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Wednesday, 3 December 2008
Page: 12408

Mrs IRWIN (5:34 PM) —The Fair Work Bill 2008 has been described in terms of swinging the pendulum in workplace relations back into balance, but workplace relations in Australia has for more than a century meant more than just a means of settling disputes. Our system has been more than just a tool in managing the Australian economy. Since 1907, our industrial relations system has been as much about the type of society Australians have wished to live in as it has been part of our labour market. This is where the idea of the pendulum swinging too far led to the Australian people voting to throw out Work Choices, along with the former Prime Minister and his government, at the last election.

Like Margaret Thatcher, the Howard government thought there was no such thing as a society; there was only an economy. The fact is that a fair system of workplace relations is a cornerstone of Australian society. When the Howard government thought about Australian values, it limited its ideas to Gallipoli, mateship and Don Bradman. But real Australian values have always been based on a fair go, and that fairness begins in the workplace. Nothing is as important to Australians as getting a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. That is what has set the Australian system of workplace relations apart from almost every other country in the world. And now, more than a century after the principles were laid down, we can proudly say that, for the most part, our nation has prospered and the people of Australia have prospered in a way that few other countries have prospered.

That is not to say that the system put together in 1907 must remain unchanged. We have made great changes and we have needed to respond to the great challenges in the world around us—and, until the Howard government’s Work Choices legislation, those changes had been made without sacrificing the ideal of a fair go in the workplace.

I should add that a key part of the system is the trade union movement. We would be very foolish to assume that the pay and conditions that Australian workers enjoy today have come about because of the generosity of employers. Checks and balances in any system are vital to ensuring fairness and, while they get little credit for their important role, trade unions have provided the balance in the system that has made it work for the benefit of all working Australians.

The Fair Work Bill does not merely tear up Work Choices. It replaces it with a workable system which will guarantee fairness in the workplace and, at the same time, provide the basis for a modern system of workplace relations which will take Australia confidently into the 21st century. The bill provides for National Employment Standards which will cover all employees in the federal system from 1 January 2010. These 10 standards set the minimum conditions of work. They include maximum weekly work hours of 38 hours for full-time employees as well as a guarantee of four weeks annual leave. Other leave entitlements are also set, such as parental leave, including maternity, paternity and adoption leave, giving both parents separate periods of up to 12 months with the right of one parent to extend leave for an additional 12 months.

It is pleasing to note these extensions to parental leave and also to note the inclusion of the right to request flexible working arrangements. These conditions were recommended by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Human Services in the last parliament. As deputy chair of that committee, which produced the report entitled Balancing work and family, I must admit it was difficult to see how the recommendation for the right to request flexible working arrangements could have fitted into the Work Choices regime. But now we see that right included in the Fair Work Bill. This will be a welcome measure which will greatly assist working families.

Older workers increasingly have aged parents requiring care and assistance. Changes to the rules regarding carers leave will make it simpler to understand the entitlement and access to carers leave. These changes bring workplace relations into the reality of the 21st century. Balancing work and family is now more than just a slogan. It is enshrined in the laws which govern conditions in the workplace. Australia is finally catching up with conditions that have been in place in a number of European countries for some time.

The bill introduces the requirement for good faith bargaining and streamlines the agreement-making process. These measures actively encourage collective bargaining in the creation of union or non-union agreements. This overcomes the basic objection to AWAs. The process was never going to be fair. The employer held all the cards. The employer had the knowledge of the labour market and the employee was, on most occasions, in the dark. The employer could be skilled in negotiating and the employee completely at a loss. There were provisions for getting help in negotiating an AWA, but the reality was always going to be a one-sided affair. For most workers the process was a sham. They were simply handed an AWA and asked to sign or else they would lose their job.

But there are other challenges ahead for working Australians. The past decade has seen the wages share of production slip dramatically. While average wages have increased, lower paid employees are struggling to maintain a decent standard of living. Many do not have a strong bargaining position and, unless our workplace relations system can deal fairly with low-paid employees, we run the risk of following countries like the United States in having a large underclass of working poor. In this legislation, Fair Work Australia will be able to facilitate multiple employer bargaining for employees who are low paid and in industries, such as the community sector, which do not have a history of collective bargaining. Fair Work Australia will be able to arbitrate on these matters but must take regard of the competitiveness of the employer.

I have one area of concern with the bill, which leaves in place the four-hour rule for strike pay. I have heard reports of incidences where employees have arrived back on the job a few minutes late after a union meeting only to be told by the employer that it was a requirement to deduct four hours pay even if only a few minutes had been lost. This rule represents a harsh penalty on employees when the lateness of their return may not have been their fault. It runs the risk of being counterproductive if employees extend their absence for the full four hours, and I have heard of instances where this has occurred.

I also want to make mention of the continuation of the Australian Building and Construction Commission, although the minister has indicated that this body will be replaced in January 2010. While it now seems that the law may not see the jailing of trade union members, the continued existence of the commission and its ongoing operation is of great concern to me and to many trade union members and officials. One thing that should be clear from this legislation is the important role of trade unions in maintaining a fair workplace relations system. That burden today falls on a shrinking number of members who pay dues and give of their own time in the interests of their fellow workers. When unreasonable requirements are made or penalties are imposed, it is not only a threat to the right of workers to organise but a threat to remove one of the important checks on the power of employers. The threat of imprisonment definitely has no place in the workplace laws of this country. Criminal behaviour can and should be addressed by criminal law. I am reminded of the words of the Ballad of 1891, written during the Great Shearers Strike of that time:

But for every one that’s sentenced, ten thousand won’t forget

Where they jail someone for striking, it’s a rich man’s country yet.

Under John Howard’s Work Choices, the pendulum swung too far in favour of employers. Work Choices was unfair to working Australians. The people of this country gave a resounding mandate to Labor for Work Choices and AWAs to be scrapped. We have before us in this legislation a blueprint for a fairer system of workplace relations. It is consistent with the rights and freedoms that working people should have according to international convention. The Fair Work Bill guarantees that the fair workplace remains the pillar of the great Australian value of a fair go for all.