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Friday, 11 October 1996
Page: 4050

Senator GIBBS(2.56 p.m.) —The Workplace Relations and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 1996 is a blueprint for the significant dismantling of the Australian industrial relations system. Whichever page I turn to in this document, I find it awash with examples that indicate a serious attempt to tear apart the very institutions that have assisted in developing and sustaining industrial justice in this nation.

Many of the Queensland workers and their families I represent have spoken to me of the very real fear they feel about the prospect of being denied industrial justice. The prospect of this bill being passed without significant amendments is creating a considerable degree of stress amongst Queensland workers. The majority of them are honest and intelligent people who want to do a fair day's work for a fair day's pay. Many of them work in communities that have experienced structural adjustment during the past few years and the last thing they need is a government that flagrantly attempts to remove the industrial rights that have been hard fought for and won since the advent of conciliation and arbitration in this country.

There is no doubt in my mind that the introduction of Australian workplace agreements, without the scrutiny of an independent umpire and with little recourse for workers whose agreements will be subject to stringent privacy provisions, will result in reduced wages and conditions for the most vulnerable Australian workers. In fact, the more I think about this bill and the real consequences it will have for part-time and casual workers, most of whom are women, and for unskilled and young workers and those from non-English speaking backgrounds, the more I realise that this rock solid guarantee that the take-home pay of workers will not be less than they would receive under relevant awards is a fairytale.

It is more than the very real likelihood of losing pay that worries many Queenslanders. What really worries them is how this bill will facilitate the erosion of the quality of the bargaining process between employee and employer, which both have worked hard to sustain. This government talks about this bill as though it will solve all the problems inherent within the bargaining process between employee and employer. They call it simplification, but what this bill proposes is anything but simple. It proposes a greater array of awards, classifications and agreements than is currently the case. This will surely cause confusion for all concerned. Nearly every enterprise will need to hire an industrial lawyer to guide them through the maze. So much for greater efficiency and flexibility for small business!

I would like to highlight several features of this bill that are of great concern to Queensland workers and their unions. In terms of legislated conditions of employment and the interaction between them and the history of the Queensland commission's jurisdiction, I would like to call your attention to several difficulties. Queensland legislation contains minimum conditions of employment. These conditions have been underpinned by commission decisions that have general application to all workers, generated through statements of policy of general rulings.

The workplace relations bill endeavours to displace the history of employment conditions within Queensland. This is particularly evident where conditions are superior to those prescribed in the federal bill. An example of this is annual leave, where employees are entitled to proportionate annual leave for periods of less than one year on termination of employment. Other examples include carers leave, where currently the arrangement is for improved access rights to leave in relation to bereavement leave.

The workplace relations bill proposes the adoption of the AIRC decision, which has not been applied in the state arena. The application of only a legislative framework, in lieu of the mixture of legislative framework and commission generated outcomes, will undermine the vibrancy of the system. This begs the question: is it necessary or desirable to change the balance between federal and state systems?

There is no unequivocal evidence which indicates that a change in the longstanding principle that federal awards and agreements override inconsistent state awards or agreements is necessary. In fact, there are several compelling arguments that the amendments to section 152 are based on flawed assumptions.

The effect of the bill regarding so-called simplification that will arise out of changes to the state/federal system is that there will be a myriad of confusing combinations for both employees and employers. Some employees will be on federal awards only, some will be on a combination of both federal awards and agreements, and others will be on federal awards which will be overlaid by a state agreement. They will all be processed in different ways and subject to different minimum standards and protections. This hardly seems like simplification to me.

There is also no definitive evidence which suggests that the current system, where most workplaces operate under either a federal or state award, is fraught with inconsistencies. Where is the difficulty here?

In relation to proposed section 89A(4), the rationale for removing provisions contained in awards that regulate minimum and maximum hours worked is that it will supposedly benefit employees who cannot complete the minimum number and who therefore must remain a casual employee or remain unemployed. This provision is also said to benefit many women with family responsibilities through an increase in flexibility in the number of hours worked. This attempt to deregulate part-time work is supposedly necessary for increasing labour market flexibility. I doubt that very much. In reality, this provision will encourage the casualisation of part-time work, which is the last thing many women with family responsibilities need.

The removal of minimum hours of work may result in employers calling in employees for very short periods of time. This will also result in many workers outlaying more in work related expenses. If a worker gets called in to work for $10 an hour and only works that hour, this may hardly cover travel costs to and from work. The right to regular rostering is not one of the 18 allowable matters. Many women need regular hours and a regular roster. They need to know that the child-care arrangements they have struggled to put in place are not going to be continually disrupted by constant chopping and changing of rosters.

The casualisation of part-time work will affect many more women than men. As of August 1996 the number of people in Australia employed as part-time workers totalled 2,083,500. Approximately 73.4 per cent of this total are women. This represents over 1,529,600 women. Many of these women will eventually be severely disadvantaged by any change to access to fair and equitable rostering.

This all adds up to a strong disincentive to work part time. The government well knows that it is mostly women who are the part-time workers. Indeed, it also seems as though it is actively discouraging women from working at all. Regardless of any existing secret agenda to drive women out of the workplace, the fact is that they are there and they will continue to enter the work force in years to come.

This bill encourages a highly deregulated and decentralised industrial relations system. That kind of industrial relations system will impact negatively on women workers through a reduction in wages and conditions and a larger pay gap for women. The government's claim that this bill will benefit women is not valid or sustainable and is certainly not supported by Australian or international empirical evidence.

The coalition claims that their proposed system will offer women more choice by freeing them from the restrictions imposed by the male dominated union movement. There is no doubt that the current industrial relations system has a long way to go in terms of improving the lot of women workers. But acknowledging this does not mean that women would be better off without unions.

Many of the gains that women have made in the workplace would not have occurred without the active support and initiative of unions. A lot of work has been conducted in recent years to address the problem of gender bias in awards. Full-time women union members earn, on average, 12 per cent more than women who are not in unions. Part-time women union members earn approximately 32 per cent more than those who are not union members.

It concerns me deeply that many women who sign Australian workplace agreements, particularly women who work on a part-time or casual basis in industries where there are already low levels of unionisation, will be denied the right to access basic conciliation and arbitration. They will be denied industrial justice. If you combine this attack on women workers with the attack that this government has launched on child care, we are all entitled to conclude that there is something sinister going on. Why such a vicious attack on women workers?

There is to be exclusion of significant award entitlements from the minimum conditions outlined in schedule 13. The conversion from paid rates awards to minimum rates awards could mean that up to 1.7 million Australian workers will lose thousands of dollars in wages and conditions. In Queensland alone approximately 250,000 employees currently working under paid rates awards will be affected. Workers such as teachers, nurses and other health sector workers, public sector workers and some in the private sector not only risk being paid less for the same work; they also will be forced to bargain for wages and conditions they had previously been entitled to under their awards.

Paid rates are important in the public sector because they ensure that there is transparency and public accountability in the process of wage fixing; they are a longstanding protection against the possibility of individual pay being set in ways which are influenced by political patronage or are corrupt; they provide a fair basis for enterprise bargaining because they usually apply to a single enterprise; they are a protection against the demonstrated pay inequities which can arise in the bargaining of over-award payments; and the classification standards and the professional training requirements currently guaranteed in paid rates would be lost forever if wages set down in paid rates awards were converted to minimum rates.

The abolition of paid rates awards will involve a significant disadvantage to women in the public sector. It is public sector employment that actually keeps up with a relatively high level of pay equity ratio in Australia. If the public sector pay equity ratio drops to the level of that in the private sector, where women working full time earn 76 per cent of men's earnings, compared with 86 per cent in the public sector, Australia will slip well down in its international position on this matter. Once again, why the attack on women workers?

The treatment in this bill of the right to collectively bargain can only be described as extremely shabby. Although schedule 9, section 170NC and schedule 11, section 170WG prohibit coercion or duress in making certified agreements for AWAs, these provisions are naive in that they ignore the very real possibility of employers placing subtle pressure on employees to sign agreements. It is very naive to assume that employees will always be aware that they are placed in such a situation.

The majority of Australians, especially the majority of Australian workers, are fairly trusting of their employers. This bill encourages the less scrupulous in our communities to not only exploit that trust but plunder the core of that trust. In order for our communities to function, we need to be able to trust one another, particularly those we look up to or answer to. Most employees enter into a contract with their employers in the good faith that the employer will do right by them. This is an integral part of the `fair go' ethos which is characteristically Australian.

Under the existing provisions, the AIRC has the power to ensure that bargaining occurs in good faith. In the spirit of industrial justice and a fair go all round, it is vital that this bill be allowed to continue. The denial of access to an independent umpire means that there will be no way that an employee can guarantee whether the AWA complies with the `no less than favourable statutory minima test' and that the employee has entered into the agreement with genuine and informed consent.

No pre-agreement review by an independent body means that employees will have to place a greater than usual amount of trust in the employer. To expect that many employees will take up non-compliance with awards is farcical. Are you assuming that most workers have such a deep understanding, let alone a working knowledge, of industrial law that they will always take civil action to rectify the breach? You know they will not. I know they will not. Many workers certainly know that they will not have access to the time, money or resources.

But the government wants to stack the cards heavily in favour of the employer. These provisions strongly contradict the principal object of the bill, in particular section 3(e) of schedule 1, which says:

. . . providing a framework of rights and responsibilities for employers and employees, and their organisations, which supports fair and effective agreement-making and ensures that they abide by awards and agreements applying to them . . .

The reality is that secret individual contracts, which form the centrepiece of the new system, will mean that it will be difficult for workers to know whether they are better or worse off. All this is done under the guise of choice. We certainly hear a lot about choice in this bill but very little about helping people avail themselves of their new choices. What unions and awards have ensured is equity, equality and fairness. So people doing the same job with the same skills can expect to be paid the same and receive the same conditions.

Removal of these controls is not going to create more employment. It will create poorly paid short-term jobs—in short, exploitation. It will create a job that will keep them poor for the rest of their lives, a job that places them in the most vulnerable position in terms of wages and conditions and subject to the worst excesses of employers, and a job that is devoid of dignity and pride.

Again, if you combine this with the brutal changes this government is trying to force on the social security system, the full effect of this bill will be cruel and vindictive. As an Australian, a parent and a unionist, I believe that we need to do better than what this bill proposes. I firmly believe that many Queensland workers and their families do not want an industrial relations system that entrenches mean spiritedness and inequity. This is not the path we should be paving for ourselves, our children and their children.