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Thursday, 14 October 1999
Page: 11603

Mr BEVIS (12:59 PM) —The Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Amendment Bill 1999 is, perhaps, sadly titled. It is not quite as misleading as the other bill that has been recently before this parliament from this department which, of course, was the Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (More Jobs, Better Pay) Bill 1999 , otherwise known in the community as Minister Reith's second wave or, in his department, as his mojo bill. This bill is about anything but improving the equal opportunity chances for women in the workplace. It actually reduces in a number of ways the conditions, benefits, regulations and reporting procedures currently in place. Rather than enhance the prospect of women receiving equal opportunity in the workplace, this bill actually takes away from women in the workplace some of the protections and assistance that the present act provides.

The government have sought to justify the removal of some of these clauses based on the review of the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act 1986. That report was released in June of last year and the government then provided a response to that report. But in typical doublespeak, as with the titling of the bill, the government have been carefully selective in the way they have chosen to deal with that report. For example, one of the government's responses—a key response upon which a number of aspects of this bill are predicated—said this:

The government agrees that the objects of the legislation should emphasise merit, replace the old union consultation requirement with a general statement of support for consultation, and emphasise a facilitative rather than a punitive approach to compliance.

That may sound fair enough in the abstract. Interestingly, it evoked this response in the Bills Digest which, as members of parliament know, is an explanatory background advice to members of parliament about what legislation does. Immediately after that reference in the Bills Digest , the authors of the Bills Digest make this note:

This response—

that is, the government's response—

would seem to have endorsed its own summary rather than the actual recommendations of the review.

That is quite an extraordinary conclusion for the Parliamentary Library Bills Digest to draw. Effectively, they are saying that the government have looked at this report; they verballed the report; and they have put in place their own recommendations, claiming them to be the report's recommendations. They then said, `We agree with the report saying this . . . ' when, in fact, the report did not say it at all. That is a tidy piece of writing, no doubt, by somebody in the minister's office or the department charged with those responsibilities, but it did not escape the scrutiny, thankfully, of the staff of the Parliamentary Library preparing the Bills Digest .

I want to make some comments about the circumstance of this government's wanting to remove a process of union consultation. I want to go back to the report which they claim they have based this on. In fact, far from recommending against union consultation, the review which this government want to rely upon had a main reference to unions that involved a discussion of workplace data. There is a range of workplace data upon which to draw. They were looking at the workplace data that was analysed by the Centre for Research in Employment and Work. It showed, and I quote:

Unionised workplaces have better equity performance than non-unionised workplaces and the higher the level of union density, the more likely the workplace is to have high equity performance.

If we are genuinely concerned with equal opportunity, as the title of this bill suggests we might be, if that title means anything and we want to promote equity, the statistics tell us that the greatest degree of gender equity exists in those places that are unionised. The higher the level of union membership, the greater the level of equity. That is not a value judgment from the Labor Party. It is actually the statistical analysis, and it was included in the report the government say they are now relying on. The government make no pretence at wanting to support that equity.

One of the key aspects of what the government are doing in this bill is removing the process of union consultation—that is, they are seeking to limit the involvement of unions in promoting equal opportunity for women. Why, if you were serious—as the government would have us believe they are—about promoting equal opportunity, would you destroy what is the most successful example of obtaining that equal opportunity—that is, unionised workplaces? The answer to that is clear to all Australians. This government's zeal in pursuing a very biased and ideological industrial relations agenda cuts across all other areas of policy. Today, we see it cut across the objective of equal opportunity.

We have debated in this parliament at other times the government's willingness, for example, to remove things like blood donor leave. So, last week, we had the Red Cross appearing before the Senate inquiry into the second wave saying, `The government took away blood donor leave and you know what has happened? There has been a drop of about 20 per cent of donors in some states and territories.' That is hardly surprising. One follows the other. It is a bit like day following night. If you do not give people leave from work in order to donate blood, then they are not going to be able to donate blood in the same numbers. So the Red Cross came along and said, `Please put that back into your industrial laws.' The government will not because their industrial agenda is more important to them than good public policy, even in a totally apolitical issue such as support for the blood bank.

Another example is Defence Force leave. The government removed Defence Force leave from industrial laws. Why? Not because it was good public policy. In fact, as I have mentioned on the record in the past, the defence department wrote to the government saying, `Don't do this; it is important for the operation of Australia's defence reserves that they have access to Defence Force leave.' The government steamrolled over the top of that advice, ignored national security interests and abolished Defence Force leave. Today, we have the predicament where we have virtually every one of our full-time combat-ready troops in East Timor with no capacity to replace them, with no capacity to rotate the force and with a depleted reserve in no small measure due to the government's desire to roll industrial relations agendas across everything else.

Today, we see it in relation to equal opportunity. No matter that the report they rely on says:

The best way you can get equal opportunity statistically is to have a unionised work force.

No matter that that is the best way of producing a result—and their own report says so. Because this government have an ideological commitment to removing unions from every aspect of society, they proceed with a bill, very wrongly named, that in fact will do the opposite.

Let us look at the facts of the matter in relation to what women are actually paid in the work force, Madam Deputy Speaker. If you compare the earnings of all employees, women earn 66.3 per cent of male earnings. If you compare full-time adults, then you find that women earn 80.5 per cent of male earnings. If you compare full-time non-managerial adult ordinary time earnings, then women earn 89 per cent of male pay. If you compare the base award—our basic safety net award or a certified agreement—and you look at those wage rates, then you find that the full-time non-managerial women earn 90.6 per cent of what their male counterparts earn. So, with the best statistic you can find—that basic safety net, the basic award, the basic industrial agreement—even there, women earn only 90.6 per cent of what their male counterparts earn. That is a totally unsatisfactory situation. But it has to be said that one message is clear from this: women have a better chance of earning the same as their male counterparts doing the same job if they are working in an area that is covered by an award or an agreement—that is, the normal industrial relations vehicle for setting people's conditions of pay.

However, it is not the industrial relations vehicle that Minister Reith and this government want. What we have seen of late is a push towards individual contracts—the Australian workplace agreements or AWAs. What happens when women are placed in that situation of individual bargaining? The facts show that they are severely disadvantaged. If you have a look at over-award payments—the money that people get over and above that minimum safety net—you discover that Australia wide, women earn only 43.7 per cent of those payments in excess of awards or agreements that are made to men.

There is no justification anyone can point to for that enormous disparity and the fact that women should be so disadvantaged. But that is the result when you go to the overaward payment. This government is now forcing onto Australian workers a shift from the current system of awards and agreements where they can get about 90 per cent to one where they have to negotiate over award. What do the statistics tell us? If you place people in a situation where they have to bargain over an award, then women will get less than half of that extra money for doing the same job. How do you as a government justify that? How does any government justify doing that and then have the gall to actually promulgate further discrepancies under a bill entitled `Equal opportunity for women' when it is clearly nothing of the sort?

I want to pursue the situation of overaward payments. Probably the best data for this is the old workplace survey from 1995. That survey found that workplaces that paid over awards tended to have a larger proportion of male employees than was the case generally in the work force. There were fewer women employed in workplaces that paid over awards, and there were more women in workplaces that were not paying them. In addition, in the workplaces that paid over awards, only 36 per cent of women received overaward payments at all.

We now have a situation where the government is forcing all workers to rely on awards as a safety net and nothing more than a safety net. Awards for the normal operation of industrial relations have now become irrelevant. Since this government came into office, it has managed to effectively freeze awards in time. There has been little adjustment. Those awards are absolute minimum safety nets, and yet this government and this minister think that they are too generous.

In December last year, the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business, Mr Reith, wrote to the Prime Minister setting out his objectives for this government during its first term in office. In that letter he complained that the minimum wage increases—the increases in the national wage case for that safety net—had been `too generous'. Not content with saying that the minimum safety net that Australian workers had was too generous, he then proposed to the Prime Minister an alternative system for setting minimum wages. He proposed that the Industrial Relations Commission no longer have the power to do this because he did not want an independent umpire; he wanted a stacked house.

In this letter to the Prime Minister, which was leaked, he proposed to set up a new tribunal which would have someone from Treasury, someone from the Reserve Bank and someone from the Productivity Commission. These would be the last people I would want to have deciding my income. They would be the last people I would entrust with the decision of what ordinary men and women in Australia should be paid. It would have been a stacked house, we can be sure of that, and we would have had a decision, no doubt, that met with Minister Reith's wishes. That is, they would have made increases that were not, in his words, `too generous'. In other words, workers would have got less money than they were getting.

Let us put that into some perspective. In the last national wage case, workers got a $12 a week gross increase, that is, before all deductions are taken out. It was 50 per cent more than Peter Reith said they should get. The government appeared before the inquiry and said they should only get $8 a week. That gives you an idea of where the government pitches the mark. We are talking here about people on the lowest level of income in the Australian work force, people who rely upon that basic safety net. If we are talking about women in the work force, the statistics tell us that a very large proportion of women are in industries where that is the basis upon which they are paid.

There are a couple of other things that I think are important that I want to address in the few remaining minutes. We have recently heard some public speculation about pregnancy tests and pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. It was one of the focuses at an International Labour Organisation convention in Geneva earlier this year. One of the two issues being looked at was maternity leave and things associated with it. The government circulated a questionnaire to employers in the lead-up to that, in which they invited employers' comment on whether or not they should be able to require women to undergo medical tests before deciding whether to employ them. Those medical tests would have determined whether they were pregnant or not. The government says they were just asking the question. There is no-one out there who believes that. This was a good case of push polling; this was a good case of planting the seed into people's minds and saying to employers out there, `Don't you reckon it'd be a good idea if you could ask any young woman who came in to have a medical test and just check if she's pregnant? You might not like to employ her if she is pregnant.'

That is a matter that is actually being discussed at international conferences and international forums. It is a matter that is being discussed here in Australia. The Report of the National Pregnancy and Work Inquiry identified this problem. It referred to:

. . . discrimination against potentially pregnant employees in the workplace.

The only potentially pregnant employees are women. It went on to say:

Potential pregnancy means discrimination against employees who may become pregnant or who are believed to be pregnant. Throughout the inquiry we have heard many stories of discrimination on the basis of potential pregnancy, mainly to do with recruitment and promotion. Women are still asked about their plans to start a family . . .

A little while ago the government actually suggested to employers going one step further: `Don't ask the woman at the interview what her family plans are. The government have actually fostered the idea that you should have the power to require them to have a pregnancy test.' If the government wanted to be fair dinkum about promoting equal opportunity for women, they might have addressed that in this bill, but they have not.

There was a meeting of the International Labour Organisation earlier this year that dealt with these broad questions of maternity leave and the role of women in the workplace—an issue one would have thought was of very major concern to women in Australia. The government managed to send a delegation to it that did not include one woman—not a single woman representing Australia. There was a woman there from Australia who sought to participate, a delegate from the ACTU. The government did everything they could to stop her participating. At the end of the day, under protest and objections from the ACTU and a number of other people, the government relented and found a way to allow that person to participate with some credentials. There was a fight with the government to allow the one Australian woman at the conference to participate in the ILO discussions about maternity leave for women.

That demonstrates the level of real concern this government has. That demonstrates the understanding and sensitivity this government has. They sent an all-male delegation and then did everything they could to stop the only woman—the ACTU representative—from being able to participate properly in the forum. It was so bad that at the formal reception the embassy held for the minister and the delegation—of which I was fortunate, I suppose, to be a member—the Australian government were not even going to invite that woman to the official reception until there was a bit of an argument about that too. That is the level of concern this government has for this issue. It is sad but, unfortunately, the case.

I want to quickly refer to a couple of other matters that are in the second reading amendment. The defunding of a range of community groups, many of which are involved in women's affairs, groups like the Girl Guides, the Women's Electoral Lobby, the Older Women's Network, the Catholic Women's League—these are people who have had their funding from the government cut—has been exposed quite fully over the last week. If the government were fair dinkum about wanting to support the role of women in our community, they would not have cut funds to those groups, and certainly not in retribution for these groups not supporting the GST.

The final thing I will say is in relation to our amendment No. 8 dealing with child care and related matters. I am sorry I do not have time to talk more fully about child care, education and health issues, because they are fundamental to the question of women's participation in the work force and equality of opportunity. The record shows the simple fact that there have been serious cutbacks in those areas, and every member of this parliament who has dealt with childcare centres knows that to be so. I support the amendment moved by my colleague the member for Jagajaga.