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Tuesday, 19 June 2007
Page: 1

Senator STEPHENS (Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Opposition) (12:31 PM) —Today I rise to contribute to the debate on the Workplace Relations Amendment (A Stronger Safety Net) Bill 2007; recognising that the fairness test proposed is flawed and ultimately will not protect low-income workers. The vain hope is that this bill may protect some workers and provide limited benefit. Following the introduction of Work Choices there were many examples of the impact of new industrial laws on individuals, families and groups. Initially the focus of the impact of Work Choices legislation was on the most vulnerable, but it is becoming much clearer now through academic research that the loss of basic protections is both widespread and substantial.

Over the past two decades there has been a massive encroachment of work into family time. Increasingly, workers are juggling the demands of work with their family commitments. Families struggling to meet rising costs of living and higher levels of household debt have not been well served by an economy and a labour market that have produced an increase in highly casualised jobs that are now low paying, insecure and involve irregular hours. Studies by the Relationships Forum Australia and the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission show that after 15 years of economic prosperity many Australians are disappointed with the results and feel overworked, stressed out and unhappy. We are among the most overworked nations in the world, with a very high rating among 18 developed nations on key indicators of work intensification. With 22 per cent of the workforce working at least 50 hours a week, Australia’s average working hours run second only to Japan’s. Almost one-third of the labour force regularly works on weekends, making Australia second only to Italy. It is revealing that around two million Australians work on Sundays. Around 27 per cent of Australian workers are in casual employment, making us second to Spain in work that is often characterised by irregular hours and, as a result, an enforced dysfunctional family life.

For some workers, flexible working arrangements are a benefit. For many, however, the rhetoric of family-friendly workplaces has not been realised. This is particularly true for workers in the retail, hospitality and service industries, which historically have had the most unpredictable hours. Workers are often low paid and have little power to negotiate hours and conditions. This is a real problem for families with young children and those with caring responsibilities for elderly family members. People caught in the dilemma of having to work longer and harder in jobs that constantly disrupt and upset normal family routines are entitled to ask, ‘Where are the promised benefits of workplace flexibility?’

The studies confirm what many have experienced during two decades of labour market deregulation—that is, the demand to work longer and more irregular hours has upset the balance. There is less time for family functions, there is difficulty in maintaining networks of friends and there is little time for religious worship, community events and recreation. More alarming, though, is the direct damage to the family unit in the form of high levels of depression and stress; drug and alcohol problems; strained relationships, leading to separation and divorce; and reduced child welfare.

The Catholic Church in Australia has voiced concerns about workers’ rights and conditions under the Howard government’s Work Choices laws. In a pastoral letter issued for the Feast Day of St Joseph the Worker, 1 May, Bishop Christopher Saunders, Chairman of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, has called on the government to regularly release data on the terms and conditions of Australian workplace agreements. In a letter headed ‘Keeping time—Australian families and the culture of overwork’, Bishop Saunders said that over the past two decades there has been a massive encroachment of work into family time and that an increasing number of people are juggling the demands of work with their family commitments.

If Australia is to move forward and prosper as a nation, we need a modern industrial relations system that balances the flexibility required by business with the security needed by employees and their families. The government’s extreme industrial relations system has tipped this balance too far against working families by removing things such as overtime, penalty rates, leave loadings, rostering protections and redundancy pay for many. The amendments contained in this workplace relations amendment bill will not restore that balance. They will not restore sufficient basic conditions that Australian families rely on. They will not restore the faith of the Australian people, lost by a government that did not even see fit to consult them on its industrial relations laws at the last election. Work Choices is at the heart of why people no longer trust the Howard government.

There is nothing in these amendments that diminishes Labor’s resolve to repeal Work Choices and replace it with a system that delivers an appropriate balance between the flexibility needed by business and the security needed by employees and their families. A sensible and modern industrial relations system takes a middle path that balances the flexibility needed by business with the security needed by employees and their families. This bill does not achieve that—it goes nowhere near the middle path put forward by the Labor Party in this parliament. If we are to build prosperity into the future, beyond the mining boom, current policies need to be directed to lifting productivity and harnessing the talents and abilities of all our people. The government can dress up its industrial relations laws in all the taxpayer funded spin and propaganda that it likes but this will not alter the fact that the government’s Work Choices industrial relations laws will do nothing to boost productivity, which has gone backwards in relative terms on this government’s watch.

The government has been led by a narrow ideological agenda, and it has been increasingly forced to rely on desperate arguments to justify the benefits of Work Choices. The first of these desperate economics arguments that it puts is that Work Choices has been responsible for our recent jobs growth. This is one of the great cons of the Howard era.

The workplace laws were examined at a hearing last week into whether they comply with the international labour standards. A list of 25 alleged international labour rights offenders, including the Howard government’s workplace laws, was considered in Geneva by the International Labour Organisation, a special agency of the United Nations that monitors labour standards. It is the third year in a row that the Howard government’s workplace laws have been examined. The Howard government failed to provide information requested by the ILO within the required time frame last year and consequently the issue has now been referred to the ILO conference for further hearing.

Australia is a signatory to the international convention on fundamental labour rights and someone should be asking the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations why his government’s workplace laws do not comply with international human rights laws to which it is a signatory. The Howard government is being taken to task because it is one of the few governments among advanced countries whose workplace laws are alleged to breach freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining. This is Australia we are talking about. Australian working families already know that the Howard government’s Work Choices laws are grossly unfair, and they now should know that the unfairness of the laws has not escaped international attention.

The Prime Minister’s claim that the new industrial relations system is no different from the previous no-disadvantage test is incorrect. The latest changes are much weaker and provide fewer protections for workers than the previous no-disadvantage test in key ways. There is no role for an independent umpire to scrutinise workplace agreements. At least under the old system the AIRC was required to scrutinise all collective agreements in an open hearing, and AWA individual contracts could be referred to the AIRC if there was any uncertainty about whether it passed the no-disadvantage test. Under the new system, however, individual workers who are dissatisfied with the compensation they receive for losing their penalty rates, overtime and other conditions are forced to go to the High Court.

Changes to the government’s Work Choices industrial relations laws currently before parliament require the Howard government’s new Workplace Authority to rule whether each new AWA individual contract signed since 7 May this year passes the government’s new so-called fairness test. The Employment Advocate admitted that his office made a ‘cursory perusal’ of AWAs but has done no real analysis of the data.

Since November, Labor had asked the Office of the Employment Advocate—now known as the Workplace Authority—142 questions on notice, none of which have been answered. The Office of Workplace Services, now known as the Office of the Workplace Ombudsman, has received 149 questions on notice and none have been answered. The government has employed 600 new officials to administer the changes and scrutinise the 1,000 AWAs that are being registered every day under the new IR laws.

Around 2½ million workers are not covered by the new fairness test and receive no protection. Unlike the no-disadvantage test, workers are not covered if they are on already registered AWAs and individual agreements, if they earn more than $75,000 a year, or are award free. The new fairness test does not take into account the full list of protected award conditions when determining the amount of compensation for the loss of award conditions. Redundancy pay, paid maternity leave and a say on rosters for workers were previously taken into account in the no-disadvantage test but are now not protected and can be abolished with no compensation to employees.

Under this new system AWAs are checked only after they start to apply. This means that workers lose their award conditions first and the fairness test is applied later. With the no-disadvantage test, workers were at least protected from the start and only lost award conditions after the test had ensured that they would not be disadvantaged.

The fact is that the Howard government’s IR changes do not give workers adequate protection from losing penalty rates, shift allowances, overtime or other award conditions, and the only way a worker can question a ruling on their AWA individual contract under this new fairness test would be to lodge an expensive appeal to the High Court.

As Darryl Kerrigan, the character played by Michael Caton in the famous film The Castle surely would say to revelations that workers would be forced to go to the High Court to challenge a compensation ruling under the new fairness test, ‘Tell ’em they’re dreaming.’

The Sydney Morning Herald reported last Wednesday that the Prime Minister ‘dares to dream’ and, from a leaked document, the ‘government has commissioned economic modelling to gauge the effect of extending its Work Choices legislation to cover all employees’. The government—if by chance it is re-elected—clearly intends to extend Work Choices to the 15 percent of the workforce not covered by the legislation. This figure accounts for 1.5 million workers including nurses, police, teachers and firefighters who, with the exception of Victoria, are currently on state award systems. The Australian Nursing Federation is seeking a guarantee from government that health funding in the 2008 Australian health care agreements will not force nurses onto AWAs since it learned of the revelation that the government is engaging in this economic modelling. The ANF is seeking a core guarantee that funding for hospitals will not be linked to AWAs, as has already occurred in the university sector.

The What women want report released recently by the National Foundation for Australian Women shows that under the Work Choices industrial relations system women are worse off in pay terms compared with men. This is so regardless of their occupation or education status and includes professional and managerial women as well as those in lower paid, less skilled work. The impact is worst for young women, with fewer bargaining skills, and for all women living in regional and country areas away from mining developments. The impact on Indigenous women and those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds was also very negative.

The What women want report provides evidence that individual workplace agreements result in a growth in the gender wage gap. The gender wage gap is worse in casual and part-time employment, where wage levels have stagnated in sectors such as retail and hospitality, where women predominate, and women in professional and managerial occupations are also doing less well than their male counterparts.

The implementation of the Howard government’s wide-ranging policy and legislative changes in industrial relations, combined with its Welfare to Work reforms, is expected to further intensify the challenges faced by working families in balancing work and family life. If the Work Choices legislation is as good as the Howard government says it is, why did the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Mr Hockey, visit car-parts manufacturer Tristar to ensure that a dying employee was not denied access to a redundancy payment? Surely not because there is a problem with Work Choices? It is clear that Work Choices is emboldening employers to take mean and capricious action against their employees. Not all companies do it but many more do it now because Work Choices makes it possible.

Tristar was looking for ways to minimise the costs of its redundancy program. It would not agree to provide a payout to its account manager of 43 years, John Beavan, who was battling terminal cancer. Tristar rejected Beavan’s application for redundancy late last year after he acknowledged that he was ill with liver and bowel cancer. When his treatment by Tristar became public knowledge, voice of reason Alan Jones attacked the decision. This is what it took to get John Howard to take action to redress the indignities that John Beavan confronted at the end of his life.

The workplace relations minister at the time and the Prime Minister were missing in action when unions sought to meet them to seek a resolution to the Tristar dispute affecting Beavan and 30 or so other workers. The sad reality is that it took Alan Jones to make the Prime Minister listen. Just days after the announcement of the payout, John Beavan died. His fellow workers at Tristar are still waiting for their redundancy payments. What will it take to ensure that they get fair treatment?

The hardship that John Beavan and his fellow workers have faced at Tristar is not simply a product of corporate immorality; it is a manifestation of the Work Choices system, which fails to recognise that equality of bargaining power between individual workers and companies is illusory. The Tristar case illustrates this harsh reality. The Work Choices legislation enabled Tristar to put in place new arrangements that significantly reduced the level of redundancy entitlements available to employees under their enterprise agreement. The unilateral termination by Tristar of the agreement meant that redundancy entitlements were cut from four weeks pay for every year of service, to a maximum of twelve weeks pay.

Work Choices stripped away the capacity of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission to arbitrate and resolve the case in a fair way. It took intense media pressure on the government to persuade it to intervene. Any industry anywhere, especially in regional Australia, faces the same treatment. Workers in regional areas do not have the luxury of readily available alternative employment. What will the ‘fairness test’ do for these individuals?

Employees in industries like manufacturing feel the pressure of Work Choices more intensely because, unlike workers in the booming resource sector, they are experiencing the downside of the emergence of China and India as industrial giants. A shortage of skills in the mining sector has boosted the bargaining power of mining workers, enabling them to command high salaries despite Work Choices. In other sectors, like manufacturing, the story is different. That industry is under intense global pressure from low-wage manufacturing countries relocating factories offshore and laying off thousands of workers. Car, whitegoods, textile, clothing and footwear manufacturing in Australia faces the threat of extinction over the next decade.

Workers’ bargaining power is greatly diminished. Under Work Choices they face a significant reduction in their entitlements if collective agreements expire or are terminated and replaced by inferior individual agreements. The choice for employees in depressed sectors is often to sign or resign. We have heard about that over the last couple of days in this debate on the Workplace Relations Amendment (A Stronger Safety Net) Bill 2007. The manufacturing sector is a microcosm of what it might be like for the majority of Australian workers under Work Choices during an economic downturn.

The Work Choices policy landscape is a Darwinian one. It encourages manufacturers to compete on a low-cost rather than high-quality basis with low-wage countries. This is a competition that Australia cannot win and should not even enter. It represents a race to the bottom over wages and conditions that ultimately will undermine our living standards and decimate our manufacturing sector.

The reality is that Work Choices is undermining the working conditions of thousands of Australian workers. The federal government’s Office of the Employment Advocate undertook a survey last year of 250 Australian workplace agreements lodged under Work Choices in April 2006. The survey revealed that the agreements excluded important protected award conditions—63 per cent excluded penalty rates, 52 per cent excluded shift loadings, 46 per cent excluded public holiday pay and 40 per cent excluded rest breaks. Professor David Peetz from Griffith University has demonstrated that this actually understates the problem because the number of AWAs that modified or reduced conditions has not been taken into account. Taking this into consideration, the proportion of AWAs that cut overtime rises to around 82 per cent.

The Howard government is swimming against the tide of community opposition to the Work Choices legislation. The industrial relations legislation is deeply unpopular according to a recent Newspoll undertaken for the Australian newspaper. Around 48 per cent of those polled described the changes as bad for the Australian economy, and around 45 per cent said that they were bad for creating jobs. One-third said that they would be worse off as a result of the changes while just 14 per cent said that they would be better off.

I conclude by saying this: Work Choices has to go. Even as amended by this bill, it is still a gross unfairness for Australian families. (Time expired)