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Tuesday, 4 June 2013
Page: 5039

Ms RISHWORTH (KingstonParliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Carers and Parliamentary Secretary for Sustainability and Urban Water) (12:27): I am very pleased to be speaking on the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2013. This bill builds on what we have already done as a government to bring fairness back into the workplace.

It does not seem that long ago that I was elected to the parliament on a wave of dissatisfaction around the coalition's policy for unfair conditions and no safety net at work. With Work Choices, so many people around this country saw a situation where the balance of their penalty rates and their rights was ripped away from their workplaces. They got take-it-or-leave-it contracts which reduced penalty rates and reduced their pay and made people a whole lot worse off. It took the election of this government to bring in the Fair Work Act, an act that restored fairness and balance to the workplace. It ensured that people had national standards and that awards were in place. One of the things that the previous government did was phase out awards so that there was no safety net whatsoever for those workers at work.

We know that most employers do the right thing, but, for so many people in so many jobs around this country, a safety net is critically important to ensure that they have a good quality of life, decent wages and compensation for their efforts. It should not be a fundamental debating point that people receive compensation when they have to work in the evenings, on midnight shifts or on weekends when other people are enjoying time with their families. So we had to rewrite the whole of the Workplace Relations Act and bring in the Fair Work Act. I am pleased that the bill before the parliament today builds on the Fair Work Act.

The first really important thing that this bill does is expand the National Employment Standards for the right to request flexible work. The previous speaker said that this is not important and asked why we even need to have this. As I go round and talk to people, they say that in the National Employment Standards the right to request flexible work, as it currently stands, has made a big impact when they approach their employer to ask for flexibility when they return from maternity leave, as just one example. They have been able to approach their employer and request flexible working arrangements when they return.

It is so important that we listen, and we have listened—I have certainly had this raised with me by many constituents—and allowed those flexible working arrangements to be expanded. For those workers who are mature-age workers, workers with a disability, employees with responsibility for the care of school-aged children, employees with caring responsibilities or employees suffering from domestic violence or caring for a member of their family or household who is suffering domestic violence, these are really important steps. For those people, the ability to request flexible work is so important.

Indeed, I have spoken in this place before about the importance of the ability for someone who is experiencing domestic violence to request flexible working arrangements. The reason I have spoken so passionately—and I know that you have also been incredibly passionate on this, Speaker—is that if a person, usually a woman, who is experiencing domestic violence cannot take leave, cannot get flexibility around their working arrangements to accommodate, perhaps, going to court or moving house, then they may find themselves no longer employed. If they are no longer employed, they lose their economic freedom and economic independence and can just end up staying in a cycle of domestic violence. So it is critically important that those family members who may have been experiencing domestic violence are able to have that flexibility. Putting it into the National Employment Standards is really sending a signal to our community and our society that this is an issue that should be able to be raised at work; it does affect work, and flexibility should surround it.

I would also say that for employees with caring responsibilities the right to request flexible work is critically important. I speak in my new role and also spoke when I was on the back bench to many carers who are balancing work and their caring responsibilities. This can come in at any time. It might be a partner. It might be a child. It might be a parent. It might be a friend. It might be a family member. To ensure that people who have these caring responsibilities can still stay economically independent, can still stay part of the workforce and can request and have an employer consider those flexible arrangements is critically important. As with mature-age workers, as with workers with disabilities, it really touches, I think, on the heart of a compassionate community but also sends a clear signal to the community that we believe that these people have obligations—they have responsibilities—and their employer should consider these responsibilities in terms of flexibility. So I think this element in the National Employment Standards is so important.

The bill also provides for an increased period of concurrent parental leave from three weeks to eight weeks and flexibility on when that can be taken. This will give new parents more time to spend together with their child when they can do so. This is really, really important. We know that having a baby is a very exciting time for a lot of parents, and to be able to spend that time together and have flexibility around that is very important. To provide for improved protections for pregnant workers through extending the right to transfer to a safe job for employees with less than 12 months service and ensuring that special maternity leave does not diminish an employee's entitlement to unpaid parental leave is also another important protection in this bill, as is expressly providing that a worker returning from parental leave can request flexible working arrangements such as part-time work.

It is surprising that in this day and age I still get complaints directly from my constituents from people who have gone on maternity leave or paternity leave and face a battle when they would like to return to work. They often express to me that there is little understanding or flexibility, and they find it all incredibly difficult. And so I think it is important that in this area we are ensuring that we make it explicitly clear that workers returning from parental leave can request flexible work arrangements, such as part-time work.

Another incredibly important part of this Fair Work Bill goes to the heart of bullying in our community. As previously said, the changes in this bill about bullying at work are changes that have been thoroughly looked at by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Employment. I did chair that committee, and we were struck at the hearings about the effect that bullying has in our community. We did individual impact statements—I think one of the first times that a committee has done that—where we heard directly from people about the effect. We were flooded with submissions about the effects that bullying and harassment have on people, but I was particularly struck by how debilitated people were after experiencing it.

After listening to people's stories, what became very clear to me was that the resolution time, the transparency around resolution and the effectiveness of resolution were not always there. They were not always there, and that often exacerbated people's feelings of not being listened to, of not being responded to and not having their case dealt with. The title of the report was Workplace bullying: 'We just want it to stop'. That was because that was the resounding message from so many people. So I am very pleased that the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2013 picks up on the majority of recommendations from that report. In particular, I am very pleased that it picks up on having a national definition.

One of the concerns that came out was that people often say that they have experienced workplace bullying. Often it is workplace bullying; sometimes it can be something else. Sometimes it can be an interpersonal disagreement; sometimes it can be sexual harassment; and sometimes it can be a range of different things. Without a common definition that everyone is working to it is very hard to tackle this issue effectively.

The previous speaker said that this is dealt with under work health and safety, and I must make it clear that I agree that there is a responsibility for employers and that this should continue to be dealt with under work health and safety. It was not dealing with individuals effectively; under work health and safety legislation it was often taking a long time. So some of our recommendations went to looking at helping inspectors understand workplace bullying—a psychosocial hazard and something that is a relatively new concept compared to the guard on the machine—and looking at how we can better deal with this as a work health and safety issue.

In addition to that we also made it very clear that people felt they needed to have an individual right of recourse. I am incredibly pleased that this bill picks up the ability for an individual to have a right of recourse through the Fair Work Commission. It makes it clear that bullying is not reasonable management practice, and therefore performance management conducted in a reasonable manner is not bullying.

Unfortunately, people who do not want to acknowledge that bullying happens often say, 'If you bring in a definition about bullying and you bring in laws about workplace bullying then you will stop decent and reasonable management of staff'. We are very clear in the definition, that it does not include reasonable management practice. I think that is a very important part; but what we are talking about is systematic, ongoing bullying behaviour that really does affect someone's life.

The bill makes it clear that should the Fair Work Commission be satisfied that a person has been subject to workplace bullying it could make orders that it considers appropriate to remedy or prevent such conduct from re-occurring. If the Fair Work Commission considers that a bullying complaint should be investigated by the work health and safety regulator through workplace health and safety, the commission may refer the matter to the appropriate regulator for investigation. It is important to recognise that having an individual course to resolve bullying complaints does not take away from the role of WHS regulators. But it does give individuals an opportunity to be heard, to resolve their issue and to do that quickly. It was something that came through very strongly from the many people we heard from. It is important to note that we are providing the Fair Work Commission with $21.4 million over four years to help workers who are bullied at work to get help quickly and affordably.

There is a lot of work to be done in this area. There is varying ability in different jurisdictions about how to tackle the issue, but as we heard from the parents of Brodie Panlock, who committed suicide after significant bullying, borders should not matter in getting help or seeking recourse for a victim of bullying in the workplace. They have been great campaigners and I would like to acknowledge them publicly, as I have done many times before, for their focus on prevention. Prevention was one of the recommendations we made, and that is why it fits into health and safety. We really need to lift our efforts with managers, employees and workplaces right around the country to ensure that people understand what bullying behaviour is and what impacts it can have. I would like to commend the Panlocks and the many other advocates for the work that they do in raising awareness about bullying and in preventing bullying in workplaces around Australia.

I have not been able to get to the other parts of the bill, and one of the important elements concerns penalty rates. It is necessary to enshrine penalty rates, overtime, shift work loading and public holiday pay, and these should be considered by the Fair Work Commission when it sets award rates and conditions. (Time expired)