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Thursday, 21 March 2002
Page: 1838

Mr ABBOTT (Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service) (10:00 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

The Workplace Relations Amendment (Improved Protection for Victorian Workers) Bill 2002 is beneficial legislation which improves the employment conditions of Victorian workers, whilst maintaining the single system of workplace relations arrangements applying in that state.

The federal government first proposed measures to enhance employment conditions in Victoria more than two years ago, in the Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (More Jobs, Better Pay) Bill 1999. However, that bill stalled in the Senate for almost two years. The Australian Democrats' approach to the stalemate was to call for issue-specific consideration of policy matters. As a result, the government introduced the Workplace Relations Amendment (Minimum Entitlements for Victorian Workers) Bill 2001 into the House of Representatives in August last year. However, that bill lapsed with the parliament.

This bill is essentially the same as the one I introduced last year. Much of what I will say today, I said in relation to that bill.

This bill will amend the Workplace Relations Act 1996 to enhance the legislated safety net entitlements in schedule 1A for employees in Victoria not covered by federal awards or agreements. It will make consequential improvements to the statutory role of inspectors under the act to inform, investigate and, if necessary, enforce rights and obligations in schedule 1A workplaces. It will also confer upon the Victorian government automatic intervention rights before the Australian Industrial Relations Commission in specific circumstances and give contract outworkers in the textile, clothing and footwear industry in Victoria access to enforceable minimum rates of pay.

Victorian employees not covered by a federal award or federal agreement are presently covered by a legislated safety net of minimum conditions contained in part XV and schedule 1A of the Workplace Relations Act, together with general statutory provisions applying to employees under the act such as access to unfair and unlawful termination of employment remedies, equal pay for work of equal value, nondiscrimination provisions, workplace bargaining provisions and rights in respect of freedom of association. In addition, employees under schedule 1A are eligible to be regulated by federal awards made by order of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (following relevant dispute findings being made), or by certified agreements or, in many cases, by Australian workplace agreements.

The schedule 1A conditions are largely a continuation of the safety net provisions that applied under Victorian state law immediately prior to the 1996 referral by the state of a range of industrial relations powers to the Commonwealth. That referral established a single framework of laws regulating industrial matters in Victoria to the benefit of Victorian employers and employees.

Since the federal government's first attempt to enhance conditions for schedule 1A employees, the current Victorian government has argued in-principle support for a unitary regulatory system under federal laws, but claimed that the Commonwealth's schedule 1A proposals are inadequate.

The two governments were discussing the issues when the Victorian government announced its intention to establish a state task force inquiry, finally leading to the introduction into state parliament of the Fair Employment Bill 2000 on 25 October 2000.

It was ultimately rejected by the Victorian upper house on 22 March 2001, although the Victorian government has not ruled out reintroducing it.

The Victorian Fair Employment Bill was flawed in both concept and content. A new system of state industrial laws, regulations, tribunals and bureaucracy would have come at a significant cost to Victorian workplaces and the Victorian taxpayer. It would have increased the cost of employment in schedule 1A workplaces and threatened jobs in urban and regional areas of the state. Its implementation would have cost Victoria 40,000 jobs over three years. In short, it would have been a regressive move, not in the interests of employers, employees nor the public.

This Commonwealth bill avoids the problems associated with the Victorian government's approach. It enhances, in a sensible way, the legislated safety net of minimum conditions of schedule 1A employees (without negatively impacting on employment) and does so within the framework of a unitary system.

In summary, the policy measures contained in this bill would amend the Workplace Relations Act to:

· clarify the operation of the schedule 1A minimum entitlements to annual leave and sick leave (sick leave being incorporated into carer's leave) by providing a basis upon which these leave entitlements are to be calculated and setting out rules about access to, and accumulation of, such leave;

· give schedule 1A employees a statutory entitlement to be paid for work performed in excess of 38 hours a week;

· provide federal inspectors with the power to enter and inspect premises where they reasonably believe that schedule 1A work is being performed;

· provide that a breach of the minimum conditions of employment in schedule 1A can be enforced in the same way as federal awards and agreements;

· provide an employer with a statutory entitlement to stand down a schedule 1A employee where that employee cannot usefully be employed due to circumstances beyond the employer's control;

· provide the power to make regulations requiring employers to keep and maintain employee records for Victorian employees who are not employed under federal awards or agreements;

· create a legislative entitlement to carer's leave for schedule 1A employees; and

· create a legislative entitlement to bereavement leave for schedule 1A employees.

In relation to carer's leave, the bill proposes to convert the current five-day sick leave entitlement in schedule 1A into a personal leave minimum standard of eight days per annum, which would be cumulative. Of those eight days, up to five days per annum could be taken for caring purposes. In relation to bereavement leave, the bill proposes to amend schedule 1A to introduce a minimum standard of two days bereavement leave on the death of an immediate family member or household member. These amendments would provide a comparable minimum standard to carer's and bereavement leave as was proposed in the state bill.

Victorian employees with disabilities who are not employed under a federal award or agreement do not currently have direct access to the supported wage system. At present such employees can only use section 509 of the Workplace Relations Act, which allows the Australian Industrial Relations Commission on a case by case basis to issue an appropriate wages certificate for 12 months duration.

It would be preferable to give these employees direct access to the supported wage system, which has been designed to meet the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and has the support of peak disability groups, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Australian Council of Trade Unions. Accordingly, the bill proposes to provide access to the supported wage system by amending part XV to give the commission power to determine that the supported wage system applies to schedule 1A employees within a work classification in a declared industry sector.

The Victorian government has claimed that since the Kennett government's referral of powers, it has not had the ability to intervene in major industrial disputes which occur within that state. In fact, all state governments have standing to seek leave to intervene before the Australian Industrial Relations Commission in cases where they have a sufficient interest. However, in recognition of the specific circumstances of the Victorian government arising from the 1996 referral of powers, the bill would amend the Workplace Relations Act to give the Victorian government an automatic statutory right to intervene in proceedings involving an application under section 170MW of the act to suspend or terminate a bargaining period involving employees within the state of Victoria, and in applications under section 501 of the act to adjust minimum wages in industry sectors in that state.

The bill also contains amendments to the act to improve the conditions of outworkers working in the textile, clothing and footwear (TCF) industry in the state.

The bill would introduce a requirement that contract outworkers in the TCF industry in Victoria receive at least the minimum schedule 1A rate of pay applicable to employed TCF outworkers. The bill would also authorise federal workplace inspectors to enter premises where such work is performed and empower inspectors to enforce the minimum remuneration requirement and seek remedies in the courts on behalf of the outworker where non-payment or underpayment is identified.

This bill, when enacted, will deliver substantial benefits to Victorian workers not covered by a federal award or agreement and for TCF outworkers. It will do so in a responsible manner, retaining the benefits of existing employment arrangements under schedule 1A within the one regulatory framework, whilst avoiding the pitfalls and job losses inherent in legislation such as the Fair Employment Bill. The measures in this bill are long overdue, and should have the unanimous support of the parliament. I present a copy of the explanatory memorandum.

Debate (on motion by Mr Sidebottom) adjourned.