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Tuesday, 5 June 2001
Page: 27262

Mr BYRNE (4:11 PM) —It was a great pleasure to listen to words like `orgy' and `moral decline', particularly from the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business. It is a great pleasure for me to be speaking about this particular issue. It is an issue that I have direct experience with, given that a company in my electorate—Linda Electric Industries—fell under a bus, mainly as a consequence of rampant asset stripping, which had basically been encouraged by the government. I will touch on this a bit later on.

It is interesting to deal with something that the minister said about policy backflips. I understand that the minister was a boxer in his old days. After the backflip on One.Tel yesterday, you must have been dragged out the back, given a low blow and then dragged in to sit and smile, because that is what you copped and you know it. So let us not talk about policy backflips, because the minister knows quite directly that that is precisely what he copped.

The Prime Minister tells us that he has a scheme that looks after people who have lost their jobs as a consequence of companies' insolvency. It is the employee entitlements scheme—the one that has not been legislated in 18 months. People do not believe that this scheme is adequate, particularly in my electorate. They also see a Prime Minister who decrees policies by press release. One.Tel is a classic example. Even with this sort of tarted-up scheme that has been put forward and that we are debating today they see a man who heads a government who just cannot be trusted, because they are the cruel deceivers. People have seen this government deceive pensioners, small businesses, families and elderly pensioners. The government has basically proven, with its deception about the $1,000 compensation for each pensioner and the four per cent pension increase, that this mob are even prepared to deceive their own grandmothers. They also see a wall of dollars when there is a problem. These people want an entitlement scheme that works. They want an entitlement scheme that offers 100 per cent entitlements when their company goes bust.

I would like to touch on the effects of the government's policy. We have heard today that in effect this policy is a fantastic policy that the government has put forward. But our policy is better. Our policy basically guarantees that workers will receive their entitlements should a company go insolvent. There is a huge degree of uncertainty between the time that an employee loses their job to the time that they receive their entitlements. In some cases it is four or five months; in other cases it is years. Time after time, we have seen people losing their houses, losing their cars and losing their families through no fault of their own. They see a company go bust and a tarted-up scheme that is supposed to solve their problems. The Australian people do not believe that this scheme is adequate.

As I said, there was a particular instance in my electorate, at Linda Industries, which, on 31 March last year, sacked 40 workers, mostly migrant women with limited career prospects. They were unceremoniously escorted off the premises by Linda Industries staff for asking one particular question: `Where are my entitlements, my full entitlements?' Just like the Prime Minister's brother, like National Textiles: they thought that, if it was good enough for them, it was good enough for the workers at Linda Industries. But, for asking their question, they were escorted off the premises. How many other Australian employees in a similar situation, asking for what the Prime Minister's brother got, were carted off the property?

What had happened, as a consequence of this government's encouragement by a nod and a wink to Patrick, was that a company stashed its assets elsewhere. When it came time to pay the entitlements, people were told initially that they were not there. In the first place, this company actually lied about the fact that it would be sacking people. The company was apparently quite solvent two years ago, but it appeared to have been run into the ground. I understand that one of the owners of the company had a track record of doing this. I could touch on another example, though I do not think time will permit, which is STP. What Linda Industries were doing after they had escorted these people off the premises was hiring casuals in place of sacked workers and paying overtime to these casual workers. So much for the corporate mentality attitude that this government has fostered!

Given the company's apparent lack of concern for its workers, the sacked workers were interested in the government's response to their plight. One of the women, Anna Gaica, wrote to the then minister, Minister Reith, with respect to her and her workers' plight. I understand she still has not received a response. This is what she said after being carted off the property:

What we are asking for is a fair deal to be given to us, just as the layoff of the National Textile workers received.

We are ... predominantly women and of migrant background, living in depressed areas with limited career prospects for the future.

Reasons why we believe that we have a right for our entitlements to be paid immediately is:

The liquidators have hired casuals to do the work of unpaid sacked workers.

Some casuals are re-hired sacked workers who have not been paid their entitlements and are also working overtime.

Termination details that they were provided with did not provide all relevant details such as long service leave, superannuation, exact severance pay.

Some machinery and stock have been sold to a Warrnambool company.

What Anna Gaica asked was what Australian workers are asking. She said:

I urge you to honour your statements that a Liberal Government will not disadvantage blue-collar workers of Australia. It is imperative that you show the same consideration to us as you did with John Howard's brother and the National Textile Company.

That is about one particular company in my electorate. The interesting story was that we forced this company to pay the $1.3 million of entitlements that were owed. That was not due to any pressure by the government; the government did not put these people under pressure. But the 80 workers that were unceremoniously escorted off the property actually got their entitlements. If you have a look at the example—I think it is something like 127 companies that have gone through the hoop—particularly over the past four years, not many people have actually received their entitlements.

The government are aware that this is a scheme that works. I think their dilemma is that they do not want to be seen—as with petrol, as with the business activity statement—to be stealing yet another policy too soon. But there has been one voice, along with our party generally, that has been crying out in the wilderness with respect to this 100 per cent guarantee, and that is the member for Prospect, Janice Crosio. I want to pay tribute to her quest to ensure that workers get their rightful entitlements. I want to read some excerpts from her speech regarding this matter, particularly given—and it should be considered by government members opposite—the lack of action on heartfelt and decent pleas. I quote from her speech in support of the private member's bill that we have introduced on several occasions since 1997, but that the government refuses to take note of:

Each time I have introduced this bill, to my disappointment and to the detriment of thousands of Australian workers, it has been ignored and been allowed to lapse by this government. However, every year that this government chooses to ignore and not legislate this bill, thousands of Australian workers are being robbed of their legally accrued entitlements.

She goes on to say, almost in a spirit of desperation:

Here, I introduce the bill for the fourth time and hopefully this time the federal government will have the decency to work with this bill and come up with some viable plan to secure 100 per cent of workers' entitlements. I will not rest, whether I am in opposition or in government, until Australian workers have 100 per cent of their entitlements secured. Despite all of the commotion and attention this issue of employee entitlements has received over the years, thousands of Australian workers are still being forced out of work, with many losing all or most of their accrued entitlements.

Last year, after four successive years of the Labor opposition proposing employee entitlements schemes, the government's hand was forced ...

Their hand was forced as a consequence of their reaction to the National Textiles case. Effectively we have been pushing this government for years to deliver what they want to deny, which is fairness and equity to Australian workers. Australian workers have seen their industrial relations system torched. They have not had an independent umpire that they could go to, because it has been gutted by this government. But they have seen a lot of corporate malfeasance; they have seen a lot of asset stripping. Whilst most, if not all, Australian workers want 100 per cent of their entitlements, what they have received is a tarted-up scheme in response to the Prime Minister's brother being bailed out at National Textiles. But what they also have not seen is some action taken on asset stripping.

If time permits, I will just go into a very quick example, which is STP in Victoria. This was a company that manufactured pressure vessels and petrol tanks. This company used the same tactic as Patrick used on the waterfront of transferring employees to $2 shelf companies with no assets. The interesting thing is that 150 of the 240 full-time staff were placed into shelf companies. They were owed something like $3.3 million. Their entitlements lost included superannuation, long service leave, holiday pay and severance pay. Interestingly, the founder's family and the mother were secured creditors to the tune of $1 million. Whilst the government has done nothing to guarantee 100 per cent employee entitlements, it has seen this corporate malfeasance and done nothing about it.

We have asked for four years for Australian workers to be given a fair go, to be given their rightful entitlements, particularly when they lose their jobs. We have asked in vain for four years. It is only through the election of a Beazley government that these people will have fairness, equity and their full entitlements.