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Wednesday, 13 September 2017
Page: 7123

Senator DASTYARI (New South WalesDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (12:54): I rise today to tell the story of one individual, but it tells a much bigger story. I want to tell the story of Shane O'Neill, who worked for UGL and the ExxonMobil offshore plant in Victoria for 19 years. That is 19 years of working with this one company. But, after that period of time, earlier this year, under a new proposed agreement, a take-it-or-leave-it offer of a 30 per cent pay cut was put on the table. This is the same type of behaviour we saw from Carlton & United Breweries. This is the same type of behaviour we have seen time and time again from companies and larger corporations who treat long-term, loyal employees improperly, cycling them out of contracts, cycling them out of agreements and finding arrangements and loopholes that allow them to rip off workers.

I wanted to get to the bottom of Shane's story, so I reached out to the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union. I note that they've been working with the Electrical Trades Union and also with the Australian Workers' Union, and I want to acknowledge my good friend there, Tamsyn Lloyd, who sent me information about just what is actually going on at this company. As a tiny bit of background for the chamber, the Longford gas plant was built in 1969. It is the onshore receiving point for oil and gas output from production platforms in Bass Strait. The Longford gas plant consists of three gas processing plants and one crude oil stabilisation plant. It was the primary provider of natural gas to Victoria and provided some supply to New South Wales. These are highly skilled workers with the difficult job of maintaining the gas industry. For example, they make sure the pipes on the ocean floor don't leak gas. It's skilled work. It's dangerous work.

I want to explain the relationship between ExxonMobil, which trades as Esso, and UGL. ExxonMobil doesn't directly employ the workers at Longford. Instead, it's foreign-owned contractor UGL employs the workforce. It now seems that UGL will further contract out employment. This long trail of contractors is becoming very common in the resources sector. Sadly, none of what has been happening on this plant is illegal, and I want to stress that. The problem is that this is permitted behaviour. It demonstrates the disastrous loopholes in our industrial relations laws.

I also want to touch on what all of this means for our tax laws. Some of the workers are onshore at the Longford plant and some of them are offshore workers in the Bass Strait. They're employed by UGL, as the direct contractor to Esso, which is the trading name for ExxonMobil. Recently, ExxonMobil retendered for the maintenance contract. The winning bid offered wages and conditions that were substantially less—one-third less—than the rates that had been offered at ExxonMobil for years. This contract cycling has become a common way for large multinationals in Australia to legally cut wages and conditions. As I mentioned earlier, this is the same situation that we saw at Carlton & United Breweries last year. ExxonMobil is allowing UGL to cut the wages and conditions of these Victorian workers by up to 30 per cent and introduce harsh antifamily rosters. UGL are using underhanded tactics and loopholes in our laws, including trying to force their 200 workers, like Shane O'Neill, onto an agreement approved by just a handful of unrelated workers in Western Australia. The companies are using some of the same tactics that we saw at Carlton United Breweries, but UGL's plan is to cut wages and conditions by shifting workers onto a subsidiary company which is called MTCT. This MTCT agreement, signed years ago by just five people on the other side of the country, would see these Victorian workers face 30 per cent pay cuts, allowances reduced, annual leave reduced, loadings significantly cut and a harsh anti-family shift roster that would see workers move from one week on and one week off to five weeks on and one week off.

I want to stress that: five weeks on and one week off. We're talking about a plan where many of these workers spend long periods offshore. Can you imagine what that does to families, what that does to people's lives and what that does to whole communities? It is tough enough. As senators, we have a very small taste of fly-in fly-out work, but in a very manageable way. I'm fortunate, as a New South Wales senator; it's much easier than it is for senators across the country—and I note that Western Australian and Tasmanian senators have it a lot tougher. Imagine five weeks on with one week off. Imagine the consequences of that for a family, what that does to a family. We have these huge debates in this place about the importance of being there for children—of course it's important—and the importance of being role models. It is difficult to do that, if you're not there for five weeks at a time.

This is the bit that really grates on me: the argument broadly presented by ExxonMobil and their company Esso is that they have to do this because of their commercial situation in Australia. That is the bit that really frustrates me with this—and I note that Senator Ketter is in the chamber today. We have been looking at how these companies, oil and gas companies in particular, structure their affairs, behave and use the loopholes that exist in our system, be it marketing hubs, thin capitalisation, cost shifting or the kinds of arrangements that we saw time and time again from Chevron, where they, effectively, are loaning themselves their own money at rates designed—and, again, the courts have caught them out for this—to impact their profitability for the sole purpose of tax arrangements—

They argue that the rights and conditions of these workers need to be stripped because of commercial pressures—then there is the work that this Senate, and, in particular, the Senate Economics References Committee, chaired by Senator Ketter, have done in highlighting how these things are a lie, how these claims are a lie, how these claims are a rort, how these workers are being exploited and taken advantage of, how they're being ripped off, and how they've had their situations, their lives and their stories shattered—at the same time as techniques and tactics are being used to present a false picture of an economic position simply for tax advantage. Now these tax minimisation structures and tactics look like they're being extended to make the case for ripping off and hurting workers.

I note there was a very strong public campaign against Carlton United Breweries when they went down this path. I note that it's not as cool or as hip when we talk about offshore gas, and a company like ExxonMobil obviously isn't as cool and hip as a company like Carlton United Breweries, where there was a huge public backlash and people were boycotting the beer. I note it's a bit more—pardon the language—sexy with beer than when we're talking about oil and gas, but it's as important because of what it symbolises. You're looking at ExxonMobil, which had something in the vicinity of up to $15 billion of revenue in the past few years, paying nothing in tax. We've had Senate inquiries looking at why this is the case. We've looked at tax minimisation and we've looked at the schemes and tactics that they've used. That has been a separate debate. To then use those same tactics and those same arguments to rip off your own workers is unacceptable. This Senate, this parliament and this chamber have a responsibility to do whatever we can to bring ExxonMobil to account and protect the rights and conditions of these workers. I certainly intend to be using this chamber and the Senate to do that.