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Minister discusses National Textiles; productivity; and individual contracts at BHP.



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THE HON PETER REITH MP

MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT, WORKPLACE RELATIONS AND SMALL BUSINESS LEADER OF THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

 

Transcript

Radio Interview, 2ue

RADIO INTERVIEW, 2UE

OWEN DELANEY:    

It just seems almost every week now you hear of another business going to the wall and some of the workers out of pocket. It's time I suppose; the National Textiles from Rutherford up the Hunter Valley, where 342 workers were told last Friday that the business had been placed in voluntary administration. Seven million dollars in entitlements are said to be outstanding for workers who earn an average of $27,000 a year, but workers have been told they're likely to receive just half of their individual entitlements and they are likely to  have to wait up to two years to receive that amount. It's the old Oakdale mines story all over, isn't it? And it was in the wake of the Oakdale mine collapse that Workplace Relations Minister, Peter Reith, promised to have a scheme to protect workers rights in operation by January this year. So we've got Mr Reith on the line.  Good morning.  Welcome back.  

PETER REITH:           

Thank you very much. 

DELANEY:     

Not a good thing to come back to, I suppose but how's it looking up there at Rutherford? 

REITH:    

Well, we've had some general discussions with the company, but obviously the workers there are pretty concerned about what the likely payment's going to be and the timing of that payment. Basically, my view is that we should have a national scheme.  I said that last year we wanted to get it in operation, we didn't promise it would be in operation by January, but I've certainly been working to get the thing in operation as soon as possible. And my basic view is that we should have a scheme which should operate as from the 1st January.  I intend going to the Cabinet saying well; we've really got to get on with this.  And I'm going to throw down the gauntlet to the New South Wales government. They've been talking about making a contribution or a National Scheme, I think they should pay half, that's a fair deal and I'll be proposing that we put a scheme in place administratively, absolutely immediately so that we can provide people with a basic protection.  Not every dollar they're owed, but a basic protection system - a safety net, as we have safety nets in other areas. 

DELANEY:     

Okay.  Looking at this thing in Rutherford, the textile factory.  Obviously those jobs have gone somewhere else and that's another issue that we can perhaps address on another day.  But they're being told the sale of the plant and machinery will cover basic leave and long service entitlements, so what we're talking about here of course, is redundancy? 

REITH:

Yes.  That's certainly my understanding.  My view is that we should have a basic payments scheme with a maximum of $20,000, paid for by the tax payer, with contributions - State and Federal, and that would cover up to four weeks unpaid wages, four weeks annual leave, five weeks pay in lieu of notice, four weeks redundancy pay and twelve weeks long service leave, and within that cap of $20,000 per employee. Now, even Maggie Thatcher had a scheme - basic entitlements scheme - a safety net if you like.  I believe Australia should have that.  We've had a lot of discussion about this and I'd like to see this scheme in operation immediately.  And I intend going to the Cabinet in the next couple of weeks - as soon as the Cabinet resumes to start the new year, and say it's time we cracked the whip and got this scheme in place immediately. 

DELANEY:     

You know another thing that irks me with all of this, with level playing field, another 342 Australian jobs have gone to China. 

REITH:   

Well.  While what the problems for a lot of manufacturing industry is that they've not been competitive.  And one of the reasons they haven't been competitive - it's only one but it's a very important one, is the tax system in Australia is no good. We have a tax system today which gives an advantage to producing things off shore compare to production in Australia.  It's one of the things we are going to have to fix.  The GST package and all the things that come into operation on the 1st July is one of the things that will improve the prospects of manufacturing in Australia.  It will correct a bias against our own capacity to produce jobs in Australia which will be a very big change and it's definitely going to help.  It'll add—well it'll reduce costs to Australian business by billions of dollars and that's definitely going to be helping jobs in the future.

DELANEY:          

 

It's still a bit hard to compete with $2 now in China though isn't it?  

 

REITH:          

 

Well, I've actually been to China and I've spoken to Australian companies who produce in China and obviously the labour cost is part of it, but you've got to remember to—Australian workers are well skilled, very good technically.  They are, in terms of productivity, first class workers and if you've got an efficient system in place in Australian—I think Australian manufacturing can have a very bright future but you've got to keep inflation down, you've got to keep interest rates down, you've got to get transport costs down, you've got to get the tax burden off our businesses, you got cut the red tape - you've got to do all those things to make our businesses more efficient and as a government we're very committed to doing that. And we've seen 600 odd thousand jobs created since March 1996.

  

DELANEY:    

Absolutely and that's good. 

 

REITH:   

It can be done.

 

 

DELANEY:          

 

Yes.  Okay.  Now what about BHP, what's that stuff going on in the north.  It seems like a bit of bullying going there to prevent further individual contracts being signed.  Is that the crux of this?

 

 

REITH:          

 

Well it is a political campaign by the ACTU.  I take a step back and say well; if you're in Paul Anderson's shoes, what's your job?  Your job is to get BHP back on it's feet and get it competitive and if you can do that then you'll keep a lot jobs in BHP.  And that's in everybody's interests. Now, as they've been saying publicly or it's been disclosed publicly - their costs of production in Western Australia are $2.50 a tonne more expensive than Rio Tinto which is their major and principle competitor. Now, Anderson's obviously said to the people running his mining operation; well we just can't run our operation at $2.50 a tonne  cost disadvantage -  we need a more efficient system.  They've come up with a more efficient system but the unions don't like it. Now, the fact is that individual contracts are an option for people, they've been used elsewhere.  Look there are hundreds of thousands of people who have individual contacts in Australia.  There's nothing wrong with them if that's what people want to do.  And you've got to remember - you can only have an individual agreement provided that you're better off than the Award.  So it's a fair system.

DELANEY:          

 

Is this another maritime situation revisited?

 

 

REITH:          

 

I don't really think so.  All these disputes are different.  There's nothing like the waterfront and a lot of the rorts on the waterfront have gone, which is good.  We don't have nick-off time and blokes—two people allocated to one machine and all the sort of rorts and rip-offs that we had there, but no it's different.

 

 

DELANEY:          

 

Alright, well I hope the government will address the Rutherford issue particularly, and I think most Australians would like to know that there's going to be a safety net.  Thanks for your time.

 

 

REITH:          

 

Good on you.  Thanks Owen. 

DELANEY:     

Peter Reith talking to us there.

 

For further information contact:

Ian Hanke 0419 484 095

24/01/2000