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Wednesday, 30 November 2005
Page: 11

Senator CROSSIN (10:03 AM) —I rise to provide a contribution to the debate on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005. Undoubtedly, this legislation strips away 100 years of mutual respect for workers’ rights, removes the legal protection for many employment conditions and sets a new all-time low for the future workplace conditions of Australian workers. Since Federation, our industrial relations system has been built on the notion that ordinary hardworking Australians got a fair pay for a fair day’s work and that everyone had the chance to participate in the benefits of economic growth but that there was also protection there for the worker when times got tough.

These changes were not put before the Australian people at the last election, so this government has no mandate to strip away those rights, which we have enjoyed for 100 years, and to attack the long-held belief that everyone is entitled to a fair go. The Prime Minister claims that this bill is fair. ‘Fair’ is defined in the dictionary as ‘free from bias, dishonesty or injustice’. To attempt to describe this bill as fair is therefore a travesty. It is not free from bias, it is not just and to try to suggest that it is can only be described as dishonest. So, on all counts, it fails.

There is an enormous gap between the rhetoric and the reality in the proposed workplace relations changes before us in this chamber this week. The rhetoric says that these changes will help secure the future prosperity of Australians. Even Brad Norington in the Australian on 3 November pointed out:

But that’s where the fine rhetoric as compared with the actual impact of the changes goes awry ... almost all of these rules strengthen the bargaining position of the employer. So much so that ... employees will be at the complete mercy of an employer’s benevolence.

Antony Forsyth wrote in the Age in October:

... when you drill down into the detail of WorkChoices, the rhetoric of freedom, choice and bargaining between “equals” is revealed to be largely illusory.

The proposed changes to workplace relations limit the ability of workers to form unions, severely restrict the rights of unions to enter workplaces to help workers, limit the ability of workers to bargain collectively, restrict the ability of any neutral umpire to settle disputes, remove any guarantees on many basic existing conditions and remove the no disadvantage test. The list goes on. For the Aussie worker this bill is horrendous. It is the Christmas present from hell.

If the Prime Minister and the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Mr Andrews, seriously think workers have the ability to bargain for their conditions on an even playing field with employers, it is further evidence of just how out of touch they are—or just how much a puppet of the business industry they have become. If Minister Andrews seriously thinks that workers can afford to take accountants in to bargain for them, as he suggested, how little he knows or cares about the average worker’s financial situation.

Australia is now in its 14th consecutive year of economic growth. While the Howard government may like to try to claim credit for this, it is in fact all based on changes commenced by past Labor governments. The industrial relations system has not held the economy back. Disputes are in fact at an all-time low. The fact that the Howard government believes we may now be facing a slowdown in our economic growth and prosperity is not the fault of workers or trade unions in this country. The changes the government is pushing here will do little to help solve the situation. Employers will not take on extra workers just because labour is cheap or is easily dismissed. They will only do so if there is work available for them to do and if they can find workers with skills to do that work at a profit. We all know that under the Howard government we have seen a massive skills shortage on the increase, and it is being ignored daily by this government. The government has grossly underfunded TAFE and VET for years, and tens of thousands of young Australians have missed out on university and TAFE places in recent years.

It is this skills shortage and the declining investment in our national infrastructure that are now causing any economic slowdown, not the workers and certainly not the trade unions. There is absolutely no need for the changes proposed in this so-called Work Choices bill. This government has been unable to comprehensively prove that such changes are needed or warranted at this time. Rather, it is a 30-year-old macabre dream from an out-of-touch Prime Minister to shatter unions and workers and to see our wages and conditions on a par with those of our Asian neighbours.

Workers will not know from one contract to the next what pay and conditions they will lose in the bargaining, for the no disadvantage test will disappear. If a worker asks for more than an employer is offering then the employer will be able to go and find an unemployed ‘Billy’ and offer him minimal pay and conditions instead. Employees will have no protection from dismissal, whatever the size of the business. Employers could claim operational reasons for dismissing a large part of their work force and then hire more employees with greatly reduced conditions. Not only will the neutral umpire, the AIRC, be emasculated and left with a very limited role, but the minister will have the power to say, if workers have the temerity to strike over negotiations, that the strike is illegal, after which draconian penalties can be applied to individuals and to unions.

This is just a small part of what this bill does. It takes away everything from the workers and leaves all power with employers and the minister. There is indeed no evidence at all that the proposed changes will have any great benefit for our national employment or productivity growth. For some time, there were government claims that the changes to the unfair dismissal laws could lead to the creation of some 70,000 or more jobs. This number came from a survey that was discredited for poor research and wrong assumptions. It was discredited by, for example, people like Dr Oslington, who gave evidence to the Senate committee inquiry into the unfair dismissal bill.

The Prime Minister further claims that the only way to have employment growth is to reduce protection for employees. He uses the example of countries like Germany to claim that a country with a highly regulated labour market has a far higher unemployment rate than Australia. However, as pointed out by Peter Brown, writing in the Age on 28 October, what he fails to say is that in the case of Germany the labour market is so highly regulated as to be totally different and irrelevant to our situation. Furthermore, it is not so long ago that Germany took on the added burden of the economic problems and masses of unemployed from the former communist East Germany, so it is hardly surprising that they do have a high unemployment rate.

At the opposite end of the regulation scale, the USA has a very deregulated labour market, with some not very spectacular results, including a huge number of have-nots who really struggle to survive at all. Ask the Kiwis too. In mid-1990 their conservative National Party government tore up the industrial relations rules and shifted power, just as the Howard government is now doing, to the employers. Many Kiwis copped savage take-home pay cuts.

Using the unemployment rate as an indicator of labour market health is unreliable, as it omits a large group of potential employees, namely those who have dropped out of the jobless statistics. A more reliable measure is the proportion of working age population who have a job. The OECD also has an index of employment protection, which measures the strictness of employment protection legislation. When we match up the two sets of figures—the employment protection and employment rates—for Australia and 16 comparable OECD countries, it does not offer much support for the government changes either. Australia is already in the bottom half of the employment protection range. Our workers already have less protection than most and we are only a touch above average on the employment scale.

Several other countries with higher employment protection also have higher employment rates. To put it more simply: of the six countries with the highest levels of employment, five have higher employee protection than we do. So further attacking employee rights and protection looks unnecessary and unlikely to help much in improving our employment rate. Notably, the OECD countries above us and with better employee protection and employment are Switzerland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. By and large, these countries are all far less resource-rich than Australia, but they value add to products with highly skilled work forces. They have not neglected education and training and the funding of that sector.

This bill will significantly reshape the terms of employment in Australia, especially for those who have responsibility for both work and care. The government again lacks evidence that these changes will benefit families and, as Barbara Pocock stated in her submission to the Senate inquiry:

These changes are occurring as against the background of changes in the welfare system requiring sole parents whose youngest child turns 8 to find at least 15 hours of paid work.

These workers will enter a minimalist, individualistic system with significant family and care responsibilities and weak bargaining power.

Australia already lags behind the industrialised world when it comes to recognising and accommodating workers with family responsibilities—with high levels of insecure work, long average hours of full-time work and a poor regime of leave to attend to family commitments. While many countries are seeking to improve their work and family arrangements, as highlighted by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Pru Goward, Work Choices will ensure that this country goes in the opposite direction. The five components of the fair pay and conditions standard represent a retreat on national work and family standards by incorporating only basic leave conditions and failing to allow the rights of parents to request extended family leave, part-time work or more shared parental leave. This bill also provides that, once on an individual agreement, an employee can never return to an award. So, once given up, basic award conditions, especially those enjoyed by families, will be lost in the long term.

The intention of this bill is to individualise the industrial conditions of the workplace, so Work Choices will see an expansion of the Australian workplace agreements. AWAs are less family friendly. The facts are there. Only 12 per cent of AWAs registered between 1995 and 2000 had any work and family provisions and only 25 per cent of AWAs registered between 2002 and 2003 had family or carer’s leave. Eight per cent had maternity leave and five per cent had parental leave. This legislation will also impact upon female workers much harder than it will male workers. Women who need family-friendly provisions the most will have the least access to them. Only 51 per cent of women on AWAs had access to annual leave, compared to 62 per cent of men, in AWAs registered in 2002 and 2003, and 14 per cent fewer women than men had access to any general work and family provisions.

This bill also prohibits the Industrial Relations Commission from hearing and presiding over national test cases. This will have a major impact on the working conditions of women as we know that most of the gains, if not all of the gains, enjoyed by women and their families in the work force in the past have come from national test case decisions, such as the paid maternity leave and unpaid parental leave provisions.

I turn to my electorate in the Northern Territory. There are a number of comments I want to make. I have brought into the chamber with me this morning an Australian workplace agreement from a company in the Northern Territory. It says:

Normal work hours for ground staff are six days per week and/or at the direction of your supervisor.

It goes on to say:

Sick leave accumulating at the rate of one day per month worked will be granted for illnesses not as a result of workers compensation claims.

No paid annual leave is cumulative from one year to the next.

With regard to wages, the last page says that those with duties in accordance with the directions of the operations manager or a person delegated by him will receive $550 a week gross for 5½ days. There is no mention in this AWA of penalty rates. There is no mention in this AWA of any shift bonuses or of any parental leave, maternity leave or anything other than the conditions that this boss is demanding of this worker. This AWA was signed in July of this year under the current agreement, so I do not imagine that things are going to get much better for this company and these workers.

The Palmerston City Council has adopted a policy of insisting that all new employees sign an AWA as a condition of employment. Under this, annual leave will be reduced from six weeks to four weeks, but a recent opinion survey that was conducted by Peter Berry Consultancy among staff of the Palmerston City Council showed that, of the four things that would most change Palmerston City Council for the better, the most frequent response from the employees of that council was an enterprise bargaining agreement. Not surprisingly, of the four worst things about working for the council, one of them unanimously chosen by staff was having an individual contract. People in the work force do not like it. They do not like being forced into a situation where it is them against the boss. They do not like being in a situation where their rights to collectively bargain are taken away from them, and they do not like the fact that they will have limited opportunity to be represented by the union in their workplace in the future.

I also want to make some comments about a member in the other place who, in delivering his speech in this debate, suggested that the trade union numbers in the Territory had been in decline. I am not entirely sure which sand his head has been in in recent years, but my understanding of the trade union figures—of which I have an intimate knowledge—is that the Northern Territory is one place in this country where trade union membership has steadily been on the increase for more than a decade now. That is particularly so given the expansion of the railway, the Bechtel LNG gas plant and the expansion of the G3 project at Alcan. Trade union numbers are on the increase, and to suggest for one minute that these industrial relations changes are needed because the situation in the Northern Territory is that businesses are struggling defies the reality and the facts. In fact, only on Monday of this week, a press release entitled ‘Territory Businesses Look to Strong Future’ put out by the Northern Territory government claimed that the Sensis business index released on Monday reveals that Territory small businesses are continuing to outperform the nation in key areas of economic growth. After gaining a six-and-a-half-year high in business confidence in the last Sensis index, Territory small businesses recorded the highest level of sales, profitability and capital expenditure over the last quarter. There is no evidence at all that the current workplace relations system is failing businesses in the Northern Territory. There is no evidence at all by this government to show that these massive changes in the workplace are needed in order to make business more productive or more profitable. There is no evidence whatsoever—not during the inquiry, not in the report and certainly not from any of the contributions of the members of this government—justifying why these changes are needed.

Hidden in the detail of the government’s new Work Choices industrial relations legislation are new rules that remove the right of workers under industrial awards to be paid on a weekly, fortnightly or even monthly basis, as my colleague Senator Stephens alluded to. All provisions in awards relating to how and when employees are required to be paid will now become non-allowable. We have seen it in the AWA that I have quoted from today. It does not say whether that $550 gross is to be paid weekly, fortnightly or monthly—even six-monthly. This means that it will no longer be possible to include the following types of clauses in employment awards because, under the government’s new IR laws, all provisions in awards relating to how and when employees are required to be paid will become non-allowable. The requirement that employees be paid on a weekly or fortnightly basis will be gone. Provisions that give employees who are paid by cheque time to cash the cheque will be gone. Provisions to enable employees to nominate which bank their money is paid into or provisions that on termination wages must be paid within a reasonable time will be gone.

Labor opposes these unfair and extreme industrial relations changes and we will fight these changes in every city and in every town across the nation, until the very last vote is cast on the day of the next federal election. We will continue to argue for productive and fair industrial relations that will return dignity, fairness and productivity into the workplace and that respect and uphold the rights of workers in this country to bargain collectively and to have fair bargaining in their workplace—not Work Choices, but a fair workplace and a workplace in which the rights of workers are respected and protected.