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Thursday, 22 March 2012
Page: 3988

Mr HAYES (Fowler) (12:30): I rise in strong support of the Fair Work Amendment (Textile, Clothing and Footwear Industry) Bill. This bill seeks to amend the Fair Work Act to ensure appropriate protection and rights for contract outworkers in the textile, clothing and footwear industry. The three major areas of change include: recognising TCF contract outworkers as employees under the Fair Work Act; creating a system that would allow outworkers to go up the supply chain to recover any overdue payments; and adjusting the rules of entry to allow inspection of sweatshops and other potentially suspicious places of employment with little notice or without notice.

Because outworkers are employed in non-business enterprises they often suffer unique challenges. These challenges are exacerbated by poor language skills and a lack of knowledge of their rights under the Australian legal system, as most outworkers are recent arrivals to this country. There is a general lack of knowledge of workplace relations.

I get to see firsthand the good work that people such as Hung Nguyen, an organiser with the TCFUA, do to address the issues of outworkers in my electorate of Fowler. Given that 30 per cent of my electorate is made up of Asians, many of whom are refugees, particularly from Vietnam and Cambodia, there is certainly a market for exploiting those who are most vulnerable, particularly women outworkers. So I personally praise the efforts of Hung and the TCFUA in advocating for the protection of outworkers and for the application of industry-wide standards that will not be undercut by exploiting outworkers.

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to attend an event organised by the union, led by the National Secretary, Michele O'Neil, who is in the gallery here today. This was a joint effort by the TCFUA and FairWear, with their spokesperson Shelley Marshall, and a number of women from Asian Women at Work, including the organisation coordinator, Lina Cabaero. FairWear is a coalition of organisations, including Asian Women at Work and the union as well as a number of churches and other organisations that are committed to fighting exploitation of workers, particularly women, in the clothing industry. So when those opposite want to bang on about unions, I wonder whether they take the same stick to those churches and other organisations also working against exploitation—

Mr Briggs: We bang on about union bosses, mate, not unions.

Mr HAYES: Well, the member for Mayo will have an opportunity to add to that.

I was particularly touched by some of the guest speakers from Asian Women at Work. This organisation works to inform and empower migrant women who work in disadvantaged working conditions in places such as sweatshops. The main speaker on behalf of the outworkers came from the suburb of Cabramatta, right smack bang in the middle of my electorate. Nguyet Vu brought her autistic daughter, Anna, with her to Canberra, where she spoke of her experiences and the challenges of being an outworker working in poor conditions. Ms Vu had many challenges in her life. She was dealt a very hard hand and is raising a daughter with autism. Nevertheless, she worked, and worked hard, for her family. She drew attention to the unique circumstances that often limit choice and the balance of power when it comes to predominantly migrant based employment conditions.

Another Vietnamese lady from Cabramatta, Kim Thanh, in front of us all sewed a picnic blanket on which she embroidered the words 'Justice for outworkers in 2012'. That was very powerful imagery of the work that many of these people do in conditions that we would certainly not want for our families. The main message from this event, titled 'A Fair Deal for Outworkers and their Families', was that it is time for our nation to take steps to ensure fairness and equality for all its citizens, especially those in disadvantaged living and working conditions.

A number of reviews and investigations have taken place in recent years, including the Senate Economics References Committee inquiry in 1996. A Brotherhood of St Laurence investigation in 2007 found that outworkers had appalling working conditions. The investigation made findings on a number of issues connected to working hours and extremely low, delayed or missing payments. Not even the opposition would want to criticise the Brotherhood of St Laurence for its charitable works. It found that outworkers were being paid as little as $3 or $4 an hour. These people pay the same amount for their groceries and household necessities as we do. Indeed, they pay the same rate of GST on the goods and services they need to support their families. Such extreme breaches of workers' rights should not happen in Australia in this day and age. We have come so far in the area of workers' rights and we cannot leave a large number of fellow Australians behind.

In fact, 40 per cent of all factory based employment in the TCF sector consists of outworkers. Numerically, that means about 20,000 workers in total. The review I mentioned also found widespread lack of knowledge regarding the rights and responsibilities of workers in this country. The majority of outworkers are migrants with poor language skills. Long working hours and exhaustion as well as domestic commitments often prevent these workers, many of them women, from gaining an education and acquiring and developing greater language skills. This in itself creates a vicious cycle of a lack of knowledge and a need to remain in less than satisfactory working conditions without the prospect of advancement to better-paid work.

I previously mentioned Asian Women at Work, a wonderful organisation advocating on behalf of migrant working women. This organisation has a significant presence in my electorate. As members here know, 50 per cent of my electorate was born overseas. Another interesting statistic is that 30 per cent of my electorate is Asian. Many individuals find themselves in poor working conditions with poor knowledge of their rights and their ability to get out. Asian Women at Work has been empowering migrant women in these conditions since 1993. The organisation offers a wide range of programs designed to inform, empower and support migrant women in low-paid employment. Asian Women at Work works hard to increase the confidence levels of migrant working women, who are generally isolated from information and support services due to long hours, as well as being forced to work in what many of us would refer to as conditions of exploitation.

The current system of monitoring the recovery of payments in the TCF outworker sector is very difficult. It is hard for individual outworkers to work their way up the supply chain in order to identify the source of the payments, let alone recover those payments. This is why this bill is critical. It is doing the right thing for people who are at risk of being left behind. This bill will encourage fairness and ensure consistency in the protection of the types of workers who can clearly be seen to have unique challenges and disadvantage throughout their workplaces. I commend this bill to the House. This is a bill which all Labor members should be proud of.