Money for war, but not for those who clean up

Submitted by AWL on 30 September, 2014 - 5:37 Author: Bob Carnegie

In the mid 1990s, Paul Keating's Labor government in Australia decided to outsource work on defence bases to private contractors. This work was overseen by that great excuse for a conservative in hiding, the leader of the Victorian right wing of the Australian Labor Party, Senator Robert Ray.

Formerly jobs which had a high degree of stability became insecure ones. Workers, nearly 4,000 of them, whose jobs were cleaning the toilets, the rooms, and the barracks of defence bases, serving up the meals and pouring the drinks in mess halls, mowing the grass, and doing the gardening, and those working in warehouses, were thrown to the mercy of some of the most ruthless monsters in the corporate world.

Companies such as Serco, Transfields, and Spotless treat workers horribly. Two of them also run detention centres. Spotless has 33,000 employees in Australia and the word decent or generous only applies to their corporate vision, not to the day to day reality of being employed by them.

I knew little or nothing about all this until not quite three months ago, when I started attempting to organise these workers for the National Union of Workers (NUW) in Northern Queensland and the Northern Territory. Now I have seen the exploitation these workers suffer. The story is also one of how when things became difficult, Australian unions for all intents and purposes vacated the field of battle.

In the last 30 years or so, union density has collapsed from 53% of the Australian workforce in 1982 to 17% in 2014. The hows, the whys, and the wherefores are for other articles, but this collapse in union membership is reflected in the collapse in working conditions and pay for civilian workers employed on defence bases in Australia.

When I first spoke to the civilian workers in North Queensland and then Northern Territory, union density was running at about 5%. Now it is perhaps 10%.

Along with that low level of union density comes a general feeling that things will not get better, only worse. It is based on a large degree of fact. Over the last nearly 20 years conditions and wages have been consistently slashed with no fightback.

Aggressively anti union companies such as Serco have made organising very difficult. Companies continually shadow organisers wherever they go. Due to the security procedures on defence bases you are signed on to each base under the "supervision" of the employer.

The size and remote locations of the bases increase the difficulties. Recently I flew for five hours and then drove a car for six to speak to a couple of hundred workers. For a brief while I thought I was part of the Rolling Stones' latest tour, "I can't get no satisfaction".

In some of the remote areas, there are few other jobs to be had, and any job that pays is better than no job at all.

The contractors prefer to employ partners of serving military. Organising workers whose partners are in the military can be difficult.

Another sizeable percentage of the workers are ex-military, and many of them are on some type of military pension.

At interviews the contractors ask would-be job-seekers if they are on such a pension, and use it as way of dampening wage expectations. They want workers to think their jobs are not really worth much, and the wages amount to some "drinking silver".

Yet in the brief period of time I have been attempting to organise some of these workers I have been hugely impressed with the proud way they carry themselves as workers and the amazing job they do, day in day out.

For a 38 hour working week the workers in the service lines, mostly mature women, many not having English as their mother tongue, clear after taxes a little over 600 Australian dollars per week or around 420 euros or £310. They work in towns and cities where the cost of living is very high.

Australia has the dubious distinction of never missing out on a war or skirmish. We follow British and American imperialism to quite literally the end of the earth. Australian governments always find money for war, but cannot find money for those who clean the toilet mess and vomit of the soldiers, who by world standards are quite well paid. It is a situation that urgently needs attention and change.

• Bob is a union activist in Brisbane, Australia