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Tuesday, 10 December 2002
Page: 7542

Senator CHERRY (2:46 PM) —My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. Is the minister aware that the International Labour Organisation's convention 182, adopted in June 1999 and calling for immediate action to ban the worst forms of child labour, has been ratified by 132 countries but not by Australia? With the ILO estimating that there are 250 million working children worldwide, what is the government's objection to ratifying a treaty which seeks to remove children from work and provide for their education and social integration? With the USA, UK, China, New Zealand, Canada, Iraq, Iran and 125 other countries ratifying the convention, is it not embarrassing that Australia has not? Will you be following the lead of the Queensland government and establishing a national review of measures to prevent the exploitation of children in the labour force?

Senator ALSTON (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —Senator Cherry is right in saying that—

Senator Murray —Mr Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I just heard Senator Abetz refer to the questioner as an idiot because he asked why Australia will not follow 142 other countries in ratifying the child labour convention.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —There is no point of order.

Senator ALSTON —The figure is actually 132, but never mind. Senator Cherry is right on that point, but he is also right in saying that the convention does relate to some of the worst forms of abuse of child labour. Clearly, whilst one can always quarrel about the level of protection and safety afforded to minors, it would be very surprising indeed if Australia were in the list of the top 100 countries who might be offending in that area. I will certainly obtain the information for Senator Cherry about the government's position and why it has not seen fit to ratify the convention at this point in time.

I think that it is very interesting that Senator Cherry should ask about Mr Beattie's review. Mr Beattie announced yesterday or today, I think, that the Commission for Children and Young People will improve the protection of Queensland children by reviewing `child labour'. That is an emotive term. It does have Dickensian overtones. Clearly no-one wants to see child exploitation or children being in danger in the workplace, but there is often a hidden agenda in these sorts of issues. The hidden agenda is really quite a simple one: it is the unions who want to see their members paid full adult wages, and they very much dislike young people earning a bit of income on the side, which can often assist them—

Opposition senators interjecting

Senator ALSTON —I know that you have to cluck; that is the party line, isn't it? But we understand these things as well as you do. Mr Beattie also pays lip-service to this concern that the ACTU is expressing: `We also share concerns that excessive work hours may be interfering with the education of some young people.' As we know, some young people are getting real-life experience as well as useful money to support them for entertainment and for any other purposes.

I have to say that I was very impressed with Senator Murray's comment when he went to the ACTU executive to talk to them about this very serious issue. As I recall, he said something like, `It's like attending a meeting of alcoholics who are all sitting around a table arguing about the severity of the drink problem.' Of course, when you ask anyone on the ACTU executive, `Who actually works a 38-hour week?' none of them do by a country mile. They are all in there working as long as it takes to get the numbers to be able to ensure that they get into the Senate in due course when this lot have had enough. These guys are working flat out and, if you told them that 38 hours was enough and they had to go home, they would say, `No way. Once I get into the Senate I am happy to work 38 hours or less, but until I get that meal ticket I will be working very hard indeed.' So we understand the sort of duplicity that is involved in these sorts of calls. I think that Senator Murray got it absolutely right. It is really a cover for paying more overtime for doing precisely the same amount of work. That is really what it is about.

So whilst I think one has to be very genuinely concerned to ensure that there is no exploitation or lack of safety in the workplace, particularly for young children, one also has to acknowledge that, if you asked the young children themselves, they would probably say that, by and large, they were very happy, thank you, in having the opportunity to gain that employment. They would probably also say that they were very unhappy at the attitude of the unions—and, of course, their proxies in this chamber—who are wanting to displace them, based on the theory that somehow more money will be paid for precisely the same work. We know that it does not work that way in real life, but some people have to go through this charade in order to get into the Senate. (Time expired)

Senator CHERRY —Now I wish I had sent the question to the other minister! Mr Deputy President, I ask a supplementary question. The Acting Children's Commissioner yesterday in Queensland said:

Some of the reports we've been getting is we've got young people as young as 16 and 17 years old working in the adult entertainment industry and working in scanty clothing ...

There's been reports of bullying of young people in the work place and there's also been a number of reports about young people having to work excessive hours.

Isn't it the case that this government does need to look at the issue of child labour and at a national review of law, acknowledging the Queensland government's concerns that these issues need to be examined at a national level, and sign the same treaty that great union lovers like the United States government have already signed?

Senator ALSTON (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —So you would like us to slavishly follow the US! We will take that advice on board. But in the meantime let me say to you that responsibility for the welfare of children lies overwhelmingly with the state governments. If the Queensland state government has all of these outrageous concerns that need to be addressed then it ought to do something about them. It should not just conduct another inquiry and run around the countryside presumably taking evidence from the Labor Party about how they are concerned about their own constituents not getting paid full wages; it should actually take some action. Presumably it has laws to deal with these issues and, if people are being forced to work in insalubrious circumstances or if they are being put at risk then one would hope that either there are laws in place or there should be laws in place. Either way, the Queensland government has responsibility for doing something about it.