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Tuesday, 29 November 2005
Page: 4


Senator HOGG (12:42 PM) —I rise in this debate today on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 with a fair deal of experience in the industrial relations area. Not only am I a proud trade unionist but I have been a proud trade union official over a long period of time—


Senator Boswell —With all your mates over there—all your mates.


Senator HOGG —And very proud of it, Senator Boswell. I have also been associated with the largest union in Australia, the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association, for almost 30 years. I have seen both good and bad employers. Let me say that it is because of the bad employers that I am in the position that I am in today. I am glad that we are having this debate on this bill. I am not going to get into the essence of the bill because it is just a muddle, as I will point out as time goes on. The fact is that I have been involved in the trade union movement—and have been active as a trade unionist—over a long period of time. It is not just solely because of something that has been pumped into me; it is because of my belief system and my belief pattern. The belief pattern and belief system I have is for justice, fairness and equity, which is quite at odds with what I believe our opponents in this debate are putting up.

My beliefs have been built up over a long period of time based on a set of moral and social values. The ideological debate that we are having on this bill is substantially important indeed, because there is the defining point between what we believe in and what those on the opposite side believe in. I come from the school of thought—and I said this in my first speech—that believes in a preferential option for the poor. I do not just believe in an option for the poor; I believe in a preferential option for the poor. If you get out there you will find that a number of those people, and a number of the various churches, are espousing the same theme.

The reason is that the poor are the people least able to defend themselves and least likely to be able to defend themselves. Therefore, I make no apology for standing up for those who are in the most vulnerable position in our community. I believe that these people deserve to be protected. Many of them are young, many of them are women, and many of them are unskilled or in low or semiskilled positions in our work force. Many of them find it difficult because of their lack of skills, their lack of training, to break back into the work force or to get into the work force in the first place. I believe in the fundamental protection of these people and in their right to dignity within our community.

These people invariably find themselves in a very inferior bargaining position. I am not talking about those who are in cherished positions in our community—those in positions of power. I am talking about those who are most vulnerable. Unlike a number of others on the other side, I would imagine, but like many of my colleagues, I have known what it is like to be poor. Let me assure you, Madam Acting Deputy President, there is no fun in it at all. It is a most unhappy state of life to find oneself in. But if one looks at what this government says, one sees that it is quite happy to confine people to that state of living, to that state of life.

With respect to what the government is trumpeting about wages, for example, I say this: try to live on the current minimum weekly wage of $484.40—if you have a full-time job, that is. It is no fun at all. There is no pleasure at all in struggling to pay the bills, to pay the rent and to meet the demands of the family, in spite of the additional payments that people are entitled to. If the federal government had had its way in the national wage cases since 1996, that figure of $484.40 would now be $50 a week less—that is, $434. So if you think $484.40 is hard to live on, try to live on $434.40—if you can get a job paying the full-time rate in the first place.

The fact is that intrinsically there is no shame in being poor. There is nothing wrong with being poor. But there is no need to try to make the poor feel shame. There is no need to try to make the poor feel they are in some sort of inferior and lowly position because they do not have the skills and the wherewithal that those in positions of power in our community have at their disposal. It is wrong to put in place structures that condemn people to ongoing poorness, as this bill will. I know that because of my long experience in the trade union movement. I have seen people mistreated and abused in their employment over a long period of time, confining them to a poor state in life.

One of the interesting propositions that has come up in this debate is that modernising the workplace relations legislation will somehow alleviate the poverty and the poorness that many people find themselves in. I say to the government: you cannot modernise poverty or being poor. Being poor is a state which has no favour to it and it is something that I would not advocate for anyone, yet the government, through the Work Choices bill, seems to be quite prepared to allow people to slip back in this way.

The individual, as I have always advocated, is entitled to his or her dignity, just as the family is entitled to its dignity. Dignity of the individual or the family is the most important thing for people in vulnerable positions and it is something that should not be subject to the social experimentation which I believe is advocated in this bill. Those with a social justice conscience—and I am talking about a true social justice conscience—say that the poor are entitled to their dignity by having a fair share of the common wealth that our society generates. The underlying element of natural justice is that any agreement to work should provide sufficient wages to the individual and should allow the individual to sustain a fair and reasonable life and lifestyle. What is advocated by Work Choices does none of that whatsoever. I believe that we as a society have a moral obligation to the poor, and those are the people, as I said, who are the most vulnerable.

Solidarity is not necessarily a word that is understood by those opposite. It is clearly understood by those on this side. It involves not only an empathy with and an understanding of the position of those people but a preparedness to see that their poverty traps, their poorness, is not something that is ensconced in our society and is not something that they cannot break out of. Solidarity helps us to see the other person not just as some kind of instrument with a work capacity and physical strength to be exploited at low cost and then discarded when no longer useful, but as a human being. And that is the defining difference, I would put to you, Madam Acting Deputy President, between those on this side of the chamber who share similar views to mine and those on the other side.

What about the bill itself? I have read a number of industrial relations bills over a long period of time. I have read many opinions in preparing to appear before the industrial commission. But when I read this bill—and the bill is a weightlifter’s delight; it certainly keeps one well and truly exercised—I found it to be almost unintelligible. I think it is giving it high praise to say it is unintelligible. It is difficult to read. It is not a document that can be read in isolation; it needs to be read in conjunction with the existing act, as well as with a set of regulations which we have not yet sighted.

In trying to understand this legislation—which I think is more than some of those on the other side who sat on the committee which examined this bill tried to do—the explanatory memorandum was not much help, as I thought it made the meaning of the bill as clear as mud. The bill, which is trumpeted as something that will simplify everything, is not simple at all. The other thing it does is to destroy much previously established legal precedent on which the current system relies and which has created certainty. That is something that has been glossed over, but it is very important when it is seen that there is no real definition of ‘full-time employment’, ‘part-time employment’ or ‘casual employment’ in the legislation. It is really a matter of throwing it up in the air and hoping that, when it comes back down, you can work out what it means.

The bill is a race to the bottom for wages and conditions. The bill also removes any predictability and certainty in employment, and the most important and fundamental thing that people want out there in our society today is security in employment. By security in employment, they mean the right to a full-time job where they need that job. That is not being given to them. That has been denied to many people even under the existing regime over a long period of time by the practices that are used by employers in employing people—not all employers but those who choose to exploit the loopholes to make people’s lives a misery. People are unable to get full-time employment. They are condemned to casual and part-time employment at the whim and fancy of the employer. They find themselves in a completely uncompetitive state when it comes to getting things such as home loans because they do not have security of employment.

The bill creates an unequal relationship clearly biased towards the employer. Ironically—and this will make a number of people smile—it achieves what the radical Left of politics tried to achieve in the 1960s by destroying the independent umpire, the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. So here we have the extreme Right linking with up with the radical Left. Heavens to Betsy! Now we know we are on the wrong tram! Last but not least, the bill smashes any hope of security of employment by invoking harsh and unconscionable unfair dismissal laws. If anyone had any doubt about my opinion on the bill, they should have realised by now that I believe it is an absolute waste of time, has no merit whatsoever and should not have been presented to this chamber with any reasonable conscience by any person.

One of the things that have been said by our opponents on the other side is that we say the passage of this bill will see the sky fall in overnight. I have never said that and I know many people on this side have never said that. That is not what is going to happen. Those people who are in powerful, secure or privileged positions will remain so. Also, the vast majority of people who are on certified agreements and who are covered by awards will find themselves protected for a period of time, but that protection will run out. However, there are unscrupulous employers out there who will seek to exploit the terms of this bill over time, and I suspect some are queuing up now and will be actively encouraged by the government’s agent, the Employment Advocate. The other notion that comes out of this is that a worker will be able to front for a job with a bargaining agent. That is an absurdity in its own right. People who advocate that are just out of touch with reality as to what happens in the real world.

One of the fundamental rights that will be gone under this bill will be the right to standard hours over five days. The employer will have the right to work people over six or seven days. So someone currently employed as a casual working 35 hours a week on no more than five days will now be able to be rostered over six or seven days. Seven days of five hours! What a great step forward that is! There is nothing in that for the individual whatsoever. It is obviously to serve the employer only. There is no guarantee of continuous hours of employment. In other words, they can say: ‘Turn up to work and maybe come back in a few hours when we need you. Oh well, that’s bad luck. You’re at the end of the food chain in terms of conditions.’

With regard to rostering, there will be no regular starting or ceasing times and no minimum break between the finish of one shift and the next start. There will be nothing to say that you cannot have two or more starts in a day and there will be no maximum hours of work on any day. In spite of what is being said by some, there will be no guarantee of penalty rates and shift loadings for working at unsociable times, which is what people do. They work at those hours because, invariably, they are in low-skilled, unskilled or semiskilled areas and they are on low wages. The only way they build their wage is by using penalty rates. Over time, these will diminish because there will be no obligation: it is not one of the five basic award matters that need to be included in any AWA that is put forward by the employer.

Over time, things such as the 17½ per cent leave loading and the definition of ‘class of employee’—that is, whether they are full time, part time or casual—will be gone. There will be no difference between a part-timer and a casual because there is nothing to define any difference between them, other than a supposed casual loading, which can be avoided by simply employing someone as a part-timer. Given that the bill expressly prohibits any maximum and minimum hours of work for regular part-time employees, those employees can be worked at the will and at the disposal of the employer. So there are some very fundamental rights that will be gone. But they will not be gone overnight; they will be gone with the effluxion of time, with the passage of time, when people are handed an AWA and are told to accept the AWA or they will find themselves unable to remain in the employment, for some very unseemly reason created by the employer.

I have only mentioned a few conditions that I have picked out of the bill thus far but there are many more that will be affected as well—things such as the day of the week on which people are paid. In the report, the government members said that people had to be paid an average of 38 hours per week. Well, whoopy-do. It still does not stop the employer from changing the payday on which people are paid. It does not stop the employer from holding back pay in any week. These are fundamental things that have been negotiated over a period of time to give people a template on which there is a degree of certainty in their work, a degree of certainty in their lifestyle and a degree of certainty for their families. This is being totally stripped away. To say anything else does not reflect what is in that legislation.

When it comes to the making of the AWAs, one finds that the no disadvantage test uses five measures, as against the current award standards. This will cause in the longer term a powerful economic incentive for employers to gain an advantage over their competitors, and this will lead the race to the bottom. The race to the bottom will not start out instantaneously. It will start out incrementally with a number of employers exploiting the provisions that are in the bill. Then, as time goes on, others, good employers, will find that they are in a disadvantageous position and they will have to either take a step to move to lower conditions and meet their competitors or go out of business. At the end of the day, when confronted with these workplace agreements, people will have no choice but to sign them. That is the reality. This will not lead to greater employment, as is often advocated by those opposite; it will undoubtedly lead to greater profits for the employer.

The union that I am associated with had some contact with a young person subject to an AWA in the fast food industry earlier this year. The person was basically given the option of signing the AWA and having a chance to get promotion within that company or not signing the AWA and having no certainty of hours and no certainty of employment. When the union did the assessment of this person’s prospects, they worked out that she was going to be at best $58.62 per week, or $2,800 per year, worse off and at worst $319 per week, or $15,000 per year, worse off. But at the end of the day this person was left with no choice but to sign the AWA or to get no hours and have no chance of promotion. That is what this bill is about. It is about forcing those people in low-skilled and semiskilled areas into untenable positions. (Time expired)