For The Labourer is Worthy of His Hire
20 Hour Week at $160,000 a Year:
Australian Work Practices: The Continuing Saga
Because of the sensitivity of the material that I
am going to deliver, if there are any media present,
be advised that the reporting of my speech is compulsory.
I have waited a long time to deliver a line like that.
It reminds me of Woody Allen having a dream in which
God appeared to him and pointed at him and Woody said,
"God, what is it that you want me to do?" and God said,
"Tell funnier jokes."
The title of my speech, "20 hour week at $160,000
a year," can be derived from an old Industry Commission
report of 1990. I was sitting on a plane wondering
what was something really sexy to put into my article
on work rorts and idly flipping through the report,
and I suddenly read, "In confidential evidence to this
inquiry one builder reported that the tower crane drivers
were able to earn $130,000 to $160,000 a year and the
dogmen who work on the ground and load the cranes,
or on the building and unload them, were also earning
$100,000." I knew that you could have three crane
drivers per crane, although the crane only fits one
person. The other two are in the crib.
In order to try and work out what sort of a working
week these chaps had, I had a bit of a problem, because
builders are not very keen to talk about industrial
relations as it can be a little bit volatile. I happened
to be wandering up to McEwans to get a bag of bolts
or something and passed the site of Queen and Little
Collins Street, where there was a building going up.
There was a crane working and a bloke in a hat standing
there, and I thought, "Gee, I never thought of this
direct approach." So I said, " Hey, can you give me
a bit of advice? How many hours is that crane going
to be working this week? Does it work Sundays, does
it work around the clock, does it stop at five, does
it stop when it gets dark?" He said, "That crane works
60 hours per week." Now if it had three drivers, (and
it's even conceivable that it might have four) the
drivers would be earning $160,000 a year for a 20 hour
week if we assume that the evidence given to that Industry
Commission inquiry was not exceptional.
I first heard about the crane drivers a couple of
years ago when I was wanting to do a story called "Aristocrats
of Labour." I wanted to make the point that blue collar
workers often earn more than white collar workers,
and I thought, "Boy, this is going to astound people"
(but I suspect somehow that it isn't going to astound
too many people here), and as I was looking around
I was thinking about oil rig workers who were out on
the rigs and it all got very complicated. At a barbecue
there were a couple of quantity surveyors and one of
them said to me, "Do you want to know who is earning
a lot of money? Well, what about these crane drivers?
They earn $150,000 a year."
One of the problems in journalism is that in the last
10 years, I have heard 998 furphies and about two sensational
truths which I have religiously ignored. This was
a sensational truth which was either about black money,
and hence, I would never get anywhere on it, or it
was a white lie at a barbecue, so I did ignore it.
Later I found that it was dinky di.
By the way you probably all know how the system is
sustained. How can you have fellows who have to train
three months to get some sort of piece of paper to
say that they can drive a crane? How can they be earning
$160,000 on a sustained basis, or a dogman on $100,000?
The reason is that the old FEDFA (it undoubtably has
got a new name now) had a register of crane drivers
and at any point where it suited them they just closed
the register. So no matter who wanted to drive a crane,
you couldn't drive unless you were on the register,
and you couldn't get on the site unless you were a
union member and QED a very small number of people
had the game locked up. These aren't the only chaps
who are in control of large and expensive machinery
and hence have a lot of bargaining power.
I was at the Boeing headquarters in Seattle last year.
I was in the planning offices where they were building
a cockpit for the 777 airliner, which will take them
through into the 21st century: a beautiful plane,
like a new generation Airbus, only better. The chaps
there were controlling all the different parts of the
cockpit design, and there was a special section whose
job, full-time, was to design the coffee cup holders
in the cockpit. It is very important. If you have
a cup of coffee falling over and it goes down the joystick
and in among all the circuits you have got big trouble.
They told me that there was only one airline in the
entire world that had a crew of three in one of their
767 wide body planes. I said, "Fancy that! Who?" and
they said, "Ansett." This struck me as a fun story
and I managed to trace it all back. It was some big
deal from long ago that Sir Peter Abeles did, which
he undoubtably regrets but is stuck with.
I was flying on another job (and you can see that
we never sleep, we journalists) and I suddenly realised
that the plane was probably a 767, so I pressed the
button and called the hostess and said, "Gee, I love
going in the front of planes, would it be alright if
I could have look at the cockpit?" She said, "Certainly
sir," (I probably had been upgraded to business class,
or flying on somebody's else's ticket so they thought
I really mattered). So up I went into the cockpit,
which was like Bourke Street at midday as they had
a couple of trainees in there too. It was really
a two-man cockpit with a jump seat for a trainee, but
there was a flight engineer as well. I had a close
look, you see, while maintaining small talk.
Do you know that Ansett had actually created a control
panel for this engineer? It is what they call soft
wires, where at any moment you can just get a crowbar
and rip the whole thing out, and the plane just continues
on as if nothing had happened. The flight engineer
was sitting there, with a pad on his knees, reading
the dials and jotting things down---fuel consumption
and all that sort of stuff. I had a chat to him and
he explained to me how important his role was, and
I was very impressed. I thought that it was a very
interesting deal that he had there, and he really did
look as busy as the proverbial one armed paper hanger
with an itch. But at some point that deal is going
to be scrapped, and they are going to get that crowbar
and rip that funny little brown box out, which isn't
even very aesthetic---it is the sort of thing
you could make out of a bit of tin plate or a fridge
or something---and the plane will just fly exactly
as it was flying before. You do not need these flight
engineers. The Qantas 767's, that fly all over the
world, fly around with only two crew, so it's very
hard to defend the need for flying between Melbourne
and Sydney with a flight engineer.
When you start to talk to airline people they say,
"Oh, didn't you know that there is one airline that
has to fly to a certain ocean destination "(I won't
say where it is because it would identify the airline)"
and they have to carry a ground engineer at all times?"
The ground engineer has a little thing like a surgeon's
kit, and that kit---metric spanners, and a screwdriver---is all done in plastic foam with little slots
for the tools. He has to fly every time the plane
goes to Norfolk Island in case there is something wrong.
His job is that if the engine begins to vibrate or
something like that when the plane lands at this unknown
ocean spot, he can get out his briefcase, get the spanners
and fix the engine. Well, actually it doesn't work
like that. What he does is ring up, and next time
a plane comes out, they fly an engine out or something.
That fellow is sitting there going back and forth,
back and forth to this particular spot for no reason
whatsoever. Heaven knows what else is going on. When
I was doing an article about this class warfare on
the airlines (I don't know if anyone has read it, about
a week or two ago, but it was very naughty and dangerous
stuff), I did quote somebody saying that no matter
what the airlines say there is still about a $100 million
of fat each, in the two airlines.
Anywhere where you get things like safety, you also
get work rorts. Although my speech was meant to be
contemporary, the fact is that the only stuff that
you can publish without a libel suit is stuff that
has already been published somewhere, somehow. I did
happen to be reading a parliamentary report on the
Civil Aviation Authority. Until recently they used
to multiply their safety engineers like rabbits. When
they start multiplying, rabbits have got to chew grass,
and safety engineers have got to make things safe.
So they had to find things to make safe, and they
used to go on a lot of overseas trips to inspect the
airports that Qantas landed on. Apparently the theory
was that a Qantas pilot, being totally cavalier and
in disregard of his own life and safety, would land
somewhere where there was a speed bump. So all airports
were carefully certified, not just by Qantas but also
by the safety engineers, that they were OK ridgy didgy
safe landing strips. But then the safety engineers
went too far. They declared that Seattle Airport was
unsafe for Qantas. If you don't know it, Seattle is
where Boeing makes all its jetliners and apparently
every jetliner ever made in Seattle has taken off from
this very same airport.
The safety engineers also had a yearning, just like
boys with a Meccano set, or me with a computer, to
pull them apart and have a look and take things out
and put them back in again to see how they go. Every
time they got a new aircraft type into Australia, the
first 727, the first 737, whatever it was, these safety
engineers would go over to where it was made, crawl
all over it, look at the blueprints, and test everything
they could, even though the planes had already been
used overseas. After they tested the 737-300, they
presented Australian Airlines with a bill for a million
dollars. However it is all changing now because a
very vigorous New Zealander called Frank Baldwin has
got in amongst them and is going to reduce their staff
by half, from about 7,000 at the moment, in the space
of the next few years. You can hear the squawks all
over the place. Have you noticed all this squawking
about the tender for the new radar system? I suspect
it is all part of the same hullabaloo in the CAA where
you could chop the place in half.
Another fascinating little story I did recently was
on the Australian Defence Industries, which was semi-corporatised
out of the Defence Department. When it was in the
Defence Department and going strong it had 1400 staff
at Canberra to run 13 factories scattered around the
country. As a result of a lot of reform by a very
good chap called Ken Harris, that number of 1400 bureaucrats
in Canberra has been reduced to a much lower figure:
40. I specifically said to him, "Have you just done
the pea and thimble trick and shifted all the staff
out to the outposts?" He said, "No, apart from just
a few corporate accountants or something like that
this is dinky di---we just do not need those people."
So I said, "But what on earth did those 1400 people
do all day?" His answer was, "They created white slime."
I think you already know what white slime is---paperwork! The little example he gave me was that,
suppose the Maribyrnong ammunition factory wants to
buy a new drill press for $200,000. They have to run
around and put up a proposition. It goes to Canberra.
The joint then divides into supporters and opponents
of the new drill press, and so they have committee
meetings and they have factions like a Labor Party.
There are reports and new committees and then it is
referred to the IDC and back again. That's how they
all managed to earn their pay.
I would have liked a lot more details because I am
fascinated by this sort of thing. You can find the
exact sort of detail in a wonderful report by McKinsey
and Company, only a few pages long, on Austrade. This
was the report which totally scuttled Austrade, which
has never been the same since. The details go like
this. They did a sort of longitudinal study of a month's
work of the top eleven managers. (Do you know what
Austrade does? It is there to assist exporters to
get their goods into odd places like Jakarta and Bangkok
and wherever.) They found that these eleven managers
were averaging six planning meetings per month compared
with only three per client. One executive was having
two planning meetings nearly every three days and zero
meetings with clients, and six of the eleven spent
no time with clients. On page 11 of the report, which
is the most awe-inspiring demolition job on the bureaucracy
that you could ever find, it says,---"Risk aversion
and bureaucracy is compounded by large internal paper
flows and rigid planning, reporting and meeting requirements."
You begin to get the picture. McKinsey found that
45% of the budget of 130 million dollars to assist
exporters was being spent on administration. Of the
staff, one third were in Canberra, not exactly the
centre of export activity.
They also had a policy of user pays. After all, why
should exporters be given the valuable services of
Austrade without having to pay good money for it?
Really, if you went and hired Peat Marwick or anybody
like that, you would have to pay, so you had to pay
for Austrade as well. The only trouble was that this
created a giant new bureaucracy that processed the
money. The average bill was only $500 but it was going
through 22 stages of processing. In addition, at the
Los Angeles office for example, the charge-out rate
was $80 per hour. I feel that the people using this
service were really paying what they thought it was
worth, because the recovery rate which was actually
collected, was $8 per hour. Who knows, it might have
been too much.
How did I come to be doing this story on work rorts?
It was not the sort of story that is normally done.
Was there some sort of conspiracy there, which was
probably set into motion by the mad dogs of the New
Right or whatever? As you all know, in a choice between
a muddle and a conspiracy, the muddle wins every time.
It happened that my esteemed boss Bob Gottliebsen
was chatting over lunch to a consultant, who I will
call Mr Smith (and please correct me if I fail to continue
calling him Mr Smith), and Mr Smith said to Bob, "I
have got a list of the 20 worst work practices in the
country. Would you like to publish them?" and Bob
said, "Yes! Yes! Yes! I will put my best man Tony Thomas
onto this one." So he said to me, "Look, all you have
got to do is ring up Mr Smith. Get the list, give
the story a few tweaks and the whole thing just writes
It sounded too good to be true, and it was not true.
I rang Mr Smith, and he said, "Who, me?" "What I meant
was that you go and find the 20 worst work practices
and I will promise that when you write the story, I
will read it." Would I let a small hitch like that
dampen my enthusiasm for a good story? You bet I would.
Unfortunately my boss was adamant. He said, "Off
you go and write it anyway, but a particular point
is that we don't want any of the vague bullshit. We
want names, we want packdrill, we want sites." I said,
"Fine." I went off to a phone box and got into my Superman
I wanted to cover the white collar area a bit and
so I zeroed in on the Baulkham Hills Shire Council.
The councillors really went a bit too far. They have
gone off on these well-paid junkets to conferences
almost en masse and with wives and not even shown up,
which was very Queensland like, you could say. I might
add, in passing, even though we are not very bright,
we journalists do have a phenomenal ability to get
hold of the relevant bits of paper. It happens in
the most mysterious ways. I was out at Rooty Hill,
way out in the western suburbs of Sydney 12 months
ago, and sitting in the waiting room, waiting to talk
to the boss there. I always read the stuff lying on
the reception table, and there was a little local paper
there, with a heading which caught my eye: '$80,000
to get rid of drunks in the park.' It turned out that
somebody had been doing a little investigation at the
Baulkham Hills Shire Council and found that one guy's
job was to chuck the drunks out of the park. Thanks
to loading, penalty rates and you name all that sort
of stuff, he was getting paid $80,000. I just mentally
filed that then as it was not relevant to anything
in particular, but now that I realised that I was going
to have to document these work rorts in such a way
that no-one could either sue me or tell me it was bulldust
or whatever, I thought, 'Gee, that report would be
interesting.' The only trouble is I could not remember
what council, I could not remember anything, so I had
to ring all around. I finally tracked it down to Baulkham
Hills, and got it sent down through our Sydney office.
It contained a wonderful report by an accountant called
Jeff Hartigan, on the Baulkham Hills Shire Council
and in the article I had a bit of fun with that one.
I also began asking everyone I met in the course of
wandering around if they knew any good work practices
and some of the replies were pretty good. I was in
Adelaide and I heard what I think was one of the most
villainous ones that I have ever come across. It was
to do with orderlies at an Adelaide hospital who would
never come to answer the call in under 20 minutes.
The reason for this was that if they turned up in
5 minutes, people might think that they were actually
waiting around in the crib room doing nothing and able
to go straight to the call, whereas if they took 20
minutes, they were obviously on another job. What they
were actually doing of course was sitting in
the crib room being couch potatoes, having a good time.
So, putting it crudely, if you had shat yourself or
whatever in the hospital you would lie there for 20
minutes before the orderly came, as a result of an
in-house deal. I never could confirm that one. For
some reason, no hospital would own up to it.
I began to look into various areas like the wharves
and meat and hospitals and railways and all that sort
of stuff. I knew that you have to put the work rorts
in the context, you have to understand the industry.
It is a very big deal to actually know enough to say,
this is a rort. So I said to my boss
again, "I can't possibly do everything, so I will just
focus on one thing." He said, "No, we want you to do
everything." So back to work again. I might say here
that the most valuable source I found in this exercise
was the State Opposition. I took me a long while to
weave my way around to them but eventually I did and
they of course had been FOI-ing the most brilliant
stuff out of the SECV, railways, hospitals and so on
and so their photocopier ran at white heat---one
extra copy of all this stuff for Tony Thomas, with
some really marvellous stuff. Some of it really sets
you back. There was a little report on several elements
of the Victorian Railways---and I couldn't say
that it was across the board but it was quite substantial
operations, 200, 300, 400 employees. They had actually
a tripartite peak body, of a management guy, a union
guy and somebody else, which for some reason had actually
gone into the work practices there. They had done
all sorts of charts and graphs and it was a pretty
good job. What they said in nearly each case in the
ones they looked at was that the work rorts were equivalent
to half the chap's working week. They were really only
effectively doing 50% of the normal week's work. When
you start to extrapolate that sort of thing and you
start to think about the 2,000 million dollars a year
deficit that Victoria seems to be running on transport---you think that there is a bit of scope for getting
a bit of fat out of that operation. But is it happening?
I don't think so.
I also had a look at the teachers in Victoria and
because I am trying to get something through my local
school council at the moment, I will soft pedal this
a bit. I found two very interesting work practices
in the Victorian education system. One is overmanning
by reducing class sizes. I was actually able to find
from a report by the Federal Schools Council, which
is a Federal Government body, that Victorian secondary
schools have either the lowest or one of the lowest
class sizes in the entire world. Also, for some reason
in Victoria the school year has been cut back to a
mere 190 days, significantly less than other states
except South Australia and, wait for it, ten and a
half working weeks less than for Japan schools and
about eight weeks less than for West German and Korean
schools. They call us the clever country---I
think they should call us the leisure country.
On top of that lust for leisure, the Victorian teachers
have managed to screw the system for another eight
days of this very small number of school days, that
are pupil-free, for curriculum and other purposes.
I would have to wonder why you would have to do that
sort of thing in the school year rather than in those
oh-so-generous holidays. I rang the NSW Education
Minister's office to see how many pupil-free days they
have in NSW. Firstly they didn't really understand
the question because it is not all done by some hard
nosed fine print agreement there, it is a little more
flexible. Eventually there was some official figure
of one but it could easily be two. The fun part is
that the Federal Schools Council was really a very
pro-teacher body and was pushing for better conditions
for Australian teachers, and they made a ringing call
that all teachers should be entitled to five pupil-free
days per year. You can imagine that must have gone
down like a lead balloon in Victoria. I hasten to
add that I have nothing against individual teachers.
Just like journalists they range from the totally incompetent
to the totally dedicated. It is the system that is
I won't, in finishing, miss the chance to tell about
you why the Australian coal dragline needs two beds.
It is of course so that two of the three drivers can
have a good lie down. I acquired this fact or factoid,
from a certain mining man, not a million miles from
here. He said that although he believed it was true
he could not guarantee it, and he did not even know
at what line this phenomenon occurred. By this time
I had already told the office that I had this story
about the dragline with two beds, so it was going to
be run because there was no way I could ever get out
of it. So I had to start trying to find out where
it was. Again, this was a job for Superman. If we
published it and I had it wrong, and this has happened
once, you know you could well wind up on turtle beach.
At the last moment I had my breakthrough. We have
got a Queensland stringer in Brisbane called Andrew
Stewart and for some reason somebody was talking to
him and he mentioned it. He said, "I have been on
one of the draglines. Beds? Yeh, they've got two beds,"
he said. "They've got a kitchen too."
Why HR Nicholls?