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Tuesday, 8 November 2005
Page: 99


Ms PLIBERSEK (8:55 PM) —Why is Work Choices bad for families? Australian workers have been crying out for a change to their ability to balance their work and family responsibilities. Our population is ageing, our birth rates are low and relationships between men and women are changing, so women are seeking to play a greater role in workplaces, and men are expecting to spend more time raising their children. Our economy is relatively strong after 14 years of good growth. We have low unemployment, but taxes are at unprecedented levels. Our foreign debt is dizzyingly high, and the Howard government’s refusal to invest in education, training and infrastructure is a real block on our economy. All of this means that work does have to change, but this is not the change we need.

The extreme legislation the government is proposing will not lead to productivity increases but will trash family living standards and workers’ pay and conditions. It is all pain and no gain, except perhaps for the worst employers, who think that they can compete with China and India on wages. These changes will affect the most vulnerable workers the most, but our whole society will change over time as work becomes a seven-days-a-week activity, with no time left over for volunteering, sporting commitments or family life.

The government’s extreme Work Choices legislation is bad for families, because individual contracts are not family friendly. Longer hours and ad hoc work timetables do not work with family schedules. Flexibility is necessary, but this has to be two-way flexibility which takes account not only of employers’ needs but of workers’ caring responsibilities. Barbara Pocock, a well-known author and academic in this area, says:

Workers with family responsibilities need a secure living wage; adequate, predictable common family time (including social work time and holidays); flexibilities that meet their needs, including the opportunity for leave and to work part time; protection for excessive hours; and quality, accessible affordable childcare.

This legislation of course delivers none of these. On top of that, it delivers none of the economic benefits that the government is claiming.

The Prime Minister, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and $55 million worth of advertising propaganda keep telling Australians that Work Choices will be good for families, but no-one who has seriously looked at this legislation believes that. The government’s argument is that workers will be able to negotiate terrific new family-friendly conditions into their individual contracts. I can just picture a cleaner at a school walking in to the boss of the cleaning business and saying, ‘Listen, I won’t be able to work overtime on Thursdays. That’s the day my little boy plays soccer, and I have to drive him to soccer.’ There are plenty more cleaners out there to take that person’s place.

The notion that vulnerable workers will be able to negotiate family-friendly provisions into their individual contracts is just a nonsense, and it is not borne out by research in this area. Many people with caring responsibilities already have minimal bargaining power. They will not be able to individually negotiate good working conditions without the minimum protections that they are currently relying on.

Under Work Choices, there are a number of areas which could previously be included in awards and which will now be excluded. Someone with caring responsibilities will have no guarantee of starting or finishing times; no legal guarantee of minimum or maximum hours; no legal protection as to notice for changes in working time initiated by the employer, including when they might be antisocial hours; no legal support for flexibility for them to achieve variations; no guarantee of not being unfairly sacked because of caring responsibilities; and no guarantee that their wages will rise with the cost of living.

The government will tell you that it will still be unlawful to dismiss someone for their caring responsibilities. That is cold comfort to someone who is told that they are no longer required for ‘operational reasons’. They may think that it is because they have had to take time off to look after their child who has been home sick with chickenpox, but unless their employer is stupid enough to say, ‘That last bout of chickenpox was the thing that did it,’ they have no protection from being unfairly sacked.

I said before that the evidence does not bear out the fact that individual contracts can be family friendly. It does not. Research from the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations that came out in 2004 showed that 92 per cent of all AWAs did not provide paid maternity leave, 95 per cent did not provide paid paternity leave and 96 per cent did not provide unpaid purchased leave—the ability, for example, to buy extra leave during school holidays by taking a reduction in your pay. The same data showed that penalty rates were lost in more than half of individual contracts; that annual leave was lost in more than one in three, 34 per cent, individual contracts; and that sick leave was traded away in more than one in four, 28 per cent, individual contracts. Employees should have the right to choose to be covered by a collective agreement. The attempt by the government to encourage more employees onto AWAs does not bode well for these ‘family-friendly’ provisions that the government claims employees will be able to negotiate into their AWAs.

It is not just the pay and conditions that workers will lose that is the problem; it is also the job insecurity. Other Labor speakers have told the parliament about the problems with unfair dismissal and what that will mean for Australian workers, so I do not intend to cover that area in any great detail. I want to focus on the insecurity of hours that workers face. Family budgets and family timetables depend on predictable hours of work and predictable take-home pay. Making home arrangements—who is going to pick the kids up from child care, how many hours they will spend at child care, who is going to cook dinner for grandma, who is going to take the kids to soccer or who is going to play netball on a Wednesday night—all depends on some predictability. On top of that, unpredictable hours mean unpredictable income. If a person does not know what they are going to be earning next week, it is very difficult to get a car loan, let alone a mortgage. The unpredictability that workers are looking at in this area is certainly going to affect not just their family arrangements but, in the long run, also their income.

Penalty rates for working weekends, public holidays, shiftwork and nights are all up for grabs. The difference this is going to make to the family budget is substantial. We are looking at an average of $240 a month in penalty rates for workers. Believe it or not, I say to some of the members opposite: $240 a month for ordinary families is a great deal of money out of the family budget. It can make the difference between being able to afford a mortgage or not.

Longer hours and ad hoc work timetables do not work with family schedules. Longer hours, in particular, are having a dramatic effect on Australian families. We are amongst the longest working people in the OECD. Data from the Office of the Employment Advocate shows that one in three workers on individual contracts last year was working more hours than they did two years previously. Of course, some people do not mind that. They like the extra hours and they like the extra income. That is terrific. The thing is that those extra hours have to have some predictability and they have to be properly compensated. If people are giving up time with their family then they should be properly compensated for doing that, particularly if that is on Sundays, public holidays and late nights.

A recent report published by Professor Michael Bittman from the University of New England, Sunday working and family time, says that people working on Sundays generally work a full day and do not make up that time with their families later in the week. This is a very significant finding, because it is not as if people will be working the extra hours on Sunday but, gee, they will have Wednesday off to spend with the kids. It does not work that way. People are working Sundays and they are giving up time with their families. Sure, flexibility is necessary, but that is not simply flexibility for the employer to say, ‘I’ll have you on Sunday and I will have you here till 10 o’clock on a Tuesday night.’

In regard to leave arrangements, the proposal from the government for workers to be able to sell annual leave or cash out their lunch hour is extremely worrying, not just for the effect it would have on family lives—I do not know how, with four weeks each of annual leave, the majority of parents cover 12 weeks of school holidays as it is—but also for the significant effect it would have on the health and morale of Australian workers. If we are going to have people working through their lunch hour and not taking any annual leave, we are not going to have a particularly happy or healthy work force in future years.

The notion of the 38-hour cap under Work Choices is, of course, absolutely fanciful. Government advertising says that the 38-hour week is guaranteed, but almost complete flexibility is given to employers. The 38-hour week is averaged over a year. You could be working 70 hours for 10 weeks and you have got to take it on trust that sometime down the track in the year your employer is going to make this up to you by giving you time off. What will happen with pay? Will you be paid for 70 hours one week and for only 10 hours later in the year? What does that do to the family budget?

Young people starting out in the labour market, in particular, and anyone who is unable to bargain with confidence will have their working times set at the whim of the employer. Workers will not know when their employer is breaching these conditions because, without a whole year’s worth of hours accurately recorded, they will not be able to judge whether the 38-hour average has been met. So they could work 70 hours a week for 10 weeks, taking it on trust that later in the year they will be working less—and consequently losing money—or they could work for 70 hours a week for 10 weeks and then get the sack. What would happen in those circumstances?

Section 91C of the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 says that an employee must not be required to work more than 38 hours on average and ‘reasonable additional hours’. What does that mean? Does that mean that the 38-hour average actually applies at all? Does it mean the annual average could exceed 38 hours a week? What are the ‘reasonable additional hours’? This, in combination with the potential to abolish penalty and overtime rates, means that apprentices or workers could be working 70 hours a week for 10 weeks at a time with no penalty rates for that sort of work. I think most Australians would see this as completely unreasonable.

The government keeps talking about how we compare with countries overseas. We heard a lot today in question time about how the changes in New Zealand that this government is lauding have led to very low productivity growth, half the rate that we have in Australia under the current workplace arrangements. The government also talks about how terrifically flexible the United Kingdom is. It is curious that the government does not look at what is happening with family-friendly workplaces in the United Kingdom. In the UK, the laws give employees the right to request different hours, a different arrangement of hours and a different place of work. For example, people can request the ability to work from home, rather than at the employer’s workplace.

The government is quite keen on quoting Tony Blair, talking about fairness starting with access to a job. I agree: fairness does start with access to a job, but it does not finish there. We should not say that people should be so desperately grateful for any job with any conditions that they have no right to have a life outside of work, yet this is what the government is suggesting. In the United Kingdom employees are able to make reasonable requests and employers are expected to consider reasonable requests. Even these very weak statutory protections—the right to make requests and the expectation that the employer will consider these requests—have meant that workers seeking to vary their conditions to meet their care needs have actually had a pretty good hearing from employers and there has been a substantial increase in positive employer responses to these requests. It is actually not that hard to arrange work to take into account people’s caring responsibilities. With a bit of creativity and a bit of intellect, most employers can do it. But the legislation that has been placed before us by the government makes this much harder. It takes us back to the 1970s, when these sorts of provisions were unthought of.

Australia has a very poor record when it comes to legislated paid maternity leave and this legislation does absolutely nothing in this area. I know, Madam Deputy Speaker Bishop, that lately you have been giving a great deal of consideration to issues such as paid maternity leave and how to make it easier for families to balance their work and caring responsibilities. Here we have this major rewrite of Australia’s industrial relations universe and, instead of improving conditions for Australian families and making it easier for them to balance their work and caring responsibilities, we have a government that is taking us backwards to the 1970s.

I have spoken a little about the difference that forcing people onto AWAs will make, and I have talked about the difficulty for employees in balancing work and family when their work is unpredictable. There are also some curiously idiotic provisions in this legislation which I would like to draw the House’s attention to. Other countries are improving their family-friendly labour provisions. Norway is looking at extending their year of paid parental leave by another week so that it will be over a year, but what are we doing? We are actually making it harder for people to take time off at the birth of their baby.

The work and family test case run in the Australian Industrial Relations Commission provided that Australian workers would be able to make reasonable requests to their employers for a doubling of unpaid parental leave from 12 to 24 months and for a return to work part time after parental leave until the child is school aged. The employer can consider the request and can refuse on reasonable grounds, such as cost, lack of adequate replacement staff, loss of efficiency or the impact on customer service—pretty broad grounds.

Another provision was that up to eight weeks of unpaid parental leave after the birth of the child would be available for parents to take simultaneously. But this Work Choices legislation says that Australian fathers have no choice to take more than a week of leave at the same time as their partner after the birth of the baby. What nonsense is this? We are talking about greater choice for Australian families and terrific flexibility, yet we are writing into legislation provisions that make it harder for families to spend time together at the birth of a new baby. What sort of industrial relations provision is this? What sort of a country is this where we, in 2005, are making it harder for families to spend time together at the birth of a child?

Some of the quotes that we have heard about this legislation are phenomenal. Dr Jill Murray warns that this will turn parents’ rights back to the 1970s. She says:

It’s a tragedy for families. It is going to be desperately hard for them to achieve a work-family balance because they are in a situation of basically unregulated bargaining.

Rosemary Owens from Adelaide university says:

The five basic standards do not include any of the protections and it is very possible under the new regime that employers will override the standard set by the—

Australian Industrial Relations Commission in the family-friendly test case. Instead of abolishing the independent umpire, the government should have been looking to incorporate the principles of the work and family test case into our workplace relations environment so that families would find it easier to balance their work and family responsibilities. (Time expired)