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Wednesday, 21 March 2012
Page: 2430

Senator STERLE (Western Australia) (13:21): Before I make my remarks to this matter of public interest I formally and warmly—from the bottom of my heart as part of a trucking family—pass on my sincere thank you to Senator Brown and my respect for the Greens party. I wish you all the very best. You have delivered last night an absolutely wonderful result for Australia's trucking community, for Australian families and, as importantly, for other road users. I thank Senator Brown and you too, Mr Acting Deputy President Ludlam, as the transport spokesperson for the Greens.

I rise today on a matter of public interest on the transport industry. Some in this chamber will know of my long history with the transport industry. They will know that I hold the men and women of the industry very close to my heart regardless of where in the world they may ply their trade. Some of you may also remember that late last year I rose to speak on a matter of great concern to me, that being the behaviour of a major Australian trucking company, the Toll Group, and this company's continued very poor treatment of its workers in the United States. I was very critical of the way that Toll was taking advantage of the very poor industrial relations laws in the USA to undermine the wages and working conditions of its drivers, especially those working in the Los Angeles port area. I am glad that I was able to provide some support to these hardworking drivers who can only imagine a workplace with the types of protections that this and previous Labor governments have provided Australian transport workers with. This commitment has been shown again, as I said earlier, with the recent passage through this chamber—that is, as recently as last night—of the Road Safety Remuneration Bill.

I believe that Australian companies should behave in a manner that Australian people would expect regardless of where around the world they might be operating. Overseas operating companies like the Toll Group represent not only their brand but also the country where they first prospered. That is why I am greatly concerned at the incidents that have recently received a lot of news coverage in the USA; that is, the results of a union-busting campaign against Toll's drivers in Los Angeles and Greater California.

Even more concerning is the report of a female driver who was sacked by Toll for simply using a restaurant toilet. Xiomara Perez is a 46-year-old mother of three who has worked for seven years at the nation's busiest trade hub in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which together handle over 40 per cent of all US imports. I have met many of Xiomara's colleagues during recent trips to the USA. The workforce is largely made up of immigrant workers who endure very long shifts and extremely low pay as they strive to create a better life for their families.

For the past two years Xiomara has hauled fashion apparel for the Melbourne based Toll Group, which counts popular brands like Guess, Polo and Under Armour as its customers. As we know, Toll employees in Australia are protected by the industrial relations laws of successive Labor governments. Without the same requirements under the US system, Toll unfortunately denies its US workers the same legal rights it is forced to extend to its Australian workforce.

Xiomara is well respected by her co-workers, who describe her as intelligent, kind and jovial. As one of only two female employees out of the roughly 75 who drive trucks for Toll in Southern California, you can imagine that she has had to work very hard to get ahead in this very tough industry. An immigrant from Nicaragua, she is proud that her children are now enrolled in college in the US and have a shot at a better life, a story I am sure a lot of Australians can identify with. Before she got behind the wheel, Xiomara cared for others at local hospitals as a nursing assistant. She loves being a port truck driver but has spoken out against the mistreatment and has specifically voiced concerns about the unsafe and unsanitary conditions. I note here that the US health and safety watchdog recently hit Toll Group with $25,000 in fines for health and safety violations in their LA facilities. Of great concern to Xiomara is the lack of clean indoor toilets with running water at her primary worksite—conditions that Australian drivers and, for that matter, all Australian workers take for granted.

On Tuesday, 6 March, Xiomara was delivering a load of cargo and began to feel slightly ill. She thought she might throw up and thus made an emergency detour. As a professional driver, Xiomara adheres to the US Department of Transportation regulations that require any haulier to pull over if they feel faint, fatigued et cetera. In other words, truckies must use their best judgment to protect their own safety, the public and the load they carry. She found a McDonald's and stopped in to use the toilet and get herself a sandwich to settle her stomach so she could continue her work day. She instantly felt better and got back on the road. The safety diversion took roughly 10 minutes at the most, and I am sure many of us would have had similar experiences. However, here is the sting: one of her managers got on the radio that runs across the company network and barked at her for an explanation as to why she was at McDonald's. She instantly knew that in a city as large as Los Angeles the only way that management would know she had stopped would be if she was under management surveillance, despite the fact that spying on workers is illegal under the USA's National Labor Relations Act.

Since Xiomara is among the strong majority of Toll drivers who have petitioned for the freedom to form a union, she was already feeling intimidated. Reluctant to discuss the incident with the male manager she made an excuse in order to instead contact the female human resources supervisor. She reported her situation to the human resources supervisor, noting that she felt too embarrassed to discuss a personal matter with her manager and that she was now able to safely perform her job. Appealing to the supervisor unfortunately failed to invoke compassion. That same afternoon when she returned to Toll after dropping off her cargo, the cab of her truck and her clothing—you have to listen to this, I am not making it up—were inspected for evidence of vomit. I cannot believe it: that is actually what happened. She was not formally written up but was further made to feel ashamed and humiliated by the entire experience.

Thankfully, in Australia such an incident would result in a Transport Workers Union being on the site almost immediately. I can assure you that during my days as a TWU organiser representing drivers I would never have tolerated such action, not that I would even think that an Australian employer would go down that despicable path. Three days after the incident, on 9 March, Toll fired Xiomara citing an unreasonably restrictive work policy prohibiting employees from stopping even to use a toilet when delivering a load. That is right. Companies operating in the US, like the Toll Group, can institute workplace policies that could not even be contemplated here in Australia let alone implemented.

I want to reinforce here that this is an Australian company that is behaving in this manner. Xiomara had asked for the policy in writing but was denied. Many of her co-workers say it is common practice to stop to use the toilet. Nature calls when it calls, not according to whether they are carrying cargo or not, and holding on can result in vehicle accidents, physical infections and other risks. I cannot believe I am having this con¬≠versation to deal with a sacked worker who was employed by an Australian company. Unfortunately, I am. I would like to think that I am going to wake in a minute and that it was a bad dream. No—I am still here. It is, unfortunately, what has happened. Her dismissal notice included a laundry list of accusations dating back to last year, for which she had never been disciplined.

I am glad to acknowledge that here in Australia the TWU and the labour movement have fought for decades to ensure the rights of workers in this country. The Road Safety Remuneration Bill brought forward by this great Labor government last night will now ensure that truck drivers in Australia will never be exposed to the disgraceful work practices that Toll institutes in the USA. The passage of this bill will ensure that all Australians can and will enjoy a safer experience on our roads.

But Toll's behaviour is part of a larger disturbing pattern at its California operations. Managers have repeatedly engaged in a range of unethical and illegal tactics to undermine a free, fair and fast pathway to union representation, as most notably evidenced by a formal complaint recently issued by the National Labor Relations Board which is the top US government agency that oversees and enforces federal workplace law in America. As a result, Toll now faces a federal trial for 'interfering with, restraining and coercing employees in violation to the National Labor Relations Act'.

In the short time I have left I want to get on the record that recently a top Australian executive of the Toll Group, one fellow by the name of Andrew Ethell, who is the General Manager of Group Corporate Affairs, flew across the Pacific Ocean to visit one of Toll's facilities in Southern California on the day that the Toll Group released its latest earnings report. You might have thought that the general manager of corporate affairs would be on board to advise shareholders and other interested parties on the outcomes of the Toll Group's report but, no, Mr Ethell was spending his day actively union-busting at Toll's LA facilities.

Some of my colleagues opposite might remember the name Andrew Ethell because he just happened to be the chief of staff to no fewer than two Nationals Deputy Prime Ministers, John Anderson and Mark Vaile. That could be a coincidence, I do not know. Mr Ethell has gone from destroying the livelihoods of blue collar workers in Australia to union-busting in the USA. I am sure some on that side—not all—are so proud that young Andrew has moved on to bigger and better things—and I do say that tongue in cheek! What was Mr Ethell doing on that particular day when Toll was making such important announcements in Australia? He was dragging LA truck drivers in for mandatory meetings with the company management where he was actively warning them against doing anything reckless—like perhaps getting a union to negotiate their wages and conditions.

That is right, Mr Ethell—the young Nat made good—is now trying to ensure that Toll can continue to provide its US drivers pitiful wages and conditions by pressuring them not to unionise. It is truly a sad day when an Australian company would do so, especially one which, it must be said, treats its Australian workers with respect—I know that. I have had many dealings with Toll over the years and they would not get away with these shenanigans if they tried that in Australia, and I honestly and sincerely in my heart would think that they would never try it. But maybe I am easily misled, because they are doing it in the USA; they are doing it on the ports.

I conclude with a statement from Xiomara, who is now fighting to protect other workers from the type of treatment she received. She said:

They have harassed me time and again and now Toll has really humiliated me. I knew something was going to happen once that big shop man that our local managers take orders from, Andrew Ethell, flew all the way from Melbourne to hold a mandatory meeting to intimidate us for wanting to join the Teamsters. The next thing you know I am fired. Using the toilet, union busting, it is all the same to him. Why is he picking on me? What has this man got against me and my co-workers? We are just a small group of truck drivers who work hard for our company even in horrendous working conditions. We just want to do our jobs in peace and have a better life for our families.

Mr Acting Deputy President, I believe that regardless of your background before entering this place you would find it hard to argue with this statement.

The Toll Group began its operations in Melbourne, Australia. Generations of Australian workers have made this company the success that it is today. The behaviour of its operations in the USA should be a blight that is unacceptable to senior management here in Australia but, unfortunately, Toll executives like Andrew Ethell believe that the US system is one that they would like to replicate. Until the executive of the Toll Group in this country extends the types of rights that Australian workers expect to the rest of its global operations, I will continue to highlight these disgraceful incidents and continue to hold the Toll Group and the Andrew Ethells of the world to account for their actions.

I say once again, to see the performance from the shadow industrial relations spokesperson on that side of the chamber last night, running the grubby messages from the lower end of the transport industry last night, defending big companies against small companies, defending big companies' profits against Australian trucking families, and to deny that safety and remuneration has no link, makes me fear for the Australia that we may have should that mob on that side, under the leadership of Tony Abbott, ever take the reins of this great country. God help us.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Ludlam ): Is leave granted for the Clerks to set the clocks in accordance with informal arrangements that I believe have been agreed?

Leave granted.