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Tuesday, 11 August 2015
Page: 4946


Senator BULLOCK (Western Australia) (15:14): I rise to take note of answers, particularly with respect to the issue of penalty rates and, if time permits, the rising tide of unemployment, which is bringing misery to households across the nation, especially in my state of Western Australia, and I will trash some of the patently optimistic assumptions underpinning the Treasurer's deceptive budget.

I do not know what it is in the water at the Productivity Commission that gives rise to the hatred of shop assistants. Prior to last week's release of the draft report of their inquiry into the workplace relations framework, their most recent assault on the working conditions of shop assistants was effected through their inquiry into the low-value threshold relevant to the application of the GST to goods purchased online. The Productivity Commission largely left this issue unaddressed and focused on recommending that retailers open their doors 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and that employees' penalty rates be slashed. Here was an ideologically-driven body that was prepared to sidestep real issues of concern to the retail industry in order to pursue its own agenda of attacking workers' conditions.

I ran for the Senate to defend workers and their families from the attacks that I felt the election of a Liberal government would rain down upon them. I believed that the public repudiation of the Work Choices regime would ensure that the government would seek to act moderately during its first term while developing the grounds to claim a mandate for radical industrial relations changes, should they achieve a second term. I did not know how the government would develop industrial relations as an issue, but when the workplace relations framework was referred to the Productivity Commission, I knew. When interviewed after the Western Australian re-run Senate election I focused on the role of the Productivity Commission and predicted its findings. I said, amongst other things, that they would attack penalty rates in the retail industry. Penalty rates are a critical component of the matrix of working conditions applicable to Australian workers and a meaningful component of the take-home pay upon which they and their families depend.

Every Australian benefits from the dedication of workers who provide services to the community seven days a week—whether those workers be police and nurses, emergency service workers, shop assistants or hospitality industry staff. These workers give up their family and leisure time to provide services for us all. The bargain has always been that, in recognition of this sacrifice and the penalties endured by these workers, work at socially unacceptable times attracts a special compensating rate—a penalty rate.

In 2009 every award was reviewed as part of the process of modernising the award system. Every condition was examined to ensure it was consistent with current community standards. The new, modern award system which came into effect from 1 January 2010 reflected the outcome of that review—the most comprehensive award review ever undertaken. The penalty rates were determined as a result of that process. Penalties compensating workers for work at unsociable hours are the recent product of this comprehensive review by an independent umpire.

It is these penalties that the Productivity Commission proposes to substantially undermine. But it is not for all workers—because it understands the community backlash that this would provoke—but for the industrially weak and low paid; for the shop assistants and hospitality workers; workers they apparently believe have little choice but to meekly accept a pay cut, and whom they are prepared to regard as workers second class. I do not regard shop assistants as second-class citizens. I have never regarded shop assistants as second-class citizens and I will fight, as I have always done, to ensure they receive a fair go in employment.

I will not be accused of being hypocritical. My union has negotiated reductions in penalty rates over the years, but these reductions have always been accompanied not only by wage increases reflecting at least the full value of the penalties forgone but also by rostering provisions requiring employers to have regard for employees' family commitments and personal circumstances; sporting, religious and study commitments; notice for roster changes and dispute settling procedures for rostering problems. Rosters, like pay rates, are important to our members and are relevant to work at penalty times. In short, where penalty rates have been varied, monetary and non-monetary benefits have been achieved, which more than offset any loss.

This is not what the Productivity Commission proposes. They propose that the independently-assessed penalty rates be stolen from workers with no offset being given to them in return. It is this shabby, mean-spirited ideological approach to the working conditions of hundreds of thousands of Australian families that the government proposes to hide behind in taking its reform agenda to the Australian people in 2016. This has always been their plan, and it will be their undoing.