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Wednesday, 25 October 2017
Page: 12065

Mr CONROY (Shortland) (12:03): I rise to oppose the Fair Work Laws Amendment (Proper Use of Worker Benefits) Bill 2017 because this is fundamentally an attack on working people in this country. It is an attack on working people's ability to bargain for improved conditions. This represents the latest round of this government's misguided ideological crusade against the union movement. This is a government that has been relentless in its campaign against the union movement and working-class people from day one, while giving out huge tax cuts to the top end of town and refusing to go after the big banks.

The tragedy of this unfair and misguided approach is that the real cost of it is inflicted on working people. This proposal to axe entitlement funds typifies this by aiming to cut essential services such as suicide prevention, OH&S and training schemes simply because they are provided for and protected by unions. These entitlement funds are bargained for by companies and workers in good faith, and they both make sacrifices to fund them. Whether they be suicide prevention programs, training schemes or safety officers, these are crucial aspects of providing safe workplaces and they are under attack in this misguided bill. These funds not only protect those who need it most but boost productivity by improving workplace conditions and worker satisfaction. To cut these programs based on an ideological vendetta with no evidence is callous and ill thought through.

It is no wonder this government do not understand how these changes will affect average Australian workers, because they have consistently ignored opportunities for inquiry and consultation. As has become an all too familiar trademark of legislation under this government, we have seen an unwillingness to consult widely and openly in an attempt to rush this bill through parliament before anyone can pull them up on it. Labor is meeting with these Australians, Labor is listening and the sentiment is crystal clear. This is a shoddy deal for workers and everyone knows it.

These entitlements are helping Australians across a number of industries, with programs that save lives and support families. For example, some of the most successful and well-known products of these entitlements funds are the MATES in Construction and MATES in Mining initiatives, funded by a trust set up by the CFMEU. These initiatives have seen thousands of people in these industries trained to assist in suicide prevention. This organisation, which is a product of good-faith bargaining between employers, trade unions and the workforce, raises awareness and runs programs that target the huge problems of suicide amongst workers in the construction and mining industries. These industries are very male dominated. They are industries that have high workplace fatalities—and I will return to that in a minute. As I said, these industries are male dominated, and blokes typically don't talk about their mental health. That is just a characteristic of most men. So these programs, which train their fellow workers to raise these issues with them, are very, very effective. I recently met with key participants in the MATES in Mining program and they are gravely concerned about the future of this lifesaving program under this legislation. Research into MATES in Construction has found it to be one of the most successful programs of its kind and found that it recoups investment many times over in community benefit.

Other funds also protect workers from redundancy, both financially and through training and professional development, and secure entitlements such as long service leave for ordinary Australians. Why the government would want to attack the providers of such vital services is beyond me. Coupled with the concessions to big banks, multinational corporations and the highest-income earners in Australia, it just reflects how out of touch this government is with the majority of Australians.

Safety is of paramount importance on our work sites. Every Australian and every worker in the world has a fundamental human right to go to work and return safely each day. In the construction industry, almost one worker a week dies on the job. In the mining industry, in the northern coalfields of New South Wales—the Hunter region, which I proudly represent—1,803 miners have lost their lives since coalmining began in 1803. Over the last nine years we have averaged one death a year. This is a disgraceful statistic, and this bill weakens efforts to stop these statistics. This bill weakens the ability to bargain for safety officers on workplaces. This bill undermines the safety of those work sites. This bill hurts safety and impinges on the human rights of Australians to go to work and come back safely.

I know this will be seen as potentially going over the top, but this bill represents an attack on safety in our work sites. Ultimately, the government have to be held responsible for this. The government have blood on their hands. The government have blood on their hands because they are undermining safety in workplaces right now. Members opposite can roll their eyes and can interject all they want, but look at the facts: every bill that impinges on the ability to employ safety officers, every bill that undermines the ability of workers to preserve safety in their workplaces and every bill that impinges on the right of unions to enter workplaces on safety complaints endangers safety in these industries. I proudly state, and I state accurately, that this government has blood on its hands when it undertakes such actions. So I am proudly opposed to this bill, because it hurts safety, like so many other bills this government puts forward.

A second part of their blind persecution of the union movement is their attack on wages in this country. We have international organisations such as the IMF and OECD citing declining union density and collective bargaining as major factors in the stagnation of wages and the growth of inequality around the world. In Australia, this is being experienced right now. The latest data on EBA pay rises found that in the last quarter EBA pay rises rose by 2.6 per cent, the lowest on record since the EBA system was put in place. We have flat or declining real wages, we have workers who are struggling to meet the costs of living because their wages are going backwards, and we have insidious actions by companies, such as the widespread attack on enterprise agreements, assisted by terminating agreements willy-nilly. It is no wonder workers are finding it difficult to bargain for wage rises, if there is a very real danger their EBA will be terminated and they will suffer a 40 per cent pay cut. We are seeing a systematic attack on wages and conditions in this country through a concerted push to de-unionise, and this bill is the latest example of that.

Another example of this is penalty rates. We have seen this government's cheer squad cheering on and refusing to do anything to stop the cuts to penalty rates that have now been put in place. Cuts to penalty rates have hit hundreds of thousands of the lowest paid workers in this country. It is the worst example of trickle-down economics—an example that was totally discredited in the Great Depression—where if you cut wages you suddenly boost economic activity and, somehow, businesses will employ thousands more Australians. This theory, based on Say's law, was discredited in the 1930s, where we saw a 25 per cent across-the-board cut in workers' wages and it didn't improve employment and put Australians back in work. It actually led to more unemployment because it reduced aggregate demand dramatically. When penalty rates for workers are cut, it means they have less money to spend in shops in Australia. The lowest paid Australians have the greatest propensity to consume and the least ability to save, and are living from pay cheque to pay cheque, so they spend basically every dollar they earn. If you attack them by cutting their wages, you are attacking consumption directly, and this is what the cut to penalty rates has done. So, not only is it hurting those workers individually but it is actually hurting our economy by suppressing aggregate demand in the economy and, thereby, employment.

We have also heard the government say that it only affects hospitality and retail workers and doesn't affect anyone else. Well, that's the thin end of the wedge. It will lead, no doubt, to attacking workers in other sectors of the economy.

My electorate is home to a significant hospital, Belmont Hospital. We are right on the border with the John Hunter Hospital, which is the largest hospital between Sydney and Brisbane. It is the third-largest in the state and is the only tertiary-level hospital between Sydney and Brisbane. If you get seriously sick north of the Hawkesbury River, that's where you are sent. Without penalty rates, John Hunter Hospital, and Belmont Hospital in fact, will close at five o'clock on a Friday night and won't open until 9 am on a Monday. Penalty rates are the only reason those hospitals stay open, because it is the only compensation for the nurses and support staff who keep the hospitals running. An attack on penalty rates for hospitality workers will no doubt lead to a subsequent attack on penalty rates for nurses and for support staff such as orderlies, thereby imperilling our health system.

This bill is another attack on the wages and conditions of Australians. It's all about weakening the union movement. This government's raison d'etre is to destroy the labour movement. They figure that if they can destroy the labour movement they can destroy the Labor Party as an effective opposition in this country. This playbook is classic John Howard. He tried it in 1998. He thought that if he could destroy the MUA, one of the most militant, democratic and progressive unions in this country, the rest of the union movement would follow. We saw the lockout by Patrick and a government conspiring to sack a workforce. They conspired to unfairly dismiss an entire workforce to break the MUA—and they failed. They failed not just because of the union movement but because the broad swathe of the Australian community said, 'No, we support progressive causes, we support trade unions in this country and we will take part in community pickets to protect the MUA and its members.' We've seen them attack the MUA and we are seeing the current attacks on the CFMEU that are contained in this bill. You just have to listen to question time every day to hear these attacks. I dare those people who are leading these attacks to go to the memorial day for miners in Cessnock each year—which commemorates the 1,803 miners who have lost their lives in the northern minefields—and look those families in the eye and say, 'I'm improving the safety of your workplaces by attacking the CFMEU.' I can assure you, without the mine workers federation, safety in those coalmines would be a lot weaker.

I can say without fear of contradiction that, if you deunionise the construction sector, you won't see improved safety; you will see fatalities rise. Almost one worker each week in the construction sector dies. So this is not just an attack on the labour movement; it is an attack on the wages and conditions of Australian workers and an attack on the safety of Australian workers. It represents an ideological crusade that takes no prisoners. It is an ideological crusade to deunionise this country, to weaken the labour movement and thereby weaken the Labor Party, and to maximise profits for some of their corporate mates.

Quite frankly, most employers don't want this. Most employers are genuine, decent people who just want to employ Australians, make a profit and support their family. Most of the employers I talk to want a level playing field. They want fair industrial relations, which means they're not competing with the workplace down the road on wages; they're competing on innovation and productivity. Anything like this that invites more shonks into the business, anything that makes it easier for shonks to set up and rip off their workers by not paying long service leave into portable funds, and anything that allows more repeats of the 7-Eleven fiasco hurts legitimate, caring, responsible employers who aren't it in for the quick buck for six months but are in it for decades.

So, like all my Labor colleagues, I am proud to reject this legislation, because we've also charted the middle course. We've always condemned inappropriate behaviour on worksites, whether it's by employers or unions, and that's why the question time behaviour by various ministers is farcical, because we're not out there defending criminal behaviour; we're saying everyone should respect the rule of law in workplaces, but the rule of law has to be fair. It has to not tilt the playing field towards one particular group. It has to allow Australians to bargain collectively to have their rights at work respected, to bargain collectively for decent pay rises to support their families and to bargain collectively to improve the safety of their workplaces so that they preserve the ultimate human right, which is to return home safely from work each day. I proudly condemn this legislation as another egregious attack on working people in this country and, like all my Labor colleagues, I stand opposed to it.