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Tuesday, 25 November 2003
Page: 22798

Mr HUNT (8:47 PM) —In rising to speak on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Improved Protection for Victorian Workers) Bill 2002, I want to take a leaf out of the book of points raised by the member for Burke and talk about context. There are two great contextual issues in terms of employment. The first is job creation and all of those elements which provide the conditions for actually creating jobs, elements that were never addressed by the member for Burke. The second issue which this bill addresses is protection for individual workers, and it is a right and fair thing to do. It is the job of any government when it strips away ideology to focus on those two elements in balance, creating the conditions for employment and job growth and then ensuring that those workers who are employed are protected and cared for adequately.

Before turning to the specific provisions of the bill, I want to address the broad contextual issue which our colleague the member for Burke failed to address: that workers in Hastings, Somerville, Rosebud, Kooweerup, Cowes, San Remo and Lang Lang first of all have to have a job. The single thing which most guarantees the chance for them to be employed is to give them a healthy and functioning economy. In that respect the Minister for Small Business and Tourism has repeatedly pointed out to this House, and to the Australian community in general, that the single biggest impediment to employment growth in Australia is the prohibition effectively imposed on small businesses by the failure of the opposition, by the failure of the Labor Party, to pass the unfair dismissal laws and deal with the current unfair dismissal provisions and the proposals for reform and change. Why? Because approximately 50,000 jobs await creation. We know this empirically and anecdotally. I expect that each and every one of us in this House has had the same experience that I have had: in speaking to small business owners and other employers, you repeatedly come across the situation in which they say, `I would love to be able to employ an additional chef or an additional labourer or an additional cleaner'—

Ms Gillard —Or an additional winemaker at Tuck's Ridge.

Mr HUNT —We will wait and see; I am sure he will retain his day job. More than that though, there is a desire by these small business operators to create jobs, yet they are prevented from doing so. So, in looking at the macroscene—in looking at the economy as a whole—I would urge the member for Lalor and the member for McMillan to actually cooperate with the Minister for Small Business and Tourism and deal with the government's reform package for unfair dismissal laws.

The second thing which you can do for any employee is help with real wage growth. Real wage growth is a dirty term on the other side of the House. For a period in the opposition's history it was a matter of pride that real wage growth was being suppressed. These are not words that are attributed to just anyone; these are words that were spoken with pride by the former Prime Minister on the floor of this House. The fact that those opposite were controlling real wage growth was seen as a point of pride, and that has changed. We have had significant real wage growth over the last seven years, something which has a distinct and practical effect on the lives of the very people that they purport to care for. So when you strip away ideology, job creation and real wage growth have more impact on the lives of workers in Somerville, Hastings, Cowes, Dromana, Rosebud and Kooweerup than anything else.

The next great issue is conditions for individual employees. This bill deals with the protection of individual workers. It effectively does two things. Firstly, it seeks to protect Victorian workers and to ensure that there is adequate care for them and it does so rightly and I am proud to be involved in the passage of such legislation. Secondly, it also helps to encourage job creation in small business by removing certain barriers. I want to deal with that briefly by looking at the background and importance of the bill, and some of the bill's provisions. Looking at the background of the bill, it aims to specifically target Victorian workers who would not otherwise be covered, to ensure that they do have adequate protection. There are over two million Victorian wage and salary earners. The majority of these workers are employed under the federal award and under appropriate federal jurisdiction. However, over 600,000 are employed under Victorian jurisdiction.

This bill in that context serves three primary purposes. Firstly, it provides comprehensive protection of workers' rights in Victoria by adjusting safety net entitlements in the current legislation. Secondly, it sets out specifically to improve the conditions of outworkers working in the textile, clothing and footwear industry in Victoria. This is a group of people who are vulnerable, who on many occasions come from ethnic backgrounds and who on many occasions are subject to exploitation. The protections that are offered in this bill are real, important and necessary. Thirdly, this legislation provides for the improvement of the role of inspectors to facilitate the operation of the provisions. So it provides the protections and the enforcement mechanisms. They are critical and important steps.

In looking at the importance of the bill and how it actually operates, what we see is that the bill effectively proceeds in four key steps. Firstly, it ensures that Victorian employees not protected by federal awards or federal agreements are nevertheless protected through a safety net of minimum conditions. The current legislation does provide a safety net protection, but it is in danger of being outdated by changing community standards and opinions. So what this does is extend the minimum coverage. That is an important step. Secondly, the bill grants further entitlements to employees in the form of minimum lengths of personal leave, particularly for carers and for bereavement. Again, these are important steps forward. Thirdly, the bill specifically improves workplace conditions for textile, clothing and footwear manufacturing outworkers. Currently, these employees, whilst receiving some protection, are nevertheless vulnerable. So, for people who, as I mentioned before, are from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and who in many cases work from home and have no protection, it extends an appropriate protection. The fourth specific step taken in this bill is to ensure the enforcement of these entitlements. In doing so—by empowering inspectors—it makes a great step forward.

In drawing to a conclusion, I want to return to where I started—that is, very simply, to say that you can do two things for employees. Firstly, you can create the conditions for employment growth and real wage growth. That has occurred under this government in an unprecedented way. Secondly, you can work to protect them. This bill adds in the Victorian context to the protections available to Victorian workers. However, I note in closing that, were the opposition to cooperate, take on board the proposals of the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and of the Minister for Small Business and Tourism and work on the unfair dismissal reform package, up to 50,000 extra Australians in small towns and communities throughout Victoria and Australia would have the potential to be employed. I urge the opposition not just to pass this bill but also to cooperate with the government on the broader package of reforms which ultimately is aimed at giving people jobs and a sense control over their own lives. That in turn is the most important and significant thing in giving them the capacity to have self-respect.