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Wednesday, 30 May 2007
Page: 110

Mr ANDREN (5:29 PM) —Mr Deputy Speaker, because of the time I seek leave to have my speech in the second reading debate incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

The truncation of this debate is a disgrace. This latest workplace relations amendment is an excellent example of policy on the run. According to government, the Work Choices legislation that it forced through this place less than eighteen months ago courtesy of its majority control of both houses of parliament, was perfect legislation for Australian workplaces - until that is the polls began to turn against them.

Perhaps the lesson in this for the government is don’t interfere with proper parliamentary debate, and yourself from the abuse of the majority power. The Prime Minister said his government would respect this unexpected power after July 1st 2005, but in the end did quite the opposite.

No government should have, let alone exploit so ruthlessly, 100% of the power with 46% or thereabouts of the primary vote.

I am sure that comprehensive debate on the Work Choices bills back in 2005 - had it been allowed, and had the government been of a mood to listen - would have pointed out the weaknesses in the so-called reforms that this Stronger Safety Net bill is now attempting to resolve. This is what democracy is all about: debate, amendment and improvement of legislation for the benefit of all Australians.

The Workplace Relations Amendment (A Stronger Safety Net) Bill 2007 is some improvement on the laws formerly known as Work Choices, and for that reason it has my support in principle, but with reservations. The bill improves Work Choices because it reinstates some of the protections of the pre-Work Choices system, but falls short of going the whole way.

It is worth noting the fairer pre-Work Choices system was delivered when the government had to negotiate its legislation through a Senate where the balance of responsibility was held by the cross bench minor party and independent senators. Gone are those days, but I’m hopeful of helping their return whichever side forms government in this place.

I said in the Work Choices debate that the removal of the no-disadvantage test removed an important safeguard for workers in the push for a greater take up of Australian Workplace Agreements and the inevitable undermining of protected award conditions under the Work Choices regime.

The no-disadvantage test determined that the Employment Advocate, in relation to AWAs and the Australian Industrial Relations Commission in relation to certified agreements, were to ensure such agreements did not disadvantage employees in relation to their terms and conditions of employment. The agreements were assessed against the relevant award, or designated award in the absence of a specific relevant award, and “any law of the Commonwealth, or of a State or Territory” the Advocate or the AIRC considered relevant.

One of the difficulties of the no-disadvantage test was that it relied upon the subjective judgement of officers of the Employment Advocate or the AIRC, but there was little that could practically be done to avoid this due to widely differing conditions and needs from workplace to workplace. The Fairness Test will face the same difficulties, but perhaps more so with the fact that the Workplace Authority must determine the value of conditions that are to be traded away.

This compensation can be monetary or non-monetary, but must be of significant value. Again this will necessarily be a subjective process, but it is better than no process at all.

The introduction of the new Fairness Test will restore this protection to a degree. Again the test will rely on the assessment of agreements against the conditions provided for under the relevant awards. In the public debate around Work Choices two years ago, the then Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations said that any AWA that illegally removed allowable conditions would default to the relevant award as a safety net - while-ever there are awards that is!

What he did not explain then was that as awards expired and were replaced by AWAs or collective agreements that only have to contain up to 16 allowable matters rather than the 20 basic award conditions, the safety net was greatly reduced and indeed would swing on the negotiation skills of the employees like the 15 year old girl on $8 an hour in a Sydney coffee shop denied access to this protection because her AWA is 12 months old.

The same will apply to the Fairness Test. As the take-up of AWAs and collective agreements increases, the measuring stick against which the fairness test can be applied shrinks.

If a condition of employment - overtime, penalty rates, allowances and the like - are worth enough for workers to be compensated, they are worth being included wholly within a workplace agreement.

For example, in my electorate, one of the major employers is Electrolux in Orange. As an electrical and white goods manufacturer, demand for their product is highest in summer and the lead up to Christmas, and commensurately more overtime is on offer and relied on by many workers to meet the extra expenses that go hand in hand with this time of year.

Where does this well-earned income boost go if it is averaged over the year? - Probably to meet the rising un-affordability of housing, with mortgage repayments absorbing up to 40% of household incomes.

Trading off penalty rates means that an hour of work is an hour of work regardless of when it is done, but this is just not the case in the real world. For example, weekends are time that can be spent with children because they are not at school - giving this time over for work is at a greater opportunity cost to workers with families. It is at a greater opportunity costs for those active in community organisations or sporting clubs or any other activity that takes place on a weekend and that are essential to achieving the more and more elusive work-life balance.

Where the government talks about greater flexibility in the workplace, it seems to mean the flexibility to work more outside regular hours - a 7 day week and 24 hour day.

Trading penalty rates for a higher hourly rate - which the government has said will be the most likely form of compensation under the fairness test - makes it harder for workers to see the value of the extra hours they put in; it becomes lost in the mix. For many, it could be impossible for them to assess whether they are being adequately compensated, and I will take advice from the Minister as to whether or not the Workplace Authority will be providing a concise and understandable evaluation of agreements to both employees clearly explaining how the compensation on offer by the employers balances the value of the conditions that have been traded away.

My reservations about the Fairness Test, as provided in this bill, are in relation to the income limit of $75,000, and the fact that it applies only to agreements made on or after 7 May 2007.

The fairness test will only apply to agreements where the gross annual income of the employee is below $75,000. This will supposedly mean that the vast majority of AWAs are subject to the test, however to arbitrarily impose such a limit where principles of fairness are concerned, is going to be unfair to some.

It essentially creates a double standard where someone earning $75,000 receives compensation for trading off terms and conditions, but someone earning $75,100 does not. If it is true that the majority of employees on AWAs will fall within the limit then it stands that the limit is not actually required. I will move an amendment in the detail to stage to remove this income limit.

Similarly I will move a series of amendments to remove the 7 May 2007 starting date for the test, and will replace it with the date on which the Work Choices legislation removing the no-disadvantage test commenced. If the government is to employ an additional 600 people to assess AWAs against he fairness test it is only appropriate that all agreements made since Work Choices came into affect be assessed.

Without these two amendments, the fairness test operates under an unacceptable double standard where some workers receive benefit yet others do not due to their income level or the simple fact of when they were able to find a job. It is only fair that the Fairness Test is fairly applied to all.