I would really like to write about inspiring examples of corporate responsibility in this country where our industry captains show leadership on issues that affect the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of workers.
But in all my years working in labour relations, it’s the kind of thing I haven’t stumbled across too often.
In fact, I would say it’s pretty rare.
In the last few months, major companies have once again, deplorably confirmed the kind of behaviour that should make corporate Australia hang its head in shame.
The first case involves Cochlear. For the last three years, workers have consistently voted for the union to represent them in securing a collective agreement. They have been ignored.
In August, the workers again told management, voting for the fifth time in favour of the union, but this time they can’t be ignored.
The laws have changed and the employer has to come to the negotiating table, like it or not.
While the workers were happy with the outcome, why did they have to go through all this to get the company to negotiate?
After all the company makes enormous profits off the labour of those workers. Is it right they were treated with total disregard?
Even after the result of the latest ballot, the company refused to be gracious.
They went to the press complaining about having to deal with the union, talking conspiracies and ultimately insulting its own workforce by suggesting that they had been duped by the union.
Is this an example of good corporate citizenship?
In Tasmania, 270 workers have lost their entitlements, after what can only be described as woeful mismanagement by ACL Bearings.
The company was put into receivership with $30 million missing that belongs to the workers.
Where is this money? How did the company stuff it up so badly and why are the workers the ones that have to pay for it?
There are never any satisfactory answers to these questions. Just terrible consequences for workers and many in the corporate world think is an acceptable way to do business.
Just like the former directors of James Hardie thought it was acceptable to lie about the ability of the company to fund compensation to asbestos victims.
In what can only be described as criminal behaviour, they knowingly ran from their responsibilities to the people that handled the poison out of which James Hardie has made millions.
These upstanding corporate citizens didn’t care that workers, dying in hospital beds, would be left with no compensation.
This is after all the same company who were fully informed that asbestos was unsafe long before they told anyone. They knowingly sent workers to their death before the whistle was blown.
The heads of these companies are all paid millions of dollars, touted for their skills and intelligence, courted by governments and the media.
A book recently released by ABC journalist Matt Peacock on James Hardie, Killer Company, details how the head of the company John Reid, made sure that the dangers of asbestos were kept hidden from the workers who handled it for more than twenty years.
Hardie’s company doctors took x-rays of workers’ lungs and kept the results secret from those who had contracted asbestosis.
The reason they did nothing is that they made a lot of money and in the process contributed to the suffering and death of more than 20,000 people.
And yet, despite all the evidence that has been accumulated over the years and the campaigns run by unions, not one person associated with Hardie’s has ever been charged for the thousands of people they killed.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said of Peacock’s book that it should be mandatory reading for all business leaders.
While this is nice advice, it might be better if we actually had some laws that impact on this kind of behaviour which is in essence criminal.
Officially, ACL directors committed no crime and James Hardie directors committed no crime.
I don’t know about you, but I think it’s about time the government listened to the community on this issue and introduced laws to stop actions that most of us consider morally reprehensible.
It’s all very well, to say big business should do the right thing, but if they don’t, what happens?
Their shameful record speaks for itself.
Jeana Vithoulkas is a freelance journalist and a published author.