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Monday, 18 June 2007
Page: 113

Senator WEBBER (9:17 PM) —I commence my remarks on the Workplace Relations Amendment (A Stronger Safety Net) Bill 2007 by congratulating the Labor members on the Employment Workplace Relations and Education Committee on their minority report on this bill. All of them come with extensive experience of not only actually having a real job—as opposed to what people claim we do in this place—but also representing the needs of workers: something that, according to those opposite, we should all be ashamed of. So I commend to the Senate their report and a number of the submissions that the inquiry received, although, as has been outlined by my good friend Senator Carol Brown, the inquiry was, as it often is in this place, unnecessarily hasty.

Those of us that were involved in the original debate for an industrial relations system that dare not speak its name anymore—Work Choices—will recall in particular Senator Abetz, when he had carriage of this legislation, assuring us that we did not need to discuss fairness because it was implied. We did not need a safety net, we did not need fairness and we did not need pay equity because no-one would behave in an unethical manner. No employer would try and exploit an employee—none of the examples that workers’ representatives brought to the committee and brought to members of this place would ever take place, and those of us on this side of the chamber and from the trade union movement and other worker representative organisations were being unnecessarily alarmist. Well, it would seem that perhaps we do need fairness—or perhaps we just need a political fix. Perhaps people do not see the original legislation—the system that dare not speak its name—as being fair and balanced, and therefore there is a political problem. Though those opposite try and make much of the booming economy and the resources sector in my home state, there is a political problem there when it comes to fairness and the treatment of workers in occupations where they are not as well equipped in representing their own interests—the bargaining is not that even. So this is a political fix to a political problem. It is not a real fix, nor is it a practical fix to a real problem—that was the removal in the first place of the no disadvantage test. To see that, you only have to compare the words of the Prime Minister with what is going on in the workplace. On 4 May 2007, when the Prime Minister made the announcement of this political fix, he said at his press conference:

But where the penalty rates et cetera are taken out or are modified in any way there’ll be a fairness test and the fairness test will inquire whether adequate compensation has been provided in return. Now in the great bulk of cases that compensation will take the form probably of an increase in the hourly rate to take account of the non payment of penalty rates but the compensation can take a non-monetary form and in examining whether adequate compensation’s been paid the authority will have to look at all aspects of the agreement. In some cases extremely flexible working arrangements can be given in return for the non payment of penalty rates.

What does that mean to the average person who is trying to get a job as a childcare worker, who wants to work as a part-time or casual shop assistant or who is working in the hospitality industry? How do they negotiate their way through that? We then learn that, if they do not think the authority has examined their individual agreement properly in ensuring they get adequate compensation, their remedy is to take it to the High Court. Well, that is fair, isn’t it! Talk about out of touch and talk about desperation.

The reality is that this piece of legislation will simply keep a weak or nearly non-existent safety net in operation and the bill does absolutely nothing to provide for a genuinely stronger safety net. That is the fairness that Senator Abetz said we did not need to have in the original Work Choices legislation.

Then we come to the effectiveness of the government advertising. You can always tell it is a political fix when it is advertised before we see the legislation. You absolutely know it is a political fix to a political problem when the ads are on television before the committee can even see the draft legislation.

Senator Parry interjecting—

Senator WEBBER —You absolutely know that it is a political fix. But I have news for some of the people opposite, particularly those who like to talk about my home state and about the resources sector. There is much made of the need for productivity in that sector. Your advertising does not seem to have connected with the mining sector. They do not seem to have got this idea that there is actually going to be a fairness test. We were told by the Prime Minister on 4 May that this new fairness test would come into effect on 7 May. After 7 May I was contacted by a family from the northern suburbs of Perth. The main breadwinner in that family is a fly-in, fly-out worker in the resources sector. We all know that people who do that work receive a handsome monetary reward. That is in large part to compensate them for being removed from their families, for the extended hours and for the danger associated with the work they do. The main breadwinner in this family works at a mine site in the north-west. It is a long-established mine site, not one of the new fly-by-night mine sites that may have been established. It did have some employees still on collective agreements, but it offered an AWA to the last of their workers on collective agreements. The main highlight of the AWA that these workers were offered—and I have a copy of it—is $8,000 a year less than they were originally getting. This is after 7 May. This worker has been offered $8,000 a year less, for more days on and fewer days off than his original collective agreement, and a change to his on-call allowance. This is ‘fairness’. This is an ‘increase in productivity’. We know the resources sector and we know how those opposite want to achieve their increase in productivity. What they actually want the hardworking people in Australia to do is to work longer hours for less money. That, technically I guess, does increase productivity. That is how they want to increase productivity. They do not want an increase in productivity to rely on the use of new technology or on the development of managerial expertise and flexibility—no, what they want is hardworking tradespeople to work longer hours for less money, and that is the way they will get their productivity increase. If that is the way you are going to run the Australian economy, it is little wonder fewer people want to vote for you than last time.

So it was with the AWA that this family was offered: you are offered it, you are given five minutes to look at it and it is ‘sign or resign’ and you are not allowed to take it with you. The agreement that was to be signed in late May states that ‘the agreement shall apply for a period of five years from the date of the agreement’. So this worker, who was to cop an $8,000 a year pay cut, was going to be locked into that pay schedule for five years. As I said, they receive a handsome monetary reward. It is perhaps not as handsome as those of us in this place, but it is handsome. So the agreement was to go to five years from the date of signing it. The workers were to work in a roster system ‘as determined appropriate for the operation of the mine’—there was no consultation with them about the flexibility they may need for their families; it was about the flexibility of the operation. If you wanted to terminate your agreement as a worker you were required to provide four weeks notice in writing. However, if the company wanted to terminate your agreement, they only had to give you one week’s notice. One week for the employer; four weeks for the worker. That is increased productivity. That is an increased fairness test.

This fairness test is not even working at the top end of the labour market. This was an individual contract that only applied to the tradesmen working at that particular mine site. People talk long and hard about the difficulties in attracting skilled labour. I can tell you it is little wonder with the way this mining company treats its staff. It was only offered to tradesmen and the base salary was $87,500 per annum. As I said, a handsome reward—no doubt about that, although not as handsome as the reward we get in this place. But in exchange for that they only give you one week’s notice if they want to terminate the agreement but you have to give four. And you work the roster that suits the flexibility of the operation. It lists the salaries. I have quoted the lowest one. The top one is $99,500. That is the top of the range for the most senior tradesmen. I bet this mob will be asking to bring in 457 visa workers next, because no-one will want to sign this agreement. But, anyway, in addition to getting paid the above salaries, if you are placed on an on-call roster and required to attend to jobs outside the normal working hours—and that is your 12-hour shift, because all of this is a certain number of days on, a certain number of days off—

Senator Parry —How many days? You’re quoting so many hours, but how many days?

Senator WEBBER —How many days? A minimum of eight days on, 12 hours a day, Senator Parry—for $87,500!

Senator Parry interjecting—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Moore)—Order! Through the chair, Senators.

Senator WEBBER —So, in addition to your $87,500 for your eight days on, if you are placed on an on-call roster and required to attend to jobs outside of normal working hours, you will be paid an additional $1,500 per annum whilst you are on this on-call roster. So you do your 12-hour shift, then you are on the on-call roster and you can get called out whenever they want, and you get the princely sum of $1,500 per annum to compensate you for that. This is on top of the eight grand pay cut, the increased number of days on and the fewer number of days off that they have. And the agreement says, ‘This payment is in recognition of the requirement for you to be fit and available to be called out and that you attend the call-outs as required.’ So the maximum a tradesman at that level is going to get is $87,500 plus the $1,500 call out for a 12-hour shift—

Senator Parry —That’s pretty good.

Senator WEBBER —Senator Parry, you think that is pretty good, do you? You want to sign up to that, do you?

Senator Parry —Do you get days off?

Senator WEBBER —Yes, you do get days off. You get to work eight days in a row for a minimum of 12 hours a day on a mine site and then, goodness me, they give you a few days off! Gee, isn’t that fantastic? I do not know why more people are not—

Senator Parry interjecting—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Barnett)—Order! Senator Webber and Senator Parry, any comments will be passed through the chair.

Senator WEBBER —I apologise. That is the way this company and this government want to increase productivity and apply fairness in the workplace. As I said, the workers who were offered this AWA were on a collective agreement. They were on it until mid-May and then they were offered a cut in pay, they had to work increased hours and they had their on-call allowances cut as well, and that supposedly meets the fairness test.

Even the Financial Review when it was discussing the government’s changes to this legislation reported that the mere offer of a job may be considered sufficient compensation to offset any loss of protected award conditions. How ridiculous is that? As was highlighted by the SDA and others who submitted to the inquiry—and Senator Birmingham mentioned them—how on earth is a shop assistant who has had their compensation cut and is then offered a job going to challenge the Workplace Authority if it determines that that is fair and reasonable compensation for a cut? A tradesman who works in the north-west of Western Australia struggles with the concept that this is a fair way of approaching things, and he earns $87,500. That is a healthy sum of money. There is no doubt about that. I can tell you that, to work on a mine site, I would want a healthy sum of money too. We all know that it is one of the most dangerous places to work. You should be paid a healthy sum of money to work there. You should particularly be paid a healthy sum of money if you have to be flown away from your family and support to do that work. You certainly should not, in a time of record profits and record economic growth, have your salary cut by an employer and then told that is fair.

These workers were given about five minutes to look at their AWA. If they did not want to sign it, they were told they could not work there any more. They were given the AWA on the mine site, so they could not consult with family and they could not get any independent advice as they were up in the north-west. They were told to sign or resign. This family obviously chose not to sign. Unbeknownst to the mine concerned, this family took their copy of the AWA away with them, which is how we know what the real game is with these people.

The Prime Minister’s announcement states that the Workplace Authority—although, as Senator Carol Brown has reminded us, it has just been through a bit of rebadging and renaming, a bit like the system of Work Choices that dare not speak its name—will consider industry location and the economic circumstances of the business and the specific employment circumstances or opportunities of the employee when making its determination. It will take into account all relevant working arrangements and entitlements, including family-friendly conditions. I do not know how the AWA I have been talking about fits into the concept of family-friendly conditions. A cut in pay, increased hours at work, a decrease in the number of days off between shifts—how are they family friendly? A cut in pay to work in one of the most dangerous occupations we have in Australia is not family friendly.

It is not clear to any of us here how the Workplace Authority will actually take any of those measures into account. For example, it is not clear whether the forms accompanying the lodgement of an agreement will require the employer to detail their financial position or provide detailed personal information about the circumstances of the employee. Now perhaps we will be told by Senator Abetz that we do not need to worry about that either, just like the first time we looked at Work Choices and we were told we did not have to worry about fairness because no-one would behave badly and we were just being hysterical. No-one would cut penalty rates, he told us, and it was just completely silly to want to insert the concept of fairness into the legislation. But, lo and behold, look at what we have here. This is perhaps another issue that the government will have to come back and fix because no-one knows whether the detail is right and no-one knows how it is going to work. When you advertise a concept before you have actually got the detail it is no wonder people are a bit sceptical and cynical.

It is not clear to us whether the Workplace Authority will make inquiries with the employee as to whether the supposedly fair compensation provided to the employee under the workplace agreement is considered by the employee to be of genuine benefit. Senator Carol Brown mentioned the example of providing a car park to someone who does not have a car. How is that fair and reasonable compensation? That is providing someone with a completely meaningless entitlement for their circumstances.

It is not clear whether an employee will have the opportunity to appeal a decision by the Workplace Authority, although we were told that perhaps they could take it to the High Court. That is just completely ridiculous. Last time we were told that, if someone did not like their AWA, they could go to the Federal Court. That is a completely nonsensical arrangement for low-paid workers anyway. How could someone earning the princely sum of $12 an hour afford to take their employer to the Federal Court because they have concerns about the legality of their AWA? It is even more ludicrous to say: ‘If you do not like the determination that the authority has made on the fairness or otherwise of your compensation with the new AWA, you can appeal that decision in the High Court.’ That is completely ridiculous.

It is also not clear to us how the $75,000 threshold will be determined. In the example that I have given, that threshold cuts in and the government’s proposal does not do anything to address this family’s concerns. This family is suffering from the rough end of the supposed Work Choices. It still really is Work Choices, much as those opposite do not want to call it that. (Time expired)