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Wednesday, 3 December 2008
Page: 12423


Ms PARKE (6:46 PM) —As the member for Fremantle, in speaking about the Fair Work Bill 2008, it is only right that I acknowledge the historic contribution of the Fremantle community on the issue of workers rights. Fremantle has both a proud union history and a strong and positive contemporary union presence. In Kings Square in central Fremantle is the Tom Edwards Memorial Fountain. This fountain commemorates the Fremantle wharf crisis of 1919, during which Tom Edwards of the Fremantle Lumpers Union received a blow to the head from a police rifle butt and later died. On that event, I quote from the Westralian Worker of 1920, whose editor at the time was one John Curtin. He said that Tom Edwards was:

…the first man in Western Australia to give his life for his fellow workers, when seeking to preserve industrial freedom, in conflict with the armed forces of the Government of the day.

In 1998 Fremantle was one of the ports that received national and international attention in the course of the now infamous Patrick dispute in which attempts were made to sack the unionised workforce. It was fascinating to watch part 1 of the ABC’s The Howard Years if for no other reason than to see Peter Reith claim that he had no foreknowledge of the Rottweiler assisted national lockout of waterfront workers when in fact he issued a media statement at 11 pm on the night in question and gave a well-prepared doorstop shortly thereafter.

Fremantle was the site of some very bitter confrontations and some very questionable behaviour by the then Liberal state government in its use of the police in wildly disproportionate numbers to intimidate, harass and abuse lawful and peaceful protestors. In addition to the valiant resistance by members of the Maritime Union of Australia, people in Fremantle still remember with pride the instinctive response of the whole community to the crisis. There were many people, union or otherwise—including my predecessor in the seat of Fremantle, Dr Carmen Lawrence—who came and stood in solidarity with the MUA, who provided food and other supplies to the workers, who stood witness to the actions of Patrick and their lawyers and who sat on the picket line through all that occurred, refusing to buckle.

We marked the 10-year anniversary of those events at a function in Fremantle earlier this year, and I was grateful to the member for Charlton for attending and for helping us to remember what was at stake in 1998, given his key role at the ACTU during that dispute. We watched Bastard Boys and we also sang him happy birthday to mark his 50th, if I recall. It is necessary to remember these disputes, because in the end they were all about the right of workers to organise and to bargain collectively.

A single employee is not in the same bargaining position as an employer. There may be occasions when the bargaining position is equal and there may be occasions when the employee is in a dominant bargaining position—one has in mind, for example, the case of a company chief executive or perhaps a merchant banker—but, as a general rule, a single employee is at a disadvantage in striking a bargain with an employer, particularly a large employer. More is at stake for the single employee, and they are at a disadvantage in terms of the information they possess, the leverage they wield and even the skills they have to negotiate a fair and appropriate outcome. They are not an economic unit but a person, and they have rights. That is why workers join together, bargain together and insist on fairness and safety together. And it is from that foundation, within the structure of a labour market designed to balance equity and economic growth, that workers and unions make a larger compact with the wider community, with government and with employers to pursue greater productivity and innovation in the expansion of our common wealth.

I was pleased yesterday to note the Leader of the Opposition’s fulsome and unreserved support for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights when seconding the Prime Minister’s motion celebrating the 60th anniversary of the universal declaration. It will therefore come as no surprise to those opposite that workers rights are in fact human rights. As my colleague the member for Eden-Monaro has noted just now, the universal declaration provides in article 23:

(1)   Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

(2)   Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

(3)   Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

(4)   Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

And further in article 24:

Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

The same rights and principles are reflected in the articles and conventions of the International Labour Organisation, which aim to promote opportunities for women and men to obtain decent and productive work in conditions of freedom, equity, security and dignity. For instance, article 2 of the ILO Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention of 1948 provides:

Workers and employers, without distinction whatsoever, shall have the right to establish and, subject only to the rules of the organisation concerned, to join organisations of their own choosing without previous authorisation.

Article 11 of the convention provides:

Each Member of the International Labour Organisation for which this Convention is in force undertakes to take all necessary and appropriate measures to ensure that workers and employers may exercise freely the right to organise.

Lest anyone think that the ILO is a bolshie grouping of international trade unions, let me emphasise the ILO’s tripartite structure—it has official representation from governments, business and labour. In examining the Howard government’s Work Choices laws in 2006, the ILO Committee on the Application of Standards had serious concerns regarding the impact the new IR laws would have on the application of the provision of key international conventions and, in particular, the effect the laws would have on Australia’s obligation to ensure respect for freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.

In my electorate of Fremantle, soon after Work Choices came into effect, we saw the kinds of choices it enabled. The new management of an IGA supermarket in the suburb of Hilton placed a demountable in the car park on Friday, marched its employees into the demountable one by one and told them to sign an AWA by 5 pm or face the sack. One employee, Michael King, said at the time:

They just came in with these new AWAs and, you know, spoke to each one of us individually, and basically it came down to either we sign, we sign their agreements, or don’t bother turning up on Monday. Under this new AWA they wouldn’t be paying out for holiday pay, the ten public holidays you get every year.

What happened at the IGA supermarket in Hilton went to the heart of the choice that was at the heart of Work Choices: it was management’s way or the highway.

The Fair Work Bill actually implements the International Labour Organisation convention rights to collectively bargain and to freedom of association within the bill and returns those values and principles to the Australian workplace. Specifically, the right to collectively bargain is implemented by a statutory right—proposed sections 236 and 237—for employees to decide by majority, whether they are union members or not, to collectively bargain. That is, for the first time in Australian industrial regulation, a democratic right will be afforded to employees to express their desire to collectively bargain. If they express this desire, the employer will have an obligation to negotiate with them in good faith. Clearly it will not be an act of good faith to deny recognition of this democratic decision—for example, by offering individual contracts and refusing to negotiate collectively.

Industrial disputes over this very issue have been a thread running through the industrial relations history of this country. The great disputes of the 1890s were fought over the refusal by employers in the maritime and agricultural industries to negotiate collectively and upon their insistence of ‘freedom of contract’. This was famously recognised by Justice Higgins, then a judge of the High Court of Australia and President of the then Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration, who put it thus:

In orderly pursuance of the agreement, the Institute gave the proper notice on the 24th November 1896, with a view to getting more satisfactory terms. The shipowners’ reply was a menacing letter, sent—not to the Institute, but to each individual employee—asking him whether he was or was not satisfied with existing conditions, for if not he was “jeopardising his position.” The attitude taken by the shipowners at this date is another illustration, if one were needed, of the general helplessness of individual employees as against employers. Virtually, the shipowner said to the engineer, “If you are not satisfied, go.” This power of giving or refusing employment—of giving or refusing bread—is a tremendous factor in the bargain, an unfair weight thrown into the scale, like the sword of Brennus …

From such disputes arose the Labor Party, formed by trade unions in recognition of the fact that political power was needed to achieve a statutory right to collectively bargain. From the creation of the Labor Party in government arose the industrial relations collective instruments, including awards, industrial tribunals and collective agreements.

The Labor Party’s understanding of and commitment to a fair, harmonious, cooperative and productive industrial relations system is a matter of long standing and in recent times was evidenced by the enterprise bargaining system introduced by the Hawke-Keating government. That was one of the key economic reforms that delivered the prolonged economic growth that Australia has recently experienced.

By contrast, the conservative side of politics has always fought against collective organisation in the labour market, and Work Choices must be seen in that historical context. So too must the Fair Work Bill be seen in the historical context of the values and beliefs of the labour movement.

The ILO convention to freedom of association is implemented in the Fair Work Bill via the general protections contained in the bill. The most important feature here is recognition of the fact that, when an employee makes a free decision to join a union, the employee is also entitled to representation by that union. This right of representation has not previously effectively been enshrined in statute.

In these two areas, the right to collectively bargain and the right to freedom of association, the Fair Work Bill demonstrates the significance and substantial practical importance of the relevant ILO conventions. As the World Bank has pointed out, there are broad economic benefits to be gained from ensuring adherence to international labour standards:

Ensuring the freedom of association and collective bargaining can go a long way toward promoting labour market efficiency and better economic performance.

The best of all circumstances is not a dog-eat-dog world of unfair, unfettered and adversarial industrial competition but rather a compact between employers, workers and government in the interests of all Australians. That compact is once again given life in the form of this bill’s new framework for enterprise bargaining. The Fair Work Bill proves its name by its very substance. It is a return to fairness and reasonableness in the workplace.

I come back to the basic truth that workers’ rights are human rights. A single employee, like a single voter, holds little bargaining power. But collectively workers and voters alike can effect change. That is the beauty of our parliamentary democracy. Last November the Australian public voted for a government that promised to deliver a simple and clear system, an equitable system of workplace relations, a return to this country’s long and proud tradition as a civil society whose very ethos is based on the principle of fairness. The Labor Party promised to keep faith with that tradition. Now, in keeping with this government’s record of honouring its election commitments, that promise is being kept.

Debate interrupted.