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Tuesday, 8 October 1996
Page: 3720

Senator MURPHY(10.10 p.m.) —I would like to contribute to this debate by saying at the outset that I oppose the Workplace Relations and Other Legislation Amendment Bill, and I will go on opposing it as much as I can. I will try to convince as many of my colleagues as possible that we should not even seek to amend this bill. We should just seek to have it defeated because, essentially, all it does is weaken what I consider to be an already weak industrial relations system.

Due to the circumstances that Australia finds itself in—in so far as workers are concerned, whether they be union members or otherwise—we have developed an industrial relations system out of need. Workers needed a process through which they could achieve some equity in an otherwise very inequitable process of work and work related matters. The very reason we have the current industrial relations system is that workers were exploited. I sometimes think we need to remind ourselves of the fact that we do have this industrial relations system because of that, because we had child labour.

I have heard members on both sides of the chamber on many occasions condemn other countries because of those acts that continue in some countries. That must be of great concern to all of us, but the fact is that it was not that long ago when we had it in this country. I have to say that in some respects, particularly as it relates to some of the youth of this country in this day and age, it still goes on.

Therefore, any proposal that seeks to weaken the ability of workers to protect the equity that they rightly deserve should be defeated. We should not tolerate a situation where we have, as we do now, a proposal before us that seeks to make workplace agreements a secretive affair between the worker and the employer.

Of course, the other aspect of this is the argument that unions have become too powerful. I guess we have to think about that in the context of history. It was really workers who created unions, and they did so because they needed a capacity to actually provide themselves with an opportunity to negotiate and to represent themselves. Therefore, they formed these collective bargaining units known as unions.

We often hear, particularly from Liberal and National Party members and senators, that unions are basically for union officials. It is a nonsense that is portrayed when you really do not have a reasonable argument to present for wanting to change something. I think that is a very interesting position to try to take. At the end of the day, unions are only ever as strong as their members allow them to be, because it is ultimately the members who have the say. That has been the case historically and will be the case in the future. I think, for as long as unions continue to exist, that will be the case.

I know Liberal and National Party members and senators always overestimate the capacity of trade union officials. As a former trade union official, I take some pride in that. I guess, as some other senators have said tonight, it is a very humbling thing to represent workers. From that point of view, we—

Senator Panizza —You have never been humble.

Senator MURPHY —Absolutely, Senator Panizza. I am very humble both to have worked as a unionist and to have at least benefited from understanding some of the history associated with the struggle for equity.

It is not about getting something that is not rightly yours. It is not about getting something that you do not deserve. It is about equity in society. You argue your case before the current Industrial Relations Commission. Why do we have that system? It was really developed to remove from the Australian workplace the dog-eat-dog system where, in some cases, you had large numbers of employees who had a greater industrial capacity who could actually bargain for much better conditions and wages. I know many people would know that, including Senator Panizza. But, of course, it also provided an orderly process for employers. They knew that they would be able to go forward and argue their case and have any dispute settled in a proper and orderly manner.

We have had that system for a long time. We have got awards that are attached to that system. We have workers and employers. I say workers because it does not matter whether or not they are union members. It is just the fact that I think many generations of workers now have really never understood, or have forgotten, how those things were put in place in the first instance. They were put in place by unions, by organised workers who fought the good fight to get equity into the system.

I heard Senator Patterson say that some workers do not want to be on strike or that some workers do not want to be in a union, et cetera. That is fine. But, at the end of the day, it is really a matter of people looking at how they got four weeks annual leave, how they got minimum rates of pay or paid rates awards or awards in general. Once people think about that, and do not just somehow develop an opinion that a government created these things and granted them to the worker, I think most people's views of what is being proposed at the moment would be somewhat different.

As I said, the reason I am opposed to the bill is because I think it weakens what is already a reasonably weak system. Under the current system, you get huge numbers of examples of exploitation. I can give you an example in my own case when I was shearing. I was really just at the stage of learning shearing. I had a learner's pen in New South Wales. In those days, we used to have what was called a shed rep, and the shed's representative was responsible for going around and checking to make sure the conditions were right, that the cook had all the pots and pans that the cook needed, the toilets were clean and so on. We had a principle of one man, one job.

I raised an issue with the employer at that time about a particular matter and, ultimately, although I was promised to go on to various other sheds to work, I suddenly found that I did not have a continuation of work. If it was not for the union, I would not have. I would have had no capacity at all to argue my case. It was at the direct discretion of the employer as to whether or not I continued in my employment. He just said, `Well, the other workers don't want to work with you because you're making trouble.' In fact, that was not the case. If it was not for the union at the time, the Australian Workers Union, I would not have continued work with that employer.

When I took on the job as a union official with the timber workers, I can remember going to a place called Morgan's Sawmill, just out of Launceston. When I arrived there, there were, I think, eight employees. There was only one employee who was over the age of 18. And yet, in the award, there was a requirement for some of those jobs to be done by persons older than 21. None of them had safety gear—not one. Of the eight, seven were being paid junior rates of pay, for which there was an award that clearly stipulated that there were adult rates of pay.

In the case of the recent inquiry into this particular bill, I listened to a young person in Queensland who worked for Toys `R' Us. Because he joined a union, because he had some concerns with regards to his conditions of employment, he found that his hours were substantially reduced. He found that his employer was making comments to other employees that, should they choose to join the union, should they choose to buck the system, they could well find themselves confronted with the same situation where their hours would be reduced.

In Western Australia, I found it very interesting to hear from another witness to the inquiry. I will read an excerpt of the transcript. It is from the evidence of Kristen Leanne Laird. In her opening remark she said:

I am a year 12 student at Belmont Senior High School. For the last few years, I have worked as a casual shop assistant to earn money both to spend and to save. In December 1995, I went in to work one day to find that my name was not on the roster. I approached by manager only to be told that if I wanted hours I had to sign a workplace agreement which would mean a substantial reduction in my wages.

This, of course, is in the current system which operates in Western Australia, not dissimilar to what is being proposed by the current coalition government. She went on to say:

I could not see any alternative so I did sign the agreement and immediately I had an abundance of work.

In January 1996, I came to my senses and had the agreement cancelled through the commissioner. This resulted in an abrupt phone call from my manager who said that, until further notice, I had no rostered hours. I have contacted the store three times since that day. It soon became quite clear that I was no longer considered an employee there.

Although, deep inside, I know I have done the right thing, it does not change the fact that I now have no job, no money in the bank and no petrol in my car.

Of course, that is just one example of, as I said, the exploitation that can occur under current systems. There is another one. Miss Mikelanne Pearce says:

I am 18 and a full-time student at Edith Cowan University. I am doing my first year of a Bachelor of Education course. I work for a small grocery store, Cheap Foods, in a Perth suburb, Inglewood—

perhaps you might know that, Senator Panizza—

on a casual basis, primarily as a checkout operator. I started on 10 April 1994 and I regularly worked four days a week—Monday, Tuesday, Friday and Saturday morning—between two and four hours a day. I was often asked to work extra shifts to cover other workers who were absent.

She goes on to make some points with regard to her being requested to sign a workplace agreement. This is not dissimilar to Ms Laird's position. Finally, she says:

On 5 January 1996 at the conclusion of my Friday night shift I was told that I need not come in the next day, which was Saturday, for my morning shift because they no longer needed me and that I was not needed for my Thursday night shift the following week, or any other for that matter. My rostered 12 hours had been reduced to four hours.

Of course, that is a fundamental point when we think about the possibility of exploitation under this new legislation. It can happen under the current system that the coalition government says is too restrictive. The government says that we have to free up the labour market system and that we have to make it weaker to allow employers to employ more people. There is a fundamental lack of evidence and simply no case to support that argument. If there is any case, it supports exactly the opposite thing: that you need a more restricted system to stop workers being exploited.

I heard Senator Lundy raise the issue of contracting out. I will give you another example in the timber industry, in forestry, which relates to fallers and bush workers. These workers are being told that they are now contractors and that they have to cover themselves for workers compensation. They simply cannot do it because they cannot afford to do it. They subsequently employ other people who have no workers compensation coverage and no safety in terms of equipment. There are no checks and no balances.

As you would all know, under the current system we have got—I think we have still got it—the old Department of Industrial Relations, under which there is an award management branch. I want to relate that fact to what is going to be called the Employment Advocate. I hope we never get it, but let us assume that we do. The awards management branch at this point in time is charged with the responsibility for monitoring award and employment breaches. It cannot do it. It has no hope of doing it. I can tell you now from a ex-union official's point of view that, if you asked the awards management branch to, firstly, check on something and, secondly, prosecute the employer, it could not do it. It does not have the capacity.

When government senators make a contribution to this debate I ask that they stand up and tell this chamber whether the office of the Employment Advocate will be a seven days a week, 24 hours a day office; what capacity it will have to prosecute; and how it will conduct its investigations. The Commissioner for Workplace Agreements in Western Australia could not tell me that. What he did tell me was that agreements were registered that did not even contain the minimum standards. You really have to wonder why we are even debating this issue when you think about all these things.

The other big bugbear for the Liberal and National party government members is this business of compulsory unionism. I want to know where it exists. Where does it exist? Does it exist in the Pilbara, Senator Panizza? No. Does it exist at Weipa? Does it exist at Mount Isa? No, it does not. It does not really exit anywhere.

Senator Boswell —It does.

Senator MURPHY —Senator Boswell said that it does. You say that it does, but I just gave you some examples where it does not. They are big employers with big numbers of employees, so do not tell me it does exist. When you go down to the small end of town—to the people you keep purporting to represent—where does it exist there? Where is the capacity for any union to go to a small corner store and say, `We want the people in the union. We want you to be a member of a union'? That is rubbish in the extreme and you know it.

I want to deal with this bill in terms of its proposed hours of work—no minimum, no maximum—and in terms of the issue of minimum rates awards versus paid rates awards. The abolition of paid rates awards will have an effect on so many industries. What effect do you think the abolition of paid rates awards will have on workers in the public sector and on workers in the private sector such as nurses and teachers? These workers have paid rates awards for many things, including supplementary payments. Even the timber industry has supplementary payments. Supplementary payments represent a large proportion of the take-home pay of those workers. The government says, `Okay, there is going to be this period of time'—I think it is 18 months, off the top of my head—`when you have the opportunity to negotiate and finalise either a minimum rates award or, indeed, some form of workplace agreement.' What happens if you do not do that. What happens to the workers who cannot reach agreement? I will tell you what will happen to them: they will have their pay reduced.

That brings me to another point. The now Prime Minister made a fundamental promise to the workers of this country that they would not be worse off under a coalition government, that they could only be better off. However, all aspects of this bill that is proposed tell you that there is no capacity for them to be better off—none, zip—because they simply will not have any capacity to negotiate. This particularly affects those workers who are in the largest area of employment—small business—and it particularly affects women workers who are in the hospitality and service industries, because they are already confronted with problems that relate to hours of work.

I cannot for the life of me understand the arguments that you have been putting up about the need to change the current system—they really do not stand up. I hope that the Democrats, and in particular Senator Murray, will oppose this legislation, because it needs to be defeated. It does not need to be amended.