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Thursday, 12 December 2002
Page: 8021

Senator NETTLE (10:39 PM) —I rise to speak against the Workplace Relations Amendment (Fair Termination) Bill 2002. We have before us another piece of legislation that forms a part of this government's onslaught on workers, this time on some of the most vulnerable—and a growing group of people—in our work force: casual employees. This government is determined to wind back the clock to a time before the working men and women of Australia had battled for and won a whole range of rights. I am speaking of a time when employees were completely dependent on the goodwill and patronage of employers, and employers could hire and fire at whim without fair grounds, notice or regard for their workers.

The Australian Greens oppose this bill because it is a very clear example of the world of industrial relations that this government would like to impose. It removes yet another protection from the most vulnerable workers: casual employees. This legislation responds to a court ruling last year that upheld the right of a young casual worker to take action on the basis of unfair dismissal. The government had previously tried to remove this right not by legislation but by regulation. The court found that this regulation was invalid because it went beyond the powers provided for in the Workplace Relations Act. This government is so determined to remove this protection from casual employees that it introduced a new regulation to shore up its position. Senator Sherry attempted to have this regulation disallowed on the first day of this session. I am disappointed that the Senate did not see fit to support this disallowance motion.

We now have the government trying to entrench its position with this bill, with the additional dimension of retrospectivity. So the government has gone to a great deal of effort to close this loophole. It is worth asking: what is the threat to employers that this government is scurrying to address? What onerous and unreasonable burden has been placed on them that they must rush to relieve? It is the requirement that a fair and open procedure be followed when sacking casual employees who have been on the job for more than 12 months. Of course, this only applies to employees who are under Commonwealth jurisdiction. It is a relatively small section of all casual workers, but for the government this is only partly about real change. It is largely about pushing their ideological agenda at every opportunity. One of the characteristics of this government's industrial relations agenda has been the decline of security for many workers. Permanent jobs with adequate training and support have been cut back in favour of short-term positions with the emphasis on contractors.

Casual workers are at the front line of this structural change. As of August 2001, nearly 2.2 million Australians were employed on a casual basis. Statistics show that between 1990 and 1999 the proportion of casual employees in the labour force increased from 19.4 per cent to 26.4 per cent. The overwhelming proportion of new jobs created during that decade, 71.4 per cent, were in casual work. In addition, many employers are using casual employees on a long-term basis. This is often an attempt to avoid the responsibilities that come with full-time employment. Statistics show that more than 66 per cent of casual employees worked regular hours and more than 50 per cent had been employed for more than one year.

The Greens see this as a pattern of shifting risks and costs from the employers to individual employees. Individuals must now bear the burden of economic cycles. Employers have the benefit of casual labour when there is demand but no responsibility during the down times. Good employees, people who need jobs, can be tossed out at whim when it suits the bottom line. It is easy to assume that casual workers are those who do not really need to enter the full-time work force. We think of students, travellers or women who are financially supported by their families. For these people, to lose a job can be an inconvenience or a setback. But it would be a mistake to assume that these are the only casual employees. Hundreds of thousands of other Australians are trapped in a pattern of casual employment because that is all that is available. Many of these are untrained or poorly skilled, including migrants and young people. Some live on the margins of society, where the loss of a job is not a setback but a catastrophe. This income can mean the difference between renting and homelessness, being able to fund school activities for kids or missing out on those opportunities.

Take the common example of a single mother without particular qualifications who works in a casual job. She is vulnerable because she needs that job and has few other options. She may not be able to meet unreasonable demands in terms of working longer shifts or working without adequate notice, but under this government's industrial relations regime she would have little or no protection from being sacked without fair notice or reason.

If we want to protect the most vulnerable people in our society, we need a fair balance between employers and employees. This legislation is another step towards changing that fair balance to a subservient relationship where employees must come cap in hand to their employers to protect entitlements that should be their right. The Greens support employment relationships where each party has both responsibilities and privileges. This government is pushing too far in the interests of employers, and ordinary Australians are losing out. Of course, many employers do not act in such a heavy-handed fashion. There are many employers who fully understand that the basis of success is a reciprocal and cooperative relationship. But we must not forget that laws should make the unethical minority accountable. Under these changes, casual workers lose the right to stand up to employers who choose to act unfairly. This is simply not good enough.

Finally, it is worth noting that this legislation enshrines a $50 filing fee for making an unfair dismissal claim. This kind of fee is the worst kind of miserliness from a mean and nasty government. Asking $50 from people filing an unfair dismissal claim has no merit in stopping vexatious litigation. It is an administrative burden, it does not produce an income stream that is worth the time and, although there is an avenue for exemptions, it is complex and unwieldy. This fee is nothing more than a gesture. It is the government saying to everyone who wants to file an unfair dismissal claim, `We assume your claim is groundless.' It is a petty penalty for those who try to defend their rights. There is no justification for this fee on the grounds of justice or administration, and it should be removed. The Australian Greens will not be supporting this bill.