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Wednesday, 30 October 1996
Page: 4806

Senator GIBBS(6.07 p.m.) —The Workplace Relations and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 1996 states:

The principal object of this Act is to provide a framework for cooperative workplace relations which promotes the economic prosperity and welfare of the people of Australia by:

(a)   encouraging the pursuit of high employment, improved living standards, low inflation and international competitiveness through higher productivity and a flexible labour market . . .

This all sounds wonderful, but how will this impact on an industry such as the meat industry where workers are already working to full capacity? Meatworkers do piecework, they are paid for the work they do, so obvi ously their work is already driven by a commitment to productivity. Does higher productivity mean lower wages? Does this mean Australia has to go the way of the American meat industry? In the American abattoirs they employ cheap labour and the workers undercut each other's hourly rate of pay to gain access to these jobs.

The Labor Party accept the concept of a flexible labour market, but we believe that the labour market should not only be flexible but be fair. Where in the objects of the bill does it refer to the promotion of better pay for productive work? It does not. Despite the government's pre-election commitment and all the subsequent verbosity that its industrial relations proposals were to achieve better pay for better work, the objects do not state that the bill seeks to promote better pay.

Flexibility is one thing. With no reference to fairness, this bill is all about flexibility, certainly not about fairness. In the objects of this bill there is no commitment to the guarantee of the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) that no-one will be worse off as a result of the implementation of this bill. This commitment is crucial to those who are most vulnerable within the workplace, especially apprentices, trainees, casual workers and so on. The objects of this bill should reflect a commitment to the provision of relevant, secure and consistent wages and conditions through awards, not just a safety net of minimum wages and conditions as provided in the bill.

In terms of a flexible labour market, how far do you want to go? In many service industries, such as the hospitality industry, the workers already experience their fill in terms of flexibility. Many service workers already work nightmarish hours and are casualised beyond what is reasonable. Many of the new jobs being created are being created within interactive service industries.

Who works in these jobs? I will tell you. Women, young people and semi-skilled workers. How flexible do you want these workers to be? The so-called flexibility being advocated in the objects of this bill is really nothing more than a squeeze on the most vulnerable and unprotected workers in our society.

Take, for instance, the deal between the Democrats and the government regarding the power of the commission to set the maximum number of hours for part-time workers. According to this deal, all award quotas will be repealed without exception. With regard to the hours of part-timers, the commission will have no power to set maximum hours. The commission's power to set minimum hours will be restricted to the number of consecutive hours only. So much for the Democrats' pre-election policy where they stated, `The Democrats will oppose any attempt to reduce the powers or jurisdiction of the commission'!

As I have previously stated in this chamber—and I repeat it for the benefit of those who do not yet quite understand this issue—the vast majority of part-time workers are women. The proposed amendments concerning the power of the commission to set maximum and minimum hours for part-time workers is an attack on women workers. Why the attack on women workers?

This is also in direct contradiction to proposed section 3(i) of the objects of the bill, which clearly states that this bill is supposed to assist employees in the balance between their work and family responsibilities through the development of mutually beneficial work practices with employers. What is mutually beneficial about waking up in the morning and not knowing whether or not you are going to work? What is beneficial about employers being able to call a woman into work at any time with no regard for how difficult it is to arrange child care at such short notice?

This is not even a remotely family-friendly practice, yet we are consistently told that this bill espouses a family-friendly orientation towards the workplace. Proposed section 3(j) tells us that the object of this bill is to respect and value diversity of the work force by helping to prevent and eliminate discrimination on the basis of family responsibilities.

Many aspects of this bill are anything but family-friendly. Wage earners who have families, particularly women who work part time, certainly need flexibility in the workplace. It seems the term `flexibility' has been grossly misunderstood in terms of the promo tion of family-friendly workplaces. What workers need is regularity, consistency and trust within the workplace.

These two aspects of the objects to which I have just referred are actually in contradiction. There will be no mutually beneficial arrangements for many disadvantaged workers, but there will be a great deal of systemic discrimination on the basis of family responsibility. Women will be discouraged from taking up part-time work, and this will have a flow-on effect in terms of levels of family and child poverty. I have said it before in this chamber and I will continue to say it, because it is obvious to me that, in relation to women in the work force, many of you just don't get it. Women are there and they are going to stay there whether you like it or not. There is no doubt in my mind that many women workers will suffer as a result of the implementation of this bill, as will young people and those most vulnerable.

The objects under discussion here do not accurately reflect the real intention of the bill. The principal objects of this act pay lip-service to the very real problem of equity within the workplace. This bill will affect nearly every worker in Australia, and it is my deep concern that these objects do reflect the very real possibility that workers will be worse off.

The act must provide a framework for fair and effective bargaining, not just agreement making, as provided in the bill. There must be fairness provided in the bargaining process, not just in the ultimate making of the agreement. Freedom of association provisions must not stymie the rights of workers, as recognised by international law, to organise and bargain collectively. This needs to be stated categorically in the objects.

A requirement of the act should be to encourage and facilitate the development and registration of organisations. This is an object of the existing act—and a fine object it is too. It should be retained. The objects of this act do not encourage a cooperative industrial relations system, because they do not encourage the practice of arbitration for all workers. Arbitration should be enacted by this bill where it is needed and not as a last resort within a limited range of contexts as this bill provides.

Senator LUNDY (Australian Capital Territory) (6.18 p.m.) With respect to the principal objects in the Workplace Relations and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 1996, there are a whole range of issues that really go to the heart of what the workplace relations bill is all about. First of all, I would like to address my comments to the distinction between the term `workplace' and the term `industrial' in terms of relations. When we talk about industrial relations, it is an issue that goes far beyond each individual workplace. Having come from an industry where, in fact, it is quite hard to define what your workplace is, what appears to be something of semantic value becomes a real and tangible issue, particularly when it is put in the context of being part of the objects of this bill.

On that definition of industrial and workplace relations and the distinction between the two in, for example, the building and construction industry, it is actually very difficult to define what a workplace is. There have been difficulties in assessing that definition under a variety of acts, including, of course, the various state occupational health and safety acts. In the construction industry a workplace may be a place which is under the control of the particular employer, but it may not. Quite often work takes place in an area in someone else's workplace, for example, during refurbishment, repatriation work or something like that. The definition becomes very blurry.

The other issue about the distinction between industrial relations and workplace relations is that it really does preclude approaching those issues on an industry basis. This government is signalling quite clearly a move away from approaching industrial relations on an industry basis down into individual workplaces. That really symbolises the move of this bill away from collective bargaining and away from approaching wage setting and conditions of employment across a whole range of classifications in a given industry down to the individual workplace. That raises questions of equity as well as collective bargaining.

The industry-wide role is a crucial one in industrial relations and must be recognised in the objects of this bill. If it is not, then the workers in those industries will be the ones that will be split and divided. Their ability to retain their existing workplace conditions and wages will certainly be jeopardised. The ability of those workers to operate and organise themselves collectively is quite fundamental to maintaining decent conditions. It is no secret that in the industrial movement it is those workers in the well-organised sectors that can organise effective campaigns to improve their wages and conditions and who help move along and bring up the wages and conditions of those workers in the industry who are not in a position to organise themselves collectively.

This been a feature of industrial relations and the evolution of industrial relations in Australia that has brought some equity to wages claims and to the way that they are progressed through the system. The transitional movement from solely centralised wage fixing and awards to enterprise bargaining has meant that there is still some ability for workers organising themselves collectively in an industry to look after those at a greater disadvantage in the industry. But, under this bill, and in terms of the objects here defined, that ability will be vastly diminished.

It will be those workers who cannot pursue a fair and equitable outcome, who are not in a position to bargain with their employer, who will be at the greatest disadvantage. That is what we are really talking about when we look at this bill and see where the damage will be done. It will be those workers who currently rely on the stronger sectors of the work force to bring their wages and conditions up to par.

This system does not provide for any mechanism of that nature to occur. In fact, what it sets in place is the very opposite. Yes, it provides for some workers to enter into workplace agreements, if they are in a position to do so, but then it leaves all the other workers totally exposed. The protections that were in place before this bill was introduced, by allowing unions to actively intervene on behalf of workers if they suffered a disadvan tage, are also being removed. The need to protect those in our work force who are not in a position to bargain goes right to the heart of what our amendments to this bill are all about.

Labor has always looked after the disadvantaged worker and the system of industrial relations that has evolved over the last 13 years while Labor was in power has kept this fundamental principle foremost of our concerns. Our amendments to the objects reintroduce some of these principles and put them in the objects clause, which really states what this bill is all about.

Later we will be talking about the specific features of the bill, but what Assistant Treasurer Kemp had to say today in response to a question is worthy of noting. He talked about restraint in the spirit of cooperation and said that wage restraint must be exercised by all. Yet, we see in their policies phrases like `better pay for better work' and all the rest of it. Tell me where, in these objects, they talk about a fair day's work for a fair day's pay. There are many inconsistencies in this government's approach as to what they say and what this bill contains.

We can see quite clearly that the government can use all of the phrases they like—whether it is `the individual exercising their own choice' or `better pay for better work'—but none of those words are conveyed or enacted in this government's bill. The issue of better pay for better work is something that has been embraced in Labor's industrial relations policy and provided the means for people to pursue better pay. This government knows full well that better pay has nothing to do with the aims and objectives as they are contained in the amendments to the Workplace Relations and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 1996.

The fact that this government has been so exposed by the guarantee that no worker will be worse off only serves to reinforce the falsity of some of the policy statements made by this government. The fact that we are moving to operate—now that the Democrats have done the deal on this—in an industrial relations system that does not allow better work to get better pay, and that we can actually contemplate doing this to Australian working people, is an indictment upon this parliament.

There has been no respect or consideration given to the fact that our industrial relations system has evolved for the last century on a set of principles which mean you do get a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. This system allows specific exploitation of workers who do not have the collective strength to protect themselves from being exploited.

My own experience as a labourer in the private sector in Canberra tells me that, if we had not had the award rate at the time and had not had a significant union presence, there would have been no pressure for my employer to pay me the award rate. The fact that I was able, at such a young age, to earn a wage that was comparable to my adult counterparts meant that I was getting paid equal pay for work of equal value. Where is the commitment to that under this act?

Look at the specific areas in these objectives with respect to apprentices and trainees and the commitment that no worker will be worse off, that no apprentices and trainees will take home less pay. The deal that has been done will completely compromise this commitment by the government.

I know when I started working in the private sector that, if it had not been for the protection of the award which set minimum rates—we were working on a paid rates award—there is no way I would have been in a position to stake my ground as a young worker entering the work force, excited about my new job, keen to get into it and pretty thrilled about earning my first wage. Staking my claim, in fact being quite assertive about it, was something that I do not believe I would have been in a position to even contemplate.

I wonder how many young people under this new workplace relations bill are going to have any hope of setting themselves up with a living wage, particularly when you look at some of the provisions that require the establishment of an AWA and the matters thereof, even before, technically, that employment contract begins.

The issue of freedom of association is also one that is worthy of comment at this point with respect to the objects. Freedom of association is something that, from my background, is absolutely crucial, but not in the language of this government. It is crucial in the language of Labor and in the language of working people, which allows them to join the trade union that is involved in that particular workplace and, subsequently, allows that trade union to play an active role within that workplace in collective bargaining.

If there is one signal that is patently clear in this particular bill it is the fact that this government is all about breaking the trade unions and destroying their ability to collectively bargain on behalf of the people they represent. Never mind that working people choose to pay their subscriptions to their union so that the union can represent them. Never mind that for 100 years the union movement has led the way with the development of awards here and improved the award wages and conditions which have flowed on into the areas where perhaps union membership is not so high. Never mind that that is the movement that has made all the difference for working people in Australia.

This government is so narrow-minded in its ideological pursuit that it does not matter what it takes in this bill—dress it up how you like; it is about undermining that fundamental ability. I think this is where the Democrats' deal really needs to be called to task. It is one thing to say certain things, having come to a balanced outcome and all the rest of it. How can you have a balanced outcome in the Industrial Relations Commission if the unions are not allowed under this act to operate effectively as the collective representatives of workers?

The Industrial Relations Commission has not awarded these wage rises and improvements in conditions over the years from the goodness of its heart. It has not said, `Well, in our view we think it should go like this.' It has been the fact that we have had the balance of powers between the employer organisations and trade unions arguing the toss. The unions are saying, `The workers are worth more because they do this, this and this and they are working these hours and this is the nature of their work and the cost of living has gone up this much and they have transient employment, which means they deserve some sort of severance or redundancy pay or some TCR provision or superannuation so they can have dignity in retirement.' On the other hand, the employer says, `We don't want to pay anything. We can't afford to pay.' That is where the balance lies.

The balance lies in the Industrial Relations Commission being able to come between those two parties and come to a position that satisfies, hopefully, the needs of the working people in improving their conditions of employment in a way that also satisfies the public interest. That is where the balance is. You will create an imbalance by undermining the role of trade unions in the Industrial Relations Commission, and that is what this bill does. (Time expired)