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Thursday, 15 May 2014
Page: 3863

Mr BANDT (Melbourne) (11:14): The full scale of Prime Minister Tony Abbott's attack on workers, especially young workers, becomes clearer day by day. When you put this week's budget together with this Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014, you realise that life in Australia for people at school who are about to enter the workforce is going to be very different from what it was like 10, 20 or 30 years ago. As we heard in Tuesday night's budget, a young person who does the right thing and finishes school and goes on to do a course at university, TAFE or somewhere else will have to spend the first six months looking for work with no income at all—not even the dole, which is below the poverty line. If they do not find a job and are lucky, they will be put on a Work for the Dole program. At the end of that time if they still have not found a job they will not be offered more support but will be kicked off the dole again and will spend six months without any income at all. This is a young person who is trying to do the right thing and look for work. It may be through no fault of their own because they may be in a country town where there is 17 per cent youth unemployment or they may be in a suburb in the city where the job prospects are low.

What is that young person who has done the right thing and finished studying and looking for work meant to do when the government takes away their income? Their landlord does not care that the laws have changed. The landlord just wants the rent to be paid on time. The electricity company does not care about the government's new approach. It is quite happy to turn the power and the heating off because they have got no money. God forbid that they get sick. If they get sick, they will no longer be able to find a doctor who will bulk-bill for young people. They are going to have to pay a co-payment to see the GP. If the doctor says they need a test and prescriptions, they will have to pay co-payments on those as well. So these young people looking for work will not go and see a doctor if they get sick.

They might get kicked out of their house, which makes this week's budget a recipe for homelessness. Ask yourself what you would do if you were a young person and you did not have enough money to buy food. Do not be surprised at all if you start seeing young people doing unsavoury things in order to pay for basics, such as food and power, because this government is going to take away their income full stop. What would you do if you were in that situation of trying to find a job and you could see looming a period of having to live without any money coming in?

When you look at this bill it is very clear what faces that young person. Their potential employer is going to say: 'I will be happy to give you a job. I know there is this pesky thing called the minimum wage, but I don't think I really want to pay you that. What I am prepared to offer you is something less than that, with a few extra benefits on the side. That might be different from the legislated legal minimum wage, but really it's up to you—take it or leave it.' Buried in this bill is a note in the section on so-called 'individual flexibility agreements'—and I will talk about what they are in a minute—that says:

Benefits other than an entitlement to a payment of money may be taken into account.

What does that mean? That means that it will be completely legitimate for a fish and chip shop owner to say to a young person, 'I'm going to give you a job, but I'm going to pay you part of your wage in fish and chips.' It is going to be completely legitimate for a cinema owner to say, 'I know there is this legal condition that says you have got to get a minimum wage of a certain amount, but how about we enter into an individual flexibility agreement where I give you some movie tickets instead?' Movie tickets and fish chips do not help you when you go to the supermarket to buy the groceries you need. They do not help you when you go to the electricity company and say you cannot pay your power bill. You cannot say, 'I'm sorry I cannot pay the power bill, but how about a potato scallop instead?' That is the future if this bill passes and if this budget passes. It will systematically allow employers to drive down wages and conditions. An employer will be able to enter into a legally binding agreement with their workforce on Monday and then contract out of it with a particular individual on Tuesday. When you take into account the immense pressure that is going to be put on young people, you can see exactly what that is going to do to people's wages and conditions in this country. It is going to be worse in those areas where there is already existing high unemployment.

I do not know about the people who are putting this bill forward, but before I came to parliament I spent 12 years working with some of this country's lowest paid workers. These were people who had no other opportunities. They were told, 'If you are happy to sit in a room or in your garage in inner or outer suburban Melbourne and sew clothes to be sold on Bourke Street for $200 or $300, we will pay you $2 to $3 an hour.' These were people who did not have English as their first language. These were people who had limited skills. These were people who, under existing laws, were told to call themselves independent contractors and look after their own superannuation and work cover, which of course they did not and they will have no plan for their retirement. They were told to do all of that and maybe it will give them a little bit of money. That is what is in store for all young people in this country in the future if this legislation passes.

I have news for those opposite who talk about flexibility. They talk about flexibility as a one-way street. These are the same people who not prepared to say, 'Let's amend the laws to give people who are looking after kids greater power to have more time off so they can pick the kids up from school or drop them off.' These are people who say, 'No, we will not allow employees to have greater security over their work if that is what they want and that is what suits them.' For the Liberals, flexibility works only one way—it is flexibility from above. But I have news for them. You do not need this provision in the legislation to allow genuine agreement between employers and employees to vary wages and conditions, because it already happens. When you have good employers and good employees, you reach these kinds of agreements all the time. People reach these kinds of agreements all the time, but they do it against the backdrop of legislation that sets out what the Australian community thinks is a fair minimum standard of wages and conditions.

The legislation that is before the parliament today is about changing that minimum standard. It is not about giving people more flexibility; it is about giving bad employers more power over vulnerable people, who are going to be in an even worse position after this budget. And it does a number of other things. Most of us would think that an agreement applying in the workforce involves at least two people—at least two parties. But, under this legislation, an employer is now going to be able to agree with itself about what legislation and minimum conditions will apply in a workplace. The provision about so-called greenfields agreements says that, if you are about to start a new project that might be to dig up the minerals that all Australians own—we only get to dig them up and sell them off once—and you want to negotiate an agreement for wages and conditions over the course of that project when it gets up and running, all an employer has to do is put a substandard agreement on the table and say, 'Here's what I want.' If three months later there has been no agreement, it is able to go off to the Fair Work Commission and get the agreement ratified. You do not even need another party to the agreement. You just have to decide it yourself. I am very sure that a wealthy miner is going to look after its workers when it does not have to! It is going to pay the least it possibly can. That is what this legislation allows it to do.

We have also seen this obsession from the government about employees having access to their union representatives at reasonable times. I can tell you stories of workers in sweatshops—making the clothes that those of us in the chamber here today will be wearing—who are working on less than minimum conditions and would dearly love to know what those minimum conditions are. Often the only way that they will find out about them is from a union representative who comes in and tells them, 'No, actually there are laws and you are entitled to be paid properly as a member of the Australian community.' Yet, what we see here in the legislation is a winding back of those provisions that allow someone to come in and give that explanation. What we know—because I have seen it happen—is that what some unscrupulous employers do at the moment, or have been doing in the past, is say, 'Sure, you, low-paid worker, can find out about what your minimum legal rights are, but I tell you what I'll do: I'll put the union representative, when they come during your lunch break, in a room next to my office and I'll just sit there with a clipboard making a note of every worker who comes in to get advice about what their minimum conditions are.' Currently, the legislation says that you cannot do that. You must strike the right balance between not disrupting the workplace and allowing people to find out what their minimum entitlements are. That goes under this legislation. When you think about this from the perspective of a vulnerable worker who may not have English as their first language, how are they going to find out about their rights? They just will not. That will be the practicality of it. That is exactly what this legislation is designed to do.

The legislation tilts the playing field further in favour of powerful employers by allowing them to just sit there, fold their arms and say, 'We refuse to engage in discussions with you about an enterprise agreement.' Also, it will take away the only thing that the employees have the right to do in that situation, which is their right to industrial action. At the moment, if the employer refuses to negotiate with you, the employees are allowed to say, 'We're going to start stop-work meetings,' or, 'We're going to go on strike until you strike a deal with us.' This is not something that is fanciful or of no consequence. At places like Cochlear, for some eight years, I think, the workers who are making the bionic ears that are one of Australia's greatest export inventions have been unable to negotiate an agreement with their employer. Does this bill give them the right to go to Fair Work and say, 'Look, we just can't strike a deal; why don't you decide as the independent umpire?' No, it does not allow them any help. In fact, it further ties their hands and allows the employer to sit there and say, 'I'm just not going to negotiate with you.'

These are just some of the measures in this bill. There are others that say, if you have happened to accrue annual leave loading and other generous measures during your time at work, and it turns out that you get sacked before you have had the chance to take them, do not expect to get your full entitlement paid out—you are only going to get part of it. That is what this legislation says when it comes to annual leave loading. When one looks at the other provisions, you can see that the government has gone back to the previous Fair Work review and just picked the eyes out of the things that work to implement on one side of the ledger, but there is nothing there to balance it up on the other side.

I will be moving some amendments, when we come to the consideration in detail stage of this bill, to remove the clauses of this bill and, instead, substitute them with other clauses that would actually benefit working people in this country. These amendments would give them more job security and allow workers to have the flexibility that works for them, so that they can have the time off to pick up the kids, to drop them off at school or, perhaps, to look after a sick grandparent. That is the kind of flexibility that we need, not this flexibility from above in this bill. If this bill passes, and if the budget passes, the future for young workers in Australia is very grim indeed.