What WorkChoices means

Reporter: David Richardson

The federal government's workplace reforms are now law so we investigated what power your boss has over your pay, your conditions and your rights.While today is D-day for most of Australia's workers some have already experienced what WorkChoices offers first hand.

Baggage handler Angus Cunningham is a quarantine assistant at Brisbane airport and said he was forced to sign an Australian Workplace Agreement (AWA) two years ago. "If you didn't sign you were shown the door and said see you later," he said. Every baggage handler at Brisbane airport is a casual because it is cheaper for the employer.

Dr John Buchanan and Dr Chris Briggs run Sydney University's workplace research centre. Today Tonight asked them to look at four of Australia's biggest industries - retail, hospitality/tourism, manufacturing and construction - to predict the changes that will occur and to look at the worst case scenarios. "All new employees will be bargaining from a much more vulnerable position today than they were on Friday," Dr Buchanan said.

"There are two million people dependent on awards, when you weaken those awards people are immediately exposed when they change jobs."

Hospitality

At the moment under award conditions an average full-time waiter receives about $578 a week with the income boosted by 25 per cent because of penalties. Workers receive maternity leave, long service leave, sick leave and loading on holiday pay.

"You'll see them working single hourly rate jobs without any penalties and again I think the big losers will be people working weekends and nights," Dr Briggs claimed. "I think penalty rates will become a thing of the past only surviving in upmarket restaurants.".

Manufacturing
An electrical fitter in the manufacturing sector with 15 years' experience earns about $867 a week. Most of the usual benefits are guaranteed by the award but it is another industry experts believe will change radically under the new laws."Those who are in the factories at the moment will keep their current entitlements but new employees will come in on cheaper rates," Dr Buchanan said.
Retail
Shop assistants working full-time earn an average $542 a week and get paid overtime at time and a half. But it is likely retailers will abolish loadings and penalties in this vulnerable sector.

Construction
An average labourer pulls in about $647 a week and has entitlements like sick leave, redundancy, holiday pay with loading and a raft of other benefits including transport and meal allowances. There are concerns that changing these conditions may compromise safety on work sites.

Andrew Peach is currently on an enterprise bargaining agreement which expires this year and he worries he will lose his entitlements. "Worst case scenario I'll be sacked for the wrong reason," he said. Experts admit it will take up to five years for the workforce to see the full effects of the new laws but anyone signing a contract today can expect it to be massively different from last week.

You can read what the ACTU's stance on the reforms is here . The government has set up a website with explanations about the changes at www.workchoices.gov.au .