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Monday, 23 March 1998
Page: 1265

Mrs CROSIO (1:16 PM) —I present the Employee Protection (Wage Guarantee) Bill 1998 . I first spoke on the need for legislation to protect workers' entitlements during a private members' debate in this chamber almost two years ago. I did so after Exicom, a telecommunications company located in my electorate, had collapsed into insolvency, owing $17 million to its 680 employees. Many of the people affected by Exicom's demise lived in my community. In an area where unemployment runs at almost double the national average, to have such a large number of people added to the job queue was one thing; to have them robbed of the money which they were legally owed was a social disaster. I know many members in this House have similar stories to tell.

Today as I introduce the Employee Protection (Wage Guarantee) Bill 1998 —a bill which once passed would stop such a fate as befell Exicom's workers from ever occurring again—we have the misfortune of witnessing the same sorry story repeating itself. It is a moment of sad coincidence.

As I introduce this bill, 160 workers from the insolvent Woodlawn zinc and copper mine in Goulburn are owed roughly $6 million in entitlements—many of them are here in the capital today; 270 miners from the failed CSA mine in Cobar are also owed $6 million in entitlements; 250 meatworkers in Grafton are owed more than $3 million; 157 nurses in Rockhampton and Yeppoon are owed $1.4 million; 2,000 workers formerly employed by the Sizzler chain of restaurants across Australia are owed $2 million. As a consequence of these dire circumstances, regional centres and towns are having their hearts and souls ripped out. As a consequence, mortgage repayments cannot be met and bills cannot be paid.

Unfortunately, the bill before the House today will not help these people. It does not offer them retrospective relief. Their plight is an issue that the government must address separately and soon. What this bill does is fill a gaping hole in the nation's welfare safety net. It requires employers to insure their work forces under a wage protection insurance scheme and therefore guarantees the money they legally owe.

Australia is the only country in the developed world without—at least in some parts of its borders—a system that either guarantees workers' entitlements against an employer's insolvency or provides them with the utmost priority against all other creditors. Australia has prided itself on its forward-thinking social reforms since Federation, yet we trail the developed world in a matter as significant and as important as protecting workers' entitlements.

Under this bill, in the case of an employer's insolvency, workers will be insured for unpaid wages, annual leave or long service leave, liabilities resulting from the termination of employment without notice or with insufficient notice, and liabilities for repayment of any amounts paid by the employee to the employer for training in a particular trade or profession. Unless exempt under the legislation, all employers must take out and maintain a policy of wage protection insurance with an approved insurer for their work force. The Insurance and Superannuation Commissioner will administer the scheme.

It is estimated that the money required from employers, not only to insure their workers but also to cover the scheme's administrative costs, would be an extra 0.1 per cent of their total wages bill—a marginal price to pay for such a major social reform.

When I first discussed this issue in this House almost two years ago, I remember quite clearly a member on the government benches saying that I was not the first person on the planet to raise the issue. I do not claim to be. This is an issue that has raised its head a number of times in Australia. It is an issue that should have been addressed long ago. It is an issue to which the major parties should have paid more attention.

I am proud to say that the opposition has committed itself to making the protection of workers' entitlements part of its industrial relations policy at the next election. The onus is now on the government to respond in kind. I am quite prepared for the government to amend my bill as long as its amendments bring about the same result. If it would like to suggest alternative ways of protecting workers' entitlements to those that are in my bill, perhaps I can assist by making a few extra of my own.

One suggestion it may like to consider is making lending institutions pay for the privilege of retaining their position of priority over other creditors, including workers, in the event of company insolvency. Contributions to a wage guarantee fund by the banks would make up a large share of the money needed for a scheme like this to operate.

If the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) is averse to making all members of the corporate community participate in a scheme such as mine, perhaps he could allow exemptions to the vast majority if they were to enter formal arrangements to place money covering their employees' entitlements in trust. Whatever he chooses to do, I urge the Prime Minister to pay serious consideration to the bill I am introducing into the House today. The Prime Minister may support it in full or use it as a foundation for his own legislation, but he must do something and he must do it now. He must put forward a proposal that will offer security and wage protection to Australian workers now and in the future.

The opposition is ready and willing to offer its full support if he does so. There can be no more procrastination. The security of Australia's workers must be guaranteed. Their legal entitlements are theirs and theirs only. As legislators, we must guarantee that that commitment is kept. Mr Deputy Speaker, I ask leave of the House to present the explanatory memorandum to this bill.

Leave granted.

Mrs CROSIO —I present the explanatory memorandum to the bill.

Bill read a first time.

Ordered that the second reading be made an order of the day for the next sitting.