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Monday, 18 June 2007
Page: 111

Senator FIELDING (Leader of the Family First Party) (9:08 PM) —The government made a mess of its Work Choices laws and it only has itself to blame. From day one, Family First had serious concerns about the changes, which undermined family life, and we said so. We voted against the legislation because, as we said from the beginning, the government went too far when it removed guarantees for basic conditions for Australian workers—conditions such as overtime, penalty rates and compensation for working on public holidays.

It was no surprise that the Work Choices laws were so unpopular. Australians were rightly concerned about having to bargain for basic conditions that previously were guaranteed. Australian workers and their families did not vote for the Howard government so that they would be forced to bargain for a meal break or extra pay for working after midnight. The economy might be going well at the moment, but families are understandably concerned about what might happen when there is a downturn and jobs are at risk. They are also concerned about what sort of workforce their children will be entering. My wife, Sue, and I share these concerns for our three teenage children.

It was obvious that Work Choices had major flaws and that Australians wanted change, yet despite this the government stubbornly refused to budge. Meanwhile, the Labor opposition revealed that it would rip up the laws, which is reckless and not a satisfactory solution. Australians want to know that problems are being fixed, which is why Family First introduced legislation to improve Work Choices and get a much better deal for Australian families and small businesses. Family First’s bill would have ensured that workers who have to work on public holidays would be guaranteed a minimum of another day off paid at time and a half, that workers would be guaranteed an unpaid meal break of at least 30 minutes after five hours, that workers would be guaranteed overtime at a minimum rate of time and a half, that workers who work anti-family hours would be guaranteed penalty rates at a minimum of time and a half, and that workers would be guaranteed their full redundancy entitlements. Family First’s legislation struck the right balance between the needs of workers and the needs of small businesses, most of which are family businesses.

Finally, just weeks after Family First introduced its bill, the government admitted that it had gone too far and that changes would be made. The government admitted that Australian workers were not adequately protected and it announced its fairness test, which in some ways is similar to the old no disadvantage test. The Senate is in the unusual position of considering legislation that seeks to fix Work Choices and the problems caused by abolishing the no disadvantage test and slashing the number of guaranteed conditions from 20 to five. The government has backtracked and introduced a fairness test to protect workers, but surely what it should have done to fix its mess is reinstate guarantees for the key basic conditions it removed. That would have been much easier and simpler.

Family First welcomes the government’s changes, but we have several concerns with the Workplace Relations Amendment (A Stronger Safety Net) Bill 2007 and fears that some workers and their families could still be worse off because of inadequate protections. Firstly, Family First is concerned that the government’s new fairness test applies only to Australian workers earning up to $75,000. Why not to all workers? Surely the principle of fairness applies to everyone, not just to those who earn a particular income. The government says the issue is one of cost, but Family First believes the primary focus should be on ensuring fairness.

It is important to stress that most employers do the right thing, and that most workers do the right thing as well. But we need to be mindful of those employers and workers who do not do the right thing. We need to ensure that the rights of workers and employers are protected when there are people trying to abuse the system. Every Australian worker deserves protection, as it gives them and their families peace of mind. Sadly, under Work Choices some workers are protected while others miss out. Family First is concerned about reports that, over time, fewer Australian workers will be protected by the fairness test due to bracket creep and the fact that the $75,000 threshold is not indexed. Family First is also alarmed by reports that workers could be forced to challenge rulings of the government’s Workplace Authority through the High Court.

Another concern is that the fairness test does not address the inadequacy of current protections for workers’ redundancy entitlements. In a bid to avoid another Tristar debacle, Family First will be moving amendments to this bill to double the protection period for workers’ redundancy benefits from 12 months to two years. The Family First Workplace Relations (Restoring Family Work Balance) Amendment Bill 2007 proposed that the period be extended to five years but the government would not support this. We must tighten Work Choices to deter employers from trying to avoid paying workers their full redundancy entitlements, which are vital to families if workers lose their jobs. Currently, redundancy payments are protected by law for up to 12 months after workplace agreements are terminated, but 12 months is not adequate protection, as the Tristar example clearly shows. Tristar is trying to slash its redundancy bill by keeping its 29 staff at its Sydney plant without providing any work for them. Under its workplace agreement which expired in February, the workers would be entitled to a total of about $4.5 million if they were made redundant now, but they will only get a quarter of that, or just over $1 million, if they are made redundant more than a year after the employment contract expires. Family First commends the amendments to senators.

Finally, Family First is concerned that Work Choices gives employers the green light to sack workers under the guise of restructuring. Two recent cases in Victoria have highlighted the need for the Work Choices laws to be tightened. In the first case the Industrial Relations Commission decided that under Work Choices a company can sack a worker and readvertise the same job on a much lower salary; as happened to Melbourne father of two Andrew Cruickshank, who worked for Priceline. The commission revealed that under Work Choices it does not have to consider whether a valid reason existed as long as the sacking was for operational reasons. These are much broader than the operational requirements that used to apply. Workplace Relations Minister Joe Hockey admitted that this was not the intention of the legislation, but the government has not done anything about it. The question is, why not? In the second case before the Industrial Relations Commission, the Weekend Australian reported:

Businesses have been given the green light to sack workers under Work Choices laws even if they breached employee contracts, and regardless of how badly a worker is treated when being fired, the nation’s industrial tribunal has ruled. A company only needed to prove it had restructured a business and did not have to prove financial difficulty.

This second case is even more disturbing because the company was not arguing that it has restructured its business due to financial problems. Family First is concerned by these cases where livelihoods have been destroyed because Work Choices has allowed employers to treat workers in such a shameful way. Fairness and genuine protection for workers and their families must always underpin Australia’s workplace relations system, not the survival of the fittest.