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Friday, 11 October 1996
Page: 4030

Senator ALLISON(12.21 p.m.) —As Senator Kernot indicated in her speech this week, the Democrats regard the bill as set out before us as unsupportable in its present form. It is our view that if this bill were to pass the Senate it would have to be substantially amended. Throughout the debate on this bill and throughout the election campaign, the Democrats have restated our support for a strong award system and a strong independent umpire, in the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, to ensure that workers who are at a disadvantage in the labour market are adequately protected.

As a Victorian I can speak with first-hand experience of the full brunt of the Liberal-National Party reform agenda since the election of the Kennett government in 1992. I concede that this bill is not as radical as the Victorian legislation, but it is well on the way down the same track. I note that the major business backers of the bill—the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Business Council of Australia—have both said that the bill does not go far enough, suggesting pressure will continue for further so-called reform in later years.

The bill contains some provisions which are common to Victoria. The most obvious similarity is that the proposed Australian workplace agreements would take effect from the day they are signed and would not be vetted by the Industrial Commission. This feature is found in the Victorian system but it is not found in any other state in Australia. Even the conservative governments of New South Wales, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia required some element of vetting before agreements took place.

The President of the Victorian Employee Relations Commission, Susan Zeitz, has been very critical of this lack of vetting in her annual reports. She has expressed concern that many employees simply assume that because an agreement has been lodged with the ERC, it has been approved by that body. Many workers would assume the same thing with those unvetted Australian workplace agreements.

The Victorian system provides only a minimal number of minimum conditions for agreements. Whilst the proposed AWA stream would have a few more, a range of important issues would not be protected. But, more importantly, employers, particularly in Vic toria, would be able to opt out of federal awards into state employment agreements under section 152. This means that in the case of Victoria, despite all the publicity attached to the so-called safeguards of the AWAs, Victorian employers would be able to get individual employment agreements under Jeff Kennett's legislation and thus avoid a federal award. This would reverse the flight of hundreds of thousands of Victorian workers from the Victorian to the federal system and expose workers in my state to widespread exploitation. Information about the nature of Victorian employment agreements is scanty because agreements are not made public. Some of this information did come through the Senate committee. However, it is worth highlighting some of that evidence.

In the child-care industry one of the employer organisations circulated an employment agreement to its members which undermined a wide range of employment conditions without adequate compensation. According to the union, the agreement proposed to: reduce casual loadings from 25 to 20 per cent; increase the amount of overtime needed to attract double time from two to three hours; reduce the number of public holidays; abolish the annual leave loading; reduce sick leave from 91 hours a year to just 36 hours; and require employees to supply their own uniforms. Great pressure was put on employees to sign. We need to be mindful that employment in this industry is neither permanent nor easy to come by. The employer association refused to discuss the agreement with the unions and strenuously opposed efforts by them to get an interim federal award reflecting the old state award.

Young workers have been particularly vulnerable. Many work in the hospitality industry and they are easily `punished' for refusing to sign agreements by seeing their rostered casual hours reduced. The Bendigo Trades Hall Council highlighted the problems it had in getting Jardine's Restaurants, the owners of Pizza Hut and Sizzler, to provide a decent agreement for young people. Young people were not even able to take the agreement home for their parents to check. Those who refused to sign had their hours cut. The Sizzler agreement contained lots of progressive conditions such as requiring workers to work six hours, and even double shifts without any break. The union was eventually able to get a federal award for Pizza Hut and a federal certified agreement for Sizzler, but only after an awful lot of young workers were hurt in that process.

Workers in country Victoria, because of high unemployment and low levels of awareness of their rights, are particularly vulnerable. The Sunraysia Trades and Labour Council gave evidence of some of the contracts in its area, such as the bread carter who paid a grand sum of $9.50 per hour for work performed at any time of the day or night, including weekends and public holidays—in fact, whenever the employer wanted.

A major loser in the Victorian system has been women, reflecting their weak bargaining position. An extensive study of 116 Victorian agreements by the national pay equity coalition showed that only 19 per cent of agreements included a wage rise, even though 34 per cent of agreements reduced overtime loading, 26 per cent reduced shift work penalties and a whopping 64 per cent abolished weekend penalty rates.

In 1992 the Democrats supported the amendment of the Industrial Relations Act to insert the fast-track provisions to allow Victorian workers to transfer from the state to the federal system. This provision has prevented much widespread exploitation of Victorian workers.

One group which has had the most difficulty with the Victorian system has been the employees of the state government itself. Victorian teachers received no wage rise for the first few years of the Kennett government. What rises were offered were only available if they agreed to sign individual agreements. These agreements had the potential to undermine the professional standards of the teaching profession. Eventually the Australian Education Union was forced to seek a federal award and to arbitrate the rates under that award. This is the only way they had to maintain the paid rates nature of their industry.

For public sector workers paid rates awards are very important. Paid rates awards ensure that governments cannot play favourites between employees. Paid raids awards ensure that teachers in poor schools, for instance, do not end up being paid less than teachers in rich schools. Paid rates awards ensure that government ministers, in their quest to cut the so-called fat from bureaucracy, cannot unilaterally withdraw established and important employment conditions. Most importantly, paid rates awards, because they are capable of being arbitrated, give employees in the public sector an important protection against the omnipotent legal power of the state. It is a nonsense to suggest that an individual teacher, nurse or police officer can walk in and negotiate on equal terms with the state government.

This inequality of the bargaining process has been reflected in the Victorian government's employment contracts which have been presented on very much a take or leave it basis. Even if government workers choose to take industrial action against their employer, it is rarely effective because of the massive legal and financial resources of the government. Industrial issues rapidly become interwoven with political agendas, and it becomes impossible for good industrial practice to be discussed.

The Democrats believe that government workers must retain the ability to have their paid rates awards established by arbitration where governments refuse to reach appropriate agreements with them. The experience of the refusal of the Victorian government to bargain with its workers on a collective basis highlights this absolute necessity.

The appalling treatment meted out to the State Public Services Federation in Victoria over the past four years, the fights against its efforts to obtain a federal award, the refusal of the Victorian government to agree to voluntary arbitration on issues in the Victorian Employee Relations Commission, the refusal to even recognise that the union represents its members and, most importantly, the refusal to bargain over wages and conditions are the strongest arguments possible for the retention of paid rates awards. Bargaining is clearly not working.

The workplace relations bill fails to provide for paid rates awards or arbitration of paid rates conditions. It allows arbitrated federal awards to be undermined by state employment agreements. In short, it fails to protect adequately government employees.

There remains strong support for the award system in Victoria. The Victorian Council of Social Services and the Victorian Council of Civil Liberties both highlighted the importance of the award system and the AIRC in protecting the rights of the disadvantaged. Employer groups, too, were supportive. The Victorian Automobile Chamber of Commerce in its evidence strongly supported the retention of the award system, arguing that many small employers preferred the certainty of the award system to the difficulties of enterprise bargaining.

The Australian Road Transport Industry Association reported a similar line. America's Professor Joe Isaac, who completed a major study of small business attitudes to awards a few years ago, reported that the vast majority of small businesses were generally satisfied with the award system. Interestingly, major employer organisations have reported that copies of the lapsed Victorian awards are still best sellers as small businesses prefer a simple statement of what they should pay in wages and conditions to the hard work of starting from scratch.

What has not been recognised by the government in drafting this bill is the complexity and diversity of jobs and employment conditions that exist in this country. All senators in this place would have received letters from workers concerned about losing hard-won conditions. But I think some of the most compelling that I have received have been from workers in the performing arts.

A Victorian stunt actor and safety supervisor in film and television, one of the very few women in this hazardous side of the industry, writes:

Our safety code was first conceived after a fatal accident during the filming of the Matlock Police television series . . . and finally brought in after another fatality on the feature film Midnight Spares in the early eighties.

Since then the industry, via the Safety Code has trained and graded stunt performers. If the award preference clauses become unlawful, I am fearful that all the efforts will be undone as we insist that personnel in stunts and safety must be a member of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, . . . having a minimum of 10 years in the industry. The provisions mean that we have trained, experienced people with a strong body of experience in our industry. General Occupational Health & Safety Legislation is not specific enough to our industry to provide this protection.

She continues:

We have a profession in which we are directly at risk every time we perform and train. We put our lives in each others hands on a daily basis and therefore rely on each other and the safety code.

Another performer writes:

For most performers, the competition is fierce and the only—repeat only—kind of bargaining power one has is a famous TV Week face. We have spent most of our careers working for minimum award rates—

even though the people who wrote this worked as puppeteers on the feature film Babe

and the likelihood of our being able to command anything above the Victorian minima is extremely low.

I think it would surprise most Australians to know that their artists and performers are amongst the lowest paid workers in the country. For them, award conditions must be protected.

I believe the Victorian industrial relations reforms have been a disaster, a disaster which has provided no benefit for employees, employers or the Victorian economy. This bill emulates much of the Victorian agenda and would take the nation in the same direction. It would allow the re-emergence of a discredited system by allowing Victorian agreements to override federal awards. It is, in the view of the Democrats, totally unacceptable.

Before closing, I want to talk about important evidence which was put before the Senate committee but not recorded in Hansard. In Sydney, the committee met informally with workers and management of the ICI chemical complex at Botany. I understand that this large workplace has for many years been the battleground of industrial disputes. ICI is now proud of its workplace relations.

Devolution of decision making down to the shop floor; no site closures; no strikes; flexibility in working conditions; higher levels of efficiency and operating profits; higher wages and a very satisfied work force—all this has been the result. It has been the result under the existing industrial relations legislation.

The committee heard the same story at the Cadbury factory in Tasmania. We were told that the very real reforms that had been achieved could not have taken place without the involvement of the union. Workers and management alike have benefited not just in monetary awards but in the dignity and the pride which comes from a cooperative and democratic approach to workplace relations. It is the Democrats' view that this bill in its present form will do nothing to foster such real industrial relations reform.