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Wednesday, 12 September 2012
Page: 6715


Senator CAMERON (New South Wales) (12:45): I rise on a matter of public interest: the proposition that Australian workers should be benchmarked against African workers in order to lift the competitive position of the Australian mining industry. The comments of Mrs Gina Rinehart in her recent address to the nation have been reported around the world with a mixture of scorn and disbelief. Today I want to place on the record some of the implications of her so-called visions and her policy wish list based on vested interests.

As one of the richest women in the world, Mrs Rinehart cannot be easily dismissed. Since she clearly wants to be a player in policy debate, her policy prescriptions should be subject to critical analysis. I would like to undertake some of this today.

What are the issues raised by Mrs Rinehart? Mrs Rinehart believes:

There is no monopoly on becoming a millionaire.

If you’re jealous of those with more money, don’t just sit there and complain. Do something to make more money yourself - spend less time drinking or smoking and socialising and more time working.

Mrs Rinehart in her most recent excursion into public policy debate made the following observation:

The evidence is inarguable that Australia is becoming too expensive and too uncompetitive to do export-oriented business.

… Africans want to work and its workers are willing to work for less than $2 per day. Such statistics make me worry for this country's future.

To underpin this vision, Mrs Rinehart has been a long-term supporter of establishing a Northern Australia special economic zone where her company would enjoy special privileges unavailable to other Australians. She has set up a lobby group called Australians for Northern Development and Economic Vision—ANDEV—to promote the idea. ANDEV is vigorously promoted by another of the cogs of the mining industry's propaganda machine, the Institute of Public Affairs. I note that shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey gave some initial support to this proposal until some crisis management was implemented by the office of the Leader of the Opposition.

The wish list from Mrs Rinehart continues the response from big business to the exhortations of the Leader of the Opposition to business to advise him of problems with the current industrial relations system. Hardly a day goes by without some overpaid and underworked executive pontificating about the lack of productivity and the need for more flexibility in the Australian industrial relations system. Make no mistake about this: it is the political and business work choices cheer squad promoting their vested interests at the expense of the wages and conditions of ordinary working Australians. Mrs Rinehart's agenda must be analysed and understood in this context.

I do not intend to spend much time on the bizarre proposition that, if you stop complaining and spend less time drinking, smoking and socialising and more time working, this improves your chances of being a millionaire. The reality is that for ordinary workers in working-class suburbs around the country there is probably more chance of winning the lottery and becoming a millionaire than there would be because they stopped drinking and gambling and worked a bit harder.

My message to Mrs Rinehart on this issue is that she should take some time out from trying to run the country from her boardroom and get some experience of how the real world operates. Business leaders need to get out of their gilded towers of business and finance. They need to see the real world, not just the billionaires' compounds that line the Swan River and Sydney Harbour. They need to talk to real workers to understand the daily struggle of making ends meet that characterises life for many working-class Australians.

I now come to the issue of Africans wanting to work for $2 per day and this somehow being relevant to Australia's competitive position. The implication in this is that Australian workers are greedy, lazy and should sacrifice wages and conditions in the interests of profits and overblown executive salaries. Let's have a look at the reality of life for workers trying to improve their working lives around the world. The 2012 survey of violations of trade union rights released by the International Trade Union Confederation should be compulsory reading for businesspeople and politicians who argue for free trade and competition with some of the most exploited and oppressed workers in the world. Those who point to $2 per day in wages in Africa have a moral obligation to explain why workers in advanced economies should be forced to compete against countries that allow business to violate workers' rights in the name of productivity and profit.

In 2011 at least 76 workers died as a result of their trade union activities. They were killed by people who wish to exploit workers for their own greedy ends and who are determined to deny workers any rights. There were 56 deaths in Latin America alone, including 29 in Colombia, the most dangerous place in the world to be a union official, and a further 10 in Guatemala. At least eight trade unionists lost their lives in Asia. Four were killed in the Philippines, all shot and killed in four separate incidents. These courageous men and women were fighting for decent wages and conditions, not a continuation of $2-per-day exploitative rates. Some of the deaths occurred as a result of excessive police violence. In South Africa, a municipal worker died in clashes with the police. Two workers were killed in Indonesia when police opened fire on strikers. In Bangladesh, one worker was killed when police attacked protesting chemical workers. Other incidents of police violence leading to injury and death were reported in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India, Egypt and Nepal.

The repression of strike action through mass dismissals, arrests and detention was widely reported including in Georgia, Kenya, South Africa and Botswana, where 2,800 workers were dismissed after a public sector strike. In India, striking brick kiln workers were warned by the owners that they would 'kill them and rape their women' if they did not return to work. Is it any wonder that millions of workers around the world are struggling to achieve decent wages and conditions?

I now want to turn specifically to Africa, where Mrs Rinehart claims workers are willing to work for less than $2 a day—I think she said they would be happy. Mine operations in Africa are often portrayed as a competitive threat to the Australian mining industry—as if the poverty level wages and abuses of workers' rights ought to be considered the natural order of things.

Let us have a look at the Marikana tragedy just recently that resulted in 45 miners being shot dead by the South African police. These deaths are in addition to six fatalities that occurred at that mine in the first seven months of 2011. These were workplace deaths due to the lack of appropriate health and safety measures. CFMEU National President, Mr Tony Maher, has drawn attention to the fact that Xstrata owns about 25 per cent of Marikana's operator, Lonmin. I join Mr Maher in demanding that Xstrata, one of the biggest and most influential global mining companies operating in Australia, address the causes of the industrial dispute at Marikana. Xstrata have an obligation to resolve the issues that sparked the tragedy.

In a press release on 24 August 2012, ILO mining specialist Martin Hahn said miners working in such mines as Marikana were often exposed to a variety of safety hazards: falling rocks, exposure to dust, intensive noise, fumes and high temperatures, amongst others. Is this Mrs Rinehart's benchmark for African competition? Two dollars per day wages, unsafe working conditions, violence, intimidation and death. Does Mrs Rinehart seriously claim that this is the 'free enterprise' against which Australian mining companies and their employees must compete?

Are we to compete with the goldmines of Mali, where Human Rights Watch reported that at least 20,000 children are working under extremely harsh and hazardous conditions? In a report published in December, Human Rights Watch stated:

Children as young as six dig mining shafts, work underground, pull up heavyweights of ore, and carry, crush, and pan ore. …Mercury attacks the central nervous system and is particularly harmful to children.

Is this the free market at work? Is this what Mrs Rinehart wants Australian workers to compete with? Is it any wonder that African mine workers are paid $2 a day when they face systematic intimidation for joining a union and attempting to improve their wages and conditions? Implicit in Mrs Rinehart's statement that they want to work for $2 a day is the idea that they are happy. It is a ludicrous suggestion.

In Zambia, a Human Rights Watch report revealed a culture of anti-trade-union practices at Chinese-run mines. Over 2,000 striking miners at the Non Ferrous Corporation Africa Mining company were sacked, requiring the government to quickly step in to order their reinstatement. Prosecutors in charge of the case against two Chinese supervisors who shot at African and Zambian miners in October 2010 decided to drop the charges against them after the company agreed to pay compensation. The two were facing 13 counts of attempted murder after they fired live ammunition into a crowd of miners on 15 October 2010. This was during a protest over a wage dispute at the Chinese-run Collum coalmine, a major supplier of coal to Zambia's copper and cobalt sector. Working conditions at the mine are extremely harsh and wages are often no more than $4 a day. Against Mrs Rinehart's benchmark, those workers are paid double the market rate!

Human Rights Watch released a report in October 2011 outlining a string of workers' rights abuses at Chinese mining companies in Zambia. The report, You'll be fired if you refuse, outlines labour abuses based on interviews with miners between November 2010 and July 2011. The report reveals long working hours and appalling health and safety standards. Miners are expected to work 12- or even 18-hour shifts under conditions without adequate ventilation—a major cause of lung disease—and without vital safety equipment. Protests over these conditions are not tolerated. The research found that outspoken union representatives faced retaliation and that workers' rights to join a union were violated by managers. In addition to this, protesting Zambian miners have been arrested, and a culture of anti-unionism predominates.

I do not have time to detail all of the abuses perpetrated against mining workers in Africa. I simply say that to characterise the deaths, the bullying, the intimidation and the unsafe work practices in African mines as a competitive disadvantage to Australia is reprehensible and obscene.

I take the view that Mrs Rinehart should actually have a close look at what happens in Africa—why workers are repressed, why they are working for $2 a day, why they are being shot, why they are being intimidated and why their rights are being violated—before she comes out and argues that we should be competing against these workers. She should actually stop the argument for a special economic zone in Northern Australia because, around the world, special economic zones are synonymous with violations of workers' rights, intimidation of workers and deaths of workers. It is about time Mrs Rinehart woke up to herself.