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Monday, 12 October 2015
Page: 7260

Senator SIEWERT (Western AustraliaAustralian Greens Whip) (12:40): I rise to make a contribution to this debate on the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014. I was in fact the Australian Greens portfolio holder for industrial relations when Mr Howard rammed Work Choices through this place. Who of us who were here at the time can forget the hours that we spent debating that appalling legislation in this place? It breaks my heart that here we are and the same colour of government, the coalition, is once again trying to undermine protection for workers.

It is really important to remember the context of this debate, and that is the growing inequality that we face in this country. Remember the impacts that inequality has in a society. It has direct impacts on people's health and life outcomes and, in particular, intergenerational impacts. The previous speaker and other speakers have spoken about 'balance'. Well, I say, 'Ha!' to that. This is not about balance; it is about tipping the balance towards employers and big business and putting more and more money—particularly when you look at the greenfields issues in here, and I will come to those in a minute—in the pockets of employers and big business. It is about tipping the balance right over to them, not a proper balance that people expect when you are talking about the concept of balance. If you look at the final consequences of that, you see that that will lead to more inequality in this country. We know from report after report that inequality, both wealth inequality and income inequality, has grown. We must always remember when we are debating these issues that that is very real and growing in this country.

The Senate has twice rejected these pieces of legislation that form a major part of this coalition government's attack on people's rights at work. It is an obsession with the coalition to undermine workers' rights. I hope that the Senate rejects this piece of legislation too. However, right now it is very likely that some of the crossbench senators are in fact negotiating, doing a deal with government, to get this legislation through this place. It may not pass in full in its current form, but it looks like some of the worst parts of this legislation could remain and be passed if the crossbenchers do in fact do a deal with the government and join with the government to vote this piece of appalling legislation through the Senate.

One of our main concerns is with the greenfield agreements component of this legislation. However, there are many more, which, if I get time, I will address as well. I wonder if the crossbench senators are really aware of what this legislation would do and what impact it would have on workers and workers' rights into the future. If it were to pass, these changes would deny workers on big projects a voice on their wages and conditions, all in the name of helping big business, big miners and big developers at the expense of workers. These are workers on the new projects like new mines, ports and LNG gas processing plants.

When we look at what returns have come to workers over the long term and how issues like inequality have been addressed in states—for example, in my home state of Western Australia—we know from reports from the BankWest Curtin Economics Centre, at Curtin University, that in fact inequality has expanded the most and more quickly in Western Australia during the boom than in any other state. So this whole idea that, if you support big business and big mines and the big resource companies, you will get a trickle-down effect and float all the boats is nonsense. The report clearly shows that in fact that does not happen. We have an unequal share of resources in Western Australia and the situation will be worse for wages and conditions if this particular piece of legislation goes through. It would mean that employers will be able to bargain with themselves and unilaterally determine the wages and conditions that workers on their projects would receive, without having to negotiate with workers or unions. You think: how could that possibly happen? But I will outline how that could and would in fact happen.

In fact, the legislation goes beyond this. It even allows the employers to choose which union they want to be their negotiating partner. Usually it is the workers who have the right to choose which union is involved in their negotiations but this legislation goes against this and allows employers to choose. So not only would employers get to pick the wages and conditions for workers but they would also get to pick their negotiating partner, who they will then face off with at the negotiating table. This goes far beyond the recommendations of the Productivity Commission's draft report into workplace relations.

The Productivity Commission's draft report recommends the Fair Work Act be amended so that if an employer and a union have not reached a negotiated outcome for a greenfields agreement after three months, the employer may: continue negotiating with the union; request that the Fair Work Commission undertake 'last offer' arbitration of an outcome by choosing between the last offers made by the employer and the union; or submit the employer's proposed greenfields arrangement for approval with a 12-month nominal expiry date. But this legislation would not even allow this. Instead of employers and unions negotiating a decent agreement on wages and conditions that works for both parties, this legislation would see employers able to wait it out for three months or for six months if one of the crossbench amendments passes. The employers would then be able to ask the Fair Work Commission to accept whatever they have put on the table, giving employees and unions absolutely no say at all—in other words, they can just sit there and hold tight and they will get their way.

The Greens think that workers are entitled to a share in the resources boom. But this legislation is really about letting employers and companies earn even more profit from their projects. In other words, there would be even less of a so-called trickle-down effect and workers would be even worse off. We have not heard many reports of projects not getting off the ground because of difficulties negotiating under the current legislation, so this is not an attempt to get more projects up; it is an attempt to get employers an even greater share of the profits coming from agreements by shutting down the ability of workers and unions to negotiate their wages and conditions.

The Greens have our own amendments to this bill, which Senator Rice will be moving, which would give people better control of their work-life balance.

I encourage the crossbench to support our amendments to give people better control of their work-life balance, rather than support the government's plan to remove the ability of workers on big projects to take control of their working lives. This is an area of the legislation that we are particularly concerned about and, coming from Western Australia where we tend to have big projects, it is a pretty important issue.

This is a bill that was first put forward by a government and a Prime Minister that have been on a crusade to slowly but surely strip away the rights of Australian workers and it seems that, under this new leadership, nothing has changed—new Prime Minister, same old policies. In this bill we see a government that is continuing to put the profits of big business ahead of the rights of vulnerable Australian workers. The legislation that is before the Senate today is about changing the minimum standard. It is not about giving people more flexibility; it is about giving bad employers more power over vulnerable people. When one looks at the provisions in this bill, one can see that the government has gone back to the previous Fair Work review and just cherry picked the things that work on one side of the ledger but there is nothing there to balance it up on the other side—the side that protects workers.

In this bill we again see the obsession of the government about employees having access to their union representatives at reasonable times. In many workplaces, often the only way workers will find out about their entitlements is from a union representative who comes in and tells them, 'No, actually, there are laws to protect you, you are entitled to be paid properly as a member of the Australian community and these are your rights.' Yet what we see in this legislation is a winding back of the provisions that would allow someone to come in and give that explanation. We know that what some unscrupulous employers do at the moment or have done in the past is to say, 'Sure, you—a low-paid worker—can find out what your minimum legal rights are. But I will tell you what I will do: I will put the union representative, when they come during your lunch break, in the room next to my office and I will just sit there with a clipboard making a note of every worker who comes in to get advice about what their minimum conditions are.' We know what that can lead to. I remember hearing of that from workers when we were discussing previous IR legislation in this place.

Currently, the law says you cannot do that. You must strike the right balance between not disrupting the workplace and allowing people to find out what their minimum entitlements are. That will be abolished under this bill. Government continues its obsession with workers getting access to information that informs them about their rights. When you think about this from the perspective of a vulnerable worker, who may not have English as their first language, you realise how important it is that people do get access to this information. How are they going to find out about their rights? They simply will not. That will be the practicality of this particular amendment; workers will not be able to gain access to the information that they need. That is exactly what this legislation is designed to do.

I note that there have been a number of amendments to this bill, most notably the amendments proposed by members of the crossbench. It is important that the crossbenchers who have proposed these amendments—and this chamber—are aware of what these amendments do; essentially, they make a bad bill just a little bit less bad.

But you cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Yes, the amendments will remove part 2 of the bill, which says: if you happened to accrue annual leave loading and other reasonable measures during your time at work and if it turns out that you get sacked before you have had the chance to take them, do not expect to get your full entitlement paid out; you are only going to get part of it. And, yes, it also takes out part 3, which would remove the right of employees to take or accrue annual leave while they are receiving workers compensation. While the Greens welcome the removal of these provisions, we still cannot support this bill. This deal the crossbench has done will take out some of the nasty provisions that the original bill contained, but it still does not go far enough to protect the rights of vulnerable Australian workers.

What the crossbench deal has not removed from this nasty bill is the provisions that would take away employee's rights to industrial action. This will tip the scales in favour of the employer during negotiations. Imagine going to your employer with a legitimate request for better pay and conditions, and having the employer being unwilling to even have a conversation with you about it; and you as the employee having no legally protected course of action to make the employer come to the bargaining table. Under this bill an employer gets to be the sole decision maker on what legislation and minimum standards apply in the workplace. It removes the negotiation element of bargaining and allows an employer to sit there, fold their arms, and say, 'We refuse to engage in discussions with you about an enterprise agreement'.

It is deeply concerning that this bill will also take away an employee's only power in this situation, which is to take industrial action. Under existing laws, if an employer refuses to negotiate with their employees, the employees are able to commence stop-work meetings or go on strike. What are employees supposed to do when under this bill these options, their only two options, are taken away from them? The government is continuing its obsession with taking rights away from workers.

The Greens have also moved amendments to this bill that will genuinely make work fairer. Our amendments—those proposed by Senator Rice—would give workers more job security and allow workers to have the flexibility that works for them, so that they can have the time off to pick up the kids, to drop them off at school or, perhaps, to look after a sick grandparent. These are the sorts of flexibility that we have been pursuing for years.

The average full-time working week in Australia is 44 hours; that is the longest in the Western world. We perform $72 billion in unpaid overtime each year. Imagine how many jobs that would make. Just over half of all Australians want to change their hours of work, even if it might impact on their income. On average, full-time employees would like to work about 5.6 hours less per week; while part-time workers would like to work on average four hours more per week. Research shows that working hours are impacting on wellbeing; there are poorer health outcomes and greater use of prescription medications. It is also affecting our personal and family lives. Sixty percent of women feel consistently time-pressured, and nearly half of men also feel this way.

In this country we need to better match the hours people want to work with the hours they actually work. If people want to work different hours or work from home so that their life is better, then the law should allow it, provided it does not unduly impact on their employer. In fact, flexibility often works better for the employer. Allowing workers more flexible hours will be a productivity bonus for the economy. Business will benefit from this reform and good employers are already promoting better work-life balance. Satisfied employees are likely to remain in a workplace longer, and be healthier and more productive.

In this Senate we need to be working to improve and protect the rights of Australian workers, not passing legislation that will, bit by bit, see their rights stripped away from them—see their working conditions worsen and see the fundamental protections given to them by current laws taken away.

People have rights under the law that protect their working life. This government is intent on stripping them away. They are obsessed with it. Increasing people's flexibility—making sure that employees are not working unpaid overtime—is essentially jobs that other people could do. It makes sense to have fair workplaces. It makes sense to address the massive inequality that continues in this country and which is in fact growing. This legislation is bad legislation.

As I said: you cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. The crossbench amendments make this bad legislation slightly less bad, but it is not good legislation. The Senate should reject this legislation and reject this government's attempt to erode workers' rights in this country. Instead of having the longest working week in the Western world, we should in fact be looking at how we can help more people to find work; rather than undermining the rights of workers. We will not be supporting this legislation.