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Monday, 18 November 2002
Page: 6609

Senator MARSHALL (4:14 PM) —I rise to take note of the report of the Employment, Workplace Relations and Education Legislation Committee on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Improved Protection for Victorian Workers) Bill 2002. Senator Barnett challenged Premier Bracks to remember what he said. I just want to remind members opposite of what the Prime Minister said. The Prime Minister said that as a result of the Workplace Relations Act no worker in this country would be worse off. Then we saw the Kennett government abrogate their responsibilities to the Victorian state system by transferring those rights to the federal government. As result of that, 360,000 workers fell out of the safety net; 360,000 Victorian workers were left award free, without any minimum protections. And what did the Workplace Relations Act do? Introduce schedule 1A.

You say that this legislation improves the lot of these workers. When you are going from nothing it does not take much to improve things. I have to concede that it is the smallest of improvements—they go to five minimum conditions as opposed to the 20 that are provided to every other worker in Victoria—but what you do is not an improvement to the extent where they become equal with everybody else. Why is it unfair for Victorian workers not to be paid on an equal footing? Why are you, through this legislation, enshrining two more underclasses in Victoria? I will get to outworkers in a minute. Where federal award workers have the protection of enterprise agreements, the protection of the act, the protection of the Industrial Relations Commission and 20 core conditions legislated for—as miserable as that is—you want to only enshrine five minimum conditions. You want to enshrine the most basic conditions. That is not enough—Victorian workers want equality.

We do not want an underclass made up of those forgotten by this legislation; we certainly do not want a third underclass enshrined by this legislation, and that is for outworkers. What you intend to do through this legislation is deem these people purely as contractors and enshrine one condition only for them—for the most exploited people, the people that cannot protect themselves, the people that work in a shonky industry where they are subjected to the most horrendous exploitation. You want to enshrine minimum wages—no annual leave, no public holidays, no sick leave, no loadings; nothing else, simply wages. That is less than what is covered in the award. You want to deprive those people of the awards that could fairly cover them. All the Victorian legislation sought to do was to have common rule awards apply equally across the whole state, for every worker—and that is all we seek to do.

Why are you so opposed on that side of the chamber to treating people fairly and equally? Why, when employers have a loophole in the legislation where they can exploit the poorest people in our community, do you jump to their defence? Why do you do that? VECCI get up in the committee and say: `But we like this sort of flexibility. We enjoy the flexibility that outworkers give, where they are at home using their children to help make ends meet, where they are paid on piece rates and where they are often not paid at all.' Your government and VECCI get up there and say: `But they can seek redress through the courts. If they get underpaid by a contractor or a supplier, they can go through the courts.' Let me ask you, as I asked VECCI: how does a non-English-speaking migrant woman being paid $3 to $5 an hour go and recover, through the courts, unpaid wages or contracts? Of course, all the members opposite will know how impossible that is, because most of you are lawyers and most of you know how much you charge. These people cannot find the amount of money it takes to even get a consultation with the likes of you, to try and go back and recover lost wages and lost contracts.

When I asked VECCI that question, what did they do? They mumbled and stumbled. They could not answer it, and in the end they said, `There are organisations like unions that will go and do that for them; unions will go and do it for them.' I then put the question: so you are saying that, if that worker is not being paid, if that worker is being exploited, their only option is to join a union and get that recovered? They said, `Well, people have got a right to join the union.' That is their response, because they know there is no other system, under the legislation you are proposing, through which people can go and recover low wages and lost contracts. It is a nonsense.

Senator Barnett —How many on your side represent small business?

Senator MARSHALL —The small business you lot want to represent—

Senator MARSHALL —We support small businesses that act responsibly and fairly. The small businesses you talk about— you put them all in the same group—are those that want to exploit people, that do not want to give the most basic of conditions, that do not even want to apply the federal award safety net. You want to deprive Victorian workers of your own federal legislation. It is appalling. For you to get up here and say, `Look, it's a step in the right direction; it's terrific,' is no defence.

You talk about having one system. If you want to go down the path of one system, why do you not put before this parliament legislation that actually does that? What you are doing is applying and forcing by legislation three systems in Victoria—three different standards. That is not where we want to move to. We want basic conditions as a safety net, applied and looked after by the Industrial Relations Commission—and the government does not seek to do that. This legislation has many flaws and we will be exploring them in absolute detail in the committee stage of this legislation. You will be challenged and will clearly be exposed— you are an apologist for the employer organisations that simply want to allow the most miserable of employers to continue to exploit people on $3 an hour.

I also noticed during the committee hearings that some senators wanted to question whether or not outworkers had been paid the low rates being quoted of around $3 an hour. You did not really want to look at the evidence put in front of you in that respect. There have been numerous studies in this area, including a Senate inquiry, but the most forceful and the most detailed was a study by Dr Christina Creagan commissioned by Melbourne University which showed—and it stood up to intellectual rigour—that there are people being paid less than $3 an hour. What is your response? You say, `We'll make them all contractors; we'll say that there has to be a minimum wage.' But it is impossible to enforce it happening. You just take away any opportunity those people have of being paid proper wages and provided with proper conditions. We will be exploring this bill in detail, we will be debating it and we will be exposing it for the absolute shonk it is. If you talk about having one system, put up legislation that delivers one system.