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Wednesday, 10 September 2003
Page: 19735

Ms O'BYRNE (5:11 PM) —Thank you very much for your help, Mr Deputy Speaker; I know the member for Batman really wants to be here to hear this speech on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Improved Remedies for Unprotected Action) Bill 2002, because he has a firm commitment to protecting the rights of workers. Once again we have before the House a bill proposed by a minister who has absolutely no concept of what a real worker's life is like. Not only does he have no concept but he has no intention to understand and no desire to help workers, just a desire to further disadvantage them.

We have already heard that this bill is proposing to make the provisions of the Industrial Relations Commission tougher, that it is an attempt to tighten up the role of the commission, particularly in relation to the rights of workers and unions. Minister Abbott has been on a collision course with workers for some time now, and this bill, if passed, will move us further towards that final pile-up. This legislation is proposing to fix section 127 of the Workplace Relations Act, a section that is quite commonly used by employers trying to end industrial action by unions. This legislation proposes to amend the act to ensure that section 127 matters heard in the Industrial Relations Commission are heard in a faster time frame of 48 hours. But the act already has this capacity. Section 127(3) of the current legislation states that these matters should be heard as quickly as possible, and a Senate committee report into similar provisions during the Reith second wave legislation found more than half of these applications are already decided within the minister's chosen 48 hours. Excuse my confusion, but I really do not see the point of these changes.

There is a second part to the legislation—that is, a new provision prioritising interim orders if the commission has not had time to hear all of the evidence and submissions required to make a final section 127 order within the 48-hour time frame. Again, the Workplace Relations Act already provides the commission with these powers. I really think somebody should provide the minister with a copy of the legislation so he can actually be sure of what he is saying before he goes around writing legislation and wasting the time of this House. It would ensure that we would not waste the time of members and the House debating provisions that already exist in legislation. The minister is just using this bill, once again, as an opportunity to beat up workers and their rightful representational organisations.

We are all aware that Minister Abbott is all for the rights of employers and wants to make sure that the commission carries out his bidding to ensure employers' interests are met, so it is curious that the minister has made no mention of employer initiated industrial action. Even Peter Reith worked that one out. There is no provision in this legislation that excludes lockouts. This minister either does not understand his own portfolio or is so blinded by his hatred for workers and their organisations that he does not believe employer initiated actions like lockouts constitute industrial action.

The minister is very concerned about the cost of union initiated strikes and is often heard talking about the economic and employment costs of strikes. I wonder whether the minister has been down to the Blue Ribbon site in my electorate of Bass lately. The costs associated with the lockout that has been going on there must be extraordinary by now. I am so pleased that the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations has joined us in the chamber.

Mr Martin Ferguson —Not as pleased as the Minister for Veterans' Affairs is!


Ms O'BYRNE —I believe the Minister for Veterans' Affairs shares some of my joy. But the Blue Ribbon workers have no joy, because they are now up to day 162 of being locked out by their employers.

Ms Livermore —Shame!

Ms O'BYRNE —It is a terrible shame: 162 days. This lockout is a result of a botched-up training agreement where the employers put all of their already fully train-ed workers on a traineeship. This allowed the company to collect the various government subsidies and exceptions related to traineeships. There would be nothing wrong with that if the workers were actually going to be trained, but these workers received a total of six hours training in a period of about 48 weeks. Not even the minister can claim that this is a high standard of training—which, incidentally, is what was found by the subsequent investigations that have seen this dispute get to where it is today.

The Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union in Launceston lobbied hard to ensure that the new owners of the Blue Ribbon site and their workers were able to work together to get a decent outcome on this matter—an outcome that ensured the workers had their jobs and that the company was able to get some of the tax breaks it needed to start up. That is why many of the members decided to take up the traineeships that were offered, despite the fact that the skills and abilities of most of these workers were already at a far higher level than that at which the traineeships were pitched. Then, when their traineeships were almost up, the workers were presented with their contracts and told by Blue Ribbon, `You sign the contracts or you're out.' Let me put this in context: these workers may possibly earn up to $25,000 a year. So in return for all their loyalty they have been locked out since 2 April. The Blue Ribbon meatworkers continue to be locked out by their employers and they continue to count those days.

Minister Abbott is obviously not really interested in the cost to workers of industrial action. If he was, he would be doing something on behalf of the workers locked out at Blue Ribbon. These workers are suffering. Some have experienced relationship splits, and their families are going without. Some have experienced further hardship because of means-testing in relation to their Centrelink benefits. They have done nothing wrong. Every day they turn up for work. They have turned up every day for each of the last 162 days that they have been locked out. There is one bloke there who is sole parenting now because his wife left as a result of the stress of this dispute. He has four children under the age of 10. In addition to this, he has been referred to inappropriate training positions, to get certification in areas for which he already has certificates. Also, he cannot possibly take such positions, because he cannot earn enough to cover the cost of child care, even if he could find child-care places.

The Howard government's industrial relations agenda, under the stewardship of Minister Abbott, is all for ensuring the rights of employers but has no interest in the rights of workers. In his second reading speech, the minister said that strikes cost jobs. What about the cost of lockouts? The minister has become such a zealot that he does not even have a clue about what they cost and what they do to workers. As far as I can see, this bill really is just a waste of time. Minister Abbott should spend more time developing real policy and less time raising money for slush funds. Then maybe—just maybe—we would be able to have a sensible debate about workplace relations.