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Thursday, 22 March 2012
Page: 3982


Ms SMYTH (La Trobe) (12:04): Really I should not be surprised at this point. In the same week that we saw the Tories in this place oppose safe rates and safe working conditions for truck drivers in our country, we now see them exposing vulnerable workers—largely a female workforce—to unfair work practices and working conditions. I am afraid I do not take particularly seriously the somewhat disingenuous concerns that have been expressed by the member for Farrer for some of those vulnerable workers, because at every stage of the development of workplace legislation the opposition have revealed themselves to be completely unconcerned with the rights of working people. Each time we present legislation in this place which aims to make work rights fairer for some of our most vulnerable people across the most vulnerable industries in this country, they stand in this place and indicate their disdain for those working people and for those who represent them.

It is extraordinary that, in addition to opposing safe rates and opposing this legislation, the opposition are trying to claim that they represent small business interests in this place. So much of the rhetoric of the member for Farrer went to the opposition's apparent concerns about the interests of small business and the opportunities presented to small business. I am afraid you really cannot have it both ways. You cannot come into this place and say that you are going to be opposing tax cuts for small business, you cannot come into this place and say that you are going to be opposing the change in the company tax rate to assist business generally in this country, and then pretend to be representing small business. On every count those opposite fail the test of a responsible opposition, fail the test of compassion towards workers and fail the test of reasonableness for industry.

It is extraordinary that the third point the member for Farrer raised—indeed, I am sure members of the opposition generally will raise this in the course of this debate—is that there has not been sufficient opportunity for consultation in relation to the legislation before us, that there is not sufficient opportunity for industry input. Well, one only has to look back at the development of the Fair Work legislation in this country and compare it to the development of Work Choices legislation in this country to see the very stark difference between the approach taken by those of us on this side of the chamber and the opposition. The Work Choices legislation was brought to this place by stealth, with rather limited consultation, and certainly very limited consultation for working people in this country. However, this government, after what was effectively a referendum on workplace rights at the 2007 election—when the Australian people resoundingly rejected the approach taken by the Tories in relation to fair workplaces and workplace rights—undertook a rigorous process of review and consultation and developed its legislation appropriately to reflect a fair balance, a balance which ensures that the rights of working people across industries, including the TCF industry, are supported and to ensure fairness for all.

The contortions of the opposition, as they come into this place pretending that they are concerned about vulnerable workers and pretending that they are concerned about small business, are extraordinary. Frankly, like most contortionists, they deserve to be in a sideshow—and indeed they are a sideshow. We know that this government stands for ensuring that vulnerable people have appropriate rights in their workplaces, and this legislation is absolutely about that. It is as a result of an ongoing effort by those in the TCF workforce and by those who represent people in the TCF workforce that we are ensuring there is justice in the workplace. So I am very pleased to speak on this legislation today.

The Australian textile, clothing and footwear industry is a major sector of our economy, with industry estimates of over $9 billion in annual sales. It accounts for 10 per cent of manufacturing establishments. Business analysts report that 50 per cent of clothes sold in Australia are manufactured domestically. Manufacturing employment in the industry is characterised by outworkers, and the legislation before us is concerned with them. The Productivity Commission estimates that outworkers comprise 40 per cent of the workforce. While the nature of the industry makes it difficult to be specific, the number of Australians working in the TCF industry is by any measure significant. The Senate Economics Reference Committee's inquiry into outworkers in the garment industry reported in 1996 that at that time the number of outworkers in Australia ranged from 50,000 to over 300,000, with over 140,000 in my state of Victoria.

Despite the size and contribution of this major sector of the economy, the poor working conditions of its outsourced workforce have been of major concern. Many reviews over the past 15 years have identified these issues, so it is appropriate and timely for this legislation to come before the House today. The Senate inquiry found problems with payments and hours of work as well as confusion and misinformation about rights and responsibilities in workplaces. It found that noncompliance with award wages and conditions was so widespread that it was considered normal.

The Industry Commission in 1997 and the Productivity Commission in 2003 found that outworkers received payment and conditions significantly lower than their award or statutory entitlements. A study in 2007 by the Brotherhood of St Laurence reported that outworkers themselves were stating that conditions had worsened over the past 10 years, with continuing poor working conditions and underpayments, sometimes as low as $2 or $3 per hour. One of the outworkers interviewed for this study stated:

If we work eight hours a day, five days a week, we would only earn $100 so it is not enough. It's impossible to work less hours and clear the same as workers in the factory.

Another outworker stated:

We do the sewing: the factory then gives it to (company name) and they say it is all wrong and they don't pay the money. Then the factory does not pay me.

This study also reported the continuing lack of awareness throughout the industry of the need to comply with relevant workplace laws and award conditions for outworkers. The Council of Textile and Fashion Industries of Australia reported to the Senate inquiry that they were 'extremely concerned' about exploitative employment practices in the industry. So it is appropriate, timely and critical for this legislation to come before us today. These reviews have found—and the government certainly accepts—that outworkers in the TCF industry suffer from unique vulnerabilities as a result of their engagement or employment in non-business premises. These vulnerabilities are made worse by the fact that these workers are often migrants, with poor English language skills and a lack of knowledge of Australia's legal system and employment arrangements.

Since our election in 2007 and the referendum on fair work in Australia, Labor has acted to improve the situation of these workers. The government's Fair Work Act includes a number of important specific protections for outworkers, with additional entitlements and protections contained in the industry award. While a number of states have legislation providing special protections for TCF outworkers, this is far from uniform. Even where these protections have been enacted, outworkers still have difficulty using or enforcing them. The difficulty of identifying employers and work locations throughout the supply chain has also limited the ability of the union representing outworkers—the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia—to gain right of entry to explain workplace rights to outworkers and to represent its members. This problem has been highlighted by the Fair Work Ombudsman, who has reported difficulty in identifying and assisting outworkers due to the fact that they do not work in traditional workplaces and that there is inherent difficulty in identifying employers.

For all these reasons, this government is acting. This bill responds to the concerns I have outlined by providing enhanced workplace protection for outworkers. It represents a major step forward for Australia's outworkers, most of whom are women. It extends the operation of most provisions of the Fair Work Act to contract outworkers in this industry, and it provides a mechanism to enable them to recover unpaid amounts up the TCF industry supply chain. It enables a TCF outwork code to be issued. Most importantly, the bill addresses limitations on right of entry provisions to assist in ensuring that workplaces comply with Australian law and award conditions. It will extend outworker-specific right of entry rules to all premises in the TCF industry operating under sweatshop conditions. So it is appropriate and timely that this bill has come before the House today.

I would like to acknowledge the work of two organisations which have long advocated on behalf of Australian outworkers—FairWear, which has brought together a network of community organisations and for many years has advocated the elimination of exploitation of sweatshop workers and home-based outworkers in the Australian clothing industry, and the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia, which has been at the forefront of representing the industrial interests of outworkers and raising awareness of their legitimate rights and entitlements.

I finish with the words of Mr John Ryan from the Australian Catholic Commission for Employment Relations, who said in 2006:

A measure of our humanity is how we assist the vulnerable. Outworkers need fair pay and conditions to support their families and to live with dignity. The safety nets for outworkers, and other industrially weak workers, need to be maintained.

These are vulnerable Australians who deserve the support of this parliament and they certainly have the support of those on this side of the parliament. I commend the bill to the House.