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Thursday, 22 March 2012
Page: 3996


Ms O'DWYER (Higgins) (13:00): Unfortunately, I had to listen to the contribution by the member for McEwen. I would encourage him to stay in the chamber and listen to my contribution. He mentioned just before that he wanted to understand what impact this legislation would have on individual workers. I will outline the circumstances and the impact that it will have. As somebody who is very concerned about jobs and about having a productive economy, I believe it is incumbent upon us in this place to argue for good policy.

Unfortunately, however, the Fair Work Amendment (Textile, Clothing and Footwear Industry) Bill 2012 is not such a case. This bill is simply an expression by this government that the Fair Work Act that it brought into place has failed. By their own admission, in bringing forward this bill they have said that the Fair Work Act has failed, that it is deficient, that they are required to bring forward this bill. They do so because they have been waging a war against independent contractors. This is something that is deep within the marrow of the bones of those who sit opposite. They do not support independent contractors and they are progressively trying to legislate them away.

We have already seen in this place that the government has brought forward legislation which was passed recently with respect to independent contractors in the transport industry. This was, again, an expression of how the Fair Work Act is not working. They brought this forward and it was designed to bring independent contractors under the purview of the union movement by classing them as employees. That is what this bill will do as well to so many people in the textile, clothing and footwear industry.

What will this bill do? It will extend the operation of most provisions of the Fair Work Act to contract outworkers in the textile, clothing and footwear industry, deeming all outworkers to be employees. Why is it a problem to deem independent contractors as employees? The government says that this in some miraculous way is going to eliminate sweatshops and safeguard those who are supposedly vulnerable. Yet the evidence does not bear this out. A person in the industry who will be affected by this bill, Rita Tu Lan Ly, recently submitted a letter to the Senate Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. She said:

I am a very capable, professional machinist who is running a successful, flexible, profitable business from my own home, which allows me to be with my children and meet my family commitments as well as do the work in my own time and to be paid well. I see myself very much as a contractor not an outworker. I feel I have the support and capability to run my own business just as IT specialists, hairdressers, bookkeepers and all tradespeople along with many consultants such as psychologists, accountants, business and educational advisers do. I am feeling there is an issue of discrimination in this particular case as my profession—

and that is what it is; it is a profession—

as a machinist isolates my role away from all others who are allowed to work from home. I believe the amendments to the Fair Work Act currently under discussion are unbalanced, inconsistent and extremely unfair.

She goes on to say:

I am currently paid above the award and work for ethical companies and like my current conditions. I do not wish to be an employee. I want to remain an independent contractor just as many other professionals are allowed under the same act. Why is it that only the people working in the textile, clothing and footwear industry are discriminated against? I have serious concerns that these new amendments will harm me greatly. It will restrict my ability to operate as an independent and autonomous business. I will not be able to claim business expenses for my phone, electricity, depreciation of machinery etc—it's unfair. I have my own ABN and pay my taxes. I negotiate my own hours and have built professional and ethical relationships with companies I feel happy to work with and for.

If the amendments as suggested by Fair Work Australia in relation to our industry are passed, I would be unemployed and this would then be a further burden on the government as I would have no choice but to apply for assistance through Centrelink.

For the member for McEwen, those are the words of somebody who works in this industry, who currently has a job and who is making a contribution to our country, paying their taxes and going about their business lawfully. In her own words, she says that this bill will discriminate against her and her business and put her out of business. Why is it that this government is so determined to talk the talk of jobs and yet discriminate against independent contractors?

These people want to protect vulnerable people from those who would exploit them. Make no mistake: we on this side of the chamber do not condone abuse of power or exploitation of vulnerable working people. On this we can all agree: that is not what is being brought before the House today. The government says that the bill will have a fairly limited impact, that it is really just going to affect and attack those people who are doing the wrong thing, but this is not the case. I quote from another submission to the Senate committee by Richard Thomas, who said:

Limited impact is a massive understatement. Concern stems from the fact that a complete and unworkable company restructure is required to treat independent contractors as employees, failure to do so will result in legal action instigated by the TCFUA. The only viable option that remains is to close down. This will leave many, whom are not vulnerable and happy with their chosen arrangements, without work. In order to protect vulnerable outworkers, the legislation will destroy the lives of all the outworkers, vulnerable or not.

Even if factories can somehow comply with the laws in treating outworks as employees—sweatshops will hence be unaffected. In instances where people are exploited nothing will change. The 'middleman' outworker will be paid as an employee rather than a company and then continue to exploit the vulnerable as before.

The people who choose to do the wrong thing will continue to do the wrong thing. We know that. This legislation will do nothing to fix that but it will penalise a number of people who are lawfully and correctly going about their business in their small businesses and making a contribution to this country.

The government recently made a lot of arguments in this place about how they did not want to see special treatment for particular industries. That is why they said the Australian building and construction commission needed to be abolished. They demanded that everyone be treated the same and that the ABCC be abolished. They said there should be a one-size-fits-all approach on the issue of industrial relations. They said that those in the construction industry were discriminated against. Yet they have brought forward legislation in this place that will discriminate against people in the clothing, footwear and textile industries. The hypocrisy of this government knows no bounds.

This legislation also fails to understand the seasonal and fashion nature of the industry. It does not understand that there needs to be flexibility in the industry and that so many in this industry rely on a pool of very specialised contractors. By classifying them all as employees, flexibility will be removed, flexibility that is so critical to this industry. Another submission to the Senate inquiry from a company which employs a number of people in this industry said:

Due to the wide variety of Fabrics many different machines and machinists are required to complete the sewing of a garment. One contractor will specialize in certain garments and using certain machines only. Therefore a pool of many contractors is required to complete various orders. Many contractors will work for a number of factories to generate their required turnover. One factory alone will not be able to provide consistent work.

Further to this the fashion industry is highly seasonal, within a year there can be many quiet and busy times, determined by the clients, not the factories. A factory has no guaranteed work, therefore to provide minimum hours to contractors on a weekly basis or up to 5 weeks notice of termination … is not possible.

There is a fundamental lack of understanding of the nature of this industry but that does not concern this government. They are too busy waging an ideological battle against independent contractors so that they may bring them within the reach of the union movement in order that the contractors, too, can pay their union dues which can then contribute to the expense accounts and credit card payments made by those officials, some of whom currently sit in this place.

Dr Leigh: Mr Speaker, on a point of order: the honourable member is straying far from the bill and casting unwarranted imputations on other members of the chamber. If she wants to do that there are substantive motions through which she is able to do so.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Hon. DGH Adams ): The honourable member for Higgins will address the matters before the House.

Ms O'DWYER: I was addressing the matters before the House, Mr Deputy Speaker. I know it is very uncomfortable for those opposite to be reminded that union leaders have a responsibility to their members. It is a responsibility they should take seriously.

If you want to talk about the abuse of individuals who are vulnerable and who pay their dues you need look no further than the HSU. Yet we have heard nothing from the government stating that they have any problem whatsoever with how this has occurred. I simply restate in the remaining time available to me on this bill that this is yet another expression by the government to show that their Fair Work Act has failed. This is an expression by this government that they are going to continue to wage a war against independent contractors. This is a government that is not concerned about jobs unless they are the jobs of their union mates. It is very unfortunate that we have a government so concerned with their own vested interests that they would put those before the national interest.

We believe that it is important for people to be paid properly for the work that they do. We believe that it is important for people, in whatever industry they are involved in, to have a safe, secure and fair working environment. But this bill certainly does not achieve that. It will enforce a discrimination against those who are independent contractors, people who are making a significant contribution to our country. It is yet again a demonstration of the multiple failures of the Labor government.