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Wednesday, 25 June 2003
Page: 17549

Mr GAVAN O'CONNOR (6:44 PM) —It gives me great pleasure to rise in this House to oppose the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transmission of Business) Bill 2002. The bill is simply another attempt by the Howard government to introduce under another guise various provisions of the Prime Minister's Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (More Jobs, Better Pay) Bill 1999—that pernicious piece of deceptive legislation that had as its objective the stripping of the hard won award wages and conditions of Australian workers.

The member for Bennelong, Australia's Prime Minister, is about as visionless and pedestrian as prime ministers come. His great vision agenda for Australia is based around four basic propositions: the destruction of Medicare and the Americanisation of the Australian health system; the privatisation of Telstra and selling what Australians already own; the introduction of the GST; and the introduction of an industrial relations system that seeks to strip away the rights, award wages and conditions of Australian workers and their families. His whole public life has been devoted to this agenda, and it must be a massive disappointment to the Prime Minister to reflect on this pedestrian policy agenda and to realise that he has largely failed to implement it. He has had one big win: the introduction of the GST. However, he has not managed to sell all of Telstra and he has not managed to destroy Medicare up to this point in time. Due to the efforts of Labor in this House and in the other place, he has not been able to introduce his nirvana industrial relations system in this country.

As much as this grovelling Prime Minister wants to make us the 51st state of America, the Australian people and their parliament steadfastly resist his efforts. They do not want an Americanised education system in Australia that perpetuates inequalities in access, but they do want an independent foreign policy. They do not want an Americanised industrial relations system, but they do want their own uniquely Australian Medicare system. It is with great pleasure, on behalf of workers and their families in the seat of Corio and in the Geelong region, that I oppose this bill and support the amendments moved by the shadow minister, the member for Barton.

The Workplace Relations Amendment (Transmission of Business) Bill 2002 seeks to amend the Workplace Relations Act of 1996 to allow the Australian Industrial Relations Commission to order that a new employer is not bound by an existing certified agreement which specifies the terms of employment for the employees of the acquired business or that a new employer is to be bound to a certain extent or for a certain time. Presently, under the Workplace Relations Act, when an employer transfers a business to a new employer, a certified agreement which bound the old employer will bind the new employer. However, this bill will give the Australian Industrial Relations Commission the power to order that a certified agreement does not bind, or only binds to a very limited extent, a new employer following the sale and transmission of a business.

When you strip away all the Howard government's rhetoric, this bill is simply there to make it easier for their mates up the top end of town to reduce their labour costs and to restructure their businesses and contract out. The upshot of this particular bill is that it will make employees in the workplace less secure and it will provide employers with an opportunity to once again strip away the hard won wages and conditions of workers in many workplaces.

We reject this bill on several grounds. It is a measure specifically designed to reduce democracy in Australia's workplaces. Employees whose livelihoods are dependent on negotiated agreements certified by the commission, and whose household expenditures have been structured around certain agreements, can have those agreements substantially altered without having a direct vote in that process. The members opposite are always preaching to us on this side of the House and to the Australian people how they are great promoters and defenders of democracy. And of course, according to the government we have just engaged in a conflict in Iraq in furtherance of the democratic ideal. But it always applies in another place; it does not seem to apply here in Australia to ordinary working men and women.

It is about time that we had a little bit of democracy in Australian workplaces and ensure that when businesses are bought and sold in a very ruthless marketplace and are restructured, the livelihoods of the people who have created the wealth in those enterprises are at least protected to some degree. We reject this legislation because it will simply operate to the disadvantage of employees. There is no explicit guidance given in the bill to direct the commission on how this new power will be exercised. Therefore, the guiding document will be the explanatory memorandum, which is strongly biased towards giving employers untrammelled power to restructure their businesses without regard to existing certified agreements.

We also oppose this bill on several other bases. When you buy a business, it is customary for the buyer of that particular business to honour existing commercial agreements. We ask members opposite: why shouldn't the same principle apply to employment agreements? Why is it that you are attempting to make a distinction under the laws governing this country between the responsibility of employers to honour existing commercial agreements and their responsibility with regard to honouring existing employment agreements? Why are you letting them off the hook with regard to the latter? I would have thought that employees were entitled to the same certainty and security as commercial creditors; yet, under this particular piece of legislation, that will not be so.

Provisions already exist in law for an employer to go to the commission to get changes in a certified agreement if that employer regards the agreement as being unsuitable to their enterprise. They can go to the commission to seek a variation or termination of it and they can certainly negotiate a new agreement. Isn't that what democracy is about? The essence of democracy is that, if an employer takes over another business, that employer at least consults those employees, who have been engaged in the creation of wealth of that enterprise, about the future of the enterprise and the wages and conditions under which they should operate.

This leads us to the conclusion that the real intent of this particular piece of legislation is to help large employers slash their labour costs by enabling them to junk certified agreements when they restructure enterprises and contract out the functions that have been carried out previously by the employees in that business. That is at the real heart of this legislation—the government pandering again to the big end of town. The people who pay the price for this sort of legislation are workers on the factory floor or elsewhere in the workplace.

In the remaining time that I have available to me, I want to bring two matters to the attention of the House relating to industrial relations in the electorate of Corio. I think they typify the ugly side of the Howard-Abbott agenda in this area of policy. The first relates to the recent termination of employment of cleaners at the Market Square shopping complex in Geelong. The complex management, on behalf of the owner, issued a tender for the cleaning of the shopping complex. The tender was won by a new contractor, who indicated that the people who were previously employed to clean up the centre were now redundant and would be given no opportunity to apply for their old jobs or to be retained.

Last Saturday morning I lent my support to a rally at Market Square in support of the eight workers who had had their jobs terminated. Those eight workers had a collective work history at Market Square totalling 60 years. Indeed, two of those cleaners have been cleaning in that particular part of Geelong for some 15 years. That is a big effort, showing great loyalty to the shop owners and the people who shop at the Market Square complex. I am glad that we are joined in the House tonight by the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, who is attempting to ram through these sorts of changes that are impacting heavily on Geelong workers. I would like to know what the minister at the table has to say to Vera Najdanovski, who has worked for nine years in that particular complex, cleaning the food court. Vera has a house and a Commonwealth Bank mortgage and is bringing up two sons. She likes her work and she has turned up every day between the hours of 9.30 and 5.30, five days a week, to clean the Market Square complex. She has built up many relationships in that complex. What does the minister say to Vera when she has lost her job as a result of his government's legislation? What does the minister say to Val Jackson, who has spent 15 years—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—The member for Corio would understand that there have been several rulings in this place that names should not be used only to illustrate a point. I think the point has already been illustrated.

Mr GAVAN O'CONNOR —I want the minister at the table to appreciate the implications of the policies that he is putting before this parliament and expects to get through this parliament. Frank Canadillas has worked there full time for two years. He has a six-year-old boy and a wife and he rents—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Corio is now flouting my ruling. I bring him back to the legislation.

Mr GAVAN O'CONNOR —Mr Deputy Speaker, I am very disappointed that ordinary working people in my electorate cannot have their situation put before the minister, who is here in this House tonight. I think that is a real shame. I will adhere to your ruling, but the simple fact of the matter is this: as the minister brings this legislation into this House to support the big end of town to restructure enterprises and to contract out, as has occurred in the Market Square example, he ought to contemplate that it has a terrible impact on the lives of ordinary working Australians who seek nothing else but to earn a decent wage and bring their families up and do the sorts of things that ordinary Australians do.

I want to refer to a second dispute that is occurring in my electorate. It relates to an industrial dispute at Geelong Wool Combing at Lara, where that company locked out 100 workers. The lockout was brought before the Federal Court and the Federal Court ruled that the lockout was illegal. Workers returned to work, only to be reissued with further lockout notices.

I am indebted to the textile union, the TCFUA, for the information that they have provided to me on this dispute and for the manner in which they have supported textile employees at that particular plant. The company wanted employees to take a cut in wages of 25 per cent and to make changes to their other conditions, including a reduction in their hourly rate; changes to shifts from seven to five days, and back to seven days, as the company requires, with only one month's notice of change; having unlimited casuals and labour hire employees on site with no restrictions on casuals or time for casuals; making approximately 14 to 20 employees redundant on acceptance of agreement; and asking workers to work overtime for less than the current hourly rate, with no penalties. This is the great promised land that this minister in the House wants to lead us to.

Recently I was at a function, held in the Geelong Trades Hall, to support these workers. I pay tribute to John Kranz and the Geelong and Region Trades and Labour Council, other key unions in Geelong and members of the Geelong community for the way they have stood beside these workers in this dispute. There were many people at this function who are absolutely committed to supporting these workers in their time of need. I say to those workers in this dispute, `You are not forgotten on the floor of this House, nor are you forgotten in the Geelong community.'

In the time remaining to me, I want to turn to a matter relating to industrial relations in my electorate. On Monday, the member for Corangamite asked the acting industry minister a question relating to Australia's car industry and industrial relations in that sector. We know that certain sections of this industry have moved to contract out certain functions and tasks. That contracting out is the substance of the matters in this legislation before the House. This is what the acting industry minister had to say:

The member for Corangamite understands the benefits of free trade. He also understands the impact of union thuggery on the automotive industry. That is because in his electorate, in Geelong, we have seen the impact of union thuggery at the Ford plant, on the components industries, on delivery drivers, on truckies and on all the small businesses that rely on the automotive industry ...

The minister does not even know that the Ford plant is in the Corio electorate; it is not in the Corangamite electorate. What he failed to say, and what he seeks to deceive us about in this matter, is that the Ford plant in Geelong has had an excellent period of industrial relations peace and cooperation between management and unions that has put this enterprise in a position where it has now returned to profitability with the good market conditions currently existing for the industry. The minister has sought to denigrate the 2,000 Geelong workers in the car industry. I will not have any minister or any member of this House denigrate the workers in the Geelong plant. They have done their part to improve productivity, to create efficiencies, to innovate and to create the wealth that is now enjoyed by the company. (Time expired)