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Thursday, 1 April 2004
Page: 27967

Mr MOSSFIELD (12:19 PM) —I rise to speak on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Award Simplification) Bill 2002. I am very pleased to be following the member for Blaxland, who clearly has a good grasp of the issues involved in this bill. Some of the things that I will be saying will probably cover points that he has made. The purpose of the bill is to reduce the number of allowable matters in federal awards from 20 to 16 and to provide for a 12-month review of awards, during which they will be expected to be amended to comply with the bill. This continues the Howard government's policy of reducing federal award protection for Australian workers.

The government's first wave of industrial relations legislation, passed by the Senate in 1996, reduced the number of matters that could be covered in federal awards from an unlimited number to just 20 allowable matters. This bill will 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 will be further restricted. The government says in its explanatory memorandum to this bill that the matters to be taken out of the award `are more appropriately dealt with at the enterprise or workplace level'. But, at the same time, the government tries to reduce the influence of trade union officials at the workplace by restricting their rights of entry, so preventing them from advising their members on the correct procedures for workplace negotiations to obtain a favourable outcome.

This push by the government to reduce award coverage and force issues to be dealt with at the enterprise level may be counterproductive from an employer point of view—and I am wondering just what employer input there was into the framing of this legislation. I believe that employers may well prefer that as many issues as possible are dealt with at the national level and do not become a catalyst for enterprise misunderstanding and dispute. Another issue that could be counterproductive to employers would be the removal of the skill based career paths from awards.

Just to cover the first point about the removal of items from federal awards, in major industries it is recognised that, if you can negotiate issues at a federal level, that certainly reduces the possibility of misunderstandings and problems at the workshop level. Once agreement is reached, it is carried out by all parties, both the employers and the trade unions. The issue of skill based career paths is also worrying me. Quite frankly, a lot of good work is achieved through award negotiations in encouraging employees to improve their skills. From my experience as a trade union official, this type of negotiation was very productive. There was a common interest. There was not the conflict that might arise when you argue about individual work entitlements, so there was a common purpose. To some extent, I believe it was a bonding issue between employers and employees. It has to be said that, on that issue, both parties put a lot of resources into skill formation. Both the trade union movement and employers used some of their top people to negotiate a suitable arrangement. I do not believe that, if this item is taken out of awards, either the unions or the employers will be able to put the same resources into individual workplaces that they would if they were doing it a national level. As I have indicated, I believe that is rather counterproductive. I do not think it will improve the productivity that one hopes the government is trying to achieve through these changes.

The key source of productivity growth is skill development. The Howard government, by its failure to invest properly in skill formation, is jeopardising Australia's productivity growth and prosperity. As the previous speaker indicated, the Productivity Commission has found that skill formation slowed during the 1990s, making no significant contribution to productivity growth. By its policies, the Howard government is consigning Australia to being a low-skill, low-wage society, competing on wage costs against countries of East Asia. The Labor senators in their report to the Senate inquiry on a similar provision in the 1999 second wave legislation said:

4.63. The proposal to remove training and skill-based career paths from awards indicates that the government has not properly considered its amendments to allowable matters, or is simply motivated by an unreasonable ideological desire to downgrade the commission and its award. As witness after witness pointed out during this inquiry, it would be insane to remove training provisions from awards. It is not in the interests of the Australian community or the economy.

I would certainly endorse those remarks. The other comment by the Labor senators on this issue was:

4.64. The amendment would send the wrong signal to employers and employees about the importance of training and skill formations. Many employers and employees have spent a great deal of time establishing industry-wide training frameworks.

I am quoting the Labor senators' comments, but this is also my view from my own personal experience. They said:

If these industry-based structures were removed, many employers may not have the time, resources or inclinations to renegotiate training and career path structures for their own workplaces.

It is rather coincidental that only yesterday some TAFE teachers visited a number of members in this place. They expressed to us their concern about the numbers of people who are being trained in industry. As the member for Blaxland has indicated, and this is what the TAFE teachers expressed to me, there is now a shortage of skill based metal tradesmen—boilermakers and fitters and turners. Being an ex-fitter and turner myself, I suppose a lot of these people would be about my age now and are looking forward to retirement. We are not training apprentices; they are not coming through. I am wondering if the removal of the skill based career path from the award will further retard the number of apprentices who are being trained. There is evidence that there is a shortage of metal tradesmen now. There is also evidence that employers are bringing welders from overseas. This should not be necessary, because we do have young people who I am sure would be very happy to be trained in the boilermaker and welding trades.

The TAFE teachers raised another issue with me, and I think I have a responsibility to raise it here. In the document they presented to us, they said:

Students are increasingly asked to pay higher fees. In NSW fees had been introduced, and the cost to students is up to 227% greater than the previous administration charge ... Governments are shifting the cost of vocational education and training to students, many of whom can't afford to pay. TAFE is about a second chance education for many, who do not have high incomes. Part time programs are being reduced as students won't pay the high fees for a couple of hours a week.

Students are increasingly being asked to also pay for the materials they use, whether they keep the products or not. This often involves printing and photocopying costs for assessments, not just class notes.

Increased numbers of courses are only offered at a full commercial rate. This is true of shorter, statement of attainment courses (those required by the industry) and higher level courses. Not only does this lock many students out, but it also means that students will take lower level courses which are charged less. This can also restrict the variety of options available or affordable, meaning that multi-skilling may be restricted. Again industry and the economy suffer.

It could well be that, in the case of TAFE students, employers may assist with the paying of fees, but I certainly object to any increase in fees that is going to place a burden on low-income families. Hopefully, this is an issue that the state governments will take up and hopefully it will also be supported by the federal government. In considering this bill, we need to look at the important issues that are facing the Australian work force. Is award stripping one? I do not think that is a major issue. We now have a change in culture. We are seeing full-time employment hard to find and an increased work force of unsecured and casual workers.

I know that some people might argue that casual employment is good, just as the Treasurer said that the drought is good for farmers. It is in the same category to say that casual work is good for workers. There obviously are some industries that do require casual employment but, at the same time, I do not think that is in the interests of the workers. Even workers who work in those industries would prefer full-time employment. They do not want to be sitting around waiting for a phone call.

I heard Greg Combet, the very respected and responsible secretary of the ACTU, on the radio in relation to a recent court case. His comments then were that there were 400,000 Australian workers with more than five years of employment with individual companies who are still casual and still not getting their entitlements as full-time employees. In an article that Greg Combet wrote in the Australian on Monday, 9 June last year, he said:

A few statistics tell the story: 90 per cent of the new jobs created during the 1990s paid less than $26,000 a year. Half paid less than $15,600 a year. And low paid work is not confined to students or young people—70 per cent of low wage workers are aged 25 to 54. One million people earn less than $15 an hour before tax. In many lower-income occupations, full-time jobs have shrunk to part-time positions.

Under-employment means less money for day-to-day essentials, let alone the cost of maintaining a family.

Many of these workers are also likely to be casuals, who now account for 27 per cent of the workforce—a growing proportion of employees without basic entitlements ... sick leave, holidays or redundancy pay. Half of casuals have worked in the same job for more than a year but still have no job security.

I think that highlights some of the major issues facing the Australian work force. I think that the government's time would be better spent trying to overcome those issues rather than stripping back conditions in awards.

An article by John Quiggin in the Australian Financial Reviewthis month, headed `Older workers forced out', said:

These days, large-scale retrenchment of workers is commonplace and takes little account of years of service. At the same time, the workforce is increasingly polarised into a shrinking core of full-time workers expected to put in 50 to 60 hours a week, and a growing peripheral group—

whom I think we could call non-core workers—

in insecure and casual employment. The decline in employment security is sometimes questioned on the basis of statistics showing that average job tenure has not changed much. But these statistics take no account of hundreds of thousands of older workers who have left the labour force permanently.

These are the real issues that I believe are now facing people who work in industry. The article highlights the points that I and other speakers on the opposition side have been making. The article draws attention to the burnout rate amongst core workers. It says:

Structural change has proved very effective in getting more and more work out of fewer and fewer people, but it has a long-term cost. Although workers of all ages are affected by restructuring and redundancy, older workers are less well placed to start afresh and more likely end up in the peripheral workforce if they regain work at all. In these circumstances, the option of a pension or benefit is increasingly the best way out. Even among the shrinking group of winners in the game, the pressures on the core workforce are producing cases of burnout in growing numbers.

We are now heading into a culture where we have core workers, who are working a lot longer and harder than they ever have before, and non-core workers, who are the casual workers. Unfortunately, as I have been saying, the non-core workers—the people on casual employment—are not the students. They are, in many cases, the people who should be in the prime of their work life—those in the 35 to 55 or older age group who should be earning maximum finances so that they can pay for the education of their children and for their mortgages.

The article has a suggestion for what may be the way to go—it is what I would call a sensible solution. I hope I am not wasting members' time by suggesting sensible solutions, but this is something that has come up and I think it would be worth while if the government took it into consideration. The article states:

A sensible allocation of work effort over the life cycle would involve working well past the age of 55 for most workers. But it would also involve shorter hours of full-time work, particularly for prime-aged workers (roughly those from 30 to 50) who are also, in most cases, those with the heaviest burden of family responsibilities. Over the past decade or so, an increased amount of total labour effort has been crammed into a shorter and shorter segment of our adult lives.

Another article that I would like to refer to in the context of this debate, and in suggesting to the government that there are more important issues affecting the Australian work force than simply award stripping, is one from the Ageon Saturday, 28 February by Paul Robinson, headed `Warning: work is not a grey area'. It says:

More controversially, COTA chief executive David Deans wants governments to make companies more accountable when they shed staff. `Take Telstra. They keep shedding jobs by the thousands,' he says. `Why shouldn't they be required to submit a demographic profile of the people they propose to make redundant?'

Deans says jobs are still needed for older workers; Australia's workplace participation rate for people in the 45 to 55 age group is one of the lowest in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. `And the rate for 55 to 65-year-olds, I think, is the lowest.'

Those figures are worth reflecting on. We talk about full-time employment, but is it really full-time employment? We get figures, but do they really add up to what is happening out there in the real work force? To say that the participation rate for people in the 45 to 55 age group is one of the lowest in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and that the rate for 55- to 65-year-olds is the lowest is quite a serious issue that, once again, the government should be taking note of rather than the issue that they are pursuing at the moment, which is award stripping.

I will make my final point on casualisation. However effective and suitable it might be for some industries, it is certainly not to the benefit of the people working in the industry. There may be some people who find it suitable—maybe they have got other jobs and that is the way they make ends meet, with two, three or four casual jobs. But that is certainly not the way that we should be treating the Australian work force. It may well be that the government is saying, `We've got to keep people in the work force until they drop, so maybe we will create more casual jobs and then they can take up those jobs.' But please do not forget the young people coming through—the young families who require full-time employment. That is the issue we should be looking at. Labor is opposing this bill and we are suggesting that there are more important labour market reforms to address than simply award stripping.