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Tuesday, 8 November 2005
Page: 55

Ms OWENS (5:54 PM) —The member for Herbert got one thing right: the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 does represent profound change. And I rise to oppose it, as every fair-minded person on either side of this House must. This bill will drain the life out of the average Australian family. It is a profound change that removes, rips away, from our workplaces a large range of assumptions about the way that workplaces operate—assumptions about fairness, about a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, about workers sharing in prosperity, about the right to join together with workmates and bargain collectively and about there being ultimately an independent umpire. The bill rips all that away and will replace it with untrammelled power for the employer and some extraordinary punishments for anybody who dares to even try to negotiate with their employer outside of the narrow conditions set down in it.

For many workers this bill will strip away conditions that we take for granted in this country. It will strip away the safety net of awards and conditions that workers have relied on not just for fairness but for security. Overtime rates, penalty rates, skills loadings, long service leave, regular shifts, notice of change of shift—nearly everything that workers think they know about their work conditions—are under threat in this bill. Because we did not have warning, because it was not raised before the election, it is quite fair and expected that families would take all those conditions into account in the economic decisions they make—their decision to rent a place to live or to take out a mortgage. The basic decisions that Australian families have made have been based on the reasonable assumption that the conditions we have now will continue to be at least at that level in the future.

This proposed change is massive. It is extreme. It gives our most vulnerable workers one single choice when negotiating with employers over pay and conditions: take whatever wages and conditions the boss offers or do not take the job; take it or leave it. Forget the government’s propaganda about being able to choose to bargain collectively. Maybe you will be able to do that, but only if your employer decides that is a good thing. Under this bill, an employer is able to make the signing of an AWA ‘as offered’ a condition of employment. The action of an employer saying, ‘Sign this or no job,’ has been explicitly removed from the definition of duress. ‘Take this or take off’ is allowable. We all know that AWAs have been an obsession of the Prime Minister since he introduced them in 1996, and for at least a decade before that. It must stick in his craw that only three to four per cent of workers are currently on them—the great AWA, supposedly bringing with it greater flexibility and greater productivity! Who wanted them? Not businesses and not workers—in fact, pretty much nobody. In spite of the Prime Minister’s fixation, his infatuation, with AWAs, workers and employers have not rushed to sign up—far from it.

There are many good bosses out there. Probably most try to be. Although some do not have the skills, most try. Few want conflict in their workplaces. Many businesses tell me that if they are negotiating with their staff it is easier to do that collectively: one voice speaking for the employees, not many, and a solid process that is clear and understood by all. They can do that now under current legislation. They do not need this proposed extreme law to make that possible. There are employers who will keep doing just that. There are also many employers and employees who negotiate, one on one, well above the award to make common law contracts—around one-third of the work force does that. They can do that now and many will probably keep doing that, at least as long as there is not a downturn in the economy and at least as long as their competitors do not start driving wage rates down.

The only thing they cannot do now is negotiate conditions down to below the award. Everything else can be done. That is what this bill is all about: driving wages down. If an employer is not negotiating, if they are telling, if they are laying down an ultimatum such as, ‘This is the deal; sign it or no job,’ then of course they do not want a union involved. Divide and conquer is a much better option. You want to employ one on one and sack one on one. It is for the benefit of these employers that this bill is drafted. It is the people who work for these employers, who are already vulnerable because of a lack of skills, who will be punished by this bill. Until now, under the current system, employees had some protection. Even if they were negotiating a loan, whatever was offered had to meet a no disadvantage test. That is, if the employer wanted to change the conditions of a worker for the worse, they could not do that. They had to make sure that the no disadvantage test remained.

Unfair dismissal laws prevented a boss from arbitrarily sacking an employee nine years and nine or 11 months before they were due for long service entitlements—just a few months before. And behind the scenes, the union movement regularly worked to improve the minimum wage and conditions on a broader scale. Employers who sought to exploit their work force had quite a few barriers to overcome. This bill will change the industrial landscape to their advantage in the most appalling way. For a start, it removes the no disadvantage test. An employer can now offer a worker, on a take it or leave it basis, an agreement that reduces a worker’s pay and conditions. It only has to meet one test: the regulated minimum conditions—that is, a minimum wage; maximum ordinary hours of 38 hours per week, averaged over 12 months; unpaid parental leave, including maternity leave; and 10 days sick leave. That is it; that is the minimum.

Forget John Howard’s outrageous manipulation of the truth, when he said that conditions like overtime, penalty rates et cetera are protected. They are only protected as a default. They remain as they are if, and only if, your employer forgets to put a sentence in the AWA. Let us hope that your employer is a bit absent minded. A single sentence can remove all the allowances, penalties and loadings for no additional compensation. A single sentence can put in jeopardy the plans you have made, the mortgage you have, the place you rent and your family’s plans.

That is an incentive for an employer to move to AWAs. I imagine that we will see the most exploitative of employers move first, and there are some out there, in spite of some of the rhetoric from the other side that sees all negotiations between employers and employees as a bed of roses. We will see the most exploitative of employers moving first, all joining John Howard as new devotees to AWAs. I have met many employers who are as appalled as I am by this legislation. They, too, worry that, if their competitors go down the low wage road, they might have no choice but to follow.

John Howard has been saying that this only applies to new employees. He has a rather naive theory—a theory that only a man who has been out of the work force for far too long would come up with. He believes that when Billy comes along to apply for a job—even though the job perhaps already existed before on award conditions, and even though Billy may have got that job if those award conditions still applied—he is somehow better off if he is forced to take the job on worse conditions. Remember, if Billy is unemployed, he has to take the job, whatever the conditions, or Centrelink will breach him. Billy’s choice is not take it or leave it; it is take it or lose your Centrelink benefits. It is take it or take it!

If you think that this bill will start to force wages down, consider how rapidly that will happen with Centrelink on the side of the employer. If you thought that an employee—an unskilled person seeking work—and an employer were already out of balance in terms of their bargaining position, just add the weight of Centrelink to the employer and see what you have. Then we will have a situation where the employer will think: ‘I have all the current staff on award wages, but I can pay new ones much less.’ So Billy’s acceptance of the job, under threat of Centrelink, drives down the wages and conditions of others in the workplace. It can do that as the boss now has the right to fire people at will, because it wants to—not for discrimination reasons or for refusing to sign an AWA! However, according to the bill, an employee can require the signing of an AWA as a condition of employment. Go figure—sort that contradiction out!

We will undoubtedly see sackings so that new people can be employed more cheaply. Companies that employ fewer than 100 people will now be exempt from unfair dismissal laws. Whatever job security workers thought they had will be gone. An employee of good standing and longevity or an employee of short duration—any employee—can be fired at will without reason and replaced by a cheaper version. And employees of companies with more than 100 employees are not spared. They can now be sacked for operational reasons. An employee is able to be fired at any time for reasons of an economic, technological, structural or similar nature relating to the employer’s undertaking, establishment, service or business. That is about as broad as it can get. It can mean anything—and no doubt it will.

Workers will not automatically get redundancy, in spite of the answer of Prime Minister John Howard in question time yesterday. That is a word from the current system, not the new one. It can be signed away without compensation at the stroke of a pen, along with other conditions. It is another condition on its way out under John Howard’s reforms, along with so many other things that not only do we take for granted but fund our mortgages and feed our families: overtime, penalties and allowances.

This bill is all about driving wages and conditions down. Flexibility is all one way—flexibility for employers to remove penalty rates and overtime, pay less than award pay and conditions, and sack at will. The word ‘fairness’ is not even in the bill; it is only on the front cover of the Liberal Party propaganda. ‘Choice’, in spite of being in the title of the bill, is all on the side of the employer—‘Will I offer these conditions or those?’ There is no choice for the worker there.

The union movement has been all but gutted by this bill, along with the independent umpire, the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. In fact, there are punitive provisions in this bill that apply to what would now be legitimate union activity. These include a $6,600 fine for individuals who dare to ask for union training to be covered in their AWAs, and there is a $33,000 fine for asking to include OH&S measures in an AWA. There are also penalties for asking that a union be involved in dispute procedures and for asking for a commitment to collective bargaining. So $33,000 for the union and $6,600 for the worker.

Then, for some poor public servant working at the Office of the Employment Advocate who divulges the content of an AWA, there is six months in jail and six months jail for anybody they tell. If you are sitting on a train and some exhausted person sits down beside you and says, ‘I saw a shocker of an AWA today,’ you had better get out of there quick smart because you are in big danger. This information is so dangerous if repeated to even one person that it warrants six months jail. We have even seen the right to remain silent taken from unionists in recent bills, with jail penalties imposed for offences such as refusing to answer a question or to hand over documents.

Yet we are moving through a period in Australia’s history with an all-time low incidence of strikes. We have incredible industrial harmony and record productivity and growth—all delivered within the current industrial relations system. In fact, if you listened to the Prime Minister in recent weeks raving about how well things are going under the current system, you might be forgiven for thinking that he believes that the current industrial relations system is the best friend the worker has ever had—if it were not for the fact that, in spite of the success it has achieved, he is about to rip the whole thing up.

This is a bill that needs considerable community scrutiny and debate. Actually, it is a bill that needs to be thrown out. But, for reasons unclear to Australia’s best economists and commentators, not to mention the working men of Australia, it is here. Because it is, and because of the changes to our way of life that will be wrought by this bill, it needs long and careful scrutiny. I condemn the government that denies us all the right to proper community scrutiny of this bill as it passes through parliament, that pushes this legislation through this House as if it had been elected to a sausage factory rather than the Commonwealth Parliament of Australia.

What is the rush? What is going on out there in our workplaces that is so dire, so dangerous to the Australian people and so frightening to the government that they have to behave in this manner and treat this parliament and the Australian people with contempt by pushing this bill through the House, this massive change that will impact on every aspect of our lives? Perhaps it is a potential outbreak of fairness. Perhaps a bit of collective bargaining is going on. Perhaps overtime is being paid. Perhaps union representatives are going onto work sites. There is no bogeyman out there. There is nothing going on out there in our workplaces so dire that it requires this government to urgently push this bill through without the scrutiny that it deserves. The real horror is in here. The real horror is the bill. The reason why they are pushing it through so quickly is that they are afraid that anybody out there might find out. The scary stuff is well and truly here.

I have been out and about in my electorate a lot. I have spent a lot of time talking to people in their homes and workplaces about their daily lives, about the things that matter. This government knows very well how much concern there is out there at the moment and it knows how ineffective that $50 million in taxpayers’ money was. The people’s concerns are more than justified. So much of the way that people live their lives is embedded in the returns from our current industrial relations system: regular hours, regular and fair pay and regular days off. So much about the way we build our lives, such as the relationships with families and friends, the plans we make, the daily commitments we make to each other to pick up the kids, to meet for a game of soccer on the weekend, to get and pay a mortgage or even to rent a place to live—virtually every aspect of the way that families and singles arrange their lives—is embedded in the conditions that we currently have thanks to our workplace relations system.

It is all possible because of the balance that our society has struck over decades between work and home. The big gains made through test cases heard before the arbitration commission and smaller specific gains—maternity leave, carers leave, the weekend, the 30-hour week, holiday loadings, skills loading, allowances and meal breaks—all result from the work of the union movement and from collective bargaining. That is because industrial relations and unions are not and never have been just about work. At the heart, they are as much about separating work and home life and making it possible for work and home life to coexist as they are about the workplace alone. At the heart, they are about making sure that people come home from work even alive and uninjured, and the safety that we have in our workplace has been fought for long and hard and should not be taken for granted. It is about getting home in a fit condition to spend quality time with your family, with enough time at home to build a meaningful family life, with enough regularity of hours and pay to be able to pay bills and perhaps get a mortgage and save for your retirement.

When I move around the electorate I find families and singles, nearly everybody, universally trying to get on with their lives and trying to do exactly the things that we, the community, need them to do: buy a house if they can, raise their children, get their children a good education, build their own careers, save for a rainy day, try to save for their retirement, commit to each other on a daily basis—all of the things that make relationships work. What I see every day is families trying to do that, yet in some areas of my electorate I see families that already do not have much of a chance, that are already at the bottom of the heap because of changes to the industrial system that have already gone through.

I see people in my electorate where both parents get up in the morning not knowing whether they are working that day, without the ability to organise child care for their children, without the ability to even know that they can pay the rent and without the ability to commit to picking up their child after school. I go to their houses. They are the houses where I find six-year-olds home alone, and it is not their fault. I do not know what option they have other than to not work at all. These are people already disenfranchised, already heading towards the category of working poor—people that I fear under this regulation will become nothing more than subsistence workers, struggling day to day, unable to commit to their families, unable to share in the nation’s prosperity.

We need families to do well, and that need is at least equal to the need for business to do well. The relationship is symbiotic. For 100 years the balance between these two entwined entities has been managed via the arbitration system and an independent umpire that balanced the needs of the business with the needs of the worker. This bill sets about destroying it all, replacing everything that we have worked for all these years and the safety net that protects the vulnerable.

I urge everybody out there to have a look at this bill. Read as much as you can and get to know what this means. You will not get any real information from the Howard government. You have seen what they did with the $50 million and the fluff they produced with your taxpayers’ money. There will be little more than spin in the booklet they have produced, which they have carefully put the word ‘fairer’ on, even though they have removed it from the bill. This government is a master of making big lies out of very small truths. Every page you turn of this bill makes the worker more vulnerable. This bill is all about forcing people onto inferior wages and conditions and removing their penalty rates, their leave loadings, their overtime and their allowances. Work Choices offers no choice at all.