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Wednesday, 29 November 2006
Page: 24

Senator WEBBER (11:09 AM) —It is no secret that the state I represent, the great state of Western Australia, is home to the most isolated city in the world—that is, of course, our capital, Perth. While WA is blessed with significant natural resources, the prosperity of our state still relies on strong transport links with the rest of the country. This is as much to aid in the export of Western Australian goods and services as well as in the importation of eastern states’ produce. Consequently, my home state relies very heavily upon the truck drivers of this nation. That is one of the reasons I oppose the changes proposed in the Independent Contractors Bill 2006 and the companion Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (Independent Contractors) Bill 2006.

Since the coalition gained control of this Senate following the last election, the Australian people have been witness to a series of industrial relations atrocities perpetrated by the Prime Minister and his henchmen. The union movement has done an outstanding job, in my view, to bring this debate and the consequences of the Howard government’s industrial relations changes to the fore. The Labor Party is dedicated to ripping up these laws after the next election. Perhaps that is why these bills were so very attractive to the government. How does this government respond when people rally behind workers’ rights? It is simple: they stop calling people ‘workers’ and start calling them ‘contractors’. That may sound like a cynical assessment of these bills but that seems to be what these pieces of legislation boil down to.

My Labor colleagues and I are extremely interested in bills that clarify or simplify legal process yet, despite the significant legal problems already present in defining a contractor rather than an employee, this bill does nothing to remedy such ambiguity. As has been consistently the case with the Howard government’s industrial relations changes, this legislation is heavy on ideology but light on empathy and functionality. It must be easy for government parliamentarians to lose sight of the victims they create in these bills. One of the great things about the labour movement is that we on this side of the chamber are more regularly in contact with the people whom these laws will affect. However, the good work of the Transport Workers Union in lobbying both the government and opposition parties really should mean that the government could see exactly what it was doing. The fact that the government is pressing on underscores the mean-spiritedness of the legislation and its advocates.

I would like to spend a moment discussing the role of the Transport Workers Union in defending the rights of owner-drivers, who are one of the groups most affected by these bills. My colleague Senator Sterle, from my home state of Western Australia, you, Mr Acting Deputy President Hutchins, and several other members from the New South Wales branch of the TWU first brought this issue to my attention last year. Since that time, I have been in regular contact with the TWU about the rights of owner-drivers, and the clarity and efficiency of the union has been first-rate. The union has also claimed some success throughout the course of its campaign against these changes by gaining exemptions for owner-drivers in New South Wales and Victoria. While I am delighted to see some forward progress has been made in these states, it beggars belief that the government can admit its folly in two states but then willingly apply the same appalling legislation to the rest of the country. The justification for this seems contrived to say the least. After all, the transport industry is defined by the very process of crossing state boundaries. To argue that a driver in Victoria is worse off than a driver in South Australia seems flawed. In reality, the concession is an acknowledgement from the government that this legislation is a poison pill. In that spirit, I reiterate my congratulations to the TWU for having generated such a potent degree of awareness in the community.

I know that owner-drivers in Western Australia will be feeling particularly left out in the cold by this Prime Minister. The minerals and subsequent real estate boom in WA have placed significant upward pressure on the cost of living, and this is without taking into account the already high cost of fuel. I am aware that the government will conduct a national review of legalities surrounding owner-driver rights. They seem to be hoping, yet again, that the community will infer from this that people in the states without owner-driver exemptions will eventually be granted the same rights. Unfortunately for the government, they have asked the Australian people to take them on faith far too often.

Both this legislation and the industrial relations changes that have been rammed through this place in recent times overlook the massive impact that these laws have on hardworking Australians who are simply trying to make ends meet. What makes these reforms grotesque is that people like owner-drivers have already stuck their necks out by investing in heavy duty vehicles and maintenance. These should be the pride and joy of a government with an allegedly free market agenda—people working hard with their own capital to become active players in the market economy. It seems to me, however, that this government wants free market principles in place only when a corporate entity or an ideological ally stands to benefit. Furthermore, dismantling large working populations like owner-drivers and outworkers has the added benefit of obscuring collectivism and making life harder for trade unions.

This legislation is another hallmark of Mr Howard’s ‘divide and conquer’ regime. I harbour serious concerns about the safety of our roads upon the successful passing of this legislation. Removing the basic safeguards that come with employment means that drivers will lose security of income and therefore have to work more—for less—when the work is on offer. This means more time behind the wheel, less time and money to spend on maintenance, and ultimately the creation of a class of vehicles and drivers not fit for our roads. This is not the fault of the drivers, who are acting only out of a desperate need to provide for their families. It is the obligation of a responsible government to care about community safety—but, sadly, this bill negates that duty.

I also look at this legislation as a concession due to the government’s inability to protect the transport sector from the relative giants of the retail industry. The TWU regularly encounters members who are running truck routes at a loss because of the low rates on offer from the contractors. Often the transport companies that offer such low rates of pay for service do so because of the paper-thin or loss-making margins they have agreed to with major retail players. I grant that small margins are a consequence of an efficient market; however, deliberate loss-making ventures are not.

If the Australian transport sector is being bullied into untenable and unrealistic market positions by virtue of its small size relative to the massive retail sector, then something is seriously amiss. If the ultimate consequence of this is that Australian workers are themselves running at a loss, then we have a significant problem. No matter what the government may claim, owner-drivers and outworkers are acting as employees, not as contractors. The government is of the opinion that, by labelling these employees as businesses, the Australian community will somehow accept their ill treatment as part of the dog-eat-dog world of private enterprise. My Labor colleagues and I have a far greater respect for the Australian people. Then again, we on this side of the Senate should not be surprised by deceitful legislation from this government.

The government is telling anybody who will listen that this legislation has strong protection against anti-sham contract arrangements. The irony of this legislation itself being a sham has not been lost on those of us on this side. The Prime Minister would have you believe that he is saving small business and independent operators by clarifying the confusion that existed prior to this legislation. However, this legislation serves only to further complicate the matter and does nothing to resolve it for genuine contractors and their employers.

I would like to share some of the personal experiences of the people who will potentially be affected by the passing of this legislation. I will quote from a book called The Human Toll, which the TWU put together in aid of defeating this legislation. While this example is from New South Wales, a state with some shelter from this bill due to the owner-driver exemptions, it is still a telling account of the victims-to-be of this legislation. Tony Upton is an owner-driver who has spent some 23 years in the industry and is someone who I think has great authority to speak on this legislation. He says:

The Contract Determination gives us an even playing field. Without it, drivers will just take the lowest rate to survive. Unable to turn down work, drivers would be accepting work for unsustainable rates, and the reality is people will be starved out by companies.

We have to keep the work coming in. The pressure to make repayments is too great. Drivers will accept work at any rate. Driving the prices too low to survive.

If you don’t have a safety net, then you don’t know how much you can spend on maintaining your vehicle. Without a safety net, you can’t figure out how much you’re going to earn in a week, so you take every job going, you don’t sleep, and you don’t stop. You just keep going and that’s when things get dangerous.

Without the state system we don’t have a safety net, and things will go back to the dog eat dog days.

I would urge every member of government in this place to obtain a copy of this book and read it. These are real Australians who are working hard and are, by the way, the backbone of the resources boom that we are currently enjoying. Without quality road transport drivers, the high productivity that mining companies enjoy in Australia would be lost. It seems illogical to me that the government would want to expose these people to the potential for unscrupulous treatment from faceless corporations. These employees deserve support, not condemnation.

Another account I found particularly moving was that of Eddie Purcell, a former owner-driver and subcontractor for Australia Post. His experience demonstrates clearly that the state system, whilst complex, was working to ensure the protection of drivers. Mr Purcell said:

I have been an operator, independent sole trader, subcontractor ... and company for over 55 years. In 2002, I was a subcontractor for a public corporation body, Australia Post. The Royal Mail then terminated my services in July 2002.

I appeared before the IRC in August 2002 and the hearing lasted for seven days. The decision was brought down in July 2003 that I was to be reinstated. Without the IRC I would not have been re-employed. I found that the IRC had industrial knowledge, experience and resolve, and if I had followed any other avenue, I would not have achieved the same result. It is clear there is nothing better we can call on; therefore, the IRC must stand.

Under the conditions set out in this legislation, people like Eddie Purcell who live outside of New South Wales and Victoria will have no access to traditional arbitration proceedings. Instead, they will have to pursue negligent and unscrupulous employers in court, a process that will almost certainly increase the time and cost of dispute resolution. A lot of contractors and outworkers who require access to dispute resolution mechanisms will inevitably be priced out of such options. This legislation stacks the process in favour of corporate entities over employees. Mr Purcell alluded to another negative impact of this legislation, in that it effectively sets aside the expertise, substantial experience and knowledge of people within the IRC around Australia.

Perhaps I am lamenting the poor treatment of workers too much. After all, the federal government has a long-term agenda to deprive all workers of their basic rights, not just contractors. I can assure the government that efforts like the Independent Contractors Bill will act as a further motivation for the labour movement to see an end to this madness at the forthcoming federal election. Unions and Labor alike are determined to see fairness restored in the workplace, including for contractors and outworkers. I would like to leave the final word with Mr Purcell. He said:

It’s all about profit. Sub-contractors are a cheap source of labour, cheaper than having an employee or even a slave. You do not need to shackle a sub-contractor, you can bind him with laws and you do not have to feed them. Cancelling sub-contractors access to the IRC will place the people hiring sub-contractors in a very powerful position.

That is the reason I oppose this legislation.