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Thursday, 10 November 2005
Page: 12

Ms VAMVAKINOU (9:46 AM) —The incorporated speech read as follows—

Mr Speaker today I join with the overwhelming majority of Australian people and to oppose the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005, a Bill whose implementation will bring about the most radical and extreme changes to the workplace environment this country and indeed the most extreme changes that Australian workers have ever seen. This bill takes Australian workers, in particular my hard working constituents in Calwell, back to a dark time in Australian history where workers were underpaid and exploited by their employers.

Today I join the chorus of opposition to this bill and stand with the many Church leaders, welfare organisations, unions and community groups who oppose these draconian measures. The message from these groups, who are best placed to understand the needs and aspirations of Australian workers is loud and clear—these new measures will have a negative impact on Australian workers and more importantly on Australian families.

My electorate office has been inundated with concerned constituents who want me to oppose this bill. Whether it be average workers who are worried about their pay and conditions, students concerned about entering the workforce, or parents worried about tipping the balance of family and work. Pensioners in my electorate are frightened that the downward push on wages will reduce or freeze their current payments, and those on disability or single parent payments are concerned that the Government’s welfare to work policy will push them into even less meaningful, less paid and less secure jobs.

These changes are nothing short of radical and they will significantly affect the relationship between Australian workers and their employers. The relationship—developed over a century—which on the whole, respects the rights of both worker and employer is about to be radically changed. Changes which in reality are not in the best interests of workers because they should not be at the mercy of their employers, they should not have their current protections removed and they should not be left with what amounts to no-choice in regard to their wages and conditions.

Equally it’s not in the employers’ interest to have conflict in the workplace which most certainly will be brought about by this bill as the balance of negotiating power shifts. It is not in the employers’ interests to be treated with scepticism by their employees, not to be trusted, or to have your workers on edge and feeling vulnerable. This does not make for a productive or harmonious workplaces and it undermines all the hard work that has gone into building a workplace system which embodies the essence of the Australian ethos of the “fair go”.

We have a proud tradition in this country. For over 100 years workers have been guaranteed the right to earn a wage that allows them to meet their basic living needs with dignity. The dignity and integrity of the minimum wage is guaranteed through the Industrial Relations Commission and workers have been able to secure better pay and conditions through their right to collectively bargain with unions freely representing them in the workplace.

‘A fair days work for a fair days pay’ guarantees workers the right to a decent standard of living. This is protected by awards—setting minium conditions—a right earned by Australian workers, a right that too often some people take for granted. The young who were not in the workforce in the darker days, but whose parents fought for better pay and conditions, will soon understand the struggles fought and won by previous generations of working men and women. All Australian’s will soon be reminded of how far we had come and how regressive these changes are when we start going backwards.

The exploitation of workers and workplace hazards have largely been dealt with in Australia and they have so because of our strong and robust union movement. Workers have enjoyed the right to have union membership, to have their unions move freely in the workplace and to be represented and protected by the collective bargaining. This Government wants to take workers in this country to third-world working conditions. They want unions to be silenced, and to eventually eradicate the union movement all together.

If the Government gets its way, basic rights will be removed by this legislation, at a time when company profits are at an all time high, when company CEOs earn a ridiculous amount of money, and when the Australian economy is doing extremely well. Paradoxically it is at this very time, that Australian workers are told that their minimum wage is too high and that the wages and conditions they have earned are too costly and changes need to be made to free up the workplace. This term ‘free up the workplace’ is being sold by Howard as a wonderful opportunity for flexibility and choice; the Government is promising more jobs, higher wages and a better economy—nothing can be further from the truth. The truth is that this Government’s Work Choices Bill frees up the workplace by giving employers almost total control of the bargaining process, thus allowing them to effectively set wages and conditions.

The Prime Minister is hoping that the public will be duped into believing that this is a great opportunity for individual choice and flexibility. He is hoping that working women will fall for the illusion that all employers will be family friendly, but no one seriously expects an employer to put concerns like parental responsibilities ahead of company profits. The Prime Minister is correct when he says the Australian people are wise. A fifty million dollar PR campaign and all the spin in world will not blunt their wisdom on this occasion - the polls show that the public is not buying your spin Prime Minister.

Australian workers are seriously worried about their future. In my electorate they have seen their workmate laid off in droves, as the manufacturing sector continues take work offshore because workers in third world countries work for next to nothing and are easier to exploit. We only need to look at the automotive components industry in my electorate alone to see how many jobs have been lost locally and shipped offshore, just so company profits can be improved. What is the Government doing to solve this problem, Mr Speaker; this bill certainly isn’t the solution. I think it is a sad indictment on this Government and corporate decision makers when they value marginal profit increases over the greater good of society as a whole.

At the last election this Government ran a scare campaign about interest rates, but in retrospect this is not what familles paying off a mortgage had to fear. It is this bill, which undermines wages, and destroys job security that workers paying a mortgage need to worry about. I have a large number of young families moving into my electorate, building new homes, and wanting to raise their families. What will they tell their bank managers when they are unfairly dismissed and can’t meet monthly repayments? Why shouldn’t Australian workers feel safe in their work place and secure in the knowledge that a guaranteed decent level of pay will ensure that they can meet mortgage obligations? These are the things that are in jeopardy, it is the Australian way of life—the Australian dream of home ownership itself—that is in danger of being lost under this legislation.

In a market economy profit prevails, with workers considered only as a commodity for profit. Small business operates on the basis of making a profit and although we do want to encourage people to invest in small business there is no guarantee that thousands of new jobs will be created because of the abolition of unfair dismissal. I know it is the popular mantra of employer organisations and the government, but I do not believe that many more jobs will be created. The Government often in this place tells us that between 40,000 and 70,000 new jobs will be created instantaneously. Well who’s buying that?

According to the Prime Minister, small business wants the ability to get rid of pest employees, as he calls them, without having to worry about unfair dismissal claims. He tells us that workers will be able to access a different set of laws—the Unlawful Dismissal provisions of the Workplace Relations Act. Well Mr Speaker very few workers, if any, are going to be able to afford the thousands of dollars required to seek legal redress under these provisions.

The reality of the workplace tells a far different story to the one the Prime Minster asserts. It tells a story of employers seeking the best possible deal for their improved profits. It tells of employer preference to employ younger people in order to avoid paying higher awards, leaving mature aged, experienced people without even a look in. There are countless stories of workplace discrimination, so much so that the Workplace Relations Standing Committee in the last Parliament conducted an inquiry into the long term unemployed and found an alarming rate of discrimination against older and disabled workers. In fact so serious was our concern that the Committee made specific recommendations to encourage and indeed impose on employers the need to employ mature workers.

Consider the removal of this so called “pests clause” for companies who employ under 100 people, and then tell Australian workers that they are going to get a better deal under Howard’s industrial relations panacea. It’s a joke and no one is buying it. The reality is that our workplaces need further reform, but not by dismantling the protective arrangements that currently exist. In fact Mr Speaker, this Government’s disgraceful IR changes introduced in 1996 need to be un-wound.

Prime Minster Howard knows he had a huge task in selling these regressive measures—so he goes about the job of spinning his weasel words by attacking and defaming the union movement, then he takes millions of tax payer’s dollars and bombards the Australian public with propaganda ads. Well people are sick and tied of the propaganda, they are not buying it. This is not Tampa, this is not boat people and refugees, this is not multiculturalism, this is a direct assault on Australian families and the Australian people are not buying it. This is industrial terrorism. The government is destroying the working conditions of Australians and it will not be forgiven for doing so.

The Prime Minister asserts that these are welcome changes but I ask, welcome by whom? We don’t see communities mobilising in support of these changes and we don’t see polls backing this legislation, so who, other than his little band of ideological zealots, does support them?

There are far too many questions that the Prime Minster has not answered and the Australian people deserve some answers. He even refuses to debate the Leader of the Opposition about these changes on National Television.

For instance, who is going to protect sole parents and the disabled workers, including the many thousand in my electorate, who are to be pushed into the workforce and who will be most vulnerable in an unprotected industrial relations system?

How can young people negotiate in an environment where rules that now protect them have been removed? Who truly believes that employees have an advantage because of the plethora of so called jobs available? The right to pick and choose is a cruel illusion. Just ask the mature aged unemployed and the long term unemployed about the plethora of choice. Just ask those in the long cue of unemployed people outside my local Centrelink office each week about what they think of this plethora of jobs. We still have over 2 million unemployed or underemployed people across the country and the Prime Minister has the cheek to speak as if we have full employment.

In my electorate alone, the unemployment rate has increased from 6.6% in June 2004 to 8.9% a year later. So when the Prime Minster says that if workers are not happy with proposed contracts that they can just get another job, it just proves how removed he is from average, struggling Australians. We do not have decreasing unemployment in my electorate and nor do we in many others.

And perhaps the biggest question of all is: why won’t the Prime Minister guarantee that no worker will be worse off under this system? We all know the answer Mr Speaker—he can not guarantee it—because workers will be worse off.

This bill is not about the economy, it’s not about creating more jobs and it’s not about choice or flexibility—it’s about control in the workplace by employers and this Government. Control, formed through exploitation, control based on penalties, fines, jail terms and secrecy. This bill creates a fascist regime where workers are forced to yield to the profit priorities of the employer and if they don’t, and they seek help through their unions, they become targets for dismissal.

This is an attack on the union movement in a bold and punitive way. In the Prime Ministers mind, unions must be eradicated from the workplace equation, as they have for too long been a thorn in the conservatives side. As I said in this place last week, Unions will not be legislated out of existence—your fascist legislation will not silence workers unions—it will make unions more determined to survive.

Labor is proud to be a political movement born from the trade union movement. Labor is proud to represent the hopes and aspirations of Australian working men and women, and Labor will protect Australian families. We will do what we have always done in the 100 years of this great political movement; we will ensure that ordinary Australians continue to enjoy the right to earn a respectable living and to enjoy decent Award conditions.

This is in no way a fair Bill, there is no fairness in this bill whatsoever. And with the overwhelming support of my electorate and the majority of Australians, I will oppose these draconian measures that are nothing short of anti-worker and anti-family. I will stand side by side with unionists and workers, with families and single parents, and with the unemployed and the disabled from my electorate in defending them against these changes. I will join them in the streets next week, and in the coming months, to protest against this so-called Work Choices Legislation.

Mr Speaker, I, like my colleges on this side of the chamber, will work day and night, and in fact we will not stop opposing these changes right up until the next election. As workers begin to feel the pain of this legislation as it impacts on their weekly pay packets and working conditions, so too will this government feel the wrath of the workers at the ballot box.

Today Mr Speaker, I pledge to restore the supremacy of the collective bargaining process, to remove the appalling restrictions imposed on unions and their right of entry in the workplace, to restore workers rights to freedom of association, and to reinstate a strong independent umpire to ensure fair wages and conditions and to settle disputes. I will oppose your Industrial Terrorism; the Australian people will let this government know just how unforgivable this attack is at the next election.