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Wednesday, 31 March 2004
Page: 27715

Ms BURKE (12:50 PM) —I love following government members in these debates when they talk about things they know absolutely nothing about. The absolute load of rhetoric coming from the other side cannot be actually quantified or justified by any example in any way, shape, size or form. The absolute dribble is just beautiful. The Workplace Relations Amendment (Award Simplification) Bill 2002 will impact particularly on small businesses. Small businesses like certainty; they like awards. It makes their lives easier. So to say that stripping back awards creates jobs is actually false. There is absolutely no demonstration that this is true. It is like saying that being able to sack someone more easily is going to create jobs. It is laughable and it is tragic.

Coalition members in the government accuse us of not understanding business, but they come in here and talk about industrial relations and they do not know what it is or how it works. They have never worked in the system. They have never dealt with the day-to-day realities of industrial relations. They have not done it. There is about one person on the other side with any HR or IR background. I have worked on both sides of the fence, as an employer representative and as a union representative. I have seen it all. They come in here and talk the talk, but they do not actually understand the day-to-day applications of how these things work.

The tragedy is that you cannot escape the sense of deja vu about this bill. I have an overwhelming sense that I have been here before. Sadly, I have—I talked on this when the allowable matters were stripped back to just 20. Now we are here again to strip them back to 16. I love the rhetoric from the government that it is about award simplification. That is a load of bunkum. It is not; it is about stripping away more hard-won entitlements and creating a greater sense of confusion for employers. By the way, we have been waiting an awfully long time for this bill to come on. If it is so important and it was introduced in 2002, how come we have managed to get it onto the legislative program only at the very end of this session in 2004?

I mentioned that this bill creates confusion and headaches for employers, particularly in small businesses. The bill takes away another four allowable matters, reducing them from a mere 20 to 16, and places limits on those remaining 16 matters. Just imagine that you are starting up a small business and you are taking on staff. The first thing you want to know is, `How do I pay them and what are they entitled to?' Generally, people who are employing people want to treat them fairly, so they want to would know what their staff are entitled to overall. It used to be so easy—you would get a copy of the award and you would know you were doing the right thing. You also knew what rates and conditions your competitors were applying and you could factor this into your price structure—but not anymore. Now you have a narrow cast of matters in awards and no idea what may be housed in the agreements and AWAs applied by your competitors. This can result in a loss of business, because you can be undercut by competitors, or a loss of staff, who are attracted to better-paying jobs. Awards provided certainty for both employers and employees—but not anymore. The ideological bent of this government and the larger employer unions has won the day yet again. I am sorry, I am not allowed to call them `employer unions'; they are associations. They are not amalgamations of people protecting each other. No—that would be absurd. They are associations.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, ACCI, supports even further reforms to the awards system to create a framework which sets out only pay and leave conditions, much like the ill-fated Victorian IR system introduced by the Kennett government. That has now been consigned to the dustbin of history, thanks to the passing in this place of a bill introduced by the government—the Workplace Relations Amendment (Improved Protection for Victorian Workers) Bill 2003. The notion of stripping back completely has been a failure. It was a failure in Victoria and it led to the government actually introducing a bill to overturn that. So they know it is a failure. They know that award simplification is a failure because it creates too much confusion and it leaves employees exposed. It is ironic that we are being lectured about how we are terrible about passing this bill when the government has already moved a bill in this House to reinstate conditions stripped away in Victoria, arriving at the same set of conclusions about those things that people in the larger employer associations want to achieve.

This exercise proves that there needs to be greater certainty about pay and conditions. Not every workplace has the capacity to undertake enterprise bargaining, especially small businesses. ACCI and the like do not represent the concerns of small business. Further, we still need the safety net—a set of conditions which the commission can rule a line under and say, `You can go no further than this.' Sadly, this bill continues the erosion of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission's powers, which the government started way back in 1996. Of course, way back in 1996 we saw the best erosion when they took away the powers of the AIRC to ensure that people bargain in good faith. Nobody on the other side of the House talks about bargaining in good faith. Nobody talks about the savage lockouts experienced by employees that this government has allowed and more or less encouraged by the legislative enactment that they have put through. Regardless of what the AIRC may think is appropriate for awards and no matter what they may arbitrate in the commission, the government will simply legislate away what can be dealt with in awards. This is what we have before us.

The government spelt out its plan to denude workers of any vestige of rights in their workplaces back in 1996, with the joke-titled Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (More Jobs, Better Pay) Bill. This bill before the House today is merely another stage in a long trip to rip things off employees to repay the government's masters who fund their election campaigns. This bill before the House would remove the following matters from federal awards: skill based career paths, bonuses, long service leave, notice of termination and jury service. In addition, some allowable matters would be restricted: training or education matters, rights of unions to take part in dispute settlement procedures, and transfer of one type of employment to another. Also, allowances would no longer include accident make-up pay, cultural leave would be limited to ceremonial leave for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders and other similar types of cultural and religious observation, public holidays would include only government-declared public holidays and therefore not union picnic days, and the scope for awards to contain matters incidental to specific allowable matters would be narrowed. So there is a lot that this bill actually contains.

What are these areas that we are talking about? Skill based career paths are being taken out of awards. I can remember that, back in 1987, we went through an enormous amount of work to introduce skill based career paths into awards. There was a great sense of joint work between unions, employers and employees to establish those career path skill models. It has actually been demonstrated that taking these out of awards takes away the urgency for employers to actually engage in training staff. We have seen the absolute skill shortage we have in our society today. You need only to look at the lack of apprentices around us—and I mean genuine apprentices; ones who are going to walk out after four or five years with a specific trade certificate—to know that this type of narrowing of our award conditions is having a detrimental impact upon our economy. You need only to look at the job vacancies that cannot be filled, particularly in some regional areas, because there are no skilled people out there. One of the big reasons, of course, is that everything was privatised by various Liberal state governments so we do not actually have instrumentalities anymore that are training up apprentices. You also do not have employers taking on apprentices. This is a green light to say, `Training in the workplace is not important.' We used to talk about the lucky country, keeping up and continual learning, but this actually gives the green light to saying, `It's not important; don't worry about it.'

The other interesting matter is the removal of jury service. This is fundamentally ridiculous. It is important for the legal system to have certainty that people will actually serve on juries. If they have confusion with their employer about whether they can go and what happens to their pay when they go, it is now all nice and set—it is all very easy and it is there in the award. It says: `Yes, you can go. You'll get your jury payment and we'll make up the rest of the pay.' It is very simple. Why take that away? Why let that fall over?

It is like the absolutely ludicrous situation of the first allowable matters case, which took out blood donor leave. We now see a crisis in our supply of blood; there is actually a correlation between when the provision came out and the drop in the supply of blood. Other factors have been involved as well, but some work has been conducted to demonstrate that there has been a falling away in the number of people donating blood. They cannot say to their boss: `The mobile van is up the road. I think I'll go and donate some blood. Is that all right?' It used to be in the award, and they used to be able to say it was there. They would ring up the HR department—the person who looked after pay, personnel and that sort of stuff—and ask, `Is that all right?' and they would be told, `Yeah, off you go.'

We have a situation at the moment where people who are receiving regular plasma transfusions for various illnesses are being told, `Sorry, you can't have them.' This has been reported recently on radio in Victoria by Kylie Millar, a writer for the Green Guide. She can no longer receive her regular plasma transfusion because of the lack of supply—she cannot do it. This is putting her health at risk, because there is not the supply out there to support her. This is ludicrous; it is penny-pinching stupidity. It has an adverse effect; it is creating problems instead of solving them. It is like, in the first round, taking out Army Reserve leave. There is massive confusion around employees, again, going up to their boss and saying: `I've got a regular two-week camp for my reservist training. I've got to go on it. What happens now?' The employer scratches their head and says: `I don't actually know. It used to be in the award. It's not there. I haven't signed it off in the EB. I don't know. I don't think you can go.' If they do not go, they do not qualify in their reservist training. I would have thought that, in these uncertain times in our lives, we would want to encourage people to belong to the reservists and to be doing things, as opposed to putting an impediment in their place. Taking away jury service is going to cause the same problems that the removal of blood donor leave and Army Reservist leave has caused; it is not going to help anybody.

The other matter is the removal of long service leave. We have had employer associations saying, `Please don't do this to us; it is going to create confusion.' Way back in 1999, when this was first mooted, the Victorian Automobile Chamber of Commerce said:

Our associations have some reservations in relation to the proposed changes ... in relation to the removal of long service leave from the allowable matters. We would see that that would create administrative burdens to members, especially where they have national businesses operating across state borders. Removing the long service leave provisions from federal awards for our members ... would subject these sorts of businesses to a multiplicity of different arrangements across different states, including different access times to long service leave and different outcomes in relation to the amounts of leave that are due ...

Yes, it is very simple: take it away and create confusion—particularly amongst small businesses, which the Victorian Automobile Chamber of Commerce represents. They do not need more confusion; they need certainty. Awards give them certainty.

Another issue is the reduction of transfer from one type of employment to another. Again, this is about reducing choice; it is about reducing choice for employees. In this day and age, people move in and out of modes of employment—particularly women returning to the work force after having children; they need to have greater choice, not less choice. We have the terrible situation, which was recently reported in the poverty inquiry report handed down by the Senate, of people who are in the work force but are living on subminimal amounts. They are all casuals in the work force but they would like to become at least permanent part-time workers, because it would give them some certainty. When they rock up to the bank they can say, `I am employed'—although it might be part-time—as opposed to saying, `I'm a casual,' and being told: `No, you can't have a bank loan. No, you can't take out a loan to buy a car. No, you can't have a credit card.' Those in full-time employment take all those things for granted. This gave certainty to employees about choice. It also gave certainty to employers, who can say: `Yeah, you can transfer in and out. This is how we'll do it. This is what happens to your terms and conditions. This is what happens to your pay.' That is gone; it is eroded—and it creates confusion.

Awards have already been stripped back—a massive task undertaken by unions, employers and the commission. The commission still has not undertaken the award simplification process passed by the last bit of legislation, because it is a huge task to go through an award, clause by clause, and say: `This has got to come out. This has got to go in. This has got to be written.' Hours and hours of work go into that, so we do not need to put more imposts on business in undertaking these tasks.

Last night I spoke in this House about the net effect that the stripping back of allowable matters has had. There was a case cited in the paper yesterday about a young employee at Westco. This employee was forced to wear a rather provocative T-shirt that caused her great distress. She had the bravery to say to her employer that she did not want to wear a T-shirt that was very tight and had written across it the words `Don't pretend you don't want me'—which is provocative on a very tight, white T-shirt. If the allowable matters had not come through last time, her employer could not do that. The previous federal shop assistants award had a clause that stated that employers could not require employees to wear revealing or indecent clothing that would cause the employee embarrassment. There was a clause in the award that stopped the employer doing that.

So why was there that clause? The Shop Assistants Union, back in the eighties, had a plethora of cases of women being required to be topless in the work force. There was this great marketing ploy in hardware and spare parts stores that they would employ topless sales assistants, and there was no provision in legislation to actually stop this from happening. So they put a very sensible clause in the award. It did not cost anybody any money; it just said that an employee could not be asked to wear revealing or indecent clothing.

So we have this ludicrous case of teenagers, particularly within the retail industry—and particularly within Westco—being demanded to wear sexually explicit advertising, more or less. Westco management said, `We just thought it was cheeky and provocative, and it has been demonstrated that it works because people have been buying our T-shirts.' It is one thing to choose to buy a T-shirt and wear it, but it is another thing to be forced to wear it in the workplace. We have the case of a poor girl who was brave enough to say, `No, I don't want to wear this,' and took it off after a male customer had harassed her. Funnily enough, if the T-shirt you are wearing has a line on it that says `Don't pretend you don't want me', you might think you are going to get a bit harassed by the male clientele. She was sent home. She was sent home because they had a policy of no T-shirt, no work.

Westco had to back down on this because there has been such a hue and cry, but they still cannot understand why it is wrong. If that provision had been in the award, it would have been simple: that young girl could have rung up the HR area, the help desk or Wageline and said, `This has been asked of me; where do I stand?' They could have read out the provision in the award and said, `You don't have to do this.' Instead, she got sent home without any advice. She is a very brave soul, and I trust that nothing is going to happen to her employment.

I think it is hypocritical that the minister for industrial relations in this place—the great moral crusader—is forever telling us about the great moral stance he wants to take in life. What is he saying to parents of teenagers who work in these stores across the country: that it is perfectly all right for your teenager daughters to be exposed to this sort of sexual harassment? It is laughable. If the award had not been changed, there would have been the ability for the staff to say, `No, I don't have to do that; I'm protected by my award.'

I think Rob Hulls, the Victorian Attorney-General and industrial relations minister, summed up this government's IR credentials well. Back in February 2002, it was reported that:

Hulls compared the federal Workplace Relations Act to a dinosaur with an anti-family, anti-women and outdated IR agenda.

“Unfortunately, Tony Abbott—

the then minister—

believes that the only way that an industrial relations regime will work is to encourage conflict, to get two parties into a ring, allow them to beat the tripe out of each other and let all the spoils go to the last person standing,” he said.

The current workplace relations minister continues the tradition through yet another obnoxious, unnecessary bill—and we should reject it.