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Thursday, 29 May 2003
Page: 15534


Ms O'BYRNE (12:03 PM) —There comes a time for every government to concede that enough is enough, a time to admit that ideology must be cast aside. This time comes when the plan of a government, once implemented, is demonstrated not to be in the best interests of the Australian people, especially those who might not be in a strong position to look after themselves.

In the House on Monday, in the very brief time that I had available, I began to tell the story of the plight of 23 honest men and women who work at Blue Ribbon Products in Launceston in the electorate of Bass. Somewhat eerily, later on Monday—perhaps in reply to my plea, but overtly in response to a question from the member for Barker—the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations said in the House:

... let me say that this is a government which encourages employing people, not retrenching people. This is a government which wants people to earn more and to keep their jobs rather than to lose their jobs.

This could not be further from what actually occurs out there in the real world under the Howard government's policies—the policies driven so hard and obsessively by Minister Abbott. The real world is the world of 23 workers from Blue Ribbon, locked out and prevented from doing what the minister claims his government is all about: workers earning more and keeping their jobs. I will inform the committee about the stories of just three of these 23 workers.

One worker has been with Blue Ribbon for 28 years—a loyal and dedicated employee. He recently became the primary carer for his mother and father, and he has moved them into his home rather than place them in an aged care facility. His father is 80 years old and has cancer, and his mother is also very ill. Another worker is 62 years of age and has worked at Blue Ribbon, mainly in a supervisory role, for 32 years. During that time, he has never taken part in industrial action. He has raised five sons, but he has never earned enough to have anything left for a nest egg. The third worker is a much younger man. He is 35 years of age and has six children. He did exactly what the government has always asked of people. He moved from New South Wales to Tasmania for better employment and other opportunities for his family. He moved to where he could find work. He rode a pushbike to work every day, and he only got a licence and a car when he got a full-time job. He was the very model of responsibility.

These men and women do not earn a packet. We are talking about real battlers. Many people on the other side have probably never met one, but real battlers do not do it too well. These low-paid workers earn around $23,000 a year on average, and the maximum that any of them would earn in a year is $25,000. That is less than the Prime Minister is known to pay for accommodation in Rome for four nights. These are good, honest Australians who have done absolutely nothing wrong. They turn up for work every day but are refused the opportunity because they do not believe they should have to sign the oppressive contract that the new employer at the site has provided to them. Aided and abetted by the minister and the rest of the Howard government, the company offers them no choice. If they want to want to keep their jobs, they have to sign a contract which includes in its provisions the following:

I acknowledge and agree that there is no relationship of employee/employer.

I agree that payment will be on the basis of either an agreed amount per hour for actual on site hours, or fixed job price to be agreed.

I agree I have no claims in respect of holiday pay, long service leave, sick pay, any similar payment or other leave entitlements.

And so on and so forth. To see what would happen if they sign, we only have to look as far as those who, in absolute desperation, did succumb. They have been offered a day rate of $125. To date, this has been applied by the company in such a way that those workers have been paid $125 a day whether they have worked nine hours in that day, 11 hours in that day or, extraordinarily on one occasion, 19 hours in one day. This government has created a window of opportunity for some employers to do whatever they want, carte blanche to take profit at any cost, the green light to treat honest workers with contempt. In complete contrast to what the minister has said, this is not a government which encourages employing people rather than retrenching people. This is not a government which wants people to earn more and keep their jobs rather than lose their jobs. This is a government so ideologically obsessed that it allows honest Australian workers to be treated appallingly and to lose their dignity and livelihoods.

The locked-out workers at Blue Ribbon deserve much better from our nation's leaders. The time has come for this government to have a good, hard look at what is going on out there in the real world—the world of the low-paid Aussie worker—and admit that its plan is flawed. Let us return to a system in which everyone—employer and employee alike—gets a fair go. The workers are trying to obtain just that. They have been before the state industrial commission and presented their case, but it will be next week at the earliest before the commission reconvenes to hear the employer's side. A final decision looks to be at least another five weeks away. What is all the more devastating for these workers and their families is that today already marks day 57 of this appalling lockout.