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Tuesday, 29 November 2005
Page: 10


Senator WEBBER (1:13 PM) —As a senator from Western Australia, I come from the state that probably has the most recent and most detailed experience of the legislation currently before us, the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005. The Howard government has begun what in my mind is the biggest attack on Australian workers in decades. The so-called Work Choices package is not about choices at all. It is about forcing people onto individual contracts, forcing people to give up their hard-earned working conditions and forcing people to work family unfriendly hours.

We did not hear Mr Howard talking about any of this last year when people were trying to decide who they would vote for. That is because he knew that the Australian people would know what his term ‘flexibility and modernising’ really means: giving more power to the boss at their expense. We did not hear Mr Howard telling people that he was going to try and smash the unions, attack the independent umpire—the Industrial Relations Commission—and remove the basic concept of fairness from the minimum wage.

After the election, Mr Howard said that the government would not let its new Senate power go to its head. ‘No hubris,’ he said. What a joke. It did not take long before this arrogant government started to push its ideological barrow. It now wants to allow big business to make secret donations to political parties, it wants to make it harder for ordinary voters to get on the electoral roll and it wants to hand control of the media to a few moguls. Most of all, it wants to Americanise the industrial relations system in Australia. It wants to overturn decades of progress by Australian employers and employees in order to impose an American-style cowboy system on us all.

If you ignore the $55 million propaganda campaign—and thankfully most people did ignore it, according to the polls—and look at the details of this legislation, there is nothing in it for ordinary working men and women. Almost every provision strips people of pay, of conditions or of their rights. Mr Howard wants to make it legal to sack Australian workers unfairly—not just for businesses with fewer than 100 employees, but for every business. All they have to do is say that they were sacked for ‘operational reasons’—and the teams of corporate lawyers are already planning how to get through that loophole, don’t you worry about that. So, if the boss gets up on the wrong side of the bed, it is: ‘See you later.’

Mr Howard wants to make it easier to cut people’s pay and conditions. No-one should believe the ‘protected by law’ nonsense. In the WorkChoices booklet, the government actually lets the cat out of the bag: all the boss has to do is tell you what he is taking away. On page 15 of the booklet, we read about a job seeker called Billy who is offered an AWA, on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis, that ‘explicitly removes award conditions for public holidays, rest breaks, bonuses, annual leave loadings, allowances, penalty rates and shift/overtime loadings’. So much for ‘protected by law’. There are a whole host of other things that will hurt Australian workers. The new ‘low pay commission’ will erode wages over time. Legitimate trade union activity will be made illegal, and union organisers will probably be sent to jail.

The Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations will have the power to ban anything from being included in an agreement and will fine anyone who even talks about including prohibited content. So much for choice. New businesses can run for five years without ever negotiating with their employees. The Industrial Relations Commission—the independent umpire that Australian workers have relied on for so long— will be sidelined and the no disadvantage test for contracts will be abolished, which can mean only one thing: the government wants workers to be disadvantaged. All of this adds up to an extreme industrial relations system, and ordinary workers will suffer.

In Western Australia we know exactly how it will work, because we suffered through the system imposed by Richard Court and Graham Kierath—a system that was rejected at the 2001 state election. That is the model for the Howard government’s changes, so we need to remember exactly what happened in Western Australia. The Australian Centre for Industrial Relations Research and Training, one of the nation’s most highly respected industrial relations research organisations, recently conducted a study of the old WA Liberal Party system. Its findings were shocking. The minimum weekly wage in Western Australia fell to $50 per week below the national average; 56 per cent of all workplace agreements provided an ordinary rate of pay below the award rate; 67 per cent of workplace agreements did not include overtime rates of pay; 74 per cent of agreements provided no weekend penalty rates; 75 per cent of agreements did not have a pay increase provision, which we all know means that your pay is eroded over the life of the agreement, which can be anything up to five years; and 77 per cent of casual workers were paid below the award rate. So much for ‘No-one will be worse off.’

This is the extreme system that Mr Howard wants to impose across Australia. He wants to cut wages and slash conditions, just like Richard Court and Graham Kierath did. Industrial relations in Western Australia have inspired much of the so-called Work Choices package, especially industrial relations in the north-west of my home state. Aggressive employers have used the Pilbara, especially over the last 20 years, as a testing ground for introducing American anti-union tactics into Australia. The goal of these militant multinational corporations was described in the confessions of an American union buster, who said:

The enemy was the collective spirit. I got hold of that spirit while it was still a seedling. I poisoned it, choked it, bludgeoned it if I had to, anything to be sure it would never blossom into a united work force.

This is coming to every workplace in Australia. Companies like Rio Tinto had a tougher job than this man, because their goal was not just to prevent the development of a united work force. Their goal was to destroy the collective spirit that had been well established throughout the Pilbara. They had to poison the solidarity of their workers, choke community relationships and bludgeon individual unionists.

Individual contracts are the most important weapon in the anti-union arsenal. When the Court-Kierath government introduced workplace agreements in 1993, it was the signal for Rio Tinto to step up its attacks on its workers’ freedom of association—beginning with its operations at Hamersley Iron. In 1993, Hamersley Iron stopped talking to the unions, either in the context of negotiations or in the context of investigations into disputes or safety concerns. There was what a staff member of the Office of the Employment Advocate has called a blanket refusal to deal with union representatives. Union members were purged from the company’s working parties and task groups. The company established a ‘Christmas hit list’ of union delegates and paid them generous go-away money if they would stop fighting for their coworkers’ rights. It was made clear to them that the company would make their lives a misery if they stayed, and that was no joke. At Tom Price, for example, only one union convenor refused to take the package, and he was subsequently sacked.

Hamersley began to introduce workplace agreements and refused to bargain with union representatives. In fact, they really refused to bargain with employees too. The workplace agreements were ‘take it or leave it’ deals. These new contracts included sweeteners to buy people’s acceptance but they were designed to cut pay over time. The Office of the Employment Advocate’s Julie Tracy said:

With a labour turnover rate running at between 15-20 per cent each year at its inland towns Hamersley has been able to reduce labour costs since the introduction of individual agreements by increasing hours of work faster than pay increases ...

                  …         …           …

By 2000, comparisons between Hamersley/Robe employees on individual agreements and BHPIO award employees showed a marked difference in earnings.

Wages and conditions at Hamersley Iron deteriorated so badly that, in 2001, 80 per cent of Hamersley’s employees publicly stated that they would not sign any more individual agreements and that they wanted to return to collective bargaining.

But this is not the only example of Rio Tinto using militant tactics to deny its workers their right to collective bargaining. It was only a few weeks ago that Mr Howard answered a question in the other place by referring to the ‘well-known case’ of 16 Blair Athol workers. The Prime Minister said Work Choices would ‘clarify the situation’ that Rio Tinto faced at Blair Athol in Queensland. I must thank the Prime Minister for this rare moment of honesty, because if we take a look at the Senate submission made by 151 academics they make it quite clear what happened at Blair Athol and they make it quite clear how Work Choices will clarify the situation. They tell us:

In 2001 the AIRC found that Blair Athol management had created a ‘black list’ of union members who were ‘singled out for termination’ via a redundancy process. Mine management ‘went about demeaning’ those targeted for termination; for example they were ‘allocated menial tasks such as chipping weeds with a hoe rather than using a weedicide as was normally the practice ... and painting tyres with a broom as opposed to spray painting which was the normal practice’. The ‘strategy’, which according to the AIRC ‘could be likened to ‘blood sport’’, was ‘designed to force (unionists) to accept the redundancy package’. Management introduced a performance appraisal scheme which had ‘no procedural fairness or due process’ and in which a group of unionists were denied ‘opportunities to perform work which would have provided an opportunity to have improved their...rating’. It was then used as the basis for dismissing the 16 workers. Only a ‘whistle blower’ witness revealed the existence of the ‘black list’. The situation experienced by the workers is detailed in research analysis. This case was pursued by the workers under the unfair dismissal provisions. After numerous cases, appeals, further appeals and delays, most of the workers were reinstated and the case was settled with the unanimous approval of the workers seven years after the dismissals. Under the Bill, these workers would have been unable to pursue their claim.

It is something those opposite should think about. This is what Work Choices is about. This legislation is designed to make it easier to victimise union members and other people who might speak up for themselves or for safety on a mine site. They can be unfairly sacked on the basis of their union membership, but as long as the legal team from Freehills can cook up an ‘operational reason’ to go along with that—which could, according to the 151 academics, be as simple as saying the company would prefer to pay them less money—they can be victimised with no recourse to unfair dismissal proceedings. That is how the Prime Minister wants to clarify the situation. He wants there to be no doubt that companies can target union members and sack them.

I am not saying that all bosses are itching for the chance to do over their employees. Of course they are not. Most Australian businesses are run by decent people who want to do the right thing by their staff, and most Australian workplaces are characterised by cooperation. But, under Work Choices, it is not the good employers who will be rewarded; it is the bad ones. Bosses who squeeze their work force by paying them below the current safety net will, unfortunately, win contracts and win business off the good employers who try to do the right thing.

If I could now return to the experience of the Pilbara, I would like to point out that this is exactly what happened there. Initially Rio Tinto was a foreign multinational importing its anti-union tactics into Australia. BHP Iron Ore was a different story, and it had an excellent relationship with its staff, paid them appropriately for their skills and the difficulty and danger of their work, and respected their right to union representation. BHP was by all accounts a model employer—until it decided in 1999 that it could not compete with the cost savings Rio Tinto had made by slashing workers’ pay. So BHP was forced to go down the low road, to meet Rio Tinto at the lowest common denominator. Its aim was the ‘removal of the needs to negotiate change with union representatives’, or in other words the denial of workers’ rights to collective bargaining.

Bradon Ellem of the University of Sydney has done extensive research into the tactics used by BHP and he concluded that ‘managers initiated many of the standard measures of union avoidance’ that they had learned from Rio Tinto: refusing to negotiate with the union, targeting union delegates for redundancy and forcing workers to attend one-on-one so-called brainwashing meetings. The aim was to impose a one-size-fits-all WA workplace agreement on all employees, which Ellem shows:

... read as a textbook case in enhanced managerial control achieved through different forms of flexibility. They gave the managers temporal flexibility, requiring employees to ‘work outside … normal hours’ or to move from night to day work or from one shift to another as directed. The contract also delivered cost flexibility: salaries were to be reviewed annually and ‘adjusted at the company’s discretion’. Finally, there was spatial flexibility: employees could be required to move between Newman and Port Hedland.

In other words, these contracts were a textbook example of how to break up families and destroy lives. It was a pleasing side effect of this attack on the work force that the spirit of unionism was given a significant boost in the Pilbara. The unions sought a WA award to cover people who refused to sign AWAs, and ultimately they won significant wage increases for their members.

But this government has learnt from the unions’ response in the Pilbara, and the Work Choices legislation is designed to stack the odds heavily in the bosses’ favour. A recent episode of the Sunday program revealed the link between the setbacks suffered by Rio Tinto and BHP and the drafting of the legislation we are being asked to consider this week. The program pointed out that the big business law firm representing Rio Tinto as it victimised its union staff was Freehills. It pointed out that one of Mr Kevin Andrews’s senior advisers is a fellow called Mr Daniel King, who came to the minister from a career at—you guessed it—Freehills.

We know that Freehills was one of several anti-union law firms hired to help draft this legislation. The result is that Freehills will ensure that its clients do not lose their anti-union battles in future. The Sunday presenter concluded:

Under his new legislation, crafted by some of the cleverest veterans of past anti-union battles, there’ll be no more need for avoidance schemes.

That is because Work Choices isan avoidance scheme. It is a scheme cooked up between the Howard government and its anti-union, big business mates to strip rights from Australian workers, to force them onto individual contracts, to cut their pay, to extend their working hours with no overtime penalty rates and to remove family-friendly terms from their agreements. Work Choices is a union avoidance scheme. It is a conspiracy between the government and the big end of town to squeeze a few extra dollars out of ordinary working Australians and their families.

It will do nothing to address the real challenges facing Australian managers and Australian companies today. One need look no further than today’s Australian Financial Review, which has an article by Damien Lynch entitled ‘Top managers fail employees’. It says:

Ineffective management results in lots of wasted time in offices and factories nationwide, generating an annual loss of some $US60 billion in private sector productivity, a report says.

US-based Proudfoot Consulting found that senior managers were using inappropriate management processes and work control systems.

Proudfoot’s Pacific president Ian Renwood said the international study of company-level productivity showed management systems in Australia were poorer than the global average.

What is this government’s solution to that challenge confronting Australian industry? It is to take it out on the ordinary everyday working men and women of Australia.

In the brief time I have left, I would like to foreshadow a difficulty that the Western Australian branch of the Australian Medical Association has with this current legislation. I was surprised to be contacted by them last week. They had been assured by the government, prior to this bill being introduced, that they would expect the AMA in Western Australia, the only state AMA with formal industrial recognition, to be covered by the new legislation. They were advised sometime later that, because of the unique nature of their cover in Western Australia, it would now not be possible to accommodate the AMA. (Time expired)