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Thursday, 3 November 2005
Page: 25

Ms MACKLIN (10:44 AM) —Today we are considering 1,252 pages of the most draconian, the most unfair, the most extreme and, yes, un-Australian piece of legislation ever to come into this parliament. It is ideology fashioned by the Prime Minister, John Howard, who for more than a quarter of a century has dedicated himself to dismantling the rights of Australians to decent working conditions, to a decent standard of living and to be treated decently at work. We are seeing the leader of the Australian national government forcing this nation down the road of an American style industrial relations system, with tearing cuts to the fundamental fabric of the independent society we have built over the last hundred years. His monster will, without a shadow of doubt, attack and lay waste to crucial aspects of the Australian way of life.

What appals me most about the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 is the deliberate imposition of this radical industrial ideology on families, on the disadvantaged in our society, on the low-paid and on the young and powerless. It also represents a fundamental assault on the rights of Australians to exercise their hard won democratic right to be represented collectively—an assault this Prime Minster has been plotting and planning for a quarter of a century. No government in Australia should deny workers the right to be represented by their union, deny their rights to have someone to speak up on their behalf and on behalf of other people in their workplace.

But this bill threatens to impose fines of tens of thousands of dollars on workers and their unions for even asking for basic rights. They face fines merely for seeking appeal rights for workers who believe they have been unfairly sacked or for asking for mandatory union involvement in resolving workplace disputes. What sort of government fines workers for asking for help? There is no doubt that this bill attacks the very heart of ordinary men and women’s rights to get a helping hand from their union and, in doing so, takes Australia further and further down the American employment road, where the tip jar provides more support than their government.

Like most of this government’s policies, John Howard’s industrial relations agenda will do the most harm to the lowest paid and least secure working Australians. That means it will fall most heavily on Australian women. Women’s industrial rights are fundamental to our equal citizenship. Labor believes that governments cannot stand by while women earn less than men toiling in casual and often low-paid jobs. Political rights for women must always go hand in hand with industrial rights. Correspondingly, industrial rights are fundamental to dignity in work for all Australians. But this government is dismantling in one fell swoop women’s hopes for equality in the workplace and in society.

Like men, women work to earn a living. Often, unfortunately in Australia today, that living is still not very good. Women are disproportionately represented among minimum wage workers, women are disproportionately represented in the casual work force and women still do the ‘double shift’, doing most of the housework and most of the child care, even when they are in full-time paid employment. Australian women are bearing the brunt of the insecurity and uncertainty in today’s economy. This family-unfriendly bill will destroy what little job security many women have.

This government is taking an axe to the minimum wage. In is an outrage that in Australia today women earn less compared to men. When this government took office back in 1996, men on average earned around $230 a week more than women. Now the gap is over $308 a week and women’s total wages are just 66 per cent of male total earnings. But of course, with this legislation, it will get worse. The minimum wage protects 1.6 million of Australia’s low-paid workers—60 per cent of these are women. The Howard government is about to appoint a hand-picked ‘unfair pay commission’, as we call it, to set that minimum wage. It is hand-picked by the government that has opposed every single increase in the minimum wage since 1996.

The government’s massive expansion of Australian workplace agreements will also hurt women the most. The wage gap will become a chasm. Currently women receive around 90 per cent of the hourly pay of men on collective agreements, but under Australian workplace agreements women only earn 80 per cent of the hourly pay of men. Casuals and part-timers earn 15 per cent and 25 per cent less respectively on Australian workplace agreements than they do on collective agreements. That is happening now.

What is more, only seven per cent of private sector individual contracts contain work and family measures. This bill will well and truly tip the work and family balance scales against women. Very few Australian workplace agreements help women balance work and family commitments through measures like flexible starting and finishing times for ordinary hours of work, family and carers leave, paid maternity leave and home based work. Individual workplace agreements are already very bad news for women, but they will get much worse under the government’s plan to replace the 20 allowable matters in the current employment standard to just five minimum standards.

These five standards will only include a minimum rate of pay—now under threat, we know—annual leave, eight days of personal leave, parental leave and maximum ordinary working hours. That is all that we will see in the minimum standards. The basic working conditions that men and women rely on to assist their ongoing work and family juggling act are all under threat. The Industrial Relations Commission recently ruled that 1.6 million Australian parents should have the right to request two years of unpaid parental leave when their child is born and the right to request part-time work until their child reaches school age. This ruling will last about as long as the government takes to ram this legislation through this parliament.

Men and women will be powerless to reject an Australian workplace agreement that their employer tries to force on them. This bill’s definition of ‘oppressive behaviour’ does not include the all too imaginable situation where an employer says to an employee, ‘You either sign the unfair individual contract or you don’t get the job,’ or ‘you don’t keep your job.’ Yes there is choice for employers, but no choice for employees.

With these extreme laws that the government has introduced into parliament, John Howard, this Prime Minister, will push many Australian families not only over the financial edge but over the edge of holding together their family life. John Howard’s unfair dismissal provisions also mean that Australian women could be sacked even if they cannot get to work because their child is sick. The government says that people who are fired because they have family obligations will be able to sue for unfair dismissal, but how many working families can finance a drawn-out legal battle? And how many employers would be silly enough to announce that a sacking is due to marital status, pregnancy, family obligations or even gender when they are not required to give a reason? Under the government’s legislation employers are not required to give a reason at all.

If the government had set out to develop a blueprint to take Australian women backwards, they could not have done a better job than the legislation we have before us. Government policy should be about opportunity and respect for Australian families and about preserving human dignity. This bill is none of those things. It is mean, unfair, indecent and cruel. It will hurt working people, and the women of Australia will bear the brunt of it.

Members on this side of the House, Labor members of parliament, are well aware of the severity of the skills crisis confronting Australia. We know that businesses around the country have realised that the single biggest constraint to future growth is not industrial relations laws but a lack of properly trained staff. Every day we hear more and more stories about the skills crisis jeopardising industry projects. I have spoken on so many occasions about the Howard government’s shameful and inadequate record when it comes to training Australians, especially young Australians. Under these extreme industrial relations changes, things are only going to get worse. This country will not solve the current skills crisis by making apprenticeships less attractive to young Australians, by stripping away award conditions and by forcing apprentices onto a ‘take it or leave it’ workplace agreement. But that is exactly what this legislation has in mind.

As I travel around the country talking to young apprentices on building sites, in workshops and at TAFE colleges, the one issue they bring up time and again is their poor wages and conditions. So why on earth would you force extreme industrial relations changes that will drive down wages when what we need to do is encourage young people to get an apprenticeship, to increase their skills? We have an enormous problem in this country, with apprentices dropping out and not completing their apprenticeships. Forty per cent of Australian apprentices do not complete their apprenticeship, and low wages is a major contributing factor. Apprentices are an investment in our future. Without them our country cannot grow. What this government should be doing is improving their wages, not putting in legislation that will see their wages cut.

Under this legislation we now know that wages for apprentices will be set by the new ‘Unfair Pay Commission’. Apprentices will see this move for what it is: yet another attempt to strip their wages. It is a proposal from a Prime Minister who has form on this issue. Back in 1992, John Howard said, ‘Dramatically lower minimum wages for young people,’ and proposed that the youth minimum wage be reduced from $8.50 to $3.00 an hour. A recent survey of young workers in South Australia has shown that young workers already feel dirt-cheap and disposable—that is how they described it. That is how they feel already: dirt-cheap and disposable. Many new apprentices are earning as little as $5.95 an hour. Only a government that is totally out of touch would think that an apprentice can make ends meet by earning such a pittance.

This legislation puts at risk apprentices’ pay and conditions, and will force Australia down the low-skills, low-wage road. Stripping back awards and the minimum protections that they offer is a major assault on Australia’s future skills development; the other, of course, is forcing apprentices onto Australian workplace agreements. The Prime Minister is quick to say that everyone will be paid more under Australian workplace agreements—after all, John Howard says, ‘It’s a “workers’ market” like never before.’

Let’s have a look at what is happening in Western Australia, where the unemployment rate is 4.1 per cent—and if the Prime Minister is to be believed, a ‘workers’ market’, if anywhere is. Australian workplace agreements currently being offered to first-year apprentices in Perth in Western Australia are paying as little as $6.90 an hour, all up, for a 40-hour week, including sick pay, penalty rates, and other allowances. So these individual agreements are already in place in Western Australia. In a buoyant labour market and in a state with record low unemployment and record skill shortages, an apprentice chef can be paid just $6.90 an hour, including all those penalty rates, so just imagine what awaits future apprentices where there is not such an apparent workers’ market.

Also, young apprentices are especially vulnerable when it comes to bargaining with the boss. For many it will be their first experience of full-time employment. We, especially those of us who are parents, can all picture the complete power imbalance young people feel when talking to their boss, talking to their employer, about problems at work, let alone their core pay and conditions. Imagine how difficult it will be for young apprentices, going it alone, to negotiate intricate workplace agreements—but they are offered no protection in this bill. In the Howard government’s brave new world of Work Choices, the only real choice many young apprentices will have is low pay or no work. Recently I spoke to some young carpentry apprentices at a TAFE up in northern New South Wales. Frankly, they were incredulous that they were going to have to negotiate their wages and conditions with the boss. As one young man said to me, ‘But he’ll just cut my pay, and we’re already paid a pittance.’ The apprentices know what their bargaining position is. They know how tough it is going to be.

Labor wants to encourage young people into apprenticeships. Stripping away protections and paying them poorly is no incentive, and we will see the skills crisis worsening and the future prospects of young Australians massively harmed. Labor wants a highly skilled work force underpinned by more apprentices earning decent pay. What we stand for is apprenticeships as an investment in our future and not as a source of cheap labour—everything this government and this legislation do not stand for. This is draconian legislation, and there is no other word for it. It is a very ugly symmetry of everything this Prime Minister stands for: inequality, unfairness and a fundamental lack of respect for hardworking Australians. These hardworking Australians are the people who truly build this nation, doing the long hours and taking the overtime so their families can get ahead, often with both parents working and regretting the sacrifices they have to make as to time with their families. These are the true Australians already putting in the hard yards, struggling to pay their mortgages, to pay these rising petrol prices that the government takes absolutely no responsibility for and to pay the costs of child care. What parents are trying to do is build a better future for their children and the Australian community. This industrial relations legislation is mean, it is cruel, it is indecent, it attacks the rights of working Australians, it is small minded and it exploits people’s vulnerability. For the sake of fairness and decency in the working lives of all Australians, Labor will reject this bill and all that it represents.