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Thursday, 15 May 2014
Page: 3939

Ms CHESTERS (Bendigo) (16:32): Prior to entering this House I was an organiser for United Voice, a low-paid workers union that represents cleaners, security guards, early childhood educators and paramedics. In that role I would be at shopping centres and in workplaces very early in the morning talking to cleaners and workers coming off night shifts and starting day shifts. In that role, very early one morning I met Jackie, a cleaner in her 60s, who cleans not because it is a job of choice but because she needs to pay the bills. I can remember talking to Jackie one morning—she had just started work, and she and all of her colleagues had been handed a two-page paper, all of them identical. It was a Spotless Cleaning individual flexibility agreement. In this two-page paper were a number of boxes that had already been ticked. The paper talked about Jackie being paid in accordance with the award—that is good—but then it went on to say that she would forgo her overtime rates, that she would forgo her rostered days off and that she would forgo her penalty rates. And her employer, Spotless Cleaning, had been so kind as to pre-tick these boxes for her and for all of her employees. It really goes to the heart of how individual, how flexible, these agreements are. Jackie, being a little aware of her rights at work, said that she would not sign the agreement. Instantly, her supervisor said to her that she would lose her valuable Sunday shift, meaning that she would be $200 worse off in her pay each week. And that is exactly what happened to Jackie.

At the time, Jackie said that she just cannot survive—it means a lot to her, and she cannot afford to pay her mortgage and the bills that she has coming in time and time again. Jackie's husband passed away a few years before, and the only way she could survive in her changed circumstances was by having her daughter move in. This is the reality of IFAs: they undercut basic working conditions. If a full-time cleaner working five days a week works a sixth day they usually get penalty rates—double time. But under this flexibility contract, there were no overtime payments, so Jackie would have lost that extra money.

The fact is that the Spotless Cleaning workers who signed this agreement were disadvantaged by this IFA, which about 200 employees had signed. These IFAs did breach the Fair Work Act. However, what saved their penalty rates, what saved their overtime rates and their rostered days off, was a key reform in Labor's Fair Work Act—a key safeguard in relation to the individual flexibility agreements. It was part of the better-off-overall test to ensure that if somebody signed an IFA they would not be trading off basic conditions like penalty rates. Labor's Fair Work Act ensured that Jackie would not lose her penalty rates. And when it was tested in court, when Jackie stood up and said, 'I believe that I have been disadvantaged, and this IFA they have tried to make me sign would undercut my basic conditions', the Federal Court upheld and said that Jackie was right. The penalty rates not just for the cleaners like Jackie but for the entire Spotless Cleaning workforce were saved because of Labor's better-off-overall test.

That is what this bill today seeks to take away. It seeks to take away simple words that ensure that so many cleaners are not forced into IFAs. I single out Spotless because they were a company that tried to challenge the fair work laws. That is what some companies do—not all companies; some employers do the right thing. But then there are other companies that try to seek an advantage in an industry where labour costs are so important. They test the barriers of our industrial relations system and try to undercut their competitors. That is exactly what Spotless tried to do with their retail shopping centre cleaners, but Labor's Fair Work Act stopped them. What we are seeing now is this government is that they are trying to reintroduce one of the worst elements of WorkChoices: bringing back individual contracts. In many ways it is a backdoor attempt to reintroduce an element of WorkChoices that disadvantaged so many. This bill will enable employees to undercut the basic entitlements, a move that even John Howard admits was a mistake under WorkChoices. Due to the pressure and due to meeting people every day who had lost basic conditions, John Howard reinstated the no-disadvantage test in 2007. Even on the other side of politics, there was an acknowledgement that, if individual flexibility agreements go after penalty rates, businesses and companies will use them to cut take-home pay.

I do not believe that members of the government actually understand how this bill will re-introduce the worse aspect of WorkChoices in relation to individual contracts. It will allow employers once again to test the boundaries, to do what some of them have been calling out to do publicly and privately, and that is to cut basic conditions like penalty rates, night rates and overtime rates.

This bill goes much further than the coalition's pre-election policy and the Fair Work Act Review panel's recommendations. It is another example of a broken promise by this government to the Australian people. Penalty rates are important to so many people, and to the people in Bendigo, who rely on them. According to polling conducted by Essential Research, 80 per cent of Australians believe that people who work nights and weekends should be paid more. Nationally, 4.5 million Australians working in sectors where penalty rates apply need them to survive.

For Bendigo workers, weekend and overnight rates are more than just compensation for lost time with family. Penalty rates put food on the table, put petrol in the car and are vital to ensure that workers survive. In this debate, it is so important that we consider the workers who are at the frontline of these attacks and their words cannot be ignored. Take for example Alan Butler, who is an employee with Tip Top Bakery in Bendigo. He has been with the company for about 20 years and understands the importance of weekend and night overtime rates to employees he works with and their families. He states that he works on Saturdays and, if he lost his pay for Saturdays, he would be down about $160 a week. That is a significant amount for anybody—that is petrol and food money gone. If his company were to introduce a flexibility agreement, he could be trading off basic rights.

Everybody relies on this extra pay, especially those with families. Alan says some of the guys working on afternoon shift would lose twice that amount. In an average year for those blokes they could be up to $16,000 out of pocket. That is exactly what will happen if Tip Top Bakery try to introduce the flexibility agreement that Spotless tried to introduce to the cleaning side. The Spotless flexibility agreement, should the bill be passed, will be upheld. It will be illegal to introduce the flexibility agreement that Spotless tried to work out for the cleaners in retail shopping centres. Therefore if Spotless could to it, Tip Top could do it.

Let us also take the case of Adam Foster, a Wilson Security guard who works at Puckapunyal army base. This is not a security guard in a minimum-security site; this is a security guard making sure that our defence bases are secure. Adam has had to step away from working weekends and nights because of changes in this family circumstances. He already knows what it is to live without penalty rates. His basic fortnightly pay has dropped from $1,800 to $1,475. He says it has made his household budget tough. Once you realise how much it costs losing penalty rates, you realise how tough life is for all of us who are destined to be on the minimum wage, how hard it would be for many working Australians.

Let us look at the paramedics. Brett is a paramedic working in Bendigo. He too relies on penalty rates. His base rate, if penalty rates were gone from his take-home pay, would be $56,000 a year. Penalty payments lift his penalty rate up to $71,000. That is a 26 per cent increase on the base rate. Brett argues that he believes that without penalty rates he would struggle to put food on the table. It is not for the luxuries; it is so you get by every week. You can pay the mortgage, you can pay for the kids' sport, you can make sure there is food on the table. He would argue that, if penalty rates were lost from his area, a number of people would exit the ambos very quickly. What crisis would our health system be in if ambos left and basic conditions like penalty rates were cut?

Australians need access to information and support at work. The previous speaker mentioned the importance of changing right of entry to keep those big bad union officials out of work places. But let me put another situation to the House by going back to the example of our Spotless cleaners. It was lucky that Jackie was a member of the union. As soon as she had the IFA in front of her she said, 'Hang on, this isn't right. I'm going to call my union to ask if it's okay'. If Jackie was not a member of a union or if she was a non-English speaker, if she was a Hindi-speaking cleaner—there are lots in the cleaning industry—who was not quite sure whether the agreements which were put in front of her were right, under this bill she would first have to know that a union existed. The union could not turn up and talk to people about what their rights were. Under this bill she would then be prepared to be identified as the employee who has invited the union out to the workplace. She would then have to be prepared to resist the employer's questions: 'So why did you ask the union out? Why do you need to speak to the union?' She would need to find the courage to answer these questions and then talk to the union representative when they arrived.

We all know in the real world that if a cleaner is placed in that situation—where they are not sure about an agreement that has been put in front of them and where they are told that if they do not sign it they will lose their shifts and they will lose their penalty rates—and if she does not have access or the opportunity to speak to somebody about her rights at work, then she will probably sign that agreement and lose her take-home pay. In the real world, there is such a thing in these cleaning rooms and in these tea rooms as take it or leave it.

Meanwhile, higher-paid Australians who are already on a collective agreement will have ongoing access to the union. All Australian workers deserve the same rights. They deserve the same access to the union, regardless of where they work, how much they get paid and whether they are on an enterprise agreement or not. Yes, Spotless did not like me talking to their cleaners. They did not like me talking to their cleaners because they knew that their individual flexibility agreement was dodgy. I have always maintained that if employers and companies are doing the right thing, then they have nothing to fear. In the majority of my experience as a union official, there were no issues, because the majority of employers do do the right thing. But then you have got the one who tries to undercut their competitors, roll-out dodgy agreements and test the barriers. It is why it is so important that we have an IR system that is robust and ensures fairness in our workplaces.

This bill is also bad for business. For all the cleaning companies doing the right thing, they faced being undercut by Spotless who was doing the wrong thing. I am sure that if this bill gets up and passes through the Senate, we will see Spotless trying to undercut their competitors again. That will place their competitors—the cleaning companies doing the right thing by their employees—in a tough situation: either cut their own cleaners' pay or lose the contract. We will create a very insecure environment in the service sector. This bill is bad for Australian workers and it is bad for their families. This bill stands to be another broken promise by the Prime Minister. That is why I support the O'Connor amendments to this bill and encourage all members of the House to do exactly the same.