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Tuesday, 29 November 2005
Page: 84


Senator NETTLE (7:35 PM) —In these last two weeks of parliament for the year the Howard government is intending to ram through parliament a number of significant pieces of legislation that rip the heart out of the Australian concept of a fair go. There is this bill on industrial relations, the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005, that will dramatically change workplaces and relationships in workplaces across this country. There are the terror laws that remove our civil liberties and change the way in which the law is enforced to this country. There are welfare to work measures that will force single mothers and people with disabilities onto the dole. There is the plan to dump radioactive waste from around the world in the middle of Australia. And just today we hear that the Prime Minister would also like to silence student voices on university campuses around this country in the next two weeks. All of these laws are designed to reduce rights, reduce equality and abolish the proudest moments of our history as a country and the highlights that many people in our society have worked so hard to achieve over so many years.

For the last 100 years, this country has provided many people with an enviable way and quality of life. These positive features of Australian society held out the promise of expanding their reach to remove inequality and poverty for everyone. This piece of legislation and its focus on workplaces crushes that promise of equality and fairness for everyone at work. It is, therefore, the largest regressive step squarely aimed at workers ever taken in the history of this Senate. It saddens me to see the Senate being used in such a way to remove the rights of workers and trade unions in this country. It angers me to see this Senate being used as a rubber stamp by the government to pass these regressive laws. And it appals me that this government has abused its mandate to govern for all of us and is now more than ever governing for the top end of town.

This bill does not enjoy support from any state or territory government around this country, from the weight of Australia’s industrial relations academics nor, most importantly, from workers across this country—and with good reason. It is really important in this debate here in parliament that we hear the voices of ordinary Australian workers. One group of people who will feel the negative impact of this legislation first are those already in a disadvantaged position in our work force: those with the least bargaining power, such as women from non-English-speaking backgrounds. Here is the voice of one such woman, who writes in a letter to the Prime Minister:

Dear Mr Howard

I was a clothing worker and l lost my job this year. Now I am a casual worker. Mr Howard your workchoices will make life very hard for me. I already have no security. I will have less security.

Here is another letter from nine women who work in the textiles industry in one of the north-east suburbs of Melbourne. These nine women write what I think are very pertinent words with an important message to this government and Prime Minister. They say:

We want Australian to improve and to be competitive on the world market, but not in the way you plan to do it. The government should protect the workers because the government lives on the shoulders of the workers—like a sort of big mafia. The government takes tax while we work very hard but they don’t give us much back, especially with these new industrial relations laws.

The government will give the bosses more power to push the workers resulting in more injuries to the workers. Many of us are already working under too much pressure and too much stress. We are immigrants and we are very disappointed with the work culture in Australia.

We came here for a better life but all the factories are closing. We are on the streets without money. We know some changes are needed but not this way.

This legislation will have a dramatic impact on our Australian way of life. It will also have a dramatic impact on the quality of work done in workplaces across this country, the happiness of Australian workers and the stress people experience in their workplace, in financially managing their lives and in managing their work and family balance. It will also have a dramatic impact on the quality of services that Australians are able to access from other tired, overworked employees.

For example, take the fantastic health services provided by nurses around this country. As the Australian Nursing Federation said in their submission to the Senate inquiry into this legislation:

Nurses are at the frontline of the provision of health care and provide an important and valuable service to the community. One of the main motivations for people to undertake nursing as a career is a genuine desire to make a positive difference to the health and well being of the people they are caring for.

                  …         …           …

In their role as providers of care nurses often operate in chaotic settings where demands on their skills and time continue to increase.

These increased demands at the workplace coupled with a professional commitment to the care and wellbeing of their clients has resulted in employers and governments exploiting nurses to maintain health services.

                  …         …           …

Offering nurses an individual contract containing lower wages and/or also reducing or removing shift allowances, weekend penalties, meal breaks, public holidays, and reduced annual leave, for example, will not lead to improved patient care; will not increase hospital through-put and will not save the health care facility money.

All Australians will suffer if we are not able to access quality health services provided by well-paid, relaxed, stress-free and happy nursing staff. A high number of nurses in Australia work on a part-time basis, and this is rapidly increasing. Just two years ago Australia reached the point where 50 per cent of nurses were working part time. I will now talk about the impact of this legislation on people who work on a part-time or casual basis.

One of the other areas in our community in which there is a high number of part-time and casual employees is the TAFE sector. Seventy to 75 per cent of all TAFE teachers are part-time or casual teachers employed from week to week and from hour to hour. Many of these teachers are doing more than a full-time teaching load and yet they are paid one-third less than full-time TAFE teachers.

Let me give you the example of a young man called Bruce, who has been a part-time and casual TAFE teacher in Sydney for five years. He is extremely concerned about the future of work and education if these laws are passed. Despite being a teacher for five years in the TAFE sector in Sydney he still has no job security, no paid leave and no holiday pay. He was involved in a long struggle at the Industrial Relations Commission of New South Wales with the support of his trade union, the New South Wales Teachers Federation, after which he gained a small amount of carer leave. Bruce says this about this legislation:

Our fear—

he is talking about part-time and casual TAFE teachers—

is that instead of continuing to converge towards the conditions of employment of full time teachers, the few gains we have made with things like carer’s leave are going to be lost which result in an erosion of conditions and increased stress for teachers.

Students deserve teachers who are valued by the education system and who are not just considered as simple labor costs.

I fear the death of TAFE and its replacement with a low cost low quality private sector provider, that gives minimal consideration to education and major consideration to making money.

One in three female workers in this country has no access to sick pay or annual leave due to the explosion in casual work. Since the Howard government was elected in 1996 more than 42 per cent of all new jobs have been casual, according to ACTU research. Australia now has the second highest proportion of temporary or casual workers of any developed country, with the vast majority missing out on entitlements that were once considered rights. Casual work was originally designed for short-term jobs or jobs with widely varying hours, but is increasingly being used by employers to avoid the payment of basic entitlements—things that were once rights.

The research shows that casuals, who make up 28 per cent of the work force, get paid 21 per cent less than permanent workers even though they receive an extra pay loading. The low pay and lack of permanency means banks are reluctant to lend to casuals. Only 35 per cent of casual workers own their own home compared to 60 per cent of permanent workers. Young people are more likely to be employed on a casual basis. Casual employees have lower expectations about how they should be treated in the labour market.

The Greens have done some research on the impact of proposed industrial relations reforms on young Australians. The full report is available on Senator Siewert’s web site. One of the young people interviewed by the Greens in a focus group as part of this research was a man called Craig, who works in the finance industry in Melbourne. The comment he made to the researchers highlights the lack of bargaining power that he has with his employer. The young people involved in this research were asked whether they had ever asked their boss for a pay rise. Craig said this:

I’ve never asked and I know I feel like I should ask but I am not really game enough to ask because what does that lead to ... I already feel like I am on the outer so I don’t want to push over the edge.

I would like to conclude my remarks by reading a letter from a man called Brad, who is an electrical designer in Sydney. This is a letter that Brad has written to the Prime Minister. He writes:

Dear Sir,

I’m writing this letter to you so I can express my deep concerns about this proposed Industrial Relations Reform. I’m currently on an award based system where I enjoy overtime penalties, accumulative sick and annual leave, long service leave, rostered day’s off and union representation for when I or anyone else feels they are being mistreated by our bosses. This is just to name a few of the important issues at risk here.

The question I ask is this?

How can you support a piece of legislation that gives corporations the legal power to force me onto an AWA with only a bare minimum of bargaining items?

I’m not a bargainer! I’m just a hard worker who has decided to choose a union to collectively bargain for me on my and the rest of the employees behalf. And if I choose not to accept this ‘individual bargaining thing’, I then am forced to make some hard decisions without the confidence and ‘know how’ on what I deserve.

My wife, myself and my 9 week old daughter are at serious risk here!

I’m so ashamed I voted for a liberal government, who in the past has bought my vote through ‘Baby bonuses’ and ‘First Home buyers grants’. My family and immediate family also deeply regret voting for the Liberal government as well, as they know well and truly what’s at stake here for me.

You may call it ‘scaremongering’, but I call it facts about what could happen and keeping the ‘bastards honest’.

Please don’t reply to me saying that this is good for the economy and that I will still have union representation.

I’m disgusted and feel very nervous about what is happening to this Country!

Yours Faithfully

Brad

The Greens share Brad’s concerns. We are committed. The vision that we have for industrial relations and workplaces in this country is a just society that provides opportunities for all people to engage in work that is safe and secure, satisfying, socially useful, productive and environmentally sustainable. The Greens believe that the objectives of profitability and efficiency should never override social and ecological objectives. The ability of workers to organise collectively in democratic unions is essential to achieving a sustainable democratic future. But this bill takes Australian workers on the opposite path. The Greens will not be part of taking Australian workers down this path and therefore we will oppose this legislation.