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Wednesday, 31 March 2004
Page: 27702

Ms GEORGE (11:53 AM) —I am not surprised by the diatribe we have just heard from the member for Canning. I listened very intently because I wanted to hear what justification he would produce for supporting the Workplace Relations Amendment (Award Simplification) Bill 2002. I think the only justification he gave was the notion that flexibility would be introduced by the passage of this bill.

Mr Randall —Read Hansard from two days ago.

Ms GEORGE —I listened intently to what you had to say and I think you should begin by acknowledging that—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Lindsay)—Member for Throsby, I did not say anything.

Ms GEORGE —Sorry, Mr Deputy Speaker. I think the member for Canning should at least acknowledge from the beginning of this debate that the title of the bill is a gigantic misnomer. This bill has nothing to do with simplifying awards. This bill is really about obliterating the industrial safety net that the award system has provided, particularly for vulnerable workers, for a century and more. This has nothing to do with union bosses. It is about a system of conciliation and arbitration in this country that has been the envy of many countries throughout the world. It is a system that has been consistently under threat from this government. They continue to introduce bills into this chamber that reflect the archetypal Orwellian doublespeak. I thought the current Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations might amend the government's ways, but all he has done is replicate the lessons that he has learnt from previous ministers. He has learnt from Tony Abbott, who was the minister prior to him, and is well taught by Peter Reith, who first introduced the notion of Orwellian doublespeak with his Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (More Jobs, Better Pay) Bill 1999.

The real agenda of this government is not about protecting the rights of ordinary people; it is about dismantling a system that has served this nation incredibly well and in particular has served the interests of low-paid workers. Many of them are not even in unions, but at least they know that the award system provides a safety net and a floor below which no member of the work force can fall. That has been a great thing that Australia has been able to do to protect the interests of those with the least bargaining power against rampant exploitation.

For the period of time that the Howard government has been in office, we have seen consistently, in every bill introduced in this House, a process of dismantling the system as we have known it—the system that has served the nation well. We have seen the balance of bargaining power tipped in the interests of employers and we have seen the introduction of individual contracts of employment, which are much touted by the member for Canning. We all know from our own personal experiences that people are told: `Either you sign up on the individual contract or you do not have a job.' The member for Canning should know that the introduction of AWAs in his state of Western Australia has in fact led to the most appalling outcomes for women workers. The gap in wages between men and women is growing under the Howard government, and it is accelerating at the greatest rate in the state of WA.

This is par for the course. The contribution from the member for Canning shows that he shares this government's ideological obsession with trying to reduce the protections for ordinary working people, many of whom are not unionised; trying to dismantle the powers of the commission; trying to reduce the powers of unions to defend and protect the rights of working people through collective bargaining; and trying to limit the potential of unions to take industrial action, even when that is in defiance of ILO conventions.

This bill is introduced into the House under the false title of `award simplification'. It is really part of an agenda that tries to obliterate the underpinning entitlements that exist for all working people. This comes as no surprise, because the government's real agenda from day one has been to try to legislate for a handful of minimum conditions and to leave everything else to be bargained for at the workplace level. It is a tragedy for those who do not have the capacity to bargain—the vulnerable, low-paid workers, women workers and part-time and casual workers for whom the award is the only measure of protection at work.

The introduction of this bill continues the government's award-stripping agenda. Much to the regret of working people, with the support of the Democrats the government was able to get away with its agenda to reduce the number of allowable matters to just 20. We were told then that this was all about flexibility. The member for Canning did not really address the issue of flexibility, which is much touted by the government as being the rationale for its reduction in workers' entitlements. You have to ask: flexibility for whom and at what expense?

When we first submitted these proposals to numerous Senate inquiries, I went back and wanted to put on record the words of a very eminent practitioner in the field of industrial relations Professor Isaac, who said at the time that the awards were first up for the chop with regard to entitlements. He said:

The significance of this reduction in the list of allowable matters is not merely that it reduces the role of the commission, and one may ask why this is justified, but, more importantly, that it effectively reduces the size of the safety net on which weaker sections of the work force and those that are unable to engage in enterprise bargaining rely. This group is on the safety net because it does not have the capacity to engage in enterprise bargaining or is unable to secure more favourable terms through enterprise bargaining. Close to one-third of employees are in this category and, while this group spans remuneration levels of up to $1,000 per week, it is dominated by low-wage earners, women and migrants, a large proportion of whom are part-time workers.

The tragedy of the government's attempts to further strip the awards is that the end result impacts most severely on those who have the least bargaining capacity.

What we saw happening in the first round of award stripping was that people with industrial capacity renegotiated all the lost conditions back into their enterprise agreement, and it was those without bargaining capacity who really felt the brunt of award stripping. I want to cite a couple of examples. It needs to be recognised that just under two million workers are covered by an award, so what they get at work—their wages and conditions—are what the minimum entitlements set out in the award provide for. The more you strip back those entitlements, the more you leave exposed those with the least bargaining capacity.

Let me cite one example of the impact of the first round of award stripping. As I said earlier, the commission's powers in determining what went into awards were part of the package. Not only did the government prescribe what was allowable but, in that process, it also reduced the powers of the independent umpire to determine what was fair and what was just. In the first round of award stripping, let us just look at the prevention of the right of the commission to set both maximum and minimum hours of work for part-time employees. The member for Canning would have you believe that, if you take away the right of the commission to set maximum and minimum hours of work, that is justified on the grounds of flexibility. But you have to ask: flexibility for whom? The flexibility really meant greater bargaining power for the employer, and the people who particularly lost out were those workers who relied on the award, which had previously set maximum and minimum hours of work.

So it was not uncommon in the cleaning industry, for example, where many people are low paid and dependent on just the award, to find that, whereas the award had previously prescribed their hours—so that it was not unusual for a worker to come in at 6 a.m. and finish at one, and to work the afternoon shift in the second week—this simple deletion, which was much touted because it was going to provide greater flexibility, left thousands of workers exposed to broken shifts. So, instead of regular and predictable hours of work, you had people coming into work for three hours in the morning—maybe taking an hour or more to get there—going home and then returning in the afternoon, with great disruption to their family life. And, as part and parcel of this so-called flexibility, they lost shift and other penalties that went with their previous working arrangements.

If it was not bad enough that the award could not set your maximum and minimum hours of work or that a boss could call you in for an hour, half an hour or whatever variation suited them, we also found with the first round of award stripping that the span of ordinary hours was increased. Whereas in the past nine to five represented the normal hours of work for an office worker, you could now have a span of hours that might start at 7 a.m. and conclude at 7 p.m., and every hour that you worked in that span of hours was considered ordinary—that is, without the prospect of overtime or penalty rates applying. So much for flexibility! We saw flexibility that impacted most negatively on those who had the least bargaining capacity.

The government lied to the people of Australia, because it assured working people at the time of the first round of award stripping that no worker would be worse off. You go out there and talk to ordinary working people, particularly casual, part-time or women workers or people reliant on the award system, and they will tell you that they were worse off. As far as their span of hours was concerned, they lost, because they no longer had regular and predictable hours of part-time work and they lost income because the conditions that previously applied in their award were taken away from them.

I cite that merely as one example to show that all the hype we had about award simplification really meant award stripping and that, if the government had its way, it would obliterate all industrial awards and legislate for a bare handful of minimum conditions and workers would be left out there in the marketplace to try and better that handful of minimum conditions. We now have a bill that wants to strip back awards even further. It is absolutely ludicrous to suggest, as this bill does, that awards should be stripped of such things as long service leave, skill based career paths, notice of termination and jury service—and there are a whole lot of other restrictions that would come with the passage of this legislation. It is absolutely appalling to think that this government would continue down the path of further erosion of basic award entitlements that underpin the notion of a fair go for those with least bargaining capacity in the workplace. If the government were to remove all those things, as it did with other areas in the first round of award stripping, people with industrial capacity would have the means to get all those conditions reinserted in their awards, but it is those people without bargaining capacity and without industrial muscle who would be very exposed in that process.

I want to deal specifically with one proposal in the bill and that is the removal of skill based career paths from industrial awards. This is an absolutely absurd proposition. Skill based career paths were first introduced into the award system with the unanimous support of employer organisations and the ACTU as part of a gigantic award restructuring exercise some two decades ago. Do you know why we introduced skill based career paths? It was primarily to encourage workers to undertake further training, which was to be based on approved industry training packages. We were encouraging workers to enhance their skills, their competence and their productivity, and in return we instituted skill based career paths that provided additional monetary compensation and remuneration for workers who took advantage of the opportunities of upskilling in the workplace.

This government is now suggesting that all the effort that went into providing for career paths based on approved industry training packages should be taken out of the award system—at precisely the time when reports indicate that our nation is facing a growing skills shortage in a number of significant areas of concern. So the government's intention would be to send that signal at a time when our growing domestic skills shortages are becoming a major national problem. If these career paths were to be removed from the award system—and I am confident that the Senate again will see the merit in the arguments that the opposition is advancing—the vast majority of employers would have neither the time, the resources nor the means to renegotiate similar provisions workplace by workplace. We have accredited national industry standards that are written into the awards—

Mr Price —At long last.

Ms GEORGE —at long last, as my colleague says. They encourage workers to upgrade their skills and their competencies and to be remunerated for doing so. This has been particularly important for women workers. We have had a huge battle in our quest to get equal pay for women, and that quest continues today. But because many women workers—for example, clothing and textile workers—were never given the opportunity of gaining formal accredited qualifications, because apprenticeships were not available in many female-dominated industries, award restructuring meant for the first time that women could show their skill, their competence and their experience through the skill based career paths and could be remunerated for those experiences that historically had been denied to them.

So the removal of these skill based career paths would be bad for all working people—bad for the nation, bad for the economy, bad for our productivity, bad for the attempt to invest more in human skills and human capital—but it would be incredibly regressive for women workers who, in their quest for equal pay and recognition for skills that had never hitherto been properly acknowledged, finally, through the skill based career paths that this government is now attempting to take out of the award system, achieved that measure of recognition and recompense. So there is no justification at all for the proposal to eliminate skill based career paths, to take out long service leave provisions, to take out notice of termination provisions, to take out the rights of people to be involved in jury service and to take out the other entitlements that would be at risk if this bill were to see the light of day.

Let me conclude by saying that this government is engaging again in the greatest act of hypocrisy by coming into this House with a bill entitled `award simplification' when we all know it is about award destruction, award stripping and, ultimately, the obliteration of industrial awards. The people out there for a long time have understood that our system has been fair in that every working person's entitlements are underpinned by an industrial safety net which has been built up over a long period of time and which has been the envy of many other countries that have looked historically to Australia's system as one that really provides a fair go.

The second conclusion I would want to draw from this is that, despite all the rhetoric we hear about union bosses determining the agenda, the people who would be most disadvantaged if this bill ever saw the light of day would be predominantly people who are not even unionised—the low paid, the casual workers, the part-time workers, the young people at work, the migrant workers. This has nothing to do with shoring up the power of union bosses, as the member for Canning alleges. This is all about Australia having the decency to continue to underpin every working person's work day life with a set of entitlements that ensure that no-one falls through the floor, that not all power is with the employer and that decency can apply at the workplace level. That is why this side of the chamber is wholeheartedly opposed to this bill.