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Monday, 8 March 1999
Page: 2311

Senator LUNDY (1:29 PM) —The Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (Youth Employment) Bill 1998 is part of the government's continuing agenda of marginali sing and disregarding young people in Australia. Since the Howard government first came to office, they have sought to denigrate young people by any and every means possible. Sugar-coated rhetoric to the contrary is transparent and disenfranchisement amongst young people is growing as the coalition's shallowness becomes clearer.

If you are a young person—and for this government that means 21 years or under—then you are fodder to be used up and disregarded rather than treated according to competence and ability. Young people, especially those under the age of 21, are now facing yet another attack on their worth as the government seeks to reduce their earning capacity by entrenching junior pay rates in federal awards. This legislation is all about reducing the wages of young people. Instead of waiting for the Industrial Relations Commission to finalise its report, the government is proceeding without any care or respect for due process, and the losers, once again, will be young Australians.

It is an anachronism that people aged 18 to 20 years in Australia are adults for all intents and purposes. They are permitted to purchase and consume alcohol, they are permitted to enter into contractual arrangements, and they are both entitled and obligated to vote in elections. They are adults in respect of all societal regulations except, according to this government, in respect of their entitlement to full and fair minimum award wages.

Paying junior wages to these workers is part of an outdated and irrelevant industrial approach based on the 1907 view of an adult male wage being the amount needed for a male to support himself, his wife and his two children. It is both false and discriminatory to assume that all workers under 21 are automatically of less value than older workers are and therefore should receive less pay. There are many examples of youth who are in very responsible positions—for example, those in retail and food industries being supervisors, opening and closing shops, and working late at night; not to mention those youth who are entrepreneurs themselves, always pushing the outer boundaries of what is possible within the work force—but these employees are still being paid junior wages.

In a full bench hearing of the Industrial Relations Commission, the government argued for the removal of these awards for public servants such as police, teachers and nurses. They argued that all future salary increases should be based on recognition of skills and increases in productivity. However, according to the government, if you are under 21 the only thing determining your salary should be your date of birth. This is yet another example of the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business at his hypocritical best. The subliminal impact of these attacks day after day on education, social support and wages reinforces to the young people of this country that they are worth nothing in the eyes of this government. Once you get beyond some of the brutal and overt insults that this policy and this bill represent, it is this subliminal message to our young people that represents one of the most damaging approaches that I have ever experienced by an administration.

One of the problems with this bill is that, by its nature, it fails to recognise the positive contribution of so many young people who are at the cutting edge of innovation in this country with respect to their work. The new ideas that young people bring into workplaces, whatever the nature of their work, are valued considerably by employers. One example is in the new technology areas, be it environmental technology or information technology. If you look at the driving force and the intellectual minds behind these new industries, you find that young people are the programmers, the application designers, the web developers—the ones who care enough about the environment to drive technological innovation to find a way forward and a sustainable future. It is young people that bring inspiration to a workplace. The best this government can do in recognition of that is to penalise them through a discriminatory wage structure.

If this bill is passed it will effectively mean that these young men and women leading the field in new technology areas could be subject to lower wages than their less qualified, less able and less inspired older colleagues. It will mean that their intellectual property will not be judged on merit, on their contribution or on their experience but purely on their date of birth, on the age of the employee in question. I wonder how much of this policy is a reflection on generational elitism. I ask: how much of its motivation lies in the perceived threat that these clever young people represent to the entrenched group of ministers and decision makers that have driven this policy forward and whose hearts and minds lie back in the 1950s? In the same way that the dignity of older Australians is being undermined by these ministers and decision makers, the dignity, hope and potential of young Australians is also being undermined.

We know only too well the priority that everyone in the political sphere place on jobs or at least says they do. The extension of youth wages will not impact significantly on the youth unemployment levels in Australia. The reasons for this are simple: there is no correlation between wage rises and increasing youth unemployment, nor are wages holding back the rising opportunities for people in part-time work. As this is the case, an increase in wages will not necessarily reduce young people's labour market opportunities and neither will a cut in their wages necessarily improve their labour market prospects. All this legislation will achieve is the ultimate reduction in the earnings of 217,000 workers under the age of 21 who are currently receiving adult wages.

By the government focusing solely on maintaining junior wages, rather than making substantial changes to the employment opportunities for youth or making improvements to the provision of education and training services, the youth of Australia are likely to end up in a worse situation—a situation where young people are paid less and rely more on social security, with no real improvements for those actively seeking work. Peter Reith repeatedly uses the Productivity Commission report Youth Wages and Employment to justify his claims that an increase in junior rates of pay will reduce youth employment. However, findings contained within this report actually contradict the claims made by the minister for industrial relations. The report acknowledges that part-time employment for teenagers has increased at the same time as their real hourly earnings have risen. This has led the commission to conclude that:

. . . rising wages costs do not appear to have affected teenage part-time employment adversely.

In addition, the report noted that teenage full-time employment has fallen relative to adult employment by 60 per cent between 1984 and 1997, at the same time as their relative hourly earnings have fallen by seven per cent.

But this is not the only report to acknowledge that youth unemployment is a result of a much broader collection of employers' concerns. A survey conducted by the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry in October 1998 gauged the importance of junior rates of pay on youth employment. What these results showed was that junior rates of pay are not seen as the major reason for employing juniors. In fact, the highest responses to the question were identified as the willingness of young people to do certain kinds of work and the increased flexibility of youth with regard to working hours. However, the most common response by far was employer preference for training their employees.

The ACCI went on to survey firms already employing people aged under 21 as to the reasons why no additional juniors were being placed in jobs. And again their results confirmed the irrelevance of junior rates of pay in the decision making process related to employing more young people. Twenty-six point nine per cent of employers surveyed responded that award wages being set too high was of no importance in hiring more young people. This figure represents more than double the percentage of respondents who believed that wage levels was a factor of major importance.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the survey identified that the major barrier relating to the employment of youth is that young people are not always as work ready as adults. Surely, this is more a reflection on the downgrading and the cuts to education that have been experienced in recent times under a coalition government. For this reason, rather than any real or perceived problems associat ed with the level of wages, employers repeatedly voice their concerns regarding the employment of school leavers.

It is time for this government to become more inclusive of the needs of Australia's youth and it is time for the government to realise that it has a significant role to play in eliminating Australia's youth unemployment crisis. The evidence is clear. The Howard government must shift its focus from one which perpetuates the discrimination of youth to one which is directed at providing adequate training and support networks in order to facilitate the school-to-work transition for young people. It must work on improving the economic stability of our economy to strengthen the labour market—a labour market which promotes youth employment.

My own experience in this area gave me a lesson of life that I will never forget. As a 16-year-old I was able to enter the work force on adult wages. This provided me with an opportunity to participate in society with economic independence. Other young people have had that opportunity, but I find it so ironic that it was back in 1984 that this occurred, and that in 1999 I find myself in this place defending this simple notion of dignity for young people in the work force; defending this simple and fundamental right of young people to be able to get a job and be paid wages that are not discriminatory.

Australia's youth deserve a better deal from the Australian government and they deserve the right to prove their financial worth based on merit, not on their date of birth. They also deserve access to training and education programs, rather than a regressive attack on their living standards; rather than this government's willingness to relegate them to a period of underemployment and of working poverty that some of the lower junior rates force young people into at a critical stage of their development.

For these reasons, the opposition will not be supporting the passage of this bill.