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Thursday, 25 March 2004
Page: 27278

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR (1:55 PM) —The Workplace Relations Amendment (Award Simplification) Bill 2002, which is currently before the House, is looking to target the most vulnerable workers in this country. This bill, if enacted, would undermine the capacity of up to 700,000 or 800,000 workers who now enjoy the minimum standards under the federal award system. The irony of this bill being introduced by this government is that it will effectively target those people who have not been collectively bargaining at their workplace. If this bill were to be enacted, it would strip away minimum entitlements that are currently available pursuant to section 89A of the Workplace Relations Act. In effect, it will target those employees who have not been collectively bargaining, most of whom are not members of employee organisations or trade unions, because they are not bound to enterprise agreements. It is a known fact that enterprise bargaining in the main is undertaken by agents of employees—in effect, registered organisations of employees.

The employees who will be affected by the enactment of this bill are those whose employment is covered by minimum award standards. When this government two terms ago introduced the Workplace Relations Act and diminished the entitlements of employees under the federal jurisdiction, it allowed for only 20 allowable matters to be inserted into the federal award system. That was a limitation on employees who were not in a position to collectively bargain for themselves. So it is somewhat ironic to find that the government is targeting those employees who are not organised, who are not members of unions and who are the most vulnerable employees in the system. It is quite extraordinary that we have a government that boasts that it wants to look after battlers and yet this bill, if enacted, will attack those so-called battlers, the people who work under the lowest award standards acceptable under Commonwealth law.

I ask the minister to come clean with respect to this matter. He gets up every question time in this place and rails against the Labor Party for opposing his bills. This bill, if enacted, will target 700,000 or 800,000 employees who are working under minimum conditions as set down by law. I think people should understand that. It is quite clear: in effect, it would remove those entitlements and limitations that were enacted in 1996. Skills based career paths would no longer be an allowable matter. If we were to remove this entitlement in an award, if we were to stop parties negotiating skills based jobs, what message would that send to the employers of this country? Effectively, we would be saying, `We no longer need to consider skills and the acquisition of skills and knowledge in order to elevate under an award.'

In effect, the government are sending two messages: firstly, they are saying that they are happy to target those who are not organised and who are not capable of having their entitlements collectively bargained; and, secondly, they are undermining the need for workplaces to focus on skills in order for employees to elevate through the classification structure. To deny employees who are under the minimum award system a skills based award and, indeed, at the same time to target the most vulnerable workers in the federal jurisdiction is an absolute disgrace. If the Prime Minister were concerned about the battlers—and he keeps pretending that he is—he would concern himself with this matter and tell his minister to withdraw this bill, because it is an outrage.

The SPEAKER —Order! It being 2 p.m., the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 101A. The debate may be resumed at a later hour and the member for Burke will have leave to continue speaking when the debate is resumed.