Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard   

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Friday, 11 October 1996
Page: 4011

Senator DENMAN(10.32 a.m.) —Congratulations, Senator West. That was a good speech. It is with deep concern that I rise to speak against the Workplace Relations and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 1996. Others have spoken and will speak generally about the bill, but I will speak specifically about the effects this bill will have on women workers in this country. Working women now—and, more importantly, it is generally conceded that the generation about to enter the work force will continue to—perform the lowest paid jobs. I notice Senator Stott Despoja spoke about young people entering the workplace. Young people, and women particularly, usually have the most insecure jobs. I am concerned that, under this bill, these people will be those who suffer. In many respects, I am thinking about working women—as Jennie George stated—who are process workers, the women who work on car production lines and in clothing factories. In my own region of north-west Tasmania, I think in particular of women textile workers or vegetable process workers.

During 13 years of government, Labor achieved much in providing women with access to greater equality and fairness in the workplace. Achievements which come to mind include, but are not limited to, access to superannuation, parental leave and equal pay for equal value. All this good work will be undone if this bill is enacted. Women who are already disadvantaged through working in isolated or small workplaces—and let's face it, many women do continue to work in small workplaces—women from non-English speaking backgrounds or women who suffer disabilities will be hard hit under this bill.

Prior to the last election, Mr Howard made two clear pledges to the Australian people and I have heard these quoted many times by my colleagues. The first was that he would govern for all Australians and the second was that no worker would be worse off under the coalition's industrial legislation. When making these pledges, Mr Howard clearly did not have women workers in mind. Historically, women have been most at risk of exploitation in the workplace. As I stated earlier, they generally perform the most menial, lowest paid and insecure jobs.

Was there a proper effort made to assess the impact the proposed changes would have on women? The level of consultation with women's groups, trade unions and community organisations has not, in my view, been adequate. Many of the changes listed in the bill were not mentioned by the coalition during the election campaign. This bill will worsen the situation of women who rely on their income to supplement family living costs. It is imperative that all workers should retain the protection of awards and the Industrial Relations Commission, even more so for women.

One of the most outrageous claims which Mr Howard and Mr Reith make is that the bill gives women choices and allows them more flexibility to arrange their family commitments. The bill will do away with minimum and maximum hours of work for casual and part-time workers. This will make it extremely difficult for women to arrange other things such as child care. The government's cut to operational funding for community child-care day care centres will lead to increased child-care costs. Unable to plan child-care arrangements ahead, many women will eventually be driven out of the work force.

It is well known that a number of coalition members and senators belong to the Lyons Forum and that this group has the ear of Mr Howard. The Lyons Forum has as its core concern the maintenance of the Victorian view of the family unit, that is, that the man is the breadwinner and the woman the homemaker and child rearer. If that is the way you want it, that is fine, but do not penalise those people who make other choices. This bill seems to sit nicely with that philosophy if, as it seems, driving women out of the work force is the secondary aim of the government.

In recent times, women have assumed a greater share of the burden of providing for the family. The coalition wishes to deny them this right of choice. There was much evidence presented to the Senate Economics References Committee hearings on the workplace relations bill from workers, organisations representing workers and, indeed, some progressive and fair-minded employer groups which suggested that the introduction of similar legislation in some states has led to lower wages, exploitation, duress and coercion during contract bargaining between employers and employees.

Unfortunately, many women still work under the paid rates award, including those in community services, health and education. The abolition of paid rates awards and their replacement with minimum rates awards will let employers off the hook. There will be no necessity for employers to pay above minimum rates awards. I fear that the upshot of this measure will be that overtime pay for women will reduce and the gender pay gap will increase—and it is not as if it is not already too large a gap.

It is my opinion that this bill, if enacted, would do untold harm to all the effort that has been expended in recent years in addressing the inequity of the gender gap as far as pay is concerned. There is still a long way to go to redress this imbalance, but, alas, in my view, this bill is not the answer.

Evidence was given on numerous occasions of where workers had lost hours or simply not been employed if they refused to sign a workplace agreement. This is despite a regulatory framework of checks and balances being set up by the various governments involved. I do not believe that the removal of special requirements to consult with, and inform, disadvantaged women in the workplace about proposed workplace agreements before they are finalised and everyone is signed up will assist women one iota. Quite the contrary.

Working women will not be able to have their respective workplace agreements scrutinised by the Office of the Employment Advocate prior to certification to ensure that they meet the minimum safety net standards. Furthermore, on my understanding, the Employment Advocate will not check whether the workplace agreement was made without duress.

Mr Howard and Mr Reith claim that the proposed Office of the Employment Advocate will provide the necessary protection for women workers at risk. There is no doubt an argument could be put that this may be so, but whether the checks and balances work depends on the willingness of the aggrieved worker to approach the Employment Advocate.

Fear of reprisal from an employer will discourage workers from taking this action. Under this arrangement, I can imagine many women continuing to work, not just unhappy with their employer about their lack of personal conditions and entitlements under a workplace agreement but also unhappy in themselves for not having the enterprise or, more importantly, the readiness to confront their employer by approaching the employment advocate.

Women workers who find themselves in this dilemma, thanks to the bill, could not be worse off. Many of us may not lack the gumption to approach the Office of the Employment Advocate because we feel aggrieved, but it is plausible that there would exist disadvantaged women and young people who will be penalised because of a real fear in approaching the Office of the Employment Advocate.

That fear could also be well founded. Many claim that the coalition's proposed Office of the Employment Advocate is doomed to fail, as it is lacking sufficient independence and powers to carry out its duties. Women are already suspicious of the proposed Office of the Employment Advocate: it will not have the independence of an ombudsman and it is subject to ministerial direction.

The secrecy requirements of the bill would further disadvantage workers without representation and will, as has already been shown to occur in other jurisdictions, result in lower wages and conditions. Workplace agreements will not be open to public scrutiny by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, unions, anti-discrimination bodies, local community legal centres or even workers in the same workplace. This is an invitation to exploit women workers.

How will such an arrangement ensure, for example, an overall improvement for women workers in affirmative action and workplace harassment? Many women are harassed in varying degrees in their workplace. Many women will see it as something they would rather forget. For those women who are harassed in the workplace, how will this bill assist them?

Another matter of concern is the proposal to give employers the power to remove agreement benefits once the agreement expires, effectively giving the employer the upper hand in relation to subsequent negotiations. I would envisage that many conditions that are of special significance to women, such as paid maternity leave, superannuation arrangements, affirmative action and the like, will, in time, be whittled away by employers. My colleague Senator West mentioned those as well.

The only proper and fair protection for women workers in particular, but also for young people and workers from non-English speaking backgrounds, is to retain the powers of the Industrial Relations Commission as they exist under the current act. One must seriously question the motives of the government, which has blatantly misled the Australian people on this issue.

The Workplace Relations and Other Legislation Amendment Bill is unfair. It is harsh; it is draconian. It will return this country to the dark days of strikes, demarcation disputes and economic chaos. It targets the weakest in the community such as workers without union representation, workers with literacy problems and many women—in short, workers who have no hope of being able to bargain from a position of equal strength in the workplace. Women, young people and migrant workers from non-English speaking backgrounds will be powerless and all power will reside with the employers—a power that they could not be trusted with in the past, and, in today's competitive economic environment, certainly cannot be entrusted with now.

I again remind honourable senators of Mr Howard's pre-election pledge: no Australian worker will be worse off under the coalition's industrial relations policy. Consider this statement and then consider the evidence contained in the submissions received by the Senate workplace relations inquiry. The only conclusion that can be reached is that Mr Howard and Mr Reith misled the Australian electorate when pitching for votes prior to the last election. Because this bill is based on a lie, the government can claim no mandate to introduce this rotten-to-the-core piece of legislation. I urge honourable senators to reject the bill in its entirety.