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Thursday, 24 June 1999
Page: 7490


Mr REITH (Workplace Relations and Small Business) (6:04 PM) —I move:

That the bill be now read a second time.

The Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (Youth Employment) Bill 1998 [No. 2] will amend the Workplace Relations Act 1996 and the Workplace Relations and Other Legislation Amendment Act 1996 to remove the uncertainty surrounding junior rates of pay by exempting junior rates, on a permanent basis, from the age discrimination provisions of those acts. The bill will also amend the principal object of the Workplace Relations Act to include within its scope the protection of young people's competitive position in the labour market, the promotion of youth employment and the reduction of youth unemployment, and these will also be objects to which the Australian Industrial Relations Commission must have regard in making and varying awards. In particular, the bill will require the commission to support youth employment by ensuring that, where appropriate, awards that apply to work that is or may be performed by young people include junior rates of pay.

This bill is identical to the Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (Youth Employment) Bill 1998 which was introduced in the House of Representatives on 26 November 1998, passed by the House of Representatives on 10 February 1999 but rejected by the Senate on 8 March 1999. Members who are concerned about the welfare of the young employed and of the young unemployed should match that concern with support for this bill.

The bill is about supporting and enhancing the job prospects of young people. It does this by maintaining the existing system of junior rates and by making junior rates more widely available. The bill is not about cutting junior rates; it is about protecting jobs for young people by protecting junior rates. Junior rates have been a feature of the wages system in Australia since early this century. Over 400,000 young people under 21 are paid junior wages—this represents over half of all employed young people.

But junior rates are under threat. Under the existing provisions of the Workplace Relations Act, the continuation of junior rates in awards cannot be guaranteed after 22 June 2000. Until then, junior rates in all awards are exempted from the provisions of the anti-age discrimination requirements of the Workplace Relations Act. But this across-the-board exemption that protects junior rates expires on 22 June 2000.

Because of the importance of junior rates for getting young people into jobs, this government's preferred position has always been that junior rates should be allowed to continue indefinitely—a position reflected in the Workplace Relations and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 1996 as originally introduced into this parliament. However, following discussions with the Australian Democrats when the bill was before the Senate, the government agreed, as a temporary measure, to limit the exemption to a further three years and to put in place a mechanism for the commission to review the feasibility of abolishing junior rates of pay. This reflected a compromise position only agreed to by the government as a way of avoiding the legislated removal of junior wages. The coalition agreed to the review on the clear understanding that our policy would continue to be for the retention of junior rates and that we would seek a mandate for this legislation at the next election. We are now seeking to implement that mandate.

It is also the government's view that, in order to provide support for youth employment, junior rates should be more widely available. The government's support for the retention and extension of junior rates was articulated in a ministerial discussion paper that I issued in June last year entitled `Protecting job opportunities for young people'. More importantly, it was a policy specified in black and white in the coalition's pre-election workplace relations policy, `More Jobs Better Pay', and publicly debated during the recent election campaign. That policy has now been endorsed by the Australian electorate. This bill gives effect to that policy.

Under the provisions of the bill, the way in which junior rates would be introduced into any particular award would be a matter for the commission. It would be open to the commission to include transitional `grandfathering' provisions similar to the way the commission has dealt with transitional issues of this nature in the past, as evidenced by the way it dealt with the conversion of paid rates awards to minimum rates awards. I emphasise again that this bill is not about cutting the wages of existing employees.

A number of members who spoke against the initial bill said that the bill should not have been brought forward until after the tabling of the commission's report on junior rates. Their initial opposition to the bill was determined by timing and process issues rather than by the merits of the bill itself. This perceived difficulty has been resolved. I have tabled the commission's report. The parliament can now proceed to assess the youth employment bill on its merits. I hope the opposition appreciates—as a result of today's handling of this legislation and the report—that this government is very determined to see this matter settled once and for all.

In summary, the commission's report finds that junior rates are important for getting young people into jobs, that none of the alternatives put to the inquiry are feasible replacements for junior rates, that any move to abolish junior rates would cost young people jobs, and that the introduction of adult wages at 18 would have significant disemploying effects. The report of the commission adds to the case in favour of junior rates. It is a case that is already overwhelming. Any move to abolish junior rates would be a highly irresponsible move, particularly given the delicate labour market situation that confronts young people.

The bill will also address the concern expressed in the commission's report that some aspects of the anti-age discrimination provisions of the Workplace Relations Act are ambiguous and vague. The report suggests that these ambiguities will eventually have to be addressed in parliament, in the commission or in the court. We agree that it is essential to remove any uncertainty about how the anti-age discrimination requirements of the Workplace Relations Act apply to junior rates.

Any uncertainty about junior rates does not create a stable environment for the employment of young people. Young people and the employers are entitled to know that their jobs and employing rights are secure. The youth employment bill will provide this certainty by permanently exempting junior rates from the age discrimination requirements of the Workplace Relations Act. I commend the bill to the House and present the explanatory memorandum.


Mr SPEAKER —There is no need for me, as is the normal practice, to call for the adjournment of the debate because, according to the resolution before the House, the debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.