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Thursday, 1 April 2004
Page: 27971

Ms O'BYRNE (12:39 PM) —Here we are again, debating another one of the lasting legacies of the former Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, and—surprise, surprise!—the anti-union rhetoric and the antiworker obsession continue. The government's fustilarian engagement in industrial reform still has no benefit for those who actually rely on an award structure to ensure they are justly remunerated for their work.

It is for these reasons that we once again have a piece of legislation before the House that the government has cobbled together for the sole purpose of destabilising unions and cutting the livelihoods of Australian workers. This bill seeks to demolish the safety net of employment conditions that has been built up over the last 100 years. Labor will not support this bill, because in its essence it is unfair and totally unjust.

The Australian industrial relations system is made up of industry or occupational awards. These awards, since Justice Higgins's decision in the very famous Harvester case, have provided minimum wages and have over years developed comprehensive minimum conditions. This has ensured that there is a safe and equitable standard for workers. It has not prevented employers from offering better than award conditions, but it has ensured that there are fair and equitable standards for all workers.

This bill seeks to reduce matters that can be included in awards from the current 20 matters to 16 and also seeks to put further limitations on the remaining 16. The matters it is seeking to remove from federal awards are: skill based career paths; long service leave; bonuses; notice of termination; and jury service. Of the remaining 16 matters, the bill is seeking to put limitations on: training or education; the rights of unions to take part in industrial settlement procedures; transfers from one type of employment to another; allowances; cultural leave; and public holidays, as well as narrowing the scope for awards to contain matters that are incidental to specific allowable matters. This is what we have: a government that talks big about choice so long as that choice is not extended to Australian employees and the choice of matters that can be covered in their industrial awards. Not content with reducing the number of matters that could be included in awards to just 20 back in 1996, the government tried in its failed second wave of industrial relations changes in 1999 to further reduce the number of allowable matters. Very sensibly—and I know we do not often give them praise—the other place rejected that legislation in its entirety.

The proposals in this bill are unfair and unjust, because these provisions would only serve to destroy the award safety net, which provides protection for workers and is a significant mechanism of industrial social justice. In fact, if this bill is passed we will no doubt see even more appalling situations like the one we saw this week where a clothing store required its employees to wear tight, provocative T-shirts as a condition of their employment—the slogan was `Stop pretending you don't want me'. That is the sort of T-shirt that we are asking young women to wear in their workplaces. We cannot pretend that we want this Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations but unfortunately we are stuck with him.

Very thankfully, one young woman had the courage to speak out against this condition. But only five years ago there was a provision in her award that stated that employers could not require employees to wear revealing or indecent clothing. That has gone. Under the Howard government's antiworker, anti-union stripping away of awards, this provision was removed, leaving many young people vulnerable to this type of exploitation. This House should not allow that sort of thing to go on and we should not condone it. This bill will only create an industrial environment that makes exploitation like we have seen this week more common and much, much harder to fight. Young people should not have to feel embarrassed or demoralised when they go to work. They should be able to go to work, do their job and receive praise for doing their job, not for wearing revealing T-shirts.

This bill would also take away the assurance that conditions of employment cannot fall below a decent level and that there is an acceptable community standard available to protect all employees. It would undermine the whole system and weaken the role of the Industrial Relations Commission by taking away minimum award standards through legislation rather than giving the parties the opportunity to explain their respective cases before the commission—explain your case and get judged on your merit.

But, of course, this is the government's agenda: to essentially take away as much power from the Industrial Relations Commission as it possibly can. Australian workers, quite rightly, expect a guarantee that they will be protected by a minimum wage and a minimum standard of working conditions. These conditions cannot be compromised on the basis of the federal government's industrial relations agenda. This bill, along with every other industrial relations bill currently being debated, is part of the government's fight to wipe out unions, which is a fight that the government has been inching towards for some time now. This week they might set their targets on the CFMEU or maybe the MUA, and next week it will be the AMWU, and the week after that—who knows? Who is next on the government's hit list?

Basic workers' rights and minimum industrial awards are not radical ideas—they are not frightening; they are not a scary, radical thing. In fact, the minister is probably already aware—but, if not, he might be interested to know—that not even the Vatican, an organisation I think he has some interest in, would agree with the workplace reforms being put forward by this government. The Vatican has endorsed the rights of workers and the need for trade unions since as far back as 1891 when the treatise of Pope Leo XIII—Rerum novarum: encyclical letter on capital and labor—was delivered. This treatise stated that methods such as the right of workers and unions to strike were recognised by the Catholic social teaching as legitimate actions under proper working conditions.

In 1891 the Vatican was ensuring workers had proper working conditions, which included a minimum workplace standard. Surely the Australian government today has no right to take these standards away. But the Vatican's teachings do not stop there. The Vatican II document The church in the modern world says:

In economic enterprises it is persons who are joined together, that is, free and independent human beings created to the image of God. Therefore, with attention to the functions of each—owners or employers, management or labor—and without doing harm to the necessary unity of management, the active sharing of all in the administration and profits of these enterprises in ways to be properly determined is to be promoted. Since more often, however, decisions concerning economic and social conditions, on which the future lot of the workers and of their children depends, are made not within the business itself but by institutions on a higher level, the workers themselves should have a share also in determining these conditions—in person or through freely elected delegates.

Among the basic rights of the human person is to be numbered the right of freely founding unions for working people. These should be able truly to represent them and to contribute to the organizing of economic life in the right way. Included is the right of freely taking part in the activity of these unions without risk of reprisal. Through this orderly participation joined to progressive economic and social formation, all will grow day by day in the awareness of their own function and responsibility, and thus they will be brought to feel that they are comrades in the whole task of economic development and in the attainment of the universal common good according to their capacities and aptitudes.

Workers should have the right to union representation in award negotiations. Workers should have the right to expect fair workplace conditions, and they should expect that they can demand these conditions without the fear of losing their jobs.

This bill will do nothing but continue to create an environment where some very basic workers' rights that Australian workers have enjoyed for some time are taken away. It creates a very uneven industrial playing field and an uneven competitive environment. I do not think there is working person in this country, whether they are the head of an organisation or a cleaner, that wants to see this type of industrial environment.

Labor will not stand by and allow this government to create a situation where working Australians are expected to accept working conditions that have no place in Australia today. Labor will not stand by and allow the government to effectively deskill the Australian work force and reduce their bargaining power. Of course, the proposals in the bill are not particularly new. We have seen them time and time again. This bill is just one of the government's dirty dozen bills which are designed to keep vulnerable working Australians in the race to the bottom of low skills and low wages.

So it seems the choice that the government wants to implement is either the Liberal Party choice, that being the low road to low skills and low wages, or the Labor choice, that being the high road to high skills and high wages. So it seems there really is not any choice. There is no real scope for choice in this bill. It does not uphold the rights of workers or ensure that workers are able to expect a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. The fact the government is willing to push this agenda shows again just how Machiavellian and really out of touch it is. Rather than being up-front about its agenda to undermine unions, it allows provisions such as these to be introduced to the detriment of working Australians—just to destabilise and deunionise workplaces. This bill is not about choice; it is about tearing away at the safety net protecting the working conditions of Australian workers.

The government cannot continue to get away with ideologically driven union bashing to the detriment of Australians. If this bill is passed, the workers of Australia will have no guarantee of appropriate employment conditions. They will have no guarantee of accessing effective representation through their unions because this government will continue its attempt to destroy them in its effort to create its dream of a free market—a free market where any sort of award and employment is acceptable as long as businesses are able to keep paying increasing taxes to support the government's obsession with its ever-increasing budget surplus. It is a surplus that is growing at the expense of public services and infrastructure, a surplus that is growing at the expense of the provision of a decent standard of living for Australians, despite how much money they earn.

The plight of the 17 workers who were locked out of the Blue Ribbon meatworks in Launceston has been well documented in this House—I have raised it many times. The Tasmanian Industrial Commission ordered that the workers were to have their employment arrangements that existed prior to 2 April 2003, the day they were locked out, reinstated. The commission also ordered that the workers receive back pay for the amount of wages they would have received from that date. The commission found that there was no valid reason for the termination of the workers' employment and that the termination was procedurally unfair. It found the conditions of the employment agreement, which the workers refused to sign, were a contrivance to avoid award obligations and industrial consequences.

The employers appealed this decision, but the decision of the Tasmanian Industrial Commission has been held up as a victory for the workers in the last two days. These workers were locked out of their workplace for two days short of an entire year for no good reason. Mr Deputy Speaker, do you want to know what the reason was? The reason these workers were locked out is that they had an expectation that they could be employed under award conditions. They had an expectation that they could continue to do a job under award conditions that they had been doing for years and years in some cases. The decision is a victory for the 17 Blue Ribbon workers, but it is also a victory for the right of all Australian workers to be treated fairly and with respect in relation to their employment conditions, contrary to the actions of this government, contrary to the intent of this bill and contrary to the draconian way that this government approaches unions, workplace relations and workers.