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Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories - 24/10/2012 - Department of Regional Development, Regional Australia and Local Government annual report 2010-11

HENG, Councillor Foo Kee, President, Union of Christmas Island Workers

LEE, Mr Kelvin, Vice President, Union of Christmas Island Workers

THOMSON, Councillor Gordon, General Secretary, Union of Christmas Island Workers


CHAIR: I welcome representatives of the Union of Christmas Island Workers. I note that includes the return of Councillor Thomson, now wearing his union hat. I invite you to make some opening remarks.

Councillor Thomson : The union was founded in 1975 and the situation which confronted Christmas Island workers at that time was that it was a mining town run by the Department of Territories. It had a very small administration. All other services, facilities and operations were provided by the mining company, the British Phosphate Commission. The union was established, coincidentally, the same year the Racial Discrimination Act was enacted. The Union of Christmas Island Workers and the Racial Discrimination Act shared a purpose—to confront the colonial system of exploitation of workers. At the time, all aspects of working life and social life were divided on the basis of race, including the allocation of housing and the quality of housing. The Asian workers, recruited from Singapore, Malaysia and, in earlier years, southern China, were paid at Asian rates of pay—plus a little bit more to encourage people to come here.

The European workforce recruited from mainland Australia had a very good Australian standard of wages and conditions, but the allocation of wages and conditions was based on race. Materially, the rates of pay for the Asian workforce were between 10 and 25 per cent of that of a European doing a similar job.

Mr Foo Kee Heng came to the island in 1970 and he lived the experience of racial discrimination in all aspects of his working and social life. The world moved on—and it wasn't just the Union of Christmas Island Workers that created the revolution. Social attitudes and ideology changed of course through the seventies, and the people of Christmas Island have been the beneficiaries of the very enlightened policies of Liberal and Labor governments on multiculturalism and elimination of racism.

The political culture and the law on mainland Australia was essential for the legal framework for the Union of Christmas Island Workers to be successful, and the Australian people provided that though the parliament. Social attitudes changed. The administration of the laws in the colony of Christmas Island—and that is a governance issue: we were once a colony of the British and now we are a colony of the Australian, so in constitutional terms, not in social attitudes and legal frameworks, we are still really a colony; we are not self-governing.

Sorry about that sidetrack: the union's role from the outset has been to establish parity, equality, social justice. For social justice to prevail, you have to establish equality of conditions of service no matter what your racial origin, no matter where you come from. The job that you did was worth this much whether you were from mainland Australia, Singapore or Malaysia. That was the objective of the union, and I think over many years, including in 1981—unfortunately, the government was arguing in the industrial tribunal that when the union was talking about wage parity—the government argued that wage parity for the Asian workforce was to be related to the rates of pay where the workface came from. So if they came from Malaysia the parity rate of pay was to be found there. Along the way, despite the legal framework having changed, the union had to fight certain battles around the issue of parity. There were commercial reasons for employers to oppose the unions claims of course but they still used those old colonialist concepts of remuneration.

I am pleased to say that in the last year, although the union continued to face the issue of having to struggle around parity rates of pay, by the mid-1980s—1987—when the government closed the mine, the union had achieved parity rates of pay, so you could not say there was discrimination between the mainland workforce and Christmas Island people from Malaysia or Singapore originally. So Mr Foo's rate of pay, while it was 10 per cent of a European's rate of pay when he came here in 1970, in 1987 when the mine closed his pay was exactly the same as anyone else doing the same job. So parity had been achieved; all objectives were achieved.

Within the government sector, we went to department enterprise bargaining and the union lost significant battles between 1996 and last year, and we had a result that we had lost parity—for example, an APS Level 3 worker in Canberra was paid between 40 and 45 per cent more than the equivalent APS 3 in the administration on Christmas Island.

Now, that could be down to mismanagement and poor leadership in the union, or it could be due to the number of battles we had to fight—we never got the agreements up in the time that would have maintained parity with the mainland equivalents.

I am pleased to say that last year the union was able to achieve an agreement, and the principle of parity was cemented in the discussion and in the result. Over the four-year term of the agreement, the workers of the department, the administration, will achieve parity. We project wage increases in the Public Service in the department of regional Australia over the next few years. We have a catch-up increase and, over the four years, we will have achieved wage parity. That was lost over the period 1996 to 2007—

CHAIR: I appreciate the history of the union. I just want you to be mindful that, if there are contemporary issues of importance that you want to put on the record, that you would like to draw our attention to, then you will need to use your time efficiently.

Councillor Thomson : All right. The last point is that the other battle we had last year was with CIP, the mine, and that was also our claim to get parity in rates of pay with metropolitan Perth, based on trades rates. Although we had a battle, we did not achieve that end; but we have an agreement.

The impacts that I am concerned about for the future are labour shortages perhaps. Most employers on the island are looking at bringing workers in on 457 visas. The mine has a large number of workers brought to Christmas Island on 457 visas. In the WA mining industry, tradespeople come at a high price. We have not been able to achieve parity of rates with metropolitan Perth for our tradespeople at the mine. We have some other add-ons, like a fairly good severance package, which the mine points to and says, 'We're doing very well,' but we do not agree with the mine that we have achieved parity in rates of pay. That is going to feed into their labour recruitment problems. They recently lost a mainland recruit to a better paying position in the mining industry in Perth. A lot of employers all over the country have faced that problem, but we would like to see the issue addressed in a better way in the future with the mine. The mine is generally trying to act as a good citizen, but we are not getting all the benefits we would like to get.

With respect to other employers on the island, we are concerned about and have raised with the department of immigration the number of employers employing people who are not coming in on 457 visas but on a variety of visitor visas. The complaints that we are getting from some businesses are that they are disadvantaged because other businesses in the same sector are exploiting cheap labour—students on student visas or whatever—and not paying them in accordance with awards. The union is hamstrung to some degree by the legislation. We cannot just barge into an employer's premises and go through the books whenever we want to establish what rates of pay are being paid.

We have raised those issues through the department of immigration—they have a liaison officer—and we have said our expectation is that this community should be treated like any other in Australia. There are standards and laws to be maintained, and they should be maintained. While we can be sympathetic to employers who are facing labour shortages, there is no excuse for paying less than the award minimums that are required, and we believe that that is happening; and it is happening because people are fairly vulnerable to exploitation because of the nature of the visas they are here on.

They are some of the concerns we have for the future. We would like to see the laws enforced and workers rights properly respected.

CHAIR: Councillor Heng and Councillor Lee, did you want to put anything extra on the record?

Councillor Lee : I would like to emphasise what the general secretary has said in regard to the exploitation and the hiring of workers on different rates. It is important that we uphold the standards of Australia. Basically, I regard Christmas Island as part of Australia.

Everybody has been talking about the Asian century. This is one of the gateways. You are going to have a very big population up north. Lately you can see that we are going to spend about $1 trillion on immigration and the boat people issue. Our neighbours in Indonesia do not seem to have a cooperation mode. Lately—yesterday and two days ago—there have still been boats flooding into this place. In Christmas Island in the early days, when the union was involved, there was a report that regarded this place as an 'aircraft carrier'. America has 11 aircraft carriers floating around. China has one. Christmas Island is well known now. In the past, nobody knew about this place. I think that even the present investment of the Commonwealth federal government, putting $120 million into administering Cocos and Christmas islands, is just small bickies.

CHAIR: Mr Heng, did you want to add anything?

Councillor Heng : I want to bring up some issues on behalf of the residents. As you know, the cost of living on the island is very high. It is costly because everything is coming out by planes or whatever. But the most important is the pensioners. Pensioners at the moment are entitled to one free airfare to Perth. Because it is Perth, they do not have any family relations over there and, once they get to Perth, it is another cost for them to get accommodation or whatever. They are asking us to persuade you. Instead of going to the south, they want to go to the north, to Malaysia, where they might have family links so that they can spend their holidays there at less cost than in Perth. We tried to persuade the department to use this method. At the moment, these outstanding issues have been raised for so many years and have not yet been resolved. I want to see these resolved. Instead of going south, they can go to the north. It is no different at all.

Councillor Thomson : And we would like to see a district allowance paid to all of the pensioners. The cost of living on Christmas Island is huge, so people on fixed incomes have enormous difficulty in having a proper diet.

CHAIR: Okay. We have a few minutes—but not too many—for questions. Ms Brodtmann, I think you have some questions.

Ms BRODTMANN: How many of the workers on 457 visas are unionised?

Councillor Thomson : There would be two—former 457 visa holders. They would not join the union for fear of upsetting their boss. But now they have got PR, one of them—sorry—has joined the union. A former 457 visa holder has joined the union, but it is difficult to get the 457 visa holders to join the union.

Ms BRODTMANN: So 98 per cent of the 457 visa holders that you are aware of here on Christmas Island have unionised?

Councillor Thomson : Sorry, no; almost none.

Ms BRODTMANN: Almost none? I see. It is just the two. Sorry; I misinterpreted what you said.

Councillor Thomson : We had two members who were on 457 visas. One left the island and I am not sure why. Another has joined the union since he obtained permanent residency. I think there is a sense that they do not want to offend their employer by joining the union. I wonder where they get that idea from.

Ms BRODTMANN: On the APS3 issue, with the regional development department, I would have thought that they would have been captured nationally in the EBA that was developed with that department. That is when the enterprise agreements came in, in 1996, so it would not have been that the APS3 on Christmas gets less, because it just does not work that way. So it is quite curious that that happened.

Councillor Thomson : The employees with the administration are not Australian public servants. They are employees of the minister under the administered funds program, so they are not members of the Australian Public Service. The guidelines for bargaining were set by government for all agencies but not all agencies made agreements. We went for six years without an agreement. We also had the president of our union sacked by that administrator, so we have had a few battles. If you do not make agreements, you do not the increases.

Ms BRODTMANN: Okay, but whereas in the regional development agency, the department, or whatever its former incarnation is—it has had many incarnations—

Senator CROSSIN: …departments were reconstructed.

Councillor Thomson : We are just not covered by those agreements. We would like to be.

CHAIR: We have a couple of minutes. Senator Crossin?

Senator CROSSIN: I just have two questions. After the previous inquiry by this committee into the changing economic environment in the IOTs, the government handed down its response in October of last year. One of the recommendations was to look at coordinating a program of price monitoring in the IOTs. The response—probably written by the department, I suppose—was that the department had explored on-island options for collecting the data. This was not successful and the department was considering other methods to collect data in line with the ABS, like a basket of goods, showing the cost-of-living trends. Are you aware if anything of this nature has occurred?

Councillor Thomson : Yes.

Senator CROSSIN: Has the department done anything about implementing this recommendation?

Councillor Thomson : I am very pleased to say, yes.

Senator CROSSIN: What is happening?

Councillor Thomson : The department used the same people who do the WA government basket-of-goods data collection and analysis. We have met with them. They are very professional. They seem to really know what they are doing and we are looking forward to the results. But again, I am not sure whether those results will be public.

Senator CROSSIN: So, if an analysis has occurred it has only just happened. It was recently, is that right?

Councillor Thomson : It started earlier in the year. I think the consultants came from Perth on at least two occasions—April and June—and a third occasion in July, I think.

Senator CROSSIN: My second question is about the pay equity decision that was handed down for service workers. Does that have any flow-on to the awards or agreements that you would be party to?

Councillor Thomson : Is that the ASU case?

Senator CROSSIN: That is correct. For example, we have just legislated to lock in our $3 billion commitment as a government. I am wondering if any of that flows on to workers that you cover.

Councillor Thomson : It would have impacts, but not direct affect.

Senator CROSSIN: There are no in-service sector workers then?

Councillor Thomson : No. The services are provided either by the administration and covered by enterprise agreement. I think child care is not covered by that but additional funding is on the agenda. The services that would be covered by that award might be directly provided by the state government of WA under contract to the Commonwealth to provide that state-type service here. But we do not have any direct employees on the island who would be affected. That was a great victory for the community service workers.

CHAIR: I have a brief question with regard to the 457-visa workers. You have made a broad statement about your concern that there may not be parity. When I have spoken to DIAC in the past about these issues, they have said they do work through compliance to ensure that before 457 visas are granted that there will be parity. Notwithstanding that, there are some employers who seek to exploit some of that compliance. I would be interested to know if you have the capacity to put in writing any of the specifics of those concerns so that I can ask the Department of Immigration and Citizenship about how they are working through the compliance issues here on Christmas Island.

Mr Thomson : Thanks for that. I will certainly do that. Certainly, the department does work with the people who are given the 457 visas. The department has a rate of pay, an annual salary, that the employers must pay, and I think that most of the employers would be compliant, but that rate of pay for a tradesperson is usually below the market rate in metropolitan Perth, from what we have seen.

CHAIR: Thank you. I invite our next witnesses to come forward.