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Thursday, 15 May 2014
Page: 3849

Mr PERRETT (Moreton) (10:14): I rise today to speak on the government's Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014. I am happy to outline the many reservations I have about this horrible piece of legislation and I look forward to voting against it in due course.

The fair work laws introduced under the Labor government improved fairness in Australian workplaces, after John Howard's Work Choices attempted to dismantle the fabric of Australian society. I note that the two responsible ministers at the time were Mr Hockey and Mr Abbott; now Treasurer and Prime Minister implementing a budget that attempts to do much the same.

I was interested to hear the first speaker from those opposite, the member for Ryan, and the rank hypocrisy that was on display at the beginning of her speech, when she talked about the former Prime Minister Gillard's commitments before an election and the implementation of those commitments after, and how they changed. For that to happen a few days after the budget we received on Tuesday night is unbelievable. I do know a little bit about the construction industry. I do not hang around the shopping centre at Indooroopilly that the member for Ryan referred to, but I do know this: I have got three brothers that work in the building industry, and my brother-in-law, who has passed away, had a story to tell as well.

I know that not every single union member or every single construction worker is a saint. But equally, as I am sure the small business minister would attest, not every single small business operator or every construction company is a saint either. In fact, the unpaid money owed to workers in the construction industry has to be seen to be believed. It is nothing like retail or education or some of the other sectors of the community. The amount of workers who go without money because of sharp practice or fraud is a tragedy, since people—especially small businesses—can be left begging.

I know how significant health and safety is in the construction industry. I know this because my little brother saw two men killed standing literally right beside him. He was working on the construction of the additions to Twin Towns, when the crane collapsed right beside him. The counterweight actually hit my brother on the back. The physical damage was horrible, but the mental damage done to him took years to recover from. He is now back in the construction industry. So I know how important health and safety is. It is important that unions have the right to talk to people about the benefits of being in a union, because what unions bring to the table more than anything are health and safety concerns. The member for Ryan had just a one-line reference to it saying, 'Its so-called health and safety concerns.'

I worked in the education industry, and I was a union organiser. I remember going to schools and hearing about people not doing the right thing, which might lead to psychological stress or damage down the track. In the construction industry, if you take shortcuts with scaffolding people die. If you take shortcuts with health and safety walls collapse on people and kill them. The construction industry is not like other industries, where you can let things slide for a while and improve them in the long term. That is why the amendments in part 8 'Right of Entry' of schedule 1 are important.

I have been to schools where the only place I could interview somebody was in the office right next to the principal's office, often within earshot and with no door to be closed. At a school that was a bit of a pain and a problem, and we would arrange meetings afterwards. It would be like the Prime Minister saying to a chamber packed full of LNP members, 'Alright, I'd like anyone who has a concern about the budget to tell me what your concerns are.' The member for McMillan might speak up, because he is an independent thinker and is happy to speak up; the member for Leichhardt might do it; or even the member for Brisbane might speak up in public about what their concerns are about the budget. How about if they said, 'Well, how about we have one-on-one interviews?' The reality is that the amendment they are proposing in part 8 would be like having a one-on-one interview over behind Peta Credlin in the adviser's box, saying, 'Yeah, speak your mind freely,' however, it is right next to the Prime Minister's adviser. You need to have the opportunity to talk about health and safety in a safe place where you can speak up about health and safety, because health and safety costs money. That is the reality. The cowboy operators always scrimp on health and safety. That is how they undercut their competitors. It is not like in retail where you can be undercut by someone offering a product that is cheaper—unless it is stolen, of course—the reality is that the easiest way to save costs in the construction industry is by scrimping on health and safety, and that costs lives.

Our reforms ensured that workers could raise issues with union representatives in workplaces, giving them access to broader rights to flexible work arrangements, and to protect workers from arbitrary rostering changes, which are a big problem generally. The changes came from a long period of consultation that employers were involved in, a consultation in which the Labor government made concessions to their point of view—it was about balance. Allowing workers to talk to union representatives in their lunchrooms about safety or other issues is a basic right. That is where, rather than peeling off the people one by one, you are able to say, 'What are the group concerns? Can you speak freely and safely?' and then the union can normally facilitate acting on it. Requiring employers to consider the impact on workers' family and care responsibilities when they introduce major rostering changes is a reform that recognises that many workers have families to look after. Taking action against workplace bullying, a major cause of human misery and lost productivity in Australian workplaces, was also long overdue. These changes were a huge step towards making workplaces fairer.

What we now have before the House is a typical LNP attitude that proves once again that this government fundamentally does not understand workplace legislation, and does not have what it takes to protect Australian workers. Safe workplaces, I would suggest, are the bedrock of a strong civil society.

I believe that members of parliament represent communities, not an economy. We represent people and families, not economic commodities and units of production. Labor strongly opposes these amendments, which undermine the right to organise and be represented by a union, and which expand the use or scope of individual flexibility arrangements.

These decisions are giving people a sense that the coalition is running back into the arms of that harsh mistress called WorkChoices, an exhumed, mouldering beast arisen to Joe and Tony's post-budget apocalypse. The Abbott government made it clear where its priorities lie when, instead of announcing a jobs plan in the face of mounting job losses, it introduced legislation to cut the wages and conditions of Australian workers. It has also flagged that horrible policy where people under 30 would have six months basically to beg for money.

We know that the Liberals are waging a war on penalty rates. We know this from their submission to the Fair Work Commission and from comments from nearly everyone, from backbenchers right through to the Treasurer. It is always great when someone pulling in $400,000 a year talks about the excesses of a shift worker. I give it the same credence as Gina Rinehart's comments about African wages stealing Australian mining jobs—that is, none at all.

Low-paid workers in particular would be very vulnerable if the provisions of this bill were enacted by the parliament. Unless the government is going to implement in its entirety recommendation 9 of the expert panel, as it promised, we must conclude that it is the first step to open slather on cutting penalty rates and allowances for Australian workers—something that has been a part of the fabric of society since the Harvester decision, and before that, one could argue. I would contend that Australians simply cannot believe a word this government says about workplace relations. They are getting their agenda from the IPA, or someone even more extreme.

The Fair Work Amendment Bill provides for individual flexibility agreements that buy out overtime pay and penalty rates for zero financial compensation. The bill undermines a range of key rights at work, and it is an exercise in the government ticking off that pre-election wish list of some extreme people in the mining industry. The government is also letting employers dip their hands into the pockets of workers by cutting their entitlement to the payout of annual leave loading on termination, money that Australians have been entitled to for years and years—40 or 50 years, in fact.

Tony Abbott is giving the green light to employers to cut people's pay, under the guise of greater flexibility. The opposition does not consider it reasonable for workers to trade away significant amounts of their take-home pay for nonmonetary benefits. This is a blatant attempt to cut pay and conditions through individual contracts, and shows that the Abbott government does not understand the concerns of Australian workers, nor the Australian sense of a fair go.

If recommendation 9 is implemented low-paid workers are extremely vulnerable as this government opens the doors to a slather of cuts on penalty rates and allowances for Australian workers. Before the election Mr Abbott was only too happy to don a hard-hat and a hi-vis vest and probably go through an induction process and then stand alongside workers. But I do not think he ever really got past the entrance of most of these workplaces. Since he has become Prime Minister he seems to be interested only in sticking up for corporate Australia, which we saw in the budget the other night.

Australia is in the midst of a job-security crisis, as detailed in the budget papers, with thousands of workers losing their jobs and many others pushed into casual, insecure work—a new way of life for Australia. That is what the Abbott government should be focused on, not on making life tougher for people. Day after day we keep seeing the Abbott government trying to drive down wages, at a time when families can least afford it. Talking about people doing the heavy lifting: who is it? It is not the people on $200,000 a year, like parliamentarians. No, it is the poorest people in our society who have been asked to start the war on the so-called age of entitlement.

Now that the so-called wages blowout has been proven to be a lie, the Abbott government has fallen back on individual contracts, which were a hallmark of WorkChoices, the horrible child of the member for Mayo. This is all about cutting wages and diminishing conditions that Australian workers rely on in order to balance life and work. If this bill were enacted it would provide employers with the ability to set terms and conditions that will affect prospective employees, without those employees having a real voice. 'Unity is strength' is the reality of modern workplace relations. It always has been. The idea that good-faith bargaining plays a role in this process is simply wrong, particularly if we see this through the prism of the building industry, where I think over $1 billion in unpaid wages exists. And who misses out? The workers.

Labor fundamentally believes in freedom of association—that long history going back to the charters in the UK, or the Irish, or the Eureka Stockade. It exists in whatever you want to extract from Australian society, such as the Diggers in World War I who went on strike. We have always had this tradition of people banding together to look after their rights. It is the Australian way. We do strongly believe in freedom of association. The first speech from those opposite suggests that the LNP do not. It is our strongly held belief that employees should be free to join or not join a union, if they so wish. That is the reality.

In finishing I would like to mention a person I will call my brother-in-law, Michael Jenkins, my sister-in-law's partner of nearly 17 or 18 years. He passed away recently. He worked out at Cannington, a mine to the south of Mt Isa. The member for Ryan talked about the joy flights of union leaders. The reality is that effectively there is no way to get to Cannington unless you fly there in one of the employer funded planes. That is the case for many mining operations. There are no 747s landing there, so you need to be able to access employer flights. It is then perfectly appropriate that the employer seek the money back. That is the reality. I would hate for those opposite to mislead the parliament about this. Michael passed away recently. He was only a young man. We often had conversations about the stresses involved with the mining industry. I know Cannington reasonably well, and, unfortunately, during my time working in the mining industry there were fatalities there. These industries are not like working down at the local shop. If we are talking about construction, if we are talking about mining, I know from my own family experience—from people like Michael Jenkins and from my brother, Timothy Perrett—that too often people can die because of the workplaces they are in, and this legislation should be avoided at all costs.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Broadbent ): I thank the member for Moreton for his contribution and for sharing his story with us.