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Thursday, 15 June 2006
Page: 102

Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR (4:06 PM) —The fact is that the Work Choices legislation will fundamentally change this society because it seeks to drive down wages and conditions. It will hurt ordinary Australians. That is the reality that the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations decided not to mention. Over the last 15 minutes, he had the opportunity to justify why there have been such fundamental changes to our industrial relations system. So little evidence, so little reason, has been given for such fundamental change to this public policy. The reason the government has failed to give compelling answers to questions about why changes have been made to the industrial relations system is that it knows what we know—this system is about driving wages down and setting up two sets of workers in this country. The lucky ones, unfortunately in the minority, will possibly have good or better wages; but the majority of workers in this country—those without the capacity to bargain individually with their employer and those who do not have a rare set of skills to bargain with in the marketplace and cannot argue that their skills are so scarce as to warrant a sufficient wage increase—will find themselves at the bottom of the heap. That is the situation as a result of these changes.

The shadow minister made it very clear: there is no nexus between the changes to the industrial relations system that have been sought and gained by this government and productivity improvements. There has been no argument set in place by the government to explain the nexus—the cause and effect of Work Choices. Instead, empirical evidence gives example after example of maltreatment of employees by employers. Since the act came into operation on 27 March this year, a series of agreements has been lodged with the Office of the Employment Advocate that will drive down wages of ordinary working Australians. I reiterate the statistics that have been provided by the Office of the Employment Advocate to Senate estimates: 100 per cent exclude at least one protected award condition, 64 per cent remove leave loadings, 63 per cent remove penalty rates, 52 per cent remove shift loadings, 40 per cent remove gazetted public holidays and 19 per cent remove all penalties in awards. This is all by virtue of this new instrument, AWAs.

Why is it a new instrument? Taking the no-disadvantage test out of the Workplace Relations Act effectively removes any safety net for ordinary workers. To expect the ordinary worker to negotiate with his or her boss is a complete and utter nonsense. Every worker in this country knows that they cannot go into their boss’s office and say, ‘I just want a 10 per cent wage increase.’ For that matter, they cannot go into the boss’s office and say, ‘I don’t want a 10 per cent cut to my existing conditions of employment and my wage rate.’ The reason they cannot do that, as we all know in this place and as every employee knows in every workplace in this country, is that the capacity for an employee to individually bargain with his or her employer is nigh on impossible, because the relationship is inherently unequal. Whilst Labor did not accept some of the changes that occurred in the Workplace Relations Act, the reason why the no-disadvantage test was inserted into the legislation was to enable its passage through the Senate in 1996.

You can be assured of this, Mr Deputy Speaker: the government did not want a no-disadvantage test in the Workplace Relations Act 1996. The government had to compromise to get that no-disadvantage test inserted into the Workplace Relations Act 1996. As soon as the government took control of the Senate, they ripped the no-disadvantage test out of the act so that an employee would not have any protection whatsoever in attempting to negotiate an individual agreement with their employer.

It is not surprising that, until the operation of this act, only three per cent of the entire workforce of this country were on AWAs. After 10 years in operation, three per cent of the workforce are in receipt of or party to an Australian workplace agreement. I have said this before in this place: how Orwellian is the title Australian workplace agreements? They are not Australian. They are not intrinsic to the way in which Australia has negotiated industrial arrangements since 1901. The fact is that they are alien to the way in which Australians have gone about setting employment conditions in this country. They are certainly not ‘workplace’, because they rely upon the vulnerability of an individual employee to be put in a position to have to accept and to cede the changes sought by employers. As we know, only in the rarest of circumstances would they be ‘agreements’, because unfortunately they are coercive—so much so that the new act actually expressly says that it is not coercive to force someone to take an AWA if they want a job. It expressly says in a provision of the Work Choices legislation that it is not coercive. It has to expressly say that, because in any other common law understanding of contracts of employment you could not force someone to take an agreement without an offer, without consideration or without acceptance. These things are basic standards of common law that have been taken away by this government because it knows it is putting workers in a situation of duress and it wants to expressly allow that to occur.

As someone said to me recently, this is allowing rogue employers to do legally what they have been doing illegally. This effectively ensures that rogue employers who want to act badly are given that imprimatur to treat their employees badly. The worst of it is that they are forcing good employers to consider doing the same. That is a tragedy. Labor knows that the majority of employers do not want to place their workers in unfair situations. Labor understands that most employers want to ensure that their business is operating properly. They want to have a decent relationship with their workforce. In fact, small businesses have a very close relationship with their employees. It is the nature of the business. They know them and they know their families.

We spoke to many small businesses on the task force that went around the country. We were told by a number of small businesses that they were concerned about the way in which the legislation would force them to push wages down. They were also concerned about the prescription, the complexity and the confusion that the laws enshrined. Michael Fern, the owner of an engineering company in Gladstone in Queensland, said:

Clearly I haven’t read all 400 pages and the 800 pages of how to read the legislation or whatever is available. And this isn’t unusual because we are inundated with legislation and if I read it all I wouldn’t do any work. That does concern me greatly, but I don’t really understand the legislation ... Small businesses like mine are the backbone of ... this economy and clearly we can’t spend that time to understand all this legislation so who is it helping? Who’s gaining out of this? I have no idea ... Every day there’s more and more of it and this Work Choices is just another example.

Another small business operator in Melbourne, a pharmacist from Mitcham in Deakin, George Liarakos, who we met in the member for Deakin’s electorate, said to us about the Work Choices act:

To start off with individual agreements, AWAs—the way [the government] are putting the spin on it, it’s a great thing, it’s about workers’ choice. You can actually get rid of unions and bargain for yourself more effectively against an employer. I think that’s crap.

Do you know why the pharmacist in Mitcham thinks it is utter nonsense? Because he knows that his employees do not have the bargaining capacity to bargain with him fairly. And he told us so. He effectively said that they do not have that capacity. He said:

The way I see it, without legal representation ... our accountants, our lawyers ... if we want to draft up something and take advantage of this we could do so easily.

The pharmacist in Melbourne said that if they wanted to draft something up and provide it to their employees, they could take advantage of this easily. That is the new system this government has enacted. Taking away the no-disadvantage test and forcing AWAs without any protection whatsoever is denying the right for employees in this country to bargain effectively. The statistics of the Office of the Employment Advocate that were provided to the Senate estimates committee showed that many of the award conditions have been stripped already from those AWA instruments—and there are more to come. (Time expired)