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Monday, 18 August 2003
Page: 18675

Mr CREAN (Leader of the Opposition) (12:58 PM) —The Corporate Responsibility and Employment Security Bill 2003 ensures that if a worker loses their job they will be paid their full entitlements. It will stop once and for all the practice of employers setting up sham companies, sacking their whole work force and stealing their employees' rightful entitlements. If those practices sound fanciful, they should not, because they are exactly what the Howard government encouraged companies to do during the Patricks waterfront dispute. Peter Reith may have gone from this parliament, but his legacy lives on in a government prepared to condone these sorts of practices. Labor will not condone them. We will end them. Stealing workers' entitlements is un-Australian, and this bill will make it a thing of the past.

The bill is founded on the principle that everyone should have the same rights—whether management, employee or subcontractor. The government's scheme protects workers' basic entitlements up to a maximum of only eight weeks redundancy pay. The government calls it `the community standard'. It is not the standard for the community as a whole. I do not know too many corporate executives who would accept eight weeks pay when they lose their job—$8 million perhaps, but not eight weeks pay. Moreover, under the government's scheme the Australian taxpayer foots the bill for corporate mismanagement.

The bill I have presented will enable workers or their nominees to pursue their entitlements directly from a related company if the company employing them goes bust. In summary, it will enable Australian workers or their representatives to pull aside the corporate veil and get to the company that actually has the assets. If a holding company has a direct role in the management of the employing company, under the provisions in this bill the onus will be on it to establish why it should not foot the bill for employee entitlements. Under the current scheme it is necessary to establish a criminal onus of proof that there was a deliberate shifting of assets for the specific purpose of avoiding employee entitlements. It is virtually impossible to establish that.

This bill also recognises that it is not just employees who lose out through the corporate insolvency provisions; increasingly, subcontractors and employees of subcontractors will also lose out as a result of corporate insolvency. Accordingly, in those circumstances this bill will enable subcontractors and employees of subcontractors to recover their wages and fees from a contractor higher up the contracting chain.

The proposed legislation is based on a system that has been operating effectively in New South Wales, and there is no reason why it should not be applied on a national basis. Our scheme would enable workers to be paid out immediately, and then the guarantee fund would stand in the workers' shoes to recover from those companies that have played a material role in the demise of the employer companies. It would also enable workers to have their superannuation entitlements recovered—something not covered under the government's current schemes.

This bill is about protection and a fair go for all Australian workers. It is their money and they are entitled to have it protected. The government has a moral duty to support this bill. This is an entitlement we want for all workers—not just for those who happen to work for John Howard's brother's company. This is a change to the legislation that will not allow the disgraceful activity that occurred in the Patrick dispute to happen again, where at midnight the cabinet sat and deliberated on allowing a company to sack its entire work force and strip away their entitlements. This bill puts in place a law and a principle that we hold dear: that every one of us has the same rights when we lose our job. If passed, this bill will enable Australia to end one of the most shameful practices in our legal and corporate system. I commend the bill to the House.

Bill read a first time.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—In accordance with standing order 104A, the second reading will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.