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Thursday, 26 June 2003
Page: 12665


Senator BOSWELL (Leader of the National Party of Australia in the Senate and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Transport and Regional Services) (11:00 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

This bill amends the Workplace Relations Act 1996 to make it unlawful to dismiss an employee who is temporarily absent from work on voluntary emergency management duty.

Volunteer fire-fighters and other emergency management personnel demonstrated their exceptional contribution towards protecting lives and property during the recent bushfires around Australia. At present, there is no specific federal legislation protecting volunteers who are temporarily absent from work undertaking emergency management activities. While there is some legislative protection in some states and territories, not all workers are covered, and the protections differ. This bill will protect all workers who are absent from work on legitimate volunteer emergency management duties.

It will cover not only fire-fighters and those on the front line, but volunteers who contribute to the management of emergencies and natural disasters. These volunteers receive no financial reward for their efforts, many forego paid leave to undertake these activities, and sometimes their lives are at risk. They do this because they want to support their community and the community is greatly in their debt for it.

Equally the Government extends its thanks to the employers who contribute by supporting the emergency service work of their employees. We recognise that many businesses choose to accept management and financial challenges in providing leave to their employees for volunteer duties. Indeed, many volunteers are themselves employers. Emergency management organisations know the contribution that employers make and try to recognise this in various ways at the local level. These sometimes seem small gestures, but they emphasise the important role employers have to play in supporting volunteer efforts in this country.

This legislation will enshrine in law the proposition that employees, whose temporary absence from work is reasonable in all the circumstances, should not lose their jobs for being away from work to protect the community.

In developing this bill, the Government has been aware of the need to minimise disruption to an employer's business. The bill tries to balance the needs of employees attending emergencies and the needs of employers running their businesses. That is why the protection provided covers the volunteer's temporary absence only if it is reasonable in all the circumstances.

Many emergency management organisations have a rule that the volunteer's first duty is to his or her employer. They require that the volunteer obtain the permission of the employer before leaving the workplace to attend an emergency. The protection in this bill is not limited to cases where employer consent was expressly given, as this may not always be possible given the nature of emergencies. However, it is not intended to disturb such policies of emergency management organisations, which are to be encouraged.

For protection to apply, the duration of the absence will also have to be reasonable in all the circumstances. For example, it would arguably not be reasonable for an employee of a small business to be away from work for a longer period than the employer could manage.

The protection will only apply if the recognised emergency management organisation requests the volunteer to carry out the activity, or if, having regard to all the circumstances, there is a reasonable expectation that the volunteer will carry out the activity in his or her capacity as a member of the emergency management organisation. This will cover those situations where volunteers are not individually requested to attend an emergency but may hear of an emergency and attend on their own initiative. The protection will not extend to people who have no association with an emergency management organisation, but who may take it upon themselves to turn up at an emergency.

The bill will insert in the Act a statement that section 170CK of the Act, as amended, is intended to assist in giving effect to the International Labour Organisation's Recommendation No. 166 concerning Termination of Employment. That Recommendation provides, among other things, that absence from work due to civic obligation should not constitute a valid reason for termination. This reference does not represent a wider endorsement of the Recommendation for any other purposes of the Workplace Relations Act.

The Government does not envisage that this provision will be the subject of much litigation. However, the amendment is a public statement that the efforts of emergency volunteers are highly valued, and that they should not be dismissed because they were temporarily performing a great community service.

Debate (on motion by Senator Buckland) adjourned.

Ordered that the resumption of the debate be made an order of the day for a later hour of the day.