For The Labourer is Worthy of His Hire

20 Hour Week at $160,000 a Year:
Australian Work Practices: The Continuing Saga

Tony Thomas

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 itself."

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 costume.

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 crazy.

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?