: As for the staff, it seems not everyone wants penalty rates if it means fewer hours as a trade off.
"Ashleigh Finch: I think it's a bit unfair, really, I mean, paying someone $40, $50 to wash dishes for six hours I think's not quite justifiable. I'd much rather work more hours and get paid less.
"Jess Girvan, Employee: I don't even know what I was on beforehand because I was just happy to come in and get some hours, so, it didn't really affect me that much. But now it's sort of they have to be paying people extra to stay on so now a few of us are sort of getting shifts cut, which is a bit annoying."

I may be really dumb, but I couldn't make much sense of Ashleigh's statement: I don't know anyone who'd much rather work more hours for less money. I can understand bosses liking that, but employees?

And my confusion only increases when she also complains about "paying someone $40, $50 to wash dishes for six hours": $6.67 to $8.33 an hour not quite justifiable?! Holy Mother of Christ!

So, let me ask a question, which I am sure Mr. Cooper can answer: is Ashleigh Finch an employee... or the owner of the place?

If you see the quotes above, copied verbatim from the 7:30 transcript, you'll see that 7:30 goes to great lengths to identify who the characters speaking are. But the transcript quoted above does not identify Ashleigh as an employee, although earlier she was indeed identified as such:

Screen capture from 7:30 website (30-08-2011).

So, could Mr. Cooper be misrepresenting the opinion of Ashleigh Finch as being that of an employee, when in fact she could be the owner?

Let me finish this by reminding that the need to do more (and better!) with less applies to the 7:30 journalistic team, as well, even though they work for a publicly funded organization.

And, as a taxpayer, I must say I am not impressed and I am starting to believe some 7:30 salaries might be "not quite justifiable".

31-08-2011 Added the screen capture for further evidence, corrected a mistaken reference to Fair Work act, noted that in an earlier part of the segment Ms. Finch had been correctly identified as employee and remarked that the ABC is a publicly funded organization.

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