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Backwards step

Thursday, 11th February, 2010

Broken Hill, the one-time union stronghold of Australia, is losing its industrial culture, according to former Barrier Industrial Council (BIC) president, Bill O'Neil. And Mr O'Neil can't believe it is a federal Labor government doing the damage, courtesy of its new industrial relations system.

The former union chief said he was "very shocked" to learn this week that some local employees had just lost one of Broken Hill's working class's most prized entitlements: five weeks of annual leave. Broken Hill workers in the retail, fast food, hair and beauty and pharmacy sector will now get four weeks' annual leave after switching to the federal government's new "Modern Awards".

The new awards, which came into effect on January 1, replace federal and state awards, including the BH Commerce and Industry Award. The Shop Distributive and Allied Employees' Association had applied to Fair Work Australia to have the awards amended to include the extra week annual leave for Broken Hill.

But the commission rejected the application, instead increasing the Broken Hill allowance to 4.28 per cent.

The SDA hailed the decision as a victory for workers but Mr O'Neil labelled it a "retrograde step" for Broken Hill."It was one of the things we prided ourselves on, and now it's gone for nothing," he said."I reckon it's a retrograde step for Broken Hill."

Mr O'Neil said the fifth week was first introduced in the 1950s through hard-fought roundtable negotiations between unions and mining companies. It then gradually became part of local agreements until virtually every worker enjoyed an extra week of annual leave compared to the rest of the country. Mr O'Neil said the extra week was recognition that locals had to travel vast distances to get anywhere.

It had the added benefit of helping to attract professionals who would have otherwise not moved to such an isolated area."It's one of the things that attracted them here, the extra week's holiday." Together with the Broken Hill Allowance and a number of other conditions and entitlements unique to the County of Yancawinna, Broken Hill became the envy of the nation's workers.

"That used to be the pride and joy and our awards: the County of Yancowinna," Mr O'Neil said. Now those conditions were being eroded. "I'm a Labor supporter but these new federal awards, we're losing things.

"They (the employees) would have got a (pay) rise anyway. "We're losing our culture." Current BIC president Danny O'Connor said yesterday that the ruling by Fair Work Australia did not mean the end to the extra week for every local worker.

But he said it could make it harder to keep when negotiations for new agreements come around again."It's getting harder and harder and until people start to join the union the government will continue to get away with it."

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