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Monday, 29 March 2004
Page: 27500

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR (8:39 PM) —If we thought that there were any decent provisions in the last bill, I can assure the House that there are no provisions in the Workplace Relations Amendment (Award Simplification) Bill 2002 that would in any way help Australian workers. The irony is that the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, who is now leaving the chamber because he has no regard for the lowest paid workers in this country, wants to enact a bill that would, in effect, undermine the lowest paid workers in the federal jurisdiction. It is somewhat ironic that this minister would do that, because it is that group of workers that is non-unionised.

If you were to look at the people that are currently sitting on minimum rates awards in the federal jurisdiction, you would find that a negligible proportion of that group are union members. The fact is that, in organised and unionised workplaces, you find that enterprise agreements—certified agreements pursuant to the act—cover the employment conditions in that workplace. However, that is not the case for those people who are unable—or, at this point, are not in a position—to organise collectively.

The Workplace Relations Amendment (Award Simplification) Bill 2002 is designed to constrain those provisions that could apply to employees under the minimum rates award and, indeed, that would target those people most vulnerable. Let us not make any mistake about what we are talking about tonight: a bill that would constrain provisions that those employees would be entitled to and would target those people—ironically, as I said—that are most likely to be non-unionised, because they have not collectively arranged for a certified agreement to cover the award to which they are bound. I suppose it is somewhat ironic. We hear from this government that it wants to ensure it looks after union and non-union workers alike. As we know, it has an extraordinary disregard for unions and their members generally. We have a situation here where the consequences of this bill, if enacted, will be a targeting of those people that have not become members of an organisation of employees. That is the reality.

Let us look at some of the provisions that would be removed from section 89A of the Workplace Relations Act if this bill was enacted. Firstly, I will talk about skill based career paths. As I said just before question time on Thursday before I had to stop because of the time of the day, the removal of skill based career paths from federal awards sends an awful message to employers and employees. In recent decades, governments, unions, employers and employees have discussed the need to focus upon the acquisition of skills and knowledge in the workplace in order to boost productivity and improve efficiency. Here we have a government wanting to proscribe the capacity for an award to incorporate a skill based career path. In other words, the message that has been sent by this government is that, if you do not have collective agreements or Australian workplace agreements at your workplace, and if the only instrument that binds you and your employees at the workplace is a federal award, it will not be allowable to have a skill based career path.

I can only conclude, from the information that I have received and the bill that is before the House, that the classifications ladder based on skills would be removed. You would therefore no longer have increments—that is, a focus upon skills and the acquisition of knowledge in order to move upward through one's career. Again, it is an awful message to send not only to employers generally but also to employers whose employees have yet to possess the capacity to bargain collectively. We really have to question the motives of the government in targeting non-union members in this way—something which is quite extraordinary. It shows how pathological its enmity towards workers generally is. Along with a number of other matters that we have seen debated in this place over the last two years, this shows that hating unions is really a code for hating workers. We saw this with the bill that was introduced only last year, which was ironically called `the protecting the low-paid bill'. That bill provided for the Industrial Relations Commission to have regard to other matters before it concluded whether the lowest paid received a national wage increase. The protection for the low-paid bill, in effect, was designed to allow the commission to opt out of paying the lowest paid workers in this country a national wage increase. That was the previous minister's intention in introducing that bill.

That bill was very similar to this one. On this occasion, the veil has been removed. There is no effort to target unions per se in this bill. There is no effort to target the registered organisations of employees. This is a direct assault upon the lowest paid employees in the country by removing the provisions and current entitlements that employees would enjoy under an award. At the same time, it sends an awful message about removing skill based career paths from the award system. I think that would turn the clock back 30 years in terms of how we address some of these issues in the workplace.

I have to say that I did consider—somewhat generously it now would appear—that the government and the opposition had a consensus on some things when it came to workplaces. I accepted that we do not agree on organised labour and some other matters, but I did think that the government and the opposition agreed upon the need to ensure that skills are continually developing and innovation is continually happening in the workplace so that productivity and efficiency gains can be sought and made at the workplace level. This would make the cake bigger, if you like. It would build our economy and provide for further jobs and profits which, in time, would create jobs. That was one of the bipartisan positions that I believed that the government and opposition had with respect to this matter. This evening, unfortunately, I have to conclude that I was wrong. The government has no regard for skill based career paths being focused upon by employers or, indeed, employees. It really does sound a death knell for what I would have thought was 30 years of consensus, maybe not necessarily on approach, but fundamentally on the need to have jobs measured by their skills and the acquisition of knowledge required, which some would call the acquisition of competencies and competency standards. I thought that was the consensus, but clearly I was wrong.

We also have to consider the implications of removing skill based career paths from awards and how that will affect the Australian traineeship system and vocational training in general. If you look at the vocational training agenda in this country—and I have to say that, whilst it has been watered down, it has been carried through since 1996, to some extent at least, by this government—the fact is that the basis upon which the vocational training system operates in this country is that there are skill based career paths in workplaces. In other words, it would be expected that, if you are going to have a training provision or a training dimension to industrial workplace change, you will need to have a vehicle in order to carry that training through and measure that training against proper classifications. I do not know how this will upset vocational training specifically, but removing the skill based career paths from awards is effectively going to undo what I thought was a bipartisan approach to vocational training in this country. So employees at the lowest levels of federal awards have something to concern themselves with, in that they are the only ones being targeted.

I suppose there are some people out there saying that the unions may as well get this out and about and say, `When it comes to affecting the lowest paid in this country, clearly this government is quite happy to go after those who are not members of registered organisations.' However, the fact is that I am still surprised that the government has decided to go this way. It is important to place this bill in context. In 1996, after exhaustive and, I am sure, exhausting negotiations between minor parties and the government, the Workplace Relations Act 1996 was introduced. Section 89A of that act provides for 20 allowable award matters. Effectively, there are a whole host of allowable matters which can only be incorporated by enterprise agreements being certified, which will prevail, where they differ, over federal awards. They would have a much broader scope. Those 20 allowable matters were introduced in 1996. If this bill is enacted, it will happen now as it happened then—the people most affected will be those people who are not able or willing to collectively bargain. In most cases, it will be those who are not able rather than not willing to collectively bargain. Removing skill based career paths is certainly going to affect those people.

As to removing long service leave provisions, it is the case that many employees' long service leave provisions are in fact enjoyed under state acts. It is the case, in many instances, that state acts provide the place where people's long service leave has been protected. Indeed, that would still remain regardless of removing it from awards. But there are employees in this country whose long service leave provisions are regulated by federal awards or federal agreements. With respect to those under federal awards, this would actually make their conditions of employment in respect of long service leave very vulnerable, to say the least. Again, it is about tearing away some entitlement forever unless you are able to collectively bargain. I hope this provides great encouragement for employees to realise that ultimately their protection lies in bargaining with their fellow workers and ensuring that they reach an agreement under a certified agreement with their employer. That would, of course, be my preferred wish. But I have to say that there will be a long time between that happening and the current circumstance. The fact is that there will be people—mostly, if not entirely, non-union members—that will miss out as a result of these conditions being taken from their award.

It does surprise me that the government seek to remove a provision that enables employees and an employer to work out how jury service is to be conducted in light of the employment implications if someone were to be called up for jury service. It is a citizen's obligation to accept an invitation to become a member of a jury. Of course there are extenuating circumstances—there are a whole lot of people who are excepted from being a juror; indeed, you can excuse yourself on many grounds—but I do not see the need to take it out of the awards. Unfortunately, the government have chosen to do so.

If enacted, this bill will ultimately target those employees not collectively organised and those who are not members of the unions. I suppose it exposes, therefore, the lie that this government is only about attacking unions. In the end, as this bill and the Workplace Relations Amendment (Protecting the Low Paid) Bill 2003 show, this government is quite happy to target the most vulnerable workers in this country, whether they are unionised or not.