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Wednesday, 8 August 2001
Page: 29453

Mrs CROSIO (4:08 PM) —Let me say at the outset that the only dudding by any member of the parliament in this debate has been done by the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business, representing the government. Whether the minister wants to agree or not agree, the fact of the matter is that he did come into this House on Monday and say that a contribution of 0.1 per cent of workers' entitlements under an insurance levy would lose 50,000 jobs. He was given the opportunity on Tuesday to apologise to the House, and he was given the opportunity today to apologise to the House. He did not do so until now in this debate, when he said, `Oh, I misread a quote and it was really 5,000 jobs.' Well, that is not good enough.

I would like to remind the minister as he slinks out—because he does not want to hear what is fact— that the motion before the House is the failure of the government to put in place a comprehensive fully funded and effective employee entitlement protection scheme that guarantees 100 per cent of lost employee entitlements. What did we get? We got a great tirade from the minister over what he should or should not do as far as Tristar is concerned and what has happened with Manusafe.

I rose to speak in this debate today because, as the Hansard records will show, it is now something like 18 times since 1998 that I have got up and talked about employee entitlements. In fact, it is recorded in the Hansard of 6 April 1998 that I said:

Guaranteeing workers' entitlements in the event of company insolvency is one of the most important reforms yet to be undertaken by an Australian government.

It is a social reform for our time. Workers who lose their entitlements require more than sympathy from this minister and this government. They need more than the administrative arrangements put into place by the Department of Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business by the previous minister, Mr Reith, which could not be better described than they were in the Sydney Morning Herald editorial on 4 August:

In 1999 the Government promised to have a workers' entitlement protection scheme in place on January 1, 2000. Belatedly and in obvious haste, the then workplace relations minister Mr Reith announced as a stop-gap—

We still have it!

a safety-net scheme. The more comprehensive original scheme proposed by Mr Reith has been contentious from the outset on two crucial points especially. One is who should fund it. The other is the $20,000 cap on payments.

... ... ...

It has been clear from the outset that the scheme put in place by Mr Reith was hasty, ill-conceived and in need of refinement.

This half-baked scheme exempts employers from their share of responsibility in the event that their company or business becomes insolvent. It also provides employees with only part of their accrued entitlements. We on this side of the House believe the protection of workers' entitlements should cover all employees, and that that cover must be 100 per cent. This is a fundamental right that must be observed by all employers and governments. Australian workers have never felt less secure in their jobs, and the current dispute at Tristar involving those 320 workers has once again put the spotlight on workers' entitlements.

The current minister for workplace relations—the minister that just gave us that tirade not even five minutes ago—reported on 31 July:

The federal government has paid almost $9 million—

and he repeated it here this afternoon—

in lost entitlements to almost 4,500 former employees of about 450 insolvent companies.

Minister, that is almost $2,000 per employee. Tell that to the 320 Tristar workers who are fighting to protect $17 million in entitlements. Also, Minister, what do you have to say about the company now offering an insurance bond that would protect 100 per cent of workers' entitlements? Let me read to the minister from page 2 of my first bill in 1998:

(1) The object of this Act is to protect the interests of employees in the event of the insolvency of their employers.

(2) The principal means adopted for the achievement of this object are the following:

(a) to establish a scheme of wage protection insurance; and

(b) to require employers to insure their workforces under the scheme; and

(c) to provide for the determination and enforcement of claims under the scheme.

Isn't that talking about insurance? Yet the minister has now said that what the employer is negotiating with an insurance bond is admirable. Minister, you got up and made a statement about the Tristar workers and you talked about industrial treason. I say to you that this is about industrial reason. Company collapse should not be placed as another burden on the taxpayer. It is time for the employers and the corporate sector to recognise their responsibility and to change the attitude in the boardrooms and the managerial offices with regard to insolvency, the employer-employee relationship and the status of workers of Australia.

The President of the ACTU, Sharan Burrow stated—and I was very pleased to hear it the other night:

Unions believe that taxpayers do not want to pick up the losses of the corporate sector, particularly when those losses can come at the hands of directors who are often paid more than employees for just a few days work a month.

How right she was. If a company fails, it is seen by some directors that their responsibility ceases and that they then have no moral obligation to the employees. This is not good enough. The AMWU claimed that more than 900 members have lost $9 million in the last nine months. Where was the outcry from the government or from the members of its backbench about the losses that have been experienced by those particular workers?

When I introduced my bill for the first time in 1998, more than 3,000 workers were owed in excess of $20 million. That was four years ago. The Parliamentary Library's Current issues: corporate insolvency and workers' entitlements, which is just out today on email, has stated, as reported from the Age:

It is very hard to quantify the problem accurately. Neither the Australian Bureau of Statistics nor the Australian Securities and Investment Commission monitors employee entitlements (lost), but estimates suggest the losses could be as high as $181 million a year.

The minister says that it is only a $50 million scheme to cover the losses; that is all they lose. The ACTU estimated that 7,000 businesses fail each year and that, in half of those cases, the employees lose entitlements to long service leave, holiday and sick pay and that anything up to 20,000 workers a year are in this situation. Where was the outcry then? Those statistics did not include the recent collapse of HIH or One.Tel. How many more corporate disasters do we need to make this government act? I say again what I said in 1998:

If the government is uneasy about socialising the burdens of insolvency by passing the responsibility of risk on to all members of the corporate community, it has a number of options open to it. One would be to amend my bill to require participation in the scheme only by those employers who did not enter formal arrangements to place their employees' entitlements in trust. Another would be to amend this bill to require lending institutions to pay for maintaining their privileged position at the top of the creditor preference queue.

Australian workers do not want to become a statistic. They do not want to join the 342 workers of National Textiles in Rutherford, the 240 workers in Grafton meatworks, the 270 Cobar copper mine workers, the 150 workers at Woodlawn, the 780 Austral Pacific workers, the 70 workers Braybrook textiles workers, the 180 workers at Electruck in Sydney's south-west, the 200 Steel Tank and Pipe workers, the 17 workers at Lansvale Creative Catering, the 300 people who worked for the Melbourne based clothes trader, Supreme 3, or the 680 workers from Exicon, in my electorate, who in 1996 lost $17 million in legal entitlements. Workers left stranded by bankrupt employers end up feeling rejected by society. It can cause loss of property through unpaid mortgages, the break-up of marriages and the breakdown of their families.

Labor believes that a national scheme to protect workers' entitlements should be just that: it must be a national scheme and it must be part of a comprehensive approach to addressing the protection of employee entitlements. We have a number of actions that we are going to make sure are put into place. The question that we are on about on this side of the House and the question that workers in Australia will continue to ask is: why did the sacked workers at National Textiles get a better hearing than the others I have just mentioned, particularly the workers from Braybrook Manufacturing in Victoria, whose plight was no less compelling? This is not good enough from the Prime Minister, nor is the hypocrisy from his minister or the pretend anger practised by him in front of his mirror before coming into this parliament. We want Australian workers to be given security. They will not be given that security with this incompetent minister at the helm. They will not be given that security because this government refuses to recognise that thousands of workers are being robbed month in and month out.

In 1998 the minister said that my bill was unworkable. In 1999, it was not viable. In 2000 the government again ignored the bill. It was obvious when I reintroduced in March 2001 that it would take the election of a Beazley Labor government to secure 100 per cent protection for Australian workers. The response by the present Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business to the entitlements owed to workers is, as quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald on 23 January 2001, what we expect of him. He said:

What we expect people to do is to take their holidays as they fall due—

this is the minister who just got up in the debate—

and not delay too long in terms of taking any long service leave that's owing to them.

This minister is saying, `Workers, cash out your annual leave and entitlements because this government cannot secure them.' The minister is saying that the current government's employee entitlements safety net does not go far enough—it does not cover workers' entitlements. (Time expired)