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Wednesday, 30 November 2005
Page: 29

Senator WORTLEY (11:17 AM) —Labor oppose the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 because we know it is not in the best interests of workers, not in the best interests of their families and not in the best interests of Australia. It is the biggest attack on the rights of Australian workers in 100 years.

Three weeks ago more than 500,000 Australian workers made a stand opposing the introduction of the Howard government’s Work Choices bill, and thousands more have voiced their opposition to it. But the government refuse to listen. They have ignored the concerns raised by the Australian community—churches, unions, social welfare agencies, workers and their families, academics, and many good employers—about the adverse impact these changes will have on Australian workers and their families. They have failed to guarantee that wages will be sustained or increased in real terms under these changes and they have failed to provide a guarantee that no individual Australian employee will be worse off. They have ignored the concerns raised about the likely impact of the legislation, particularly on the poor, the disadvantaged, the vulnerable and the hundreds of thousands of Australian families.

Only this week, Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, said in an article published in the Sunday Telegraph:

This Bill will increase the “Americanisation” of the Australian workplace in some unfortunate ways through its hostility to unions and by further increasing the wage differentials between the very rich and prosperous and those battlers at the other end of the spectrum.

He went on to say:

When the new nation of Australia set a “basic wage” for all its workers in 1907, it was to enable a family with three children to live in “frugal comfort”.

In the proposed legislation, there is no such emphasis on fairness.

In the submission by Sydney’s Anglican Archbishop, Dr Peter Jensen, to the Senate inquiry into this bill—the inquiry that was restricted by its time frame and its terms of reference—he said in part:

... vulnerable workers, or those who have less bargaining power, need to be protected from the effects of any reforms. For example, the unequal bargaining position of some workers and the inexperience of new entrants to the workforce means that some potentially could be taken advantage of. Traditionally, unions and the Australian Industrial Relations Commission have played an important role in our community in protecting such workers. We would wish to see such protection continue to ensure that employers’ power is not increased at the expense of those with less bargaining power.

The submission by the Reverend Dr Wansborough from the Uniting Church in Australia states:

We believe this system of work choices does not give workers any more choice, and it limits the income they derive from having fewer choices and being expected to work a wider range of hours. They lose the shared time but they also do not recompense for having lost it, so they lose out both ways as families.

Here in Canberra this week a church vigil outside Parliament House attended by representatives from the Quakers, Baptists and the Uniting Church expressed concerns that the bill will result in the erosion of quality family and leisure time for many Australians and will undermine the balance between employer and employee rights. When we listen to representative organisations, much of what we hear is the same concerns raised by Labor members, minor parties, unions and many other members of our community.

Australian workers currently have an award system with 20 pay and conditions standards that are protected by law. When this bill is passed this will be reduced to just five. The five guaranteed conditions are: a minimum wage of $484.40 per week; annual leave of four weeks, with an option to cash out two weeks; 12 months unpaid parental leave between parents; personal leave of 10 days paid leave, accumulating for personal sickness but capped at 10 days per annum for caring purposes; and 38 ordinary hours of work per week that can be averaged over 12 months. This means you could work 20 hours one week and 50 the next.

The government tells us what the legislation protects—and it is only five conditions—but it does not tell us what it does away with. The reality is that there is no choice for workers with the government’s Work Choices legislation. Workers’ bargaining power will be removed, resulting in what will be, in many cases, ‘accept it or don’t take the job’ or ‘accept the pay and conditions’. That is all that is on offer.

Where an award contains superior provisions to those in legislation, these will be retained initially in existing awards and agreements. However, employers can exclude these superior provisions in new agreements and individual contracts. Other exclusions include skill based career paths, restrictions for trainees, enterprise flexibility provisions and trade union training leave. In the event of a redundancy payment, where an employer offers alternative employment, even at lower pay, and is rejected, the employee is not entitled to redundancy pay.

An award review task force will further reduce conditions under the guise of improving productivity and employment. With the changes implemented by this government, the classification rates and casual loadings will be rationalised and there will be fewer rates. The concept of skill based salaries will become redundant. Gradings, levels and classifications stand to become a single minimum rate. Individuals will be forced into a position of negotiating and justifying claims for higher than the single minimum rate of pay. The task force will examine existing federal awards to recommend rationalising these awards too.

Today, many workers are covered by union-negotiated certified agreements that contain conditions well above the award minimum. These agreements can replace the award entirely or they can sit on top of the award. In either case, the agreement must pass the no disadvantage test. This means that on an overall basis the terms of the agreement must be at least as good as the award conditions. Currently, agreements secure rights for a set period and continue unchanged if not renegotiated after the expiry date. Under the Liberal government’s changes, after the agreement expires, employers can terminate the agreement and put their employees on non-union-negotiated agreements that contain fewer and poorer conditions. And existing agreements are not able to be varied or extended once the bill is in place.

Australian workers deserve to have job security and decent working conditions, but the Howard government intends to strip them of both of these and more. This government intends to strip away the rights of workers and replace them with uncertainty and reduced working conditions, and the removal of job security—rights that workers, their parents and their grandparents fought for; working conditions and job security that Australian workers deserve. It will take away their freedom of speech to voice their opinion in the workplace for fear of the ramifications. I know this because I have already heard from workers whose bosses and leading hands are saying, ‘Wait until the IR changes go through.’ This is what is feeding the fear of many workers about the impact of the Work Choices bill—the everyday reality of what goes on in their workplaces.

Even today in some workplaces, workers are unfairly dismissed, workplace bullying exists and workers are fearful of claiming overtime that is rightfully owed to them. The current system is not perfect, but there is legislation in place which affords workers rights and protections. It is their choice as to whether they access those rights and avenues of protection and compensation. But the divide between rights and protection will be grossly widened with the introduction of this legislation. Workers have reason to be concerned about the changes. Some of the changes will be felt within weeks of this legislation going through; other changes will impact in the months and the years to come. The reality is that, in practice, under this legislation, most workers will not have access to unfair dismissal provisions. The employer will not even have to provide employees with a reason for sacking them. ‘Partly operational reasons’ are relatively simple to justify.

This government’s attack on the working conditions and rights of workers is an attack on the security of working families and the values of Australian society. It is an attack on the conditions and job security that we should be protecting for our children, for future generations. The bill will erode the rights and entitlements of workers, particularly for those who do not have strong bargaining power—the young entering the work force, single parents, the unskilled and migrants. The effects will be devastating—devastating to them and devastating to their families. The government argues individuals will be able to negotiate their own conditions, but the power of an individual to bargain with a new employer is less than the collective force of all employees.

Australian workers are worried, with surveys revealing more than 70 per cent of workers believe the changes are bad. The government has spent $55 million that we know about of taxpayers’ money to fund Liberal Party ads in an attempt to convince taxpayers, workers, that the changes will not hurt; that it will not hurt losing the Australian Industrial Relations Commission—the independent umpire—penalty rates, holiday leave and redundancy pay; that it will not hurt losing the no disadvantage test that applies to current agreements, the fairness of the national wage case and the foundation of a fair system of enterprise agreements; that it will not hurt having your hours of work changed without reasonable notice, and losing the right to file for unfair dismissal with access to reinstatement and compensation; and that it will not hurt having the national wage case delayed and abolishing the annual wage increases made by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. Australian workers are going to be the losers as a result of these extreme changes to Australia’s industrial relations system, and it will hurt both workers and their families.

The government talks about providing flexibility in the workplace. We do not need to change the laws to enjoy flexibility in the workplace. There already exists flexibility to improve work practices and receive higher pay. The employer can offer better than the award. The award is the safety net.

Under the current Workplace Relations Act there is nothing to stop workers negotiating better conditions with their employers. However, there is not the capacity to negotiate below minimum standards of wages and working conditions because we have in place the no disadvantage test. Workers have protection. But, under the government’s Work Choices, when a worker starts a new job, the agreement need only meet the Australian fair pay and conditions standard, which has fewer entitlements than the award, does not include overtime loading and penalty rates and would likely result in lower take-home pay and reduced working conditions. The changes proposed in this bill make it easier to cut take-home pay, dismiss workers without compensation and restructure the business. With rights and conditions reduced, the changes are nothing for workers to look forward to.

The government says the minimum wage will remain. But for how long will the minimum wage remain at the current rate? The Liberal senators opposite do not appear to understand what it is like to work for a weekly wage, to rely on penalty rates and overtime in order to meet the mortgage or rent payment, to pay medical bills, to buy shoes for the kids and to put fresh food on the table each day. They might know of people or have heard about people in this situation, but how many of them have sat down at their dinner table in recent times with people in this sort of situation? This bill denies Australian workers a choice to bargain collectively with their employer for decent wages and conditions. It denies the individual the right to reject individual contracts which cut pay and conditions and undermine collective bargaining and union representation. It says that it is okay for individual contracts to undermine the rights of workers under collective agreements and awards; that it is okay to eliminate overtime, penalty rates and shift loading.

The bill removes the role of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission in handing down the minimum wage decision and hands it over to the government’s so-called Australian Fair Pay Commission. Do you like the words ‘Fair Pay Commission’? We already know how the government views increases in the minimum wage. The Prime Minister says he stands by his record. We only have to look at the record. If the Howard government had its way, the minimum wage would be $50 a week less than what it currently is—that is, Australian working families on the minimum wage would be $2,600 a year worse off—$2,600 a year down on their annual pay packet. Had the government’s submissions to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission been awarded, the current minimum wage would be $434.40 instead of the $484.40 that it currently is—$50 per week less without the decision of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, whose role in these decisions under the new legislation has been removed. In four of the nine long years that this government has been in power, the government proposed a minimum wage increase less than its own inflation forecast. Had it been successful, it would have resulted in a drop in the minimum wage in real terms on these occasions.

And now, under the government’s new system of Work Choices, the next national minimum wage increase, which will be determined by the so-named Fair Pay Commission, will be at least six months later than normal. This means that Australia’s more than 1.6 million lowest paid employees will have to wait at least 18 months for a pay increase to be considered. And, unlike the current system, there is no requirement for the Australian Fair Pay Commission to have regard to fairness in providing a safety net for the low paid—either fairness in meeting needs or fairness in the context of community standards.

We know what the government thinks of this system. In October of this year, in a report by government senators on the workplace agreements inquiry conducted by the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education References Committee, they told us:

... party senators take the view here that safety-net awards are probably too high—a matter to be addressed in the forthcoming legislation—and that this causes serious distortion in the wage structure, leading to discouragement of employment.

So this government does not shy away from saying that it thinks Australian workers on awards are already being paid too much. But the negative impact of the bill does not end here. It takes away rights from workers and their representatives and puts them in the hands of the minister. It prohibits workplace agreements from including what the minister—the Liberal minister—decides is ‘prohibited content’.

And it goes further. Under the bill it is an offence to even attempt to negotiate anything the minister—the Liberal minister—prohibits. And unions, as representatives of workers, can be fined $33,000 if they ask an employer to include a provision in an agreement that protects the workers from unfair dismissal—we are not talking about fair dismissal; we are talking about unfair dismissal—or for a commitment to collective bargaining. Only yesterday, in South Australia’s daily newspaper, the Advertiser, Kym Richardson, the federal Liberal member for Kingston, a marginal seat in South Australia which takes in the southern suburbs, including Morphett Vale, Christies Beach, Hackham, Christie Downs, Old Noarlunga and Reynella, said that a significant number of constituents feared being exploited under the new legislation. ‘Change and uncertainty are the two biggest factors of the hesitation towards the industrial relations changes,’ he said. And his Liberal colleague in the Western Sydney seat of Lindsay said, ‘The workers’ concerns are they will be exploited.’ So here we have two Liberal members of parliament using the words ‘uncertainty’ and ‘exploited’ in relation to the Work Choices bill.

So the Liberal government introduces legislation which will impact greatly on the lives of working Australians. The federal members receive hundreds of emails and letters of concern. They know thousands have signed petitions, they see tens of thousands of people, their constituents, many of whom voted for them, on their television screen standing united against the legislation in their respective cities, and they are worried. So, what do they do? They suggest establishing a hotline to dob in the bosses. Let us consider how this hotline might work. The worker rings up, leaves their name, provides details of their workplace, the name of their boss and their concerns. A new departmental inspector is given the information. The complaint is investigated. The boss gets wind of it. The worker gets sacked, not that week but within a short time. Where is the worker’s right to unfair dismissal? It is gone. It does not exist because the Liberal government stripped it away. The boss will not come out and say that employees were sacked for their actions but, under the new legislation, partly operational reasons will suffice.

The member for Kingston and the member for Lindsay know that the workers, their constituents, are concerned about the changes to the workplace legislation. These workers needed their elected representatives to vote against the government’s extreme changes that will impact on their conditions and pay. But, along with their Liberal colleagues, they supported the changes and many workers and their families will suffer because of it. Labor will fight for a strong safety net of minimum award wages and conditions, for an independent umpire and for proper rights for workers who are dismissed unfairly. Labor will stand up for the right of workers to bargain collectively for decent wages and conditions and for the right to object to individual contracts. (Time expired)