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Wednesday, 21 March 2012
Page: 2397


Senator THISTLETHWAITE (New South Wales) (10:51): I am pleased to support the Fair Work Amendment (Textile, Clothing and Footwear Industry) Bill 2011 [2012], which amends the Fair Work Act to deliver greater fairness, justice and safety for one of the most vulnerable groups, if not the most vulnerable group, of workers in our country—outworkers in the textile, clothing and footwear industry. This industry has undergone significant structural change in Australia over recent decades. As with many other industries in the manufacturing sector, changes to our systems of tariffs and industry support have seen the makeup, scale and nature of the TCF industry change substantially.

One of the most striking elements of the textile, clothing and footwear industry today is the huge proportion of outworkers—that is, people who perform work from their homes on a contract basis for suppliers in a supply chain. Outworkers within this industry are effectively employees who are engaged to work from home. Often they are migrants from non-English-speaking backgrounds, and some of them unfortunately have very poor communication skills. Sadly, as a result of that, they often have very little concept of their rights or a knowledge of the Australian industrial relations and legal systems. A large proportion of these workers are women from South-East Asia and are essentially exploited for the gain of fashion houses and retail outlets that require cheap and easy labour for their production lines. These workers are often paid much less than the relevant award rate—sometimes $3 to $5 an hour.

Outworkers typically receive no superannuation, annual leave or workers compensation, and usually have to pay for their own machinery, tools and sewing supplies. Some of these workers have openly told their stories as part of the Fair Wear campaign. They have bravely put their case for reform in this industry through a campaign which seeks to end Australian sweatshops and assist workers in the clothing industry secure a living wage. Take Dung, for example, who says:

I migrated to Australia in 1999, and I live in Sydney. In Vietnam, I was a garment factory worker.

I started sewing from home a few months after I arrived in Australia. At first, I was making only parts of a garment. I was paid per piece. I was earning - roughly, an average of $6 an hour. I had to work very long hours and had very little sleep.

Then there is the story of Ms Nguyen, who says:

I came to Australia in the early 1980s as a refugee from the Vietnam War. At the time I had two young children and had another one on the way. We were very poor. We would often eat rice mixed with tea and dried fish. We slept on old mattresses that were found on the side of the road. Life was tough.

My partner and I soon invested in an industrial sewing machine so I could start sewing from home.

Back then if you worked in the factory you could earn about $5 an hour cash-in-hand. Working from home, payment was calculated per garment and you could earn about $3-5 per garment.

Unfortunately, in this day and age in Australia, some of these situations persist, with circumstances such as these still occurring in the textile, clothing and footwear industry. Surely these stories have no place in a modern Australia.

The Fair Work Act currently allows for special provisions relating to outworkers, allowing specific terms to be included in the Textile, Clothing, Footwear and Associated Industries Award. Most states have legislation that provides for TCF outworkers. However, unfortunately there is an inconsistent approach across the states. For example, in my home state of New South Wales we have specific legislation which means that outworkers are regarded as employees, while Victoria takes a more limited approach. Queensland also deems outworkers to be employees, while Western Australia has no legislation relating to outworkers. This bill provides for a uniform approach at a national level. It ensures that outworker provisions contained in the TCF award are enshrined in law to guarantee fairness and ensure consistency across jurisdictions.

This bill means that the provisions of the Fair Work Act will apply to all outworkers as if they were employees in a regular workplace anywhere in Australia. This will mean that outworkers will have the same rights and entitlements as workers who are engaged directly. Outworkers will be treated as an employee of the person or firm who directly engages them. Simply put, being an outworker does not mean you should be at a disadvantage in this industry; you should have the same rights and entitlements as ordinary employees throughout Australia.

This bill will provide a mechanism to ensure that those rights are protected and to ensure that outworkers can recover unpaid amounts up the supply chain when breaches occur. This means that outworkers who are owed money can recover payment from the firm or person who directly engaged them. Where an indirect entity pays an unpaid amount, they will be able to recover the payment from the person who was responsible up the supply chain. For an outworker in the TCF industry this means that wages, commissions and superannuation are protected and are unquestionable rights, no matter where they work.

The amendments in the bill allow for the creation of an outwork code of practice to be issued that deals with standards and conduct in the TCF industry. The code may impose reporting or other requirements on employers to ensure transparency in supply chains and make arrangements for the monitoring of the supply chain. The bill also seeks to extend the Fair Work Act's right of entry provisions into outworker arrangements and into exploitative segments of the industry, such as sweatshops. The amendments within the bill will mean that the 24-hour notice period that normally applies to right of entry into workplaces will not apply to sweatshops. There is good reason for that. The evidence that was presented to the Senate inquiry and many other inquires into this bill is that, once an official of the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia identifies a sweatshop and gives the required notice under the Fair Work Act, it is not uncommon for that sweatshop to disappear overnight, particularly when we are talking about circumstances where these facilities are set up in someone's garage. Under amendments contained in the bill, the problem should not persist, creating a new level of fairness and equity in this industry. This provision will mean that sweatshops can be located and that rights can be enforced but, importantly, also explained to workers in these exploitative situations. Unfortunately, those opposite are opposing these provisions—and I do take issue with the claim made by Senator Cash that there is no connection between these provisions and improving the rights of outworkers in this country. I take heart in the fact that those opposite do recognise that there is a significant issue in Australia at this point in time in terms of the working conditions of outworkers. They recognise that there is a level of exploitation in this industry. However, they are wrong when they say that there is no connection between the implementation of these provisions and improving the conditions, working rights and safety of workers in these industries.

The Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia have, over decades, conducted studies and investigations into the effect of these laws, and the evidence is irrefutable that, when workers have protections and can make claims up the supply chain, the rights, entitlements and safety of workers in these industries are improved. One need look no further than New South Wales to see the evidence of that claim. I think it is instructive that Senator Cash was the one making these allegations, because the one state in Australia where provisions that protect outworkers such as these do not exist is Western Australia—which, of course, is the state from which Senator Cash hails.

I can say to the Senate that in New South Wales these provisions have made a big difference to the lives and working interests of workers in the textile, clothing and footwear industry. And these provisions have been in place since the 1990s. These are not revolutionary reforms. These are not new provisions. These are not unwarranted amendments to the Fair Work Act—as those opposite claim. They are basic protections that all workers in Australia should have the right to enjoy.

I want to close with some remarks from Anna. Anna was a child of parents working as outworkers while she was growing up. She says:

In order to make enough money to keep up with rent, my family started taking sewing work home. We had two home machines, so often my father and mother would sew until after midnight each weekday, and all day on the weekend, while I would cut the threads between the fabricated pieces. We would break for meals, sleep, school and work. This was our daily home life. I was twelve years old.

No child should have to be brought up in those circumstances in modern Australia. I am a big believer in free markets, but I am not a believer in free markets where they produce unjust, unfair and unsafe outcomes. What we have currently in the textile, clothing and footwear industry is exactly that: unjust, unfair and unsafe outcomes.

On that basis, we as legislators and leaders of this country have an obligation to regulate this industry to ensure that those unsafe, unjust and unfair work practices are eliminated from this industry and from this country. We go about our daily lives and sometimes we are often wearing the clothes produced by people who have been exploited in Australia. The time has come for that exploitation to end.

I congratulate the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union and all concerned with the Fair Wear campaign and for their decades of hard work and advocacy on behalf of one of the most vulnerable groups within society. Their hard work and their efforts are commendable—and hopefully in a few hours time that work will be justified and the bill will pass the Senate. I commend the bill to the Senate.