_Letter from the editor
It's not often in my role as an editor of a trade magazine that I get attacked for my opinions. but such is the emotional nature of the issue of outworkers in this industry that what I wrote here (and elsewhere in the mainstream media) was likely to attract attention from one party or another. and while the type of vitriol levelled at me was quite subtle ("sitting in an ivory tower", "uninformed", "inexperienced", and my personal favourite "right wing") it's a further example of how many in our society are prepared take the easy option of making ad hominem attacks rather than looking at the issue in a considered fashion.
I can sympathise with the Textile Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia (TCFUA) in its pursuit to end exploitation of outworkers. Such exploitation is abhorrent, an issue which has been going on for decades, and one that doesn't seem to go away very easily. As part of my research into the changes to the Fair Work Act, I came across a decision of the Australian Conciliation & Arbitration Commission from 1987. This decision provided the framework for existing award regulation of outworkers and is still often referred to in union and government publications on the issue. It contains accounts of outworkers earning $2 to 3 an hour in the '70s and '80s, workers going unpaid and estimates by the union that some 80-90 per cent of outworkers treated as independent contractors were really employees.
But for me, the most fascinating element was that the Labour movement, in dozens of legal challenges across a number of industries, had fought for the distinction made between the repetitive work of, say, a sewing machinist, and that of a creative individual with the power to make autonomous decisions, such as a patternmaker. It argued that the former was an employer/employee relationship, while the latter was a legitimate independent contractor relationship.
However, of critical importance to the current debate is the fact that the Fair Work Amendment (Textile, Clothing and Footwear Industry) Bill 2012, and its relationship to the Award, essentially removes any distinction between these two types of homeworkers, and as it is legislation, overrules all of the previous case law which established what defines a legitimate independent contractor.
In an effort to make this a black and white issue, the TCFUA has caught in its net the 10 to 20 per cent of homeworkers who are legitimate contractors; people who are essential to the local supply chain, and despite charging upwards of $50 an hour for their service, can no longer operate as independent contractors. And not withstanding concessions made to me in private by people who have defended the changes to the legislation - that it should be tweaked to exempt creative homeworkers - they are unlikely to admit this publically in order to a) save face and b) avoid anyone tampering with their wins in protecting the exploited.
"So where does that leave those patternmakers, sample machinists, textile designers, and other creative professionals working from home? Well, unless changes can be made at the Award level , I would say in an impossible situation.".
Editor / Publisher
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