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Tuesday, 30 October 2012
Page: 12523

Mr CHAMPION (Wakefield) (13:12): I listened very carefully to the member for Farrer's contribution to the House on the Fair Entitlements Guarantee Bill 2012. This bill is a legislative example of Labor's commitment to Australian values. One of those key Australian values is a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. Implicit in that old saying is the idea that you will get paid. We know that for decades when companies became insolvent it was workers who were often the last people in line to get not just their wages but their annual leave, their leave loading, their long service leave, their payments in lieu of notice and their superannuation, which is one thing that needs to be thought about in all of this as well. You frequently find in this situation that employers are not paying their superannuation payments either.

This went on for decades and decades. As an official of the shop assistants union in South Australia I saw it myself not just in big and medium companies but even in small companies. Sometimes it was not the fault of the company and its directors, sometimes it was just economic circumstance, but there were frequent occasions when it was their fault, was due to the phoenixing of companies or was due to neglect by directors and the like. I have seen many examples in my time of where workers have been treated appallingly in redundancy situations and left in very difficult situations. I worked for a company many years ago as a trolley collector.

Mr Briggs: You'd be too small to push it.

Mr CHAMPION: Yes, I was almost too small to push it—the member for Mayo is helping me out. But I was younger and stronger in those days. The company I worked for ended up in receivership, and I remember my friend, who worked at the company at that time, telling me about the scenes out the front of the company of people who had not been paid in months. We would all have stories and examples from our electorate and from personal experience of where this has occurred, and it is terribly unfair to those concerned.

We heard the member for Farrer talk about the benign generosity of the previous government, about how they magically arrived at GEERS: one day, Tony Abbott rolled out of bed and thought, 'I might set up a scheme protecting workers' entitlements.' That is the proposition they want to put to the House, but we all remember the circumstances in which GEERS was created. We all remember what prompted it—it was the fact that one of the then prime minister's relations, as I remember, was the director of a textile company. That was what happened, wasn't it?

Mr Briggs interjecting

Mr CHAMPION: I am just telling of the circumstances that led to the Australian people becoming aware of this terrible situation, and that is what happened. I cannot remember the year—I do not remember if the member for Mayo was working for the prime minister at that time. Maybe GEERS would have been a better scheme if he had been.

It was not some sort of government program, or some sort of deliberate review by the Howard government that brought GEERS into place; it was politics. It was political pressure by the Australian people. It was the site of hundreds of workers being left without their entitlements. The Australian people demanded that something be done, and what we ended up with was GEERS.

GEERS is a taxpayer funded scheme, and I tend to agree with the previous speaker that it is of concern that taxpayers are picking up the bill for failed companies. There are other ways you could set up entitlement guarantee schemes, and if we were starting from year zero with a blank sheet of paper we might not get the taxpayers of Australia to underwrite such schemes—we might make industry do it itself. It is truly extraordinary for industry to make these complaints when at the same time they ask the taxpayer to fund schemes like GEERS.

But we are dealing with the structure as it is, and so we have put these entitlements into a legislative guarantee so that workers do not have to worry about people like the member for Mayo and others, one day in the distant future, being in government and ripping into entitlement schemes and the like. We know they go through periods of generosity towards workers, periods of being benign towards workers, and we know that at some point they tend to turn on workers, as Work Choices proves. I remember Work Choices; that apparently guaranteed all your entitlements as well—guaranteed that you might lose them, that is. We know it is important that we have some legislative guarantee for people's entitlements.

The previous speaker said that this is all about union bosses, and some sort of arrangement with them. It is actually about our relationship with workers. That is why we want to guarantee wages up to 13 weeks. That is why we want to make sure that workers get their redundancy entitlement capped at a maximum of four weeks of service per year. This is not some sort of rolled gold union guarantee—that is not uncommon, and certainly not at the top end of town. We know what kind of payouts they take when they leave companies.

Mr Briggs: Holden?

Mr CHAMPION: Not at Holden, but I can remember at David Jones years ago, when they were closing John Martin, a certain chief executive sailing off with a huge entitlement package while workers in South Australia, particularly long-term casuals, had to fight in court to get their redundancy payments. I remember that. It is quite common for the top end of town to have a different set of rules for separation packages, particularly in relation to stock options, than they have for the people at the bottom who actually do the work and create the value and the wealth.

The bill also guarantees payment in lieu of notice, capped at five weeks, and that is not an unreasonable thing to do. Workers do deserve notice. I have been in many situations and seen many situations, particularly in the textile industry, where companies would be saying to workers, right up until literally the day before they announced closures, that they would not be closing and that it was business as usual and all the rest of it. Often one of the things that hurt and frustrate workers most of all is the persistent lying that goes on up until closures are announced. Often workers know that the writing is on the wall; they hear the rumours. But what we often see is—and I will not call it lying—corporate obfuscation about what they are doing.

So, having a payment in lieu of notice is an important thing. Getting notice is an even nicer thing—and, of course, guaranteeing annual leave and long service leave. It should be stressed that often people in these companies—companies that are under economic stress—will not let you take your long service leave or will delay letting you take it and will delay letting you take your annual leave. So people bank a lot of leave. That is a common thing that happens.

These sorts of things are very important for workers—things like a safety net, a guarantee. We know that for decades they basically endured without these, and people lost vast amounts of money over the years, unable to obtain their funds. Or they sat in a line of creditors, behind banks and behind others, waiting for their entitlements—and we know that was a persistent worry.

There have been some unions, I have to say, who were particularly active in making sure this issue was front and centre, and the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union was one of them. I can remember them talking about this, particularly in the car components industry—people like John Camillo and John Gee, out there on the barricades making sure workers' entitlements were paid and making sure they had a guarantee of those entitlements. And I remember people like Bob Donnelly from the CEPU and others being out there on the shop floor making sure workers got their entitlements. But what we are doing here in this House is legislating to make sure union leaders do not have to fight battle after battle and fight after fight to make sure people just get their entitlements. We want to make sure that people have some reasonable certainty about their situation with regard to their entitlements in times of insolvency.

This is a very good bill. It proves that despite all the rhetoric of those opposite the Labor movement still exists for working people across this country. It puts into place important guarantees, and it should give everybody who believes in that old Australian saying about a fair day's pay for a fair day's work some reassurance that that still means something in this modern age.