Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Monday, 7 November 2005
Page: 99

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON (6:55 PM) —I rise this evening to add my voice to what is a growing chorus of outrage in the Australian community about the impact of the Howard government’s proposed draconian industrial relations law. As the second reading amendment standing in the name of the member for Perth, Stephen Smith, says, this is about a system that is extreme, unfair and divisive, and that is why there is such an amazing reaction in the Australian community to what is before the chair this evening.

The Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 is exceptionally important to me because, as a former President of the ACTU and as a member of this parliament representing the northern suburbs of Melbourne, I have seen first-hand how the poorest paid employees in the Australian community struggle from week to week to make ends meet. These are the people who will be most affected by this bill. They are not the people I come across during my work as shadow minister for resources but the type of people I meet in the streets of my electorate and the type of people employed in the hospitality sector, who I come across as shadow minister for tourism. I see both ends of the wages and conditions debate in the Australian community at the moment. I meet first-hand some of the highest paid people in the Australian community and some of the lowest paid people, in the tourism sector. They are predominantly women and young people who are dependent on a decent, fair industrial relations system.

That is why the outrage extends well beyond the Australian trade union movement. It is a community reaction, and the community has a sense of what is fair play, what is decent and what one should expect in a workplace. In the end, workers are prepared to do a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, and the crux of this debate is about what is fair and acceptable in any decent democratic society in the 21st century. I think the record now shows that the reaction of concern comes from a wide spectrum of the community—from church and welfare leaders to leading economists—and it will escalate. As the impact of this proposed act of parliament starts to bite in the Australian community, this concern will escalate. It will filter through the community over the next two years, right up until the next federal election. It will be one of the major issues at that election. We have waited for months for these laws, and I believe that they have reinforced our worst fears. It is now clear for all to see that these laws are about forcing people into Australian workplace agreements—that will be a condition of employment. These laws are not about choice. You either take it or leave it. If you do not accept what is put on the table, you simply do not get the job—that is choice in the eyes of the Howard government. Effectively, if an employee wants the job, they simply accept the AWA; otherwise, they do not get the job.

People talk about how good the economy is at the moment, but there are still a lot of people who want more work. They are living from week to week in a variety of casual and part-time jobs, with all the associated costs of moving from employer to employer, to put food on the table for their families. In accepting a job and, therefore, an AWA, a worker will simply have to accept the conditions as dictated by the boss in the agreement. There will be no negotiation. It will be a case of, ‘Sit down and sign it or you don’t get a start.’ It is as simple as that. Without a doubt, the law enshrines the employer’s right to make access to a job conditional upon acceptance of the AWA. This law states that employers supposedly cannot put a worker under duress to sign an AWA, but I believe that making an AWA a condition of employment is duress. You either accept it or you do not get the job; there is no choice. People are desperate to work, but all they want is a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. I do not think there is anything wrong with that. They want the right to have assistance and to have a decent, independent industrial relations system to establish those standards. That is why the legislation says:

To avoid doubt, an employer does not apply duress to an employee for the purposes of subsection (5) merely because the employer requires the employee to make an AWA with the employer as a condition of employment.

It is spelt out in black and white. As we all well know, these changes will abolish protection through unfair dismissal laws for four million workers. It is also now explicit that bosses can sack someone because they do not like the way they chew gum or the colour of their eyes—as an industrial relations expert, Professor David Peetz from Griffith University, has put it.

What is worse is that if an employee deigns to ask for an unfair dismissal remedy in their enterprise agreement they can be fined $33,000—there is now a debate amongst lawyers, but it is at least accepted that it is tens of thousands of dollars. That is simply for asking for that particular remedy to go in their agreement. How, in a tolerant, fair democracy such as Australia, have we descended to this depth? That is what it is: we are going backwards. How is it possible that a person can be fined for asking for something from their employer? This bill goes down that path. They can also be fined, for example, $33,000 for asking for union assistance in dispute resolution, $33,000 for asking for trade union training and $33,000 for asking an employer to commit to future collective bargaining or to any other claim that the minister decides should be illegal. It is an all-encompassing power. Can you just imagine what some on the other side will come up with, with that all-encompassing capacity to determine other things are illegal under the terms of the proposed industrial relations act?

Also, importantly, these laws only provide five minimum conditions of employment. If an employee wants more they will have to negotiate an individual agreement. There is a certainty that the AWA will be less than the collective agreement. That is because the law allows the employer to discriminate against those on a collective agreement by paying them less or denying them promotion in order to force them onto an AWA. This is the government’s endeavour on an ongoing basis in the Australian Public Service. Not only has this government removed the test that guarantees no worker will be disadvantaged; it has entrenched this disadvantage with such contempt it beggars belief. I urge the Australian community to go through this bill in detail. It is not about simplification; there are more pages than I have ever seen in a proposed industrial relations act in this parliament. If anyone is still sceptical about what these laws mean, they should go and have a hard look at what is before the House.

I also note that union officials already accept—and this is important—that this is going to be an ongoing campaign and they are prepared to go to jail in order to fight for these workers. We have had these fights in the past; we have been able to stand up for rights and we will stand up for them again in the future, including in the course of this parliament, to reinforce to the Australian community how bad this proposed act of parliament is. I say this evening: the fight has only just begun. The government might have its way before Christmas with respect to an act of parliament, but the real fight is going to be about the implementation of that act of parliament in the streets, suburbs and regions of the Australian community. If anyone doubts they are full of fight, all I can say is that this is nothing compared to some of the fights we have had in the past. This is a fight concerning decency and the rights of Australian workers with respect to how they are treated in their workplaces by an Australian government in the 21st century.

Therefore it is obvious that workers are going to start demanding answers to some obvious questions. How is it possible that industrial relations is suddenly a barrier to the economy after 14 consecutive years of growth? I simply say that the real changes that achieved that growth were put in place prior to 1996. How is it possible that the workers who work amongst the longest hours in the world must now carry the burden of change to work longer hours for less? That is the reality: Australian workers are already working harder than anyone else. These are international statistics. An Australian full-time worker works an average of something like 1,840 hours a year. The average Japanese worker works around 1,600 hours a year while workers from the Netherlands work around 1,400 a year. Even in the United States they work 30 hours less than in Australia on average. Nobody can dispute the fact, therefore, that Australians are hard workers. They actually believe that they have got to earn their way in life. They do not expect anything on a plate. All they want is to be treated with some dignity and respect at work.

Not only do Australians work long hours; they are very flexible at work. They have accepted the changes that were pursued under the accord by Labor working in cooperation with employers, workers and the union movement in that fantastic period of achievement with respect to the change of direction of the Australian economy of 1983 to 1996. Everyone knows that it was a major period of achievement that set up the foundations for the economic growth and prosperity that we are now all benefiting from. That was the legacy of the Hawke and Keating governments’ years of change: more flexibility in the Australian wages system than just about any country outside the United States.

Workers will be starting to ask, and rightly so, ‘Why do we need these extreme changes to a system that during the 1990s, including post-1996, has delivered the highest labour productivity on record?’ Under that system, achieved by the Hawke and Keating governments, the Australian workplace was radically restructured with visionary reforms that have laid the foundation for Australia’s current economic success. It was Labor that took up the challenge of labour market reforms in integrating Australia into the world economy. We accepted, unlike the previous governments of this country, that we are part of the global community and we have to compete on productivity and changes at a workplace level—not drive down wages to some of the lowest in the international community. The current approach is that you can only compete with China and India if you pay lower wages than are paid in those countries. That is backward, rather than fronting up to the real issues that determine the future efficiency of this economy.

Because it was part of how we achieved change and acceptance in the Australian community—I am talking about real acceptance to drive change at a workplace level—we also sought to assist workers on the social wage front. These allowed the trade-offs which effectively meant that we could break the back of inflation in Australia. We as a community are now reaping the benefits of compulsory superannuation. And what about tax cuts, one after the other, including flat tax cuts that give the biggest benefits to the lowest paid in the community, who really appreciate that you do more in the tax system and through the wages system if you have a government that is prepared to front up to productivity and workplace change and deliver it through a combination of wages, flexibility, tax cuts, social wage issues, labour market reforms for the unemployed and even better child care? That is about a holistic approach to workplace change in Australia and fronting up to the issue of productivity.

I believe it is about time this community understood that there is one way and an alternative way. Labor’s approach was to encourage workers to take up productivity based workplace agreements by agreement so that they drove the change themselves: they owned it and they wanted to put it in place. That is the key to achieving change at a local level—to have workers involved in working things out, because they then have a sense of ownership and they are willing to drive it and make it succeed. Workers were protected also, as they ought to be, by an award system, a safety net that effectively meant that they could not be disadvantaged as they went through a huge period of change. It was about social and economic change based on an understanding that we in a decent society have to both deliver economic reform and protect the most disadvantaged.

I contend that unfortunately the changes we are discussing this evening are not driven by sound economic policy; they are driven by hatred and by cherished and archaic beliefs and prejudices of the Prime Minister which date back to the 1970s and which have no place in modern society. This government is seeking to do one thing: weaken already vulnerable workers, especially young people and women, in the most vulnerable workplaces in the Australian community, by denying them any real bargaining opportunity. This is about the Prime Minister trying to mask his extremism by arguing that industrial relations is the key to unlocking productivity improvements in our economy. That is just plain wrong. There are other key drivers of productivity and competition in the global community that are being ignored as part of this debate. The low-wage approach is a never-ending downward spiral. We will never be able to compete with some of the countries in our own backyard. We should never think about going down that particular road.

Wage cuts to compete with China, India and Bangladesh will not guarantee our future as a nation. There is a broader agenda. It is about building on the foundations of a productive and competitive Australia—the foundations established prior to 1996. It is about skills. It is about infrastructure. It is about research and development and innovation. These are the drivers of a modern economy. These are why we are doing fairly well in the international community at the moment—because we actually pursued some of these issues.

We should renew our vigour to confront these types of debates. Let us face it: statistics show that between 1996 and 2002 investment in structured training fell from 1.7 per cent to 1.5 per cent. We should be increasing structured training. That is why the economy now has blockages—because of skill shortages in Australia. We have a skills crisis in Australia. That is the debate we should be having. How else have we arrived at a situation where less than one third of apprentices and trainees currently in training are in traditional trades? What is the government’s answer? Bring them from overseas. Imagine Australia in the 21st century trying to solve its skill shortage by bringing in apprentices from overseas on the basis that you can offer them a lower AWA than is available to Australian workers. I just scratch my head. If that is our future, we as a community had better give up, because there is a better approach.

ACTU research has indicated that there will be $9 billion in lost output over the next decade because of the skills crisis. That is supported by a range of key economic institutions and business groups in the Australian community. The government’s approach is that workers so will increase their income from AWAs. It is just not so. It might be the case for some managers, but the statistics show that non-managers work longer hours and get less pay. This is particularly so if you are a woman and if you are casual or part time. It is also the case if you are a young kid trying to make ends meet while you get through university or take a second job as you are doing your apprenticeship.

The government says the minimum wage is protected. Let us look at the government’s record. Let us look at the national wage case decisions since March 1996. If the government’s submissions had been accepted, nearly two million workers on the minimum wage would be $50 a week—$2,600 a year—worse off than the current annual salary of $25,188. I know that for a domestic working in the Sydney metropolitan area from Monday to Friday in a hotel the gross wage is about $490 per week. You effectively live on the outskirts in Sydney; you have a weekly rail ticket of about $40 or $50 without even thinking about paying your taxes and associated costs of working. With two nights TA a government minister in Sydney earns more tax free than such a domestic worker earns gross per week working Monday to Friday 38 hours per week. This government would have you believe that we ought to cut their wages for the purpose of productivity and efficiency in the Australian community. I am ashamed of the approach of the government with respect to its attitude to these low-paid workers. These workers are good enough to make their beds but they are not good enough to pay a decent wage to. That is the crux of the debate.

The government talks about a new tribunal, the Fair Pay Commission. We now hear that a worker’s future is in the hands of God. That is what the new appointee, Professor Ian Harper, has said. He already admits that he does not meet many low-paid workers. My electorate is not far from Melbourne university, where he works. Perhaps he ought to come out to Edwards Street, Reservoir, or Tyler Street, Preston, and actually talk to some of those workers struggling from week to week, living in housing commission homes, working hard just to put food on the table for their kids. Go and meet some of them and think about how hard it is to live. It is a struggle for these people.

Professor Harper says that wages have been at historically high levels. We all know where the minimum wage is headed under him. He is on the record as saying on a variety of occasions that the minimum wage has been at historically high levels. Then he says that he is looking to God to guide him in his decisions. Others who look to God perhaps more regularly take a very different view from that of Professor Harper and the current government with respect to minimum wages. I am talking about the churches. Let me quote Archbishop Peter Watson:

There are some issues which stir the soul, where there comes an overwhelming urge to identify an issue where Australians are at risk, understand the issues and speak out for the public good.

He is talking about industrial relations. Then we see Archbishop Watson joining with Archbishop Peter Jensen and Anglican Primate Phillip Aspinall. They work at the front line with the poorest of Australian people. They are concerned about it, as is the Salvation Army—not a known traditional supporter of the Australian Labor Party. These are serious issues. Economist Mark Wooden with the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research is one of these people too. He says:

But is John Howard’s plan the way to move forward? Business groups think so but most others do not.

He also says:

... a good number of industrial relations academics see the reform agenda as partisan in favour of employers, undermining people’s rights ...

The second reading amendment says it all. Let us have a decent debate about productivity and a fair and proper system that is not divisive, that puts families first and that puts the Australian economy first rather than the divisive bill that is before the parliament for consideration this evening. We need a workplace that encourages productivity, a workplace where dignity and self-worth are valued and a workplace where employees are confident and secure—where they go to work in the knowledge that for a fair day’s work they will receive a fair day’s pay. I commend the second reading amendment to the House. (Time expired)