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Tuesday, 19 August 2003
Page: 18847

Ms BURKE (4:24 PM) —I am saddened to be following the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations on this MPI and I am saddened that we are having to talk about this issue. Again he has demonstrated all the rhetoric from that side: `We're going to have this wonderful thing with the workers and the bosses getting together and working it all out.' That is wonderful, except if you are an employee in an industry of 22,000 workers, you are on the other side of Australia and you might not even know who your boss is. We get accused on this side of not knowing about small business, but nobody on that side has ever been involved in industrial relations. None of them have ever actually been involved in negotiations. If they had—

Mr Barresi —That's not right!

Ms BURKE —Except for the member for Deakin, perhaps. He may be the only person over there who has ever been involved. I have been involved on both sides, having worked for the bosses and for the union movement, and realise what it is like to be involved in these negotiations. The airy-fairy ideals that they put across do not work—they simply do not work in the workplace.

The MPI today I think captures the essence of this government—a government not, as they claim, `for all', a government not for families or, as the Prime Minister so derogatorily puts it, `ordinary Australians'. No, this is a government for the wealthy, and in particular those who are keen on donating to the Liberal Party. We no longer have a government for the people, by the people of Australia; we have a government for the wealthy, by the wealthy. We have a government in particular with a Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations who has no appreciation or understanding of working men and women. His only interest in his portfolio has been in employers. Never once has he spoken in, or indeed outside, this House about workers' rights. His only interest is employer rights. His raft of legislation in this place is about stripping away the last vestige of any rights a worker may have had. Gone are the rights of employees; gone are the rights of workers to collectively bargain, to have some voice and power in negotiations with their employer. Instead we have a system which seeks to starve workers into submission to agree to job losses and reduced conditions. It is a system which encourages and promotes employers to avoid bargaining in good faith and actively promotes conflict ahead of resolution.

This government has in place legislation that openly encourages hostility towards workers. It encourages management thuggery on its workers. This government is wonderful about talking about union thuggery, but what about management thuggery? It is out there and it is alive. The minister braved it once at a picket line in Sydney at Morris McMahon, where he said the workers had the right to seek a collective agreement. What he failed to add is that they may have that right, but they have no ability to enforce it. There is no way you can actually get the management to come to the table and collectively bargain. Has the minister visited any of the sites where staff are not on strike but have been locked out by their management? Has he told the 76 workers at ACI on Lexton Road at Box Hill that they have a right to collectively bargain? Has he sought to intervene in this dispute to help 76 decent workers get back to work? Has the minister sought to introduce legislation which assists workers and management to resolve disputes? No. What he has done and continues to do with his legislation is attack workers' rights to bargain and to achieve a decent living standard.

ACI at Box Hill—does it sound familiar? It does to me, because this is not the first time that these staff have been locked out; it is the third time. The management locked out staff in 1995, in 2000 on Christmas Eve, and in 2003. What greater demonstration is there that ACI management at Box Hill has no desire to bargain in good faith? ACI is again demanding its workers give up hard-won basic conditions. ACI wants staff to have a doctor's certificate for every single day of absence. With no bulk-billing doctors around, this is actually a massive impost. It wants staff to cash out leave instead of taking it. The humdinger is that midway in the lockout—into six weeks—it said that it wanted staff to revert to a five-day, eight-hour roster after it enforced a six-day, 12-hour pattern in its first lockout in 1995.

Drastic changes to work patterns are not like installing new machinery. A normal family life is never easy for shift workers. Being married to someone who was once a shift worker, I know it is not easy. You just do not change your life that easily. These workers have now accommodated this and can no longer deal with it. To top it all off, the company recently sacked a worker who had just returned to work after being injured. He had spent 32 years with the company; he was aged 64 and wanted to keep working. Surely that is a desire the Prime Minister could appreciate—he was 64 and he wanted to keep working. I thought that was something that this government was meant to be encouraging. The current situation at Box Hill is putting the wellbeing of 76 families at serious risk. These families have not been paid an income for over four months and this will continue, as they received another lockout notice until 18 September. Most have no access to Centrelink benefits, yet it is ACI that is effectively on strike, not the workers.

Workers affected by the lockout are in genuine fear of defaulting on their mortgages and are facing a crushing debt crisis. During the lockout in 2000 they washed cars to raise money. Because of the water restrictions, they now cannot even do that. There is no income going to these 76 families. Marriages are at serious risk of breakdown. Serious health issues related to stress are surfacing. Some of the workers have even talked about suicide. The current Workplace Relations Act does not provide any avenue whatsoever for this dispute to be resolved. The commission has had its powers to ensure that parties bargain in good faith ripped from it. There is nowhere for these workers to go to resolve this. What has management done? Management has lodged this with the commission—not only to end the dispute but to actually terminate the agreement. So these workers are going to be left nowhere, high and dry. That is all this government offers people.

What else do we have? We have 93 workers at a wool combing factory in Geelong—very low-paid workers—who have been locked out for 14 weeks. Why? Because they would not agree to a certified agreement that reduced their pay by 25 per cent. I think that is fairly unreasonable. Seven of those workers have already had to sell their homes. We also have Blue Ribbon in Launceston, which is in the 140th day of its lockout. Why? Because staff with in excess of 30 years experience will not accept contracts which do not specify their pay. I think it is a reasonable thing that, if you are going to accept a contract, it should state what the pay and conditions are. Also, the company is now denying that these people were ever employees, even though they have been there for 30 years. This is a government that actively promotes and encourages this appalling behaviour.

Although his title is the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, in reality the minister is an antiunion zealot who believes his calling in life is to undermine unions, regardless of the vulnerable position in which this will leave honest and hardworking Australians. It is ironic that it was this minister who said of the union link with the ALP:

The union link made sense in the era of robber-baron capitalism when unions helped to civilise the workplace and establish ... dignity ...

If that is true, I see a real need not only for unions but also for a party in this House that has an even stronger link with them, since the Liberal Party has done nothing more than try to re-establish that era of robber baron capitalism through its one-sided legislative reforms aimed at kicking those already in need.

I find it extraordinary that the minister, who forever talks about how he wants to bring equality to the workplace—and he has stated it again today—has resorted to the old favourite of union bashing instead of trying to bring some true equality into the workplace. How can he realistically expect to build a working relationship with both sides of the argument and be a conduit to bipartisan reform when he consistently calls every unionist a `thug' and describes hardworking people who dare to stand up to management as a `mob'? You see, the truth is that those on the other side of the House just want one thing. They want antiworker and antiunion bias institutionalised in the federal industrial relations system so that they can simply wipe their collective hands like Pontius Pilate and deny that they are breaking the backs of average Australians and denying them their hard-earned rights.

What is so wrong with the word `union'? It is a collective of individuals getting together. It is a collective of people in the work force standing up for what they believe in. It is not a three-headed monster. It is not the terrible thing at the end of the garden. It is a collective of human beings standing up and exercising their democratic right to be heard together—and actually that will not be a right anymore under this government; they are trying to rip that away from them.

Although the minister is largely to blame for the situation and is the government's mouthpiece, we must not forget who the real culprit is. I am talking about the man who conveniently lets his brother's company have its say—little cosy deals in relation to employee entitlements. The minister talked about GEERS. GEERS would be wonderful if it actually paid out money to anybody. I have 101 workers at another site in Box Hill who lodged applications with GEERS and GEERS said, `No, you can't have the money.' It is not working. That system has failed. He holds up his hand and says it is wonderful. Maybe we did not introduce one because we did not have companies who had a system where they could actually deny the workers their entitlements, set up shelf companies and say: `No, you were never our employees. Off you go.'

We have a Prime Minister who likes to be a buddy or, dare I say it, a lapdog to big business and thinks the behaviour shown by Patrick Stevedores was simply inspiring. Where are you, Prime Minister, when workers such as those at ACI need you? You are nowhere to be found. It is a pity none of their surnames is Honan.