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Thursday, 18 November 2004
Page: 39

Senator HOGG (12:22 PM) —I rise in today's address-in-reply debate to speak specifically about the government's move on industrial relations reforms, as a result of their re-election to office. None of what the government offered will do anything to make the lot of the worker better. It will not provide security in employment to many people who are desirous of it at this very moment. Security of employment, of course, is a basic and fundamental right, in my view. The proposals of the government will not in any way contribute to the dignity of the individual, and the dignity of the individual in my view is paramount in our society—again, a basic right.

A raft of legislation that the government will put forward in the industrial relations area is designed to place at risk the most vulnerable in our community—the young, women, the disabled, and particularly a growing group of people, older men. The legislative reforms that the government are championing will do nothing but create a permanent underclass in our society, and that is a sad thing indeed.

I want to look at what has happened as a result of the government's industrial relations reforms to date to see where they may well be taking us in the future. During the election campaign, whilst out on the streets one day, a person approached me at one of my mobile offices and raised with me their predicament. The man, an older person, over 50, had no options. He was given no choice but to accept the conditions that were offered to him in an AWA. He had no choice about it, no option—`take it or leave it'. Of course the option of leaving it would mean that he would be unemployed. Clearly, the conditions in the AWA, whilst I did not traverse them, according to what he related to me, were substandard and below the basic safety net award conditions. The person was offered only casual employment of 30 hours per week—not enough to starve on, but certainly not enough to live on. No offer of a full-time job was made to the person. They were not given the opportunity of secure, full-time employment, only 30 hours per week—not 38, which is the standard working week, but 30.

After having spent 12 months as a casual, not even the slightest hint of an offer of secure full-time employment was made to this person. They were just left out on a limb—no holidays, no breaks, no sick leave. As a matter of fact, the person made the point to me, quite clearly, that if they took time off for any reason they ran the risk of losing their job. In my view, there was no humanity in the way in which the person was employed.

The person was given no access to stable employment and, not having access to stable employment, had no access to things—such as basic credit facilities, home loans and the like—that those who have the pleasure of enjoying a full-time job that is secure have access to. This person was trapped. He was isolated from mainstream Australians, isolated from those who have loftier expectations of having a dignified lifestyle in our community. This person was trapped in a low-skilled job. There was no way in the world that this person would be able to break out of the job that they were undertaking. There were no promotion opportunities.

There is no way these sorts of people could apply for different sorts of jobs that would lift them out of the insecure lifestyle that has befallen them, other than to hope that at some stage there might be someone to tap them on the shoulder and say that full-time employment would be available. This should not be the case, because the way in which people were employed was that everyone was casual and that everyone was on a day-to-day basis in terms of their employment, in spite of the fact that they turned up five days a week for 52 weeks of the year. In my view, these people have been sentenced to a quite despicable form of employment.

Of all surprises, the employer of this individual was a government department. Not just one individual was suffering; indeed, numerous individuals were. This government has over time, with the cooperation of a number of employers in our society, created a new class of citizens who have no fairness, no equity and no justice in their employment. Workers in this weakened position are often exploited in the name of efficient government or for corporate profits. Of course, this government has an ideological bent in the industrial relations area that wants to see these people even more disadvantaged than they currently may well be.

The only path this government can embark upon in its fourth term is to enact more regressive legislation which will diminish, and in some cases completely remove, the basic rights and conditions of the ordinary worker out there in Australia. If you are in a protected environment, if you are strong, then you are okay. But if you are vulnerable, if you are weak, then you are subject to exploitation by the legislation that has been offered by this government and rejected by this chamber on so many occasions. This is the same government that have sat by and watched corporate barons lavish bonuses upon themselves whilst in some cases their companies were failing or have sat by and watched companies reward directors or their CEOs with massive golden handshakes when made redundant or forced to leave their corporate empires. That does not lead to a fair and equitable society. It does not lead to a society in which individuals have a fundamental and basic right to the respect that they deserve as human beings.

One might ask, `What's ahead?' That is what is frightening, and that is what I want to go over briefly in the moments that I have left. Any sense of fair play seems to have gone out the door. What the future might look like is best summed up by an article that appeared in the Sunday Mail of 14 November. We are not talking about something that may happen or might happen; this is something that is happening now and will be encouraged to happen even more and in more diverse ways if the government's legislation program takes hold, and it seems that that will be the case. The article was headed `Bum steer for trolley children'. I am going to look at a group of people who are disadvantaged, who are in low-paid work—very low-paid work, to say the least—and who are very vulnerable to being exploited by their employers. I am going to quote several paragraphs from this article, because I think it really gives a foreboding of what will be around with this government's attack on the lifestyle of workers in this country. The article begins:

SUPERMARKET trolley boys are being sued for thousands of dollars for damage to cars and shops after their employers cut them adrift.

It goes on:

Legal Aid Queensland and the Young Workers' Advisory Service have received complaints that children and disabled people are being forced to register as companies, rather than employees, in the latest abuse of disadvantaged workers.

I have worked in the retail industry and am still actively involved in the retail industry through my involvement in the SDA, which is Australia's largest trade union, and I know how these people who are collecting the trolleys in these major shopping centres are subject to exploitation. We now have people complaining that these young people—and they are as young as 15 and 16 years old—and others who because of their disablement can find no other source of work in some instances than collecting trolleys, are now being cast adrift and forced into registering their own companies rather than be employees. This is an absolute disgrace indeed, but it is something that will be not uncommon if the ideological bent of the government takes over in the not-too-distant future. The article went on to say:

Both organisations have received complaints about employers offering to put young workers on as contractors—leaving them personally responsible for insurance, damages and taxation—rather than offering them the protection of employment.

That is what this is about; it is about offering people the right to be their own mini entrepreneur so that the employer can get around the need to provide basic terms and conditions of employment. The article goes on to quote advocate Simon Cleary as saying:

“It's a difficult and dangerous job pushing trolleys around car parks with cars whizzing around corners.

“We would advise any young person, if they have a choice take any other job except this one.”

The article continues:

Mr Cleary said one boy had been told to work for months for nothing to clear a debt for his employer.

I do not think this really is what the Australian people want. I do not think they believe that there is equity and justice in this system. I do not think that the Australian people understand the import of some of the pieces of legislation that this government will put forward in its fourth term—that is, pieces of legislation that will deny fundamental and basic rights to the work force in Australia. If the government were putting forward legislation that created greater security of employment and greater opportunities for people then I would applaud that legislation, but legislation that denies people fundamental rights, denies them their basic rights, must be condemned indeed. The article goes on further to look at one of the complaints in particular and it states:

In one complaint, a young man had been employed at a landscaping company for about 2½ years when his boss told workers they had to get an ABN and were responsible for their own tax, equipment, WorkCover payments and superannuation.

This is absolutely scandalous. But this government's ideological bent of going down the path of making people individual contractors, responsible for their own insurance, WorkCover, tax, superannuation and so on is going to leave those who are vulnerable, those who are in weakened positions, totally isolated. It is going to leave them in a situation where they will not reap any of the benefits that our buoyant economy and society have to offer. People have an inalienable right to take part in the benefits that society offers. The IR program that the government will push through this chamber by no later than the middle of next year will take away from these people, will deny these people, what are basic, fundamental rights that they should enjoy so that they can participate in a meaningful way in our society.

It was disappointing, but not unexpected, that with its program the government is hell-bent on proceeding down the path of making life a misery for more people in our community. Whilst many of these people are not visible in the community at this stage, they nonetheless are out there and it does not mean that they do not warrant some attention from people such as ourselves on this side of politics to defend their rights, to promote their cause and to see that they have the opportunities that others around us have and take advantage of in a very successful way indeed.

The government have created this notion that by lessening the conditions of employment of many people they will create more employment across the board. There is nothing to substantiate that that will happen. There is no precedent to show that weakening and lessening the conditions of some of the people in the work force in our community and making conditions below even the very basic standards that apply in awards are going to create employment at all. All that that will do is perpetuate an underclass in our society, an underclass that does not deserve this government.