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Monday, 17 March 2008
Page: 1842

Mr CRAIG THOMSON (12:29 PM) —I rise with a lot of pride to speak in relation to the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008. If there has been a bill in the last 50 years that has been more important to redressing the imbalance in workplaces in Australia then I am yet to see it. This is a bill that is supported by the vast majority of Australians, one that on 24 November galvanised Australians all around workplaces to vote for the Labor Party to see the end of these rotten laws.

It was with some amusement that I noted the member for Gilmore’s comment chastising Labor, saying that we cannot afford to be caught up in ideology. Dear me, if there were any piece of legislation in the last 50 years more caught up in blind ideology than the Work Choices legislation then I would be astounded. The Work Choices legislation was inherently unfair; it inherently played on the imbalance between an individual worker at a workplace and the powers that a corporation can bring to the bargaining table. How could anyone argue that an AWA could not take advantage of that inherent imbalance of power?

The statistics in relation to AWAs speak for themselves. Between April and October 2006, 89 per cent of the 1,700 AWAs that were lodged excluded one or more protected items. That means literally almost nine out of 10 agreements that were lodged took away what were meant to be protected items. Quite clearly, the argument that individuals can be in some sense empowered to be on an equal standing when they bargain with their employer is an absolute nonsense.

Before I came to this place, I represented workers in the health industry. I was constantly asked by ambulance officers, radiographers, pharmacists, nurses and aged-care workers: ‘how is it fair that a government can bring in laws that strip away our conditions?’ How is the economy improved by an ambulance officer losing his penalty rates or by a nurse losing her shift allowance? These were questions that were asked of me constantly and ones to which I could only say: the laws are unfair and need to change.

Another terrible effect of the Work Choices laws was the insecurity of hours that workers suddenly found themselves with. People were not able to plan when they were going to be at work. People had their whole shift patterns eroded. These sorts of things put great strains on family life and on community life and made it difficult for people who want to volunteer for a range of community activities. The death of Work Choices means that these opportunities are there again.

Looking at the aged-care industry, where over 80 per cent of employees are either part time or casual, where over 80 per cent of employees are female and where workers earn less, on average, than you would working in McDonald’s or KFC, what is the effect on the quality of care for the elderly when the few conditions that workers have are eroded and their working patterns are disrupted? Back in 1962 in New South Wales, by agreement with the employer, awards were changed so that broken shifts were outlawed unless there was a specific agreement. That meant that people going to work would not be asked to work for three hours, have two hours off unpaid then return for another three or four hours. With Work Choices, we saw the return of this practice in nursing homes. We saw people becoming chained to their workplaces. It was not creating flexibility for mothers, as is often put by the opposition. It was not creating a more friendly workplace. It was creating a workplace that you could never leave, even when you were not being paid. These are the effects of Work Choices. They need to be addressed and changed, and this legislation is the starting point in relation to that.

In my electorate of Dobell, we have high unemployment. We are in a very different position from the electorate of the member for Forrest. In fact, unemployment in Dobell is almost twice the national average. For the citizens of Dobell, the former Prime Minister’s boast that working people have never been better off sounds very hollow indeed. It was worse for people in Dobell because we have close to 30 per cent of the working population commuting for up to two hours to Sydney. You need to ask: how can working people travel to Sydney for two hours, be asked to work a broken shift where they will work for three hours on the job, take four hours off on their own time and spend another three hours back at work, then travel home at the end of the day? Clearly, this has an effect on communities and it had an effect on my community—it made sure that people understood that these laws were inherently unfair for working families.

During the election campaign a gentleman came to see me who had been given an AWA at a large retail store where he was to be made the manager. By being made manager, he found his AWA said that he would have to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The AWA had another provision in it which said, despite that clause, ‘This should not limit the number of hours that he may be called upon by his employer.’ I am not quite sure what hours outside seven days a week, 24 hours a day someone can be asked to be available, but that was what happened with the AWA this gentleman was asked to sign. Members opposite may say, ‘Yes, but he was rewarded through an increase in salary.’ He was offered a salary of $25,000 to be available seven days a week, 24 hours a day, only made possible by these Work Choices laws. In the seat of Dobell this was the biggest issue that had people changing their votes.

The economic argument that is put forward by the opposition from time to time is about flexibility in wages so that we can compete. Well, quite frankly, I do not want to see an Australia, and I do not want to see the citizens of Dobell, having to compete on wages with India and China, who are a couple of our biggest trading partners. It is a nonsense. The way for us to compete internationally is through working smarter and that is why the Rudd government’s education revolution is so important for this country.

What does the opposition actually stand for today in relation to Work Choices? We have heard speaker after speaker saying it is no longer the policy of the opposition to support Work Choices, but we all know they still believe it. You have to say to yourself: ‘If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck then it still is a duck.’ We just had the member for Forrest extolling the virtues of AWAs and saying how important AWAs were for this country. I certainly did not get the impression that the member for Forrest thought that Work Choices was not a good thing for this country.

Look at the way in which the then government tried to frame the argument in relation to Work Choices. It was framed as an attack on union bosses. There are a couple of points that need to be made in relation to this, the first being: what is dishonourable about looking after workers? I have spent 19 years looking after health workers, ambulance officers and pharmacists, and can I tell the House that I am damn proud of that work and think that it was an honour to be a union official given that responsibility.

Legislation, though, was not aimed at the unions; it was aimed at ordinary working families—and that is the problem that the opposition have in relation to their position on this particular issue. They chose to attack the most vulnerable. They chose to attack ordinary working families, to make their lives more difficult. They made it more difficult for them to pay the bills by weakening their bargaining position. Do opposition members really think that employers just came to the workplace one day and said: ‘G’day workers, today we are going to give you four weeks annual leave; tomorrow we are going to give you penalty rates, workers compensation and long service leave’? These things were argued and fought for by unions and, for that reason, the union’s role in relation to the workplace should be spoken about with honour rather than derided as the opposition continue to do.

The Australian public were very clear on 24 November 2007: they were voting to get rid of these rotten work laws. The important legislation that is before the parliament today is the first stage in the Rudd government’s commitment to have fair and balanced workplace laws in Australia, and I commend the legislation to the House.