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Tuesday, 29 November 2005
Page: 104


Senator HURLEY (9:16 PM) —The Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 represents a radical shift in industrial relations legislation towards individual negotiation. I will first deal with the lack of protection in this legislation for some of our most vulnerable workers. They are not protected and they will be unequally affected by this legislation. I refer to the migrant community, with whom I speak often. English language difficulties force many migrants to Australia into low-skilled jobs, and that includes those people who come in the skilled migration category. Their qualifications may not be recognised sufficiently and their English language skills may take some time to develop. As we all know, many quite skilled migrants are driving taxis or working in factories. Many find themselves in unskilled jobs, which they need in order to establish themselves in this country. They are very anxious to make a start in this country for themselves and their families. They are very keen to work, to contribute to our country and to get ahead.

What concerns me is that this bill will make it more difficult for that group of people. They will find it extremely difficult to negotiate with employers. This group of people will not be familiar with the laws, practices and culture of Australian workplaces. They will be anxious for a job and they will find it difficult to understand or know the background to all the rules, regulations and options that they have. Many employers will put an agreement in front of them and say, ‘Sign this if you want to get a job.’ Those migrant people with English language difficulties and a limited understanding of their rights will probably sign that agreement without any consultation or advice. There are no protections in this legislation for that group of people.

Many migrants coming to this country, particularly more recent migrants who are refugees, are very wary of authority in any case and would be very reluctant, for example, to take advantage of some of the provisions within the legislation—even if they knew about them—such as taking an unfair dismissal to court on the basis of discrimination. In the past, many of these low-skilled migrants were picked up by unions that did provide that assistance to them. Unions were able to go into the workplace and see what was happening and assist people in that situation to understand the system and to utilise their rights in the workplace.

There is no more telling example of what can happen in the workplace than the situation for outworkers. For those who are not aware, outworkers are those people who are employed, typically in the fashion industry, to work at home. There are an estimated 300,000 migrant outworkers, most of them women sewing at home for as little as $3 to $4 an hour. This Work Choices legislation fails to protect those outworkers. A concerted campaign by unions and others has built up a system under state legislation of providing some protection for these extremely vulnerable workers, most of whom have very limited English and very limited job opportunities. That very clearly illustrates that the government is not at all concerned with protecting vulnerable people in our community.

The main rationale from the government for this seems to be that any job is better than no job at all. I got some information on the experience of the United States, which has a similar philosophy. I have a paper from the Brookings Institute in Washington, which has done several quite extensive research papers on this very issue. Speaking of the experience in the United States, it says:

The welfare reforms of the late 1990s, along with a strong economy and an expansion of work supports for low earners such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, helped reduce welfare rolls and raise employment rates among low-income single mothers. Not only did employment rates rise for these women, their rates of job retention are currently quite high as well.

That is good so far, but the report goes on to say:

But most current or former welfare recipients earn low wages—usually in the range of $7 to $8 per hour. Most of these workers do not receive health and other benefits on the job. Nor do they move up the job ladder very much over time. Thus, most former welfare recipients continue to be poor or near poor, even after entering the labor market, and their prospects for escaping poverty or near-poverty in the foreseeable future seem low.

Again, that is what this government fails to address. I think it is worth going a bit more into what is meant by ‘low income’ in this United States example. The Brookings Institute report says:

We defined low earners as those who earned less than $12,000 per year (in 2000 dollars) for three consecutive years in the period 1993-95 ...

Later, they go on to say:

... significant earnings improvements—

over the wider group—

are observed in ... subsequent years ...

At the same time, only about 27 percent of these initially low earners consistently earn above $15,000 by the end of this period—which would be needed ... to lift the earnings of single parents above the poverty line for a family of four. Earnings advances for women appear to be smaller than those of men, and advances for minorities and the foreign-born (especially among men) generally lag behind those observed for native-born whites. Transition rates out of low earnings are also lower among high school dropouts and others with poor skills ...

To me, that seems to be blindingly obvious, but it is obviously not apparent to the government and to the architects of this current legislation. The Brookings Institute says that in order to ensure that people moving out of welfare into work do benefit by that they should not accept the first job possible. This is where the government’s concurrent Welfare to Work legislation contradicts again what they say they are trying to do, because the Welfare to Work legislation virtually forces people into the first job that they get and provides severe penalties if they do not take that job. Of course, there is going to be very intense competition for those jobs and that will drive down wages and conditions so much further than already exists.

There will of course always be lower paid jobs, particularly in lower skilled areas. We will never get away from the fact that some people will be relatively poor compared to others. But I know from my own experience with neighbours in South Australia that women going back into the work force once their children are at school gladly accepted jobs that were the only jobs available. In particular, one woman was working for a mobile lunch van and she was working for two or three hours more than she was paid for. She was responsible for driving the van, making the lunches and collecting and reconciling the money, and any money that she was short was taken out of her meagre wages. She was very stressed and was paid very poorly. We are going to see much more of these kinds of conditions once there are no protections of the awards, the agreements and the enterprise bargaining agreements, and ultimately no protection of the unions.

The government are really making it easier for there to be a wider pool of low-income people in the work force, and they know that is true. That is the intended effect of this legislation. As someone who has spent a great deal of time in regional areas of South Australia—in particular, Port Augusta and the Spencer Gulf cities, as well as the Riverland and Mount Gambier in the south-east—I know only too well that this is going to affect rural and regional areas adversely, because unemployment rates are frequently higher in the country. There are certainly some regional cities in South Australia that are powering ahead and doing very well economically, but, generally speaking, unemployment rates are higher in the country, it is more difficult to change jobs and it is more difficult to get a job.

Many people are moving into semi-rural areas in order to be able to afford the housing that they require for a reasonable quality of life. Some of these people will find that they are very much caught between this Work Choices legislation and the Welfare to Work legislation. They will not have the opportunity to move into the kinds of jobs that have higher wages and they will not have the support of the unions. This will be particularly so in some of the higher turnover industries, like the tourism industry or other seasonal industries, where employers are not concerned with keeping long-term employees. They are not concerned with ensuring that their employees stay and are happy; they just want to employ them for two or three months and have them move on.

Fortunately, our state government understands some of these realities. Premier Mike Rann has called this current legislation an assault on fairness. He has said that South Australia’s impressive industrial relations record will be threatened if the system is taken over by the Commonwealth. He went on to say:

Nobody in the industrial relations movement, no one in the unions fears change, but what we’re facing from the day after tomorrow is a whole new industrial and political landscape where the hard-won balance that we have here in South Australia could be badly upset.

That includes particularly the rural and regional areas of the state. What we have here is a federal government hell-bent on changing a system. It is a concerted campaign to change the landscape of the industrial relations system, but they are doing it without any safeguards, without any protections, for the most vulnerable in our community.

The Parliamentary Library has produced a paper which compares real wages changes with employment growth. It shows that between 1999 and 2000 real minimum wages increased by 2.9 per cent in Australia, with employment growth of 10.4 per cent. In the United States the minimum wage dropped by 11.8 per cent, with concurrent employment growth of only 2.9 per cent. In the United Kingdom the minimum wage rose by 26.9 per cent, with employment growth of 4.4 per cent. The comment is that jobs growth in the United Kingdom has also been higher than in the US in the past five years, despite very significant rises in the UK minimum wage as part of a concerted campaign against poverty and inequality. That is what is missing when government members talk about the value of the UK experience. They leave out that concerted campaign against poverty and inequality by the Blair Labour government. They have neglected that very important side of the equation. That will lead to great disruption in South Australia, I believe, and will make it difficult for many members of our community.

There is no attempt to eliminate relatively low-wage jobs just to give employees a fair go, to ensure that there is adequate protection. The government has argued that changes are needed. Changes will always be needed as the world moves on—and it certainly is a fast-moving world—but we do not want the kinds of changes talked about in the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry report entitled Workplace reform: working for Australian women. I notice that Senator Judith Troeth used the following example as an illustration of how the government wanted the system to work. Page 19 of the report talks about Christina. It says:

Christina is a 28 year old mother of two children aged 11 and 8. She works for a financial institution in Victoria ... Her husband also works on a full time basis in a trade.

This poor woman works from three o’clock in the afternoon to 11 o’clock at night and her husband works till 2 pm. This is an example of flexibility in the work force. ACCI say:

... Christina is able to care for their children every morning, take them to school, and participate in school life whilst maintaining a full time job ... Her husband picks up the children from school each afternoon.

So this poor woman works all night, gets up in the morning to get their kids to school, presumably does all the housework and everything in the meantime, and her husband works during the day and looks after the kids at night. The ACCI admit that the couple are not able to afford child care. This is the kind of world that is held up for us by Senator Troeth and others on the government side as an example of how we want our community to work. The example is of two people working full time, unable to pay child care and not seeing each other because they are working in two very different jobs in order to keep their family together. If that is the kind of system that the government wants, I am very sure that I do not want to be part of it.

Certainly, changes will be warranted over time, but the government have not taken on the tough changes that we need to make to improve productivity—the changes we need in infrastructure, education, skills development and innovation. The government have wimped out on that. They have chosen to go back to a system that they have been working on for decades which will drive down minimum wages and get rid of unions. It will drive us down to a lower range economy in order to force up productivity by threatening wages that do not allow families a living wage without giving up their holidays, without giving up their public holidays and without working the kinds of hours that the ACCI reckon are a good thing.

That is one of the main reasons that I oppose this legislation. It is using an old system; it is not making the changes that are required for our new world, to meet the global changes. It merely puts off for another time—and, presumably, a new Labor government—the sorts of changes that are being called for by industry in order to boost productivity. Productivity has dropped. The government have recognised this but they choose to blame workers instead of blaming themselves for not keeping up with trends in infrastructure, education and skills development. That is why I will be opposing this legislation at all stages. I hope that there is some government support for this view, particularly from those government members who will see fragmentation of the work force occurring in their rural and regional areas.