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Tuesday, 28 June 1994
Page: 2140

Senator MARGETTS (8.58 p.m.) —The Industrial Relations Amendment Bill (No. 2) addresses two key issues: the postponement of previous provisions preventing age discrimination awards and agreements, and the supposed clarification of the operation of the termination of employment provisions in the Industrial Relations Reform Act 1993. I wish to comment briefly on both issues. While there is little doubt the bill will be passed with the combined vote of the economic fundamentalist coalition on both sides of this chamber, I feel it is important to place an alternative perspective on the record because it reflects a broader community consensus.

  Firstly, it should be stated that the Greens (WA) do not accept the argument that the anti-discrimination provisions of the Industrial Relations Reform Act should be suspended in relation to young workers in this country. As the Australian Youth Policy and Action Coalition, or AYPAC, stated in its submission to EPAC prior to this year's budget:

Young people are entitled to a living income. Whilst acquiring work experience is crucial, it should not be a mechanism for exploitation. AYPAC regards competency, not age, as the crucial determinant for wage income. AYPAC has consistently advocated the removal of youth provisions from industrial awards.

The document goes on to refute a number of arguments in relation to this issue. These relate to social needs, productivity, low wages as incentives for training and the impact of increased youth wages on unemployment levels. The arguments put by this AYPAC are so concise and clear that I will quote briefly from its budget submission in relation to these issues. The document is entitled `Young People and the 1994 Federal Budget.' I quote the following passage:

  The practice of paying young people lower wages than adult workers is based on a number of unsustainable arguments:

.Young people do not have the same social needs as older workers (such as families to support) and should be paid less. This concept of `social need' has been applied to wage determinations for most of this century and has been the philosophical underpinning of reduced wages for women and Aboriginals. This argument also implies that young people receive some form of parental support, when, in fact, many young people who are working and living at home contribute to the household from their earnings and receive no financial support from their parents.

.Young people are less productive and less competent than older workers. Some employers consider that young people are, by virtue of their age, immature and inexperienced. Physical labour performed by a junior worker may have a higher work value than an older worker but would automatically be paid the lower youth wage. Similarly, a young clerical worker with knowledge and skills on computers and new technologies is assumed to be less skilled that an older clerical worker and paid less regardless of either person's actual skill level. AYPAC believes that young people in employment must be paid on the basis of competency, not age, and age discrimination must be removed from industrial awards.

.Lower wages provide an incentive for young people to remain in training and/or education instead of entering the work force. It is assumed young people are easily tempted by the immediate gratification of a waged income. It is assumed that high wage incomes may induce young people to desert education or training (perceived as having a long term benefit) and that this would not be good for the overall quality of the Australian work force. There is no evidence to substantiate this argument. In fact, data indicates that an increasing number of young people are staying in education when (if employment opportunities were available) they could be receiving an adult wage.

.Increasing youth wages would cause an increase in youth unemployment and a decrease in youth wages would cause a decrease in unemployment. International and Australian research indicates that there is inconclusive evidence to support this assertion. Youth unemployment cannot be attributed to "high" youth wages. In fact, youth wages are 5 per cent lower in real terms than they were a decade ago. Spiralling youth unemployment is primarily attributable to major structural changes in the nature of the work force.

These arguments are not new. Groups such as AYPAC have been pursuing this issue for many years and government departments and parliamentary committees have similarly examined the question of youth wages. Why, then, do we need to delay any further the implementation of competency based awards for young people in the work force? Are we to continue to allow some employers to exploit the youth of this nation with wage levels below the poverty line?

  Perhaps this is yet another example of the election-driven NIMTOO approach by this government. It is not prepared to make the difficult decisions and continues to say `Not in my term of office'! A three-year delay in the implementation of the youth discrimination provisions will, of course, conveniently delay the decision until after the next election.

  On the second question in relation to the government's backdown on the issue of the termination of employment provisions in the Industrial Relations Reform Act, I can only say that the government's actions do not surprise me. Yet again, the government appears ultimately to pay greater heed to the interests of employers rather than the workers in this country. This is yet more evidence of the government's desire to provide a free market for industry with little or no regulation and little or no taxation. The theory is that by providing these `incentives' then industry will provide employment opportunities and a stimulus to the economy and that the benefits ultimately will trickle down to the workers.

  The problem with this approach is that industry does not seem to understand its part in the bargain. As I stated in a recent speech in this place, industry groups in Western Australia or their spokespeople have clearly stated that their first responsibility is to their shareholders and that they do not see that they have any responsibility to the community to solve problems such as unemployment. If therefore the government is providing a free market for industry in order that it can solve our economic problems and at the same time industry is absolving itself of any of these responsibilities, I would like to know who is going to take that responsibility. In the context of this bill, who will protect employees from unscrupulous employers in circumstances related to termination of employment?

  I have been contacted, as I imagine have a number of others in this place, by people who are currently going through the process of appeal against unfair dismissal. I think that it is unfair that changes of this kind should be made before any of the results of those appeals are known. I concur with Senator Bell that it simply does not make sense that the legislation is changed on the basis that it is all too difficult, before we know how it works in the first place. The Greens do not support the provisions contained in this bill and see no logical rationale for amending the provisions of the Industrial Relations Reform Act 1993 which was passed by this parliament late last year. We will not be supporting the bill.