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Thursday, 20 June 1996
Page: 1968

Senator JACINTA COLLINS(4.29 p.m.) —I move:

That the Senate—

(a)   notes the overwhelming Australian and overseas evidence that the majority of Australian workers will be disadvantaged by the Government's proposals to reform Australia's industrial relations system; and

(b)   condemns the Government for continually failing to acknowledge women's concerns in particular, whilst defending the `rock solid' guarantee of the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) that no worker will be worse off.

It is a pleasure to be able to move this motion today because a matter of significant national pride for me has been the way in which our unique industrial relations system has provided a fair balance between the rights of employers and employer organisations and the rights of workers and trade unions. The way in which our system has protected the rights of workers with limited bargaining power has meant that workers in this country such as shop assistants can earn a living wage for their families.

Senator Woods —Are you reading this?

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —I have copious notes. That is a very cheap point, I should note. Let me repeat: the way in which our system in Australia has provided a living wage for workers such as shop assistants has been a matter of pride for me. This is not like the environment that has applied, for instance, with the working poor in the United States where 11 million workers are on a minimum rate of an Australian equivalent of $5.30 per hour. This leads to the situation where a family of four with two adult wage earners working full time would only marginally be above the poverty line.

The other concerning element of the political climate with respect to industrial relations in the United States is the attitude towards trade unions and worker representation and collective organisation. I was able to witness this in around 1991 in a visit to the United States, post the `Justice for janitors' campaign, where janitors in the United States, on very reduced hourly rates of pay, saw no other alternative but to take collective action. The unfortunate component of that collective action was a violent response by police in Los Angeles. This is action you would not expect in this day and age. The crisis developed because a pregnant woman miscarried because of her mistreatment by police. I hope that Australia will not go down this path.

The government's proposals are fundamentally flawed because they ignore the unequal bargaining power between employers and employees. They ignore the unequal position between that pregnant janitor and her multinational employer. Under the guise of promoting cooperative workplace relations, these proposals weaken the protections for workers whilst boosting the flexibility for the employer. Let me flesh out some of these issues.

The government's focus is on cooperation. I applaud that, but they see cooperation as being versus the principles of dispute prevention and settlement. They ignore disputation and they ignore inequality. Let me refer to some comments made by the Minister for Industrial Relations, Mr Reith. In describing the proposals, he said that they represent:

. . . a break with a system of industrial relations that has been based on a view that conflict between employer and employee is fundamental to the relationship and that an adversarial process of resolving disputes is appropriate and inevitable.

Senator Woods —It is your view, isn't it?

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —I will expand upon that point. Mr Reith also said that the proposals reject:

. . . the highly paternalistic presumption that has underpinned the industrial relations system in this country for too long—that employees are not only incapable of protecting their own interests, but even of understanding them, without the compulsory involvement of unions and industrial tribunals.

Let me flesh out these points. Would Mr Reith have similar views about our legal system or our Westminster parliamentary system? Both of these are adversarial and ironically consistent, I would argue, with his parliamentary conduct. My own view, some would argue despite my profession of social work, which is often argued incapable of dealing with conflict situations, is that cooperation is best fostered by acknowledging diverging interests and conflict as well as mutual interests, not by a system that pretends that conflict or diverging interests simply don't exist.

The government view on the need for protection is to ignore that disadvantage exists. At least yesterday Senator Herron had the good grace to acknowledge a different position with respect with Aboriginals and Pauline Hanson's comments. The government view on flexibility is to ignore the question of flexibility for whom or for whose benefit. They talk of choice simplicity; the rhetoric goes on and on. As I shall demonstrate, no case for the benefits for workers has been put. A rock solid guarantee is, in fact, empty.

Over 61,000 accesses to the Internet home page of the Department of Industrial Relations have been made in recent times. The Secretary to the Department of Industrial Relations, David Rosalky, says that the clear interest in the bill reflects that access to it is eagerly anticipated in the private sector, the public sector, academia and even some overseas interests. What about the concerned parties? Don't they exist or don't they know how to access the Internet? Surely some of those 61,000 people are actually concerned about the implications of this bill. The minister is also in fairyland, with recent comments describing the changes such as these:

Because awards will be simplified, there will be more choice about how work is to be organised at the workplace. With simplified awards, employers and employees will find themselves talking to each other more about how they would like to organise, to their mutual benefit, matters that, until now, have been dictated to them by the award.

Has nobody heard of managerial prerogative? How do we prevent dictating to workers how their work will be organised? We only have to look at outworking in the textile clothing industry to see exploitation of women and their families in the name of flexible homework. Ask these workers about Mr Reith's notion of choice and mutual benefit.

I am sure that some commentators are wondering whether Mr Howard's rocks from his rock solid guarantee are actually in his head. Naivety or stupidity have been words used to describe elements of the government's proposals, but the government's limited response to date to the numerous genuine concerns raised has led some to wonder whether duplicity is a more accurate description.

This motion focuses on women in particular because women have generally relied on the protections stemming from our system of arbitration and awards than have men. This is because women are more likely to work in low skill and low wage jobs, with little industrial muscle, and to be employed on a part-time or casual basis. Our system has delivered for women. The industrial relations system has played a significant role in reducing the gender gap in award wages through the equal pay cases of 1969, 1972 and since 1989 in adjusting minimum rates of pay for the low paid through supplementary payments and flat wage increases.

The award system has resulted in higher female to male wage ratios than in other comparable countries, Australia being second only to Sweden. Test cases through the commission have been an important vehicle for introducing employment conditions into awards such as maternity and family leave and how we will do this in the future. There is already considerable evidence that an overly deregulated labour market is not desirable for women. Recent Western Australian, Victorian and New Zealand evidence on wage equity has clearly shown this. Research across the OECD finds that pay equity depends more on a centralised wage fixing system than, in fact, on enactment of equal employment opportunity legislation.

Senator Woods —See if you can do two sentences without reading. At least pretend you're not reading it.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —Let me refer to some of the detailed concerns about a move away from the centralised wage fixing system, such as removing protections for part-time workers. Most awards provide a minimum number of hours per week for part-timers in order to ensure that they are given reasonable work opportunities and income. The removal of the requirement that part-timers be given a minimum number of hours would allow them to be employed for as little as one hour per week. I am not being hypothetical here. There are examples of Victorian contracts where companies such as Toys R Us have sought to introduce one-hour minimum starts for part-time workers. Also, hours could vary from week to week so that income stability is lost while the weekly child-care costs remain essentially the same.

Consistency in rostering arrangements for part-time employees with family responsibilities is crucial. The removal of requirements for a set number of hours, and notice in advance if this is to be changed, will be disastrous for many of the women who are currently juggling work and family responsibilities.

Another area of concern is restricting access to federal awards. Access will be restricted for the vast number of women workers in industries which have traditionally been covered by state awards in states such as Victoria where standards have been significantly reduced. These are areas such as clerical, retail, hospital and health workers, many of whom are women.

With respect to workplace agreements, under the current legislation there are significant protections for employees in the enterprise bargaining process, such as measuring agreements against existing awards in order to determine whether employees are disadvantaged. From my own experience I can say there have been enough problems in introducing enterprise bargaining in areas such as the retail industry, which have a significant number of women workers, without those protections also being removed. The government is proposing that agreements be measured only against a set of minimum standards which leave out significant award entitlements.

Let me make some further comments on the issue of equal pay. The federal Labor government acted in 1994 to introduce powers for the commission to remedy instances of discriminatory over-award payments and the government proposes to remove those. The government claims that adequate provisions are in place through the anti-discrimination bodies such as the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, despite the comments by the commissioner herself and also despite provisions in the Industrial Relations Act which allow alternative remedies to be used before referring to the act, if such remedies are regarded as reasonable.

The commission is the appropriate body for dealing with these pay related issues. It has the knowledge and the accessible procedures that give the provisions clout, as evidenced by successful settlement of claims under the provisions there to date. The ACTU, utilising these provisions, has had some major successes in negotiating—not arbitrating—the removal of clearly discriminatory over-award pay ments, especially among female process workers in the manufacturing industry. These are all the types of concerns that have been raised by women's organisations, Labor academics, church and community groups who are alarmed by the changes that are likely to occur.

These are the concerns which led 47 of the 49 women represented at the national women's organisation round table discussions with Minister Newman to raise several concerns in areas where they believe the bill should be amended. These concerns were as follows, and I hope you do not mind if I read at this stage.

Senator Woods —You haven't stopped so far.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —It states:

An equal remuneration clause, so that the equal pay is a requirement in the above award areas of remuneration;

That some provision be made for scrutiny of Australian workplace agreements prior to signing and filing by either the Industrial Relations Commission or the Employment Advocate;

That public access be allowed to workplace agreements after signing;

The maintenance of award conditions such as paid maternity leave, predictable hours and days of work, equal employment opportunity, affirmative action, workplace harassment clause and superannuation arrangements;

The maintenance of paid rates awards for each specific industry and position;

And that some provisions be made for adequate consultation with employees and identified disadvantaged groups, in particular, for certified enterprise agreements.

But to date, even women members of the government have remained silent. Only one female coalition senator has indicated interest in participating in the Senate inquiry into this bill. I am pleased to note that Senator Patterson is going to participate in this debate and has recently arrived in the chamber.

Senator Patterson —Because our men are interested in it.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —I am very pleased that you will be participating here and now.

Senator Patterson —They don't take sides. They are interested in it as well.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —This is a compliment, Senator Patterson. The main point of all this is that the government simply is not listening. Let me give an example of how the government is not listening. As I said, last week 47 of 49 women attending the national women's organisation round table discussions—chaired all day by the minister—signed a petition seeking several changes to the bill. But what was the government's response? The government's response was this document, which we presume was prepared by baby animals. It is headed `How the Workplace Relations Bill will assist women.' If you look at it, there is nothing in this whole document which shows anything which will assist women, not even a rhetorical discussion about how something might assist women. It says:

A strong emphasis is placed on the development of work practices which allow for a better balancing of work and family responsibilities.

Okay, it has strong emphasis. How? It does not say. It talks about the employment advocate who will pay particular attention to providing support for young women and people of non-English speaking backgrounds. But again, how? It does not say. It does not describe how it might occur. It says that awards will continue to provide a safety net, fair minimum wages and conditions for all employees. It says that awards will continue. That is not new assistance.

It talks further—again—about the development of mutually beneficial work practices with employers, about the benefits of this for workers with family responsibilities. But it does not talk about what is going to happen when things are not mutually beneficial. There are no protections there. There is also talk about the benefits for part-time workers, who will have reasonable predicability as to hours worked. It does not tell us in any way at all, though, how this reasonable predicability is going to be guaranteed.

To highlight this document, there is not one single description in these new proposals of how assistance will be rendered to women. All they talk about is how things are going to be continued or how they may be maintained.

Perhaps a worse example, which will highlight why the government needs to be condemned in this area, is yesterday's performance by the member for Dickson, Mr Tony Smith. I do not know whether senators have had the opportunity to read his speech, but even the member for Mackellar, Mrs Bishop, had the courtesy to interject on his comments yesterday.

Mr Smith wanted to look at some practical examples of how the bill will affect women. He claimed that people from our side never do that. He said that half of them have never been in a workplace situation. Perhaps this is the time for me to answer the comments by the Minister for Communications and the Arts (Senator Alston) about how many union hacks there are on this side of the chamber. I presume that he is counting me as one of them.

I would have to say that I do have private sector experience. I worked in the retail industry before I worked for the union. I suppose it would be a bit of a worry to be a hack at the age of 34. I doubt whether I am stereotypical of what the government claims the union movement represents at the moment. So I am not quite sure how he classes people on this side when he talks about people working in industrial relations and being union hacks. I am also a social worker by profession and have worked in that industry as well. So, if he is classing me as a trade union hack, he might want to look at how he is assessing people, because there are several other areas in which he could class my background as well.

Let us go back to Tony Smith. He said that he was an article clerk and started work with a female. Good heavens! Everybody knows that an article clerk is a general dogs body. He said that he had equal pay but that it was not equal work. Whenever heavy lifting, carrying or anything of a heavy nature had to be done, guess who had to do it? The males had to do it.

I wonder whether Mr Tony Smith would suggest that I should not have had full senatorial pay during the period that I was not able to lift heavy weights. Did that affect my performance, I wonder. Maybe a pregnant woman should not be in this House, according to the way he classes these things.

The synopsis of my comments here today, though, is to point out that the government to date has provided no evidence of benefits for workers in its workplace relations proposals. It has found no evidence to date that this sort of deregulation will provide any benefits for workers.

The main people who will be disadvantaged, of course, are the workers who are already disadvantaged in the work force. The predominant number of those are women. We on this side say that the government needs to be condemned for the proposals in this. Whilst their rhetoric is that they are doing things for women and women with family responsibilities, there has to date been no substance to those claims. They have not been able to demonstrate clearly how any of their claims will provide improvements for women or women with family responsibilities. I commend the motion.