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Thursday, 1 April 2004
Page: 27959

Ms ROXON (11:42 AM) —I would also like to speak on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Award Simplification) Bill 2002, although I have a somewhat different view from the previous speaker. It will be of particular interest to the member since I had the misfortune of having to sit through his speech. He might actually be interested in some of the reasons why I am particularly concerned about it, including the removal of skill based career paths. I am going to take most of my time speaking about that issue, because there are significant issues of concern that I am sure many members on the other side of the House would also be worried about if they looked closely at what the introduction of skill based career paths into awards has meant to many industries—the benefits it has brought not just to employees but also, significantly, to employers and industry as a whole.

I want to talk about my objection to the government's proposal to take out an additional number of matters from award coverage. Skill based career paths is just one, but the bill also seeks to remove protection for workers who are required to undertake jury service. I would like to spend a bit of time on that with my shadow Attorney-General's hat on and examine the possible consequences that that has for us, not just as an industrial matter, which is the context of this bill, but also for the administration of justice. I think that we need to look seriously at that as well.

I am also concerned that the government is proposing in this bill that notice of termination be removed from the award. In the current working environment where people are increasingly insecure about their employment, I find extraordinary the provision that deals with the way that employees should be notified of changes—told that the businesses that they work for are about to be sold or that their employment is about to finish.

Let me go first to the issue that I am most concerned about—that is, the proposal to remove skills based career paths from awards. Many people in this House have had involvement in industries that were covered by awards, either as union officials, as employees themselves or as business owners. One of the things that anybody who was involved 10 years ago and further back will tell you is that many awards did not have classification structures. The trades awards had classification structures because they needed to be linked to the particular training that tradespeople did, but the sorts of awards that covered the manufacturing industry and the hospitality industry, particularly those industries in which many women worked, really did not have any sorts of skills based classification structures.

Gradually over time, when these provisions were inserted into awards, a career path was suddenly identifiable within particular industries. Most importantly, having these skills based career paths in awards meant that there was a possibility to recognise skills, not just within a state but across the country, that were portable across industries, between businesses and across state borders. It also meant that training that matched those different skill levels was articulated so that you could—on the job, through a TAFE course or through other areas—undertake training and have that identified and recognised at an appropriate level in the award. You were able to go to your next employer and say, `This is the level that I worked at; this is what I have been accredited to.' If you moved interstate with your family for some reason, you were able to turn up at a new workplace and say: `These are my skill levels. This is where I should have some recognition in the workplace. You can have confidence that, having worked at skill level 5 in a warehouse, I will be able to undertake the duties that you want someone at skill level 5 to be able to undertake in your warehouse.'

This was a major change within industry, and I think it is extraordinary for a government that says, in its other areas, that it is interested in training and skilling people but would seek to remove from awards the very provisions that actually encourage people to undertake training to have their skills formally recognised and to be able to go that step further and have skills that will add value to industry. It is not true to say that these matters can and should adequately be dealt with either at an enterprise level or elsewhere. The effectiveness of federal awards and of having skills based training paths in those awards is that it not restricts what people do in different workplaces but recognises the comparable skills that might be needed at different levels across an industry, recognises that we need to be able to train people to certain levels and recognises that people, in this day and age, when job security is not something that people can rely on for a lifetime, are able to move to different workplaces—either for their own benefit or, if not at their own doing, for an employer's benefit—where there will actually be a recognised structure.

I am particularly concerned about the impact of this on women. There are many industries that are still dominated by women where the only training and classification structure has come through the growth of skills based career paths in awards. They may not necessarily have been working in industries where formal qualifications were required, like of course the predominance of women in teaching and nursing, but where there was a formal training structure for a long time. Look at the change it has made particularly in the manufacturing industries where women were often grouped in jobs where the skills they were undertaking have been recognised.

I want to talk particularly about an experience I had when I worked at the National Union of Workers. One of my responsibilities as an organiser was to organise the Uncle Toby's site at Wahgunyah in Victoria, up on the Murray. It is a huge manufacturing site in the food industry with 700 or 800 people employed there. When I was working there some eight or nine years ago the workplace had just started to properly introduce the skills based career paths that had recently been put into the award. It was creating a major issue within the workplace and there was major interest in it. It was primarily the business, to start with, that was very committed to the introduction of the structure. I became involved when these structures were being implemented and staff needed to be placed within the different classifications. They were going through and working out how to recognise which skills people had obtained on the job and should be accredited for, and therefore fit into the classification structure, and which staff needed to undertake other training. Having done the first cut at that business to find where people would fall in the structure, to everybody's horror the large number of women employed on the site fell into the first two levels of the skills based pay structure and classification structure and all the men were in the highest levels, because the first cut was based purely on income and the rates that people were being paid.

The skills based classification system delivered to Uncle Toby's and to their staff a complete rethink about why it was that the skills of the men who worked in a warehouse were valued to a particular level and the skills of the women who worked in quality control were not. What it identified, because this was a nationally accepted classification structure, was that many of the skills that the women were using on production lines, in quality control, in mixing and in all sorts of other parts of the manufacturing system had not been recognised. I am using Uncle Toby's as an example, but this would have been reflected across many industries and businesses in the country. They had not properly recognised the level of skill that was being exercised by many of their employees and they had overpaid or overrecognised some of the skills of employees working in other areas. The historical reasons were to do with not just which jobs men were working in and which jobs women were working in but training, which industries they had been covered by and which awards they had been covered by. It was the tool of the skills based career path and classification system being placed in the award which allowed Uncle Toby's and their employees to work through a process which truly recognised the skills that different people had within their workplace and to pay them according to those skills.

That process was one of the most satisfying things I have been involved with. That process saw the proper valuing of the skills of particularly some of the women who had worked at Uncle Toby's for 10, 15 or 20 years, who had been doing highly skilled tasks for all that time and who had been paid at the lowest level because no-one had actually sat down and assessed what they were doing and the skills that were required—the training that would be required if the minister or I were suddenly invited to go and do this job and what we would need to learn to be able to do that job. It was only through the introduction of this skills based classification system that that process was ever undertaken.

It is a serious backwards step for us to say that we do not want to keep these sorts of provisions in awards. It allows for all sorts of inconsistencies to come back into the system, it allows for all sorts of assumptions about the work that men or women do being of different value and it leaves us tied to all sorts of inappropriate practices from the past. It does not help us move forward to a system that says that articulated, portable and nationally recognised skills are very important to the future of this country and the future, in particular, of high-skilled manufacturing industries in Australia. I use manufacturing as the example because that is the area that I have worked in. These skills based career paths apply across other industries and other awards but are of most importance in areas where there is not some sort of training structure that has been in place for a long time, such as apprenticeships or other sorts of qualifications needed for nursing and teaching.

I have the strongest view that to take these provisions out will disadvantage people who are highly skilled or will prevent and slow the encouragement of people who do not have high skills but can see a way to work through a career path in their award structure. If these provisions are removed from the award, it will be a disincentive for people to do proper training, further their skills and become better employees for their businesses. That cannot possibly be good for this country.

Let me speak briefly about the jury service provisions in awards that this bill would remove by seeking to prevent jury service from being an allowable matter in an award. These provisions ordinarily allow or require an employer to pay any gap between what an individual employee is paid if they are on jury service through the court system and their ordinary wage. Everybody in this place knows that if you are called up for jury service it is part of your civic obligation to go. A jury system cannot function in this country if people are not required to turn up to court when they are asked to do jury service. The very basics of wanting a jury to be representative of the community are that people across all sections of the community should be able to go.

Removing jury service from awards will ensure that working-class people who rely on awards to set out their conditions will find it harder to participate as a juror without suffering financial disadvantage. That is not something that we as a parliament should be encouraging. It is very narrow-minded of the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations to see this as only a workplace relations issue and to say: `What are the extra things we can get out of awards? We don't need to have all these provisions that might be there for some other social purpose.' But that has been the main tool by which we have ensured that a large chunk of the working population in Australia has been able to participate on juries without suffering financial disadvantage.

Suggesting that we should rely on the goodwill of each employer to negotiate some sort of provision for this situation or that the individual employee themselves should bear the burden of the cost is not realistic. I can bet my bottom dollar—and the minister knows this—that anybody who is going to significantly lose money as a result of not being paid their normal wage to be on jury service will find a way to ensure that they cannot participate. There are exclusions that are allowed when you get sent your jury service notice. I can absolutely bet my bottom dollar that, if people are going to seriously lose out financially, more and more people will find ways not to undertake their jury service, and that has a serious consequence for us.

We do not want to be in a position where the vast working population of this country sees it as a major disadvantage if they happen to get a notice for jury service. We want people to say: `My turn has come up. This is my civic obligation. I know that it might be a pain for one reason or another, but I will try to fit in with it.' And the employer bears some of that inconvenience as well. Otherwise, we will have to hand away our jury system altogether, because we simply will not have people who are able or prepared to go and sit in the courts to undertake that important duty in the administration of justice.

They are the two issues that I have severe concerns about if this bill is introduced. Unfortunately, much of the debate so far has been a simple union-bashing, government-bashing session. The issues that are covered in this bill are far too important for us to look only at that. It will have serious consequences if we refuse to allow these matters to be dealt with by an industrial relations commission and to be put into an award. There are obvious important reasons that go beyond the operation of the Workplace Relations Act to our desire to train people in the community, to encourage and assist people to go onto jury service and to give them some sense of security that if their employment is terminated they might have decent notice provisions that will ensure that they get some notification ahead of time of what is about to happen. I condemn the government's decision to try to introduce these provisions again. I hope that the arguments that have been raised will persuade the minister to desist with this course of action and to leave those provisions as allowable award matters in the workplace relations legislation.