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Thursday, 10 November 2005
Page: 24

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

Australian worker to become the Oliver Twist of Dickensian times—asking their employer politely “Please Sir can I have some more?”

The people of Gellibrand have been denied the right to have their views on this bill expressed in debate in the parliament. The Government has deigned to let Labor members table their speeches but are just treating parliament with contempt. Parliament is not meant to be on the books, but in feisty debate in the house itself. And what more important debate could there be? Especially for the area I represent - the heartland of industrial Melbourne , the inner west. The working men and women of Gellibrand deserve better than this bill. They risk being attacked in all directions - losing entitlements, losing protections and losing rights. And all for what? You don’t strengthen the economy by slashing people’s take home pay, making them insecure in their jobs.

The most telling sign about the effect that this bill will have is that the Prime Minister refuses to give a guarantee that no worker will be worse off. We have over 700 pages of law, but no simple 1 sentence guarantee.

The reason he can’t give that guarantee, of course, is because he knows that workers will be worse off because this bill removes the ‘no disadvantage’ test.

At the same this bill slashes the 20 allowable conditions to four minimum conditions.

And contrary to millions spent on taxpayer-funded Liberal ads, you will not be “Protected by Law”, but left to negotiate on your own. Far from being protected by law, your boss can demand that you give up some of your annual leave, penalty rates, sick days and other entitlements. They can even use duress to force you to give these up in your individual contracts.

This bill will reduce the Australian worker to the status of Dickens’ Oliver Twist - asking their employer politely “Please Sir, can I have some more?”

I am particularly concerned about the effect this bill will have on families and young people. Young workers are particularly vulnerable, very little bargaining power and little experience. It is frighteningly easy to imagine young workers forced to sign an AWA with no safeguards, no protections and very low wages. For too many young people, the only way to a foot into the labour market, to get the start in life of a first job, will be an exploitative, unfair contract.

These individual contracts will be like termites’ nests, eating away at conditions over time.

In this chamber, we have all been lucky that our first jobs did have conditions that were genuinely protected by law. But do we want our children forced to have to negotiate for a lunch break, or to have Christmas day off?

  • example grandpa Max’s sacking as teenager in the 30s

I am also concerned about families under this bill.

Families of school-age children already know that four weeks annual leave is a stretch to cover four school holiday periods. How will families cope when they may be forced back to a mere two weeks of leave a year?

The number one question for Australian families today is how we can get the balance right between the time we spend earning for our families and time we spend being with them and caring for them. This Government has dismally failed to offer any solutions to this issue, one of the most pressing social questions of our time. Now this bill will only make matters worse as working parents will be put into a position where they will struggle to hold on to those entitlements that do enable them to spend time with their kids, like annual leave and penalty rates.

One of the driving forces for me to get into to Parliament was my interests in the plight of working women—their conditions, their struggles to balance work and family and removing ongoing discrimination on wages, treatment when pregnant, opportunities to work part-time etc. I thought my time in the parliament would be about how to improve these conditions. In stead, this bill does everything it can to make the current struggle to make ends meet and the days stretch far enough to do everything, even harder. It is wrong, it is regressive and it will harm our communities—not just the individual workers, but the whole fabric of our community.

All their statistics from the past 80 years show us the women have fared better under centralised wage fixing and collective agreements. The individualism promoted by this bill will come at vast expense for most working women.

Just consider what Australian workers are about to lose. By slashing 20 allowable conditions under awards to four minimum conditions, will remove almost all of the safeguards we currently enjoy. Under this proposal the conditions that are at risk of being sold down the river are

  • Rest breaks, notice periods and variation to working hours
  • Loadings for overtime and shift work
  • Annual leave loading
  • Paid public holidays
  • Allowances, and
  • Redundancy pay.

It doesn’t stop there—Australian workers face a future of a declining minimum wage, as well as these threats to minimum conditions.

Responsibility for minimum wage rises has been taken from the Industrial Relations Commission and will be given to the new “fair” pay commission. This is the grossest misnomer in the history of Australian government agencies, because there is nothing fair about it.

In setting the minimum wage it will have no regard to CPI increases, no reference to living standards and it not required to look at fairness. In 700 pages, there is no simple “fairness” test in this legislation.

Howard Government always opposed the unions. But it has now taken the axe to the independent umpire, just because it doesn’t like its decisions. They are too ‘fair’—which has become a four-letter dirty word in the Liberal Party.

Honest John asks us to judge him by his record on wages. But what is that record? The Howard Government has opposed every increase in the minimum wage since it was elected. If the Prime Minister had gotten his way on the minimum wage over the past 9 long years, wages would have been reduced in real terms.

This was plainly unfair to Australian workers on the minimum wage, but it was also economically reckless. You can’t cut living standards to stimulate the economy. Until now, the Industrial Relations Commission has been a powerful brake on these mean and reckless tendencies of the Howard Government, but now it is to be given the chop.

But not all hope is lost. In Government, Labor will tear up these laws—there is nothing good about them. They harm families, young people and regular working Australians trying to make ends meet.

The Government pretends it is simplifying industrial relations by creating a unitary system. But this bill doesn’t reveal a unitary system, just a more complex 6th system. There are still too many questions about who will be covered. But one thing is clear—this bill does not present the single national system as promised.

Despite promising to make one simpler, national system, this bill will be creating an even more complex system where businesses and employees will not know whether they are covered by state or federal employment laws.

Because of the constitutional base it seeks to use (through its definition of employer) there is significant confusion and lack of clarity of which types of businesses will be covered and what they have to do to be covered. The problem is the uncertainty over the corporations power of the constitution. By shifting the entire foundation of the federal IR law to this head of power, the government risks building its system on quicksand.

The difficulty is that this power only allows laws that regulate ‘foreign corporations, and trading or financial corporations formed within the limits of the Commonwealth.’ It clearly does not apply to sole traders, partnerships and other unincorporated firms. But it also does not apply to not-for-profit corporations, or other bodies corporate who are not trading of financial corporations.

In several cases, the High Court has found that this is far from a simple test to apply. Through cases involving entities like the Red Cross, football clubs and universities, the court has applied a ‘substantial activity’ test and a ‘purpose’ test. The key issue, as then Justice Anthony Mason pointed out, is that these tests ‘are very much a matter of fact and degree’.

That means there can be no hard and fast rule for determine who may or may not be covered by this new industrial relations regime. In some cases, it will be so unclear that it will take the High Court to resolve the issue. How will this help business? How will small businesses ascertain if they are covered?

The promise of a single national system, without support from the States, is a myth. It will be confusing, messy and will spurn lots of litigation. Instead of finding themselves in the Industrial Relations Commission, small businesses might find themselves in the High Court—with only the Howard Government to blame.

Recent ABS figures have shown that half of our employing businesses are unincorporated—that is 400,000 businesses. They are sole traders, family businesses, partnerships and trusts. They are not covered by the new system.

Neither are incorporated not-for-profits, which employ around 700,000 workers, or local governments which employee 164,000.

The result is that this bill will create a caste system of employment law. Some workers will remain on better, fairer state conditions while others get stuck on the low wage road under the Coalition’s federal system. We will end up with huge differences between wages and working conditions - based not on skill, experience or industry but on circumstance - the number of other employees, the type of activities your business is involved in, even if you are not, which state you live in, what conditions you were covered by when this system started and whether you continue in your current job or change jobs and start from scratch again.

This is bad for workers, but it is also no good for businesses. They will be forced to compete in a race-to-the-bottom, as those employers in the federal system lower their costs by cutting the wages and conditions of their workers, no longer protected by the floors provided by Awards.

Even good bosses will feel pressure to change as they will otherwise loose a competitive edge against those businesses doing the wrong thing. It will become a fight to the bottom on the worst basis—ultimately, does anyone really think we can be competitive with China or India on wages? Surely not.

What happens then to the unincorporated businesses? They can try for the high road, but plenty will feel the pressure to incorporate, just so they can compete with those businesses on Howard’s low road.

Has the Government given serious thought to what this would mean for the rest of the economy? What effect will up to 400,000 new companies will have on tax, on liability, on corporate governance regulation?

Corporations are designed to limit liability for those making co-operative investments. They are not designed as a mechanism to give employers a choice of employment law.

This is just a mess—and it is vulnerable to a High Court challenge. If that happens this whole process and the $55 m spent on advertising it will have been a complete waste.

I also want to bust another myth. This bill is not about deregulation, it is over-regulation

While the Government talks about ‘deregulating’ the labour market, this bill gets the Government into strange new places. This is not deregulation, it is over-regulation.

Government will now have a role in vetting, inspecting and checking compliance of tens of thousands of new agreements (although I note not for the purposes of measuring any disadvantage to the employee!). And despite the shallow rhetoric of choice, the Government will be able to tear up agreements reached between workers and employers if they don’t like what’s in them.

The government has railed against the detailed coverage of awards that cover thousands of people and instead wants to have a say in each and every agreement struck by one dividual worker: how does this fit with their “deregulatory” approach?

If a union negotiating on behalf of an employee even dares to suggest that an unfair dismissal provision should be included in an agreement, they can be hit with a $33,000 fine. If this is not the heavy hand of an overbearing government, I don’t know what is. We are talking about cases where an employee simply wants a provision in their agreement that they won’t be sacked harshly, unjustly or unreasonably. But the government can fine their bargaining agent $33,000 just for mentioning it!

With the proliferation of civil remedy provisions—which allow the workplace relations department to commence court proceedings against employees, unions or employers—the Government will also have a much more hands-on role in policing relations between employers and employees. Can we be confident they will, as Maxwell Smart used to say, be used for good instead of evil? Will they prosecute employers doing the wrong thing? Unlikely, as there are now so few conditions they are required to meet. They will even be permitted to force anyone—new or existing employees—on to individual contracts. Demanding someone move on to an AWA is expressly not able to be regarded as duress or coercion. How ridiculous.

There will even be many more opportunities for the Government to take action even where neither parties want a dispute to be litigated. Ham-fisted Government intervention always risks undermining bargaining and negotiation and, as a result, risks escalating disputes.

This over-regulation doesn’t come for free. Aside from the red tape and paper work it creates for employers and employees, there are direct financial costs to taxpayers. The Financial Impact Statement puts this at $489 m over 4 years. The bulk of this is in ‘Compliance’—in other words the regulators on the beat who will be busily interfering in the business of business.

The only area in the Workplace Relations portfolio that will be cheaper under this plan is the independent umpire, the Australian Industrial Relations Commission.

Compare these to the Keating reforms which focussed on agreement-making and co-operation between unions and employers. It is a system that focuses on getting the right processes so that the system effectively runs itself. It has brought us the lowest rate of industrial disputation in Australian history.

I am stunned by the extremely harsh penalties for unionists simply asking for conditions to be in an agreement. It is outrageous to pretend that this bill allows workers to keep unions involved in their workplace when they can have severe penalties slapped on them for doing the basics of their job. At the same time, as mentioned above, there are no penalties for bosses who coerce their employees on to an AWA or who unfairly sack staff, or use the excuse of a “restructure” of their workforce to dismiss people for now reason.

There are many more reasons that this bill is odious, and speakers before me have covered large numbers of them.

And what really grates on top of all this, what really irks me is the wasteful, misleading, duplicitous adverting campaign the Government is running to promote this package at the same time. Million and millions of taxpayers money is being wasted on a mischievous campaign that promises “protection by law” when the bill does the opposite—it legitimises the removal of rights—all with a price tag of $55 million and growing.