Rethinking Work in an Enterprise Culture

By Mark Hearn and Grant Michelson*

rethinking work

Prime Minister John Howard's WorkChoices workplace reforms, which have just come into legal force, pose a fundamental challenge of relevance and organisation for the Australian union movement in general and employees in particular. One of Howard's key advantages in arguing his case is the knowledge that unions now have membership coverage of just 17% of the private sector workforce.

Yet Howard's advantage in workplace reform is not only built on a parliamentary majority or the space left open by union decline. As a new study of the profound changes impacting on the world of work argues, Howard's ascendancy – in politics and industrial relations – is also sourced in his striking ability to redefine the terms of the debate about the nature of work and its regulation in contemporary Australia.

Howard has radically recast the national narrative of work from its old, protectionist and arbitration model to a new discourse of enterprise, where work is now defined by the metaphors of the marketplace: employees redefined as ‘entrepreneurs' fulfilling the mission of the business enterprise, imbued with ‘knowledge', driven by the demands of ‘change management' and ‘performance indicators'.

In his tenth year in office, Howard has appropriated this enterprise discourse to claim a new political constituency. The Prime Minister appeals directly to what he identified, in a Sydney Institute speech in July 2005, as his constituency of ‘enterprise workers' – contractors, franchisees, consultants and frankly, a fairly large chunk of the private sector workforce. Howard promised to ‘unleash prosperity' on their behalf through labour market deregulation. We are less convinced that the benefits will flow. How will younger employees entering the labour force for the first time fare while trying to negotiate employment conditions with their employers? And what of the wealth of talent and experience of older employees? Will these people be retained when there are incentives in WorkChoices to cut costs?

Labor has so far benefited politically from community suspicion about the impact of WorkChoices. Yet since the Howard Government initiated its workplace reforms in 1996 Labor has struggled to provide a persuasive policy alternative. Labor's ability to generate support for its own workplace relations reforms will rest on its ability to articulate a compelling appeal to productivity and fairness - a difficult task, with the ALP sending out mixed signals since the 2004 election on its intentions for individual contracts (Australian Workplace Agreements) and the Office of the Employment Advocate which administers the AWAs. Will Labor scrap AWAs and the OEA, and weather the barrage of criticism about 'reregulating' workplace relations? How will Labor restore a sense of equity and job security to workplace relations while being seen to champion productivity and continued economic growth?

The contributors to Rethinking Work cover a number of issues that reflect a powerful topical resonance, employing innovative thinking about the new times and discourses of work in Australia. Management ethics, the regulation of work and how we organise our work space are all issues put under the analytical microscope.

Time is one of the major structuring devices for human activity. Our deployment of time in a contemporary understanding of work must be rethought in a number of ways – in the blurred divisions of time between paid and unpaid work and leisure, and how time is not simply bestowed by nature or clock/calendar time but is organised by human agency. In other words, WorkChoices tells us that it is time to work harder.

However, time is not uncontested. In terms of the growth area of the economy (in service work), employees can attempt to reclaim time, either for themselves or in combination with customers. Service employees may resist management attempts to control the service interaction by making choices about how to perform their work – with enthusiasm, detachment or indifference. In the brave new world of WorkChoices, our analysis of time and work will increasingly need to identify the tense negotiation between workplace control and freedom. And this is the case for both men and women.

For far too long women's interests and issues have often been excluded from industrial relations policy. A clear example is Australia's lack of national paid maternity leave provisions. Against the Howard Government's rhetoric of ‘choice', the notion of entitlement, and its significance for women and families must be seriously considered. Time is a key value of these entitlements, establishing not only an industrial right to withdraw from and return to work, but also asserting the intrinsic value of an identity – and time – beyond simply work-time.

The management of work space, within Australia and in a globalised economy, is also now more critical. In response to the dilemmas of globalisation and the new legislation, there is evidence that unions are already trying to re-shape the spaces and institutions around them. Despite declining membership as noted at the outset, unions are regrouping in key industries and spaces – as indicated in the revival of mining industry unionism in the Pilbara region in Australia's northwest. The enterprise culture is also faced with the challenges raised by skilled migration which points, in turn, to the politics of managing immigrants who come to Australia for employment. The extent of immigration required suggests a wider failure of training policy to address skill shortages in Australia over the last ten years.

The WorkChoices legislation presents many challenges for employers and employees. We need to thoroughly explore and analyse the developments. Only in doing so will we be able to understand the nature of work in an enterprise culture.

* Mark Hearn and Grant Michelson are in the School of Business, University of Sydney and edited Rethinking Work: Time, Space and Discourse, (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Published 29 March 2006.

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