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Thursday, 1 June 2000
Page: 16834

Ms BURKE (NaN:00:00) —In considering these amendments to the Workplace Relations Amendment Bill 2000 in detail, I would like to make two suggestions on the bill: one is to get rid of it; the other is to return to it the substance of the amendments before the House. The first is the discrimination inherent in this bill by outlawing pattern bargaining for unions only. By allowing employers, including the federal government, with their template AWAs, to pattern bargain the government is obviously conceding that there are issues that are appropriately pursued by an employer across an industry. Employers would say they must not be at a competitive disadvantage; that the wages and conditions of their competitors down the road must be the same. They cannot be at a competitive disadvantage.

In my former working life for the FSU—yes, I am one of those people who are proud to be a former trade unionist—often the banks were the biggest pattern bargainers of all. But the union did not mind, as we understood that the work in banks does not widely differ between companies. So we understood their desire for the same or similar conditions for employees in a given classification. Equally, all we asked for on behalf of our members was recognition that similar work should be remunerated in a similar way.

The point that the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business and his ideological brothers seem to miss is that workers and their unions are not anti-business. In fact, it is within their interests that a business prospers and grows so that there can be more jobs and better pay for members. Unions only want a fair share of the profits for the workers who contribute so significantly to a company's success. It is ironic that the lowest paid in many jobs are actually at the coalface of businesses. They are the shop assistants, they are the tellers in banks, they are the people on the end of the phone at the call centres. They are the face of the business, but they are the worst paid.

Nevertheless, what about unions and their members? This bill effectively tells union members that any campaign across an industry in support of a claim will be deemed pattern bargaining. So, in other words, an employer can pursue with their industry association the removal of penalty rates or the implementation of performance based pay, but a union is prohibited from running a campaign to insert a maternity allowance provision, a common health and safety conditions clause or a new allowance to recompense members for changed conditions in an industry.

The bitter irony for us on this side of the House is that what the Workplace Relations Amendment Bill defines as pattern bargains are the sorts of campaigns that have resulted in the workplace changes we all now accept as core conditions. There would have been no advances such as maternity leave, sick leave, superannuation or equal pay without common actions by unions and their members through awards or multi-employer agreements. As anyone who has anything to do with workers knows, there is still so much to be achieved. While casualisation continues to eat away at the paypackets and job security of workers, there is a need for common claims. While the government insists on introducing tax reform that will reduce the spending power of workers, there will be a need for common claims to gain compensation. While there are still employers who refuse to adopt improved health and safety regulations, there will be a need to pursue common claims. But, unless these amendments succeed, this is the sort of unbalanced industrial relations world we face—one that allows companies and industries with deep pockets to pursue ruthless pattern bargaining to strip away conditions, yet denies workers in precarious and fragmented employment, such as cleaners, pieceworkers and call centre operators, the right to bargain across their industry and between employers for better conditions.

Moving to other amendments announced by our shadow minister, I would like to add my support to restoring the power of the Industrial Relations Commission, in particular to making orders to ensure that parties negotiate in good faith. One of the fundamentals of any bargaining system is a need for an independent umpire that is empowered to take an active role in settling disputes. This certainly would have helped the 83 workers at ACI in Box Hill who were cruelly locked out on Christmas Eve and continued to be locked out until April this year. That lock-out stemmed from the inability to resolve an enterprise agreement. The sticking point was never over wages. The amazing thing was that it was never about wages; it was actually about working conditions. At the heart of the workers' dispute was that they did not want to see jobs lost; they were actually trying to preserve employment for everybody at that plant. Five months without pay, five months locked out—did we ever hear the minister talk about that? No, but if they had been on strike for five months I am sure we would have heard it screamed from the rooftops. Nor do we hear about the NUW workers, again in my electorate, in Burwood at the Gordon and Gotch site who withstood from a company waterfront-like thug tactics that led to the hospitalisation of one of their family members. It was not even an employee: it was actually somebody there supporting their wife who ended up being hospitalised with a punctured lung because the workers were withstanding the company's move to casualise their employment. They were not standing up saying, `We want more, we want more,' but were saying, `Actually, what we want is what we deserve and we're sick of you trying to take it away.' We are sick of them taking it away and we are sick of this minister allowing them to do that. Unless we stand up and be heard, this will just continue to happen. (Time expired)