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Wednesday, 16 September 2015
Page: 6957


Senator GALLAGHER (Australian Capital Territory) (12:08): I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014 and put on record some of my concerns relating to the bill. As senators will already understand, Labor does oppose the bill. That is a shame because had there not been mission creep in the review with the government implementing their blind anti worker, anti union ideology through this bill there would have been an opportunity to work more closely on it. The bill symbolises another broken promise by the government. They went to the election saying that they would go no further than what was contained in their election policy statement but, as other senators have outlined, this bill certainly goes further than that. Those areas are the areas that Labor members, whether they are Labor senators who have participated through the Senate process or other Labor members who have spoken on the bill, have raised in their comments.

Senator Xenophon went to the history of industrial relations in this country. Anyone who understands that history, even if we just focus on the last 15 years or so, will know that the issue of industrial relations has been deeply divisive. Certainly when the conservatives have been in power there has been a constant series of legislation that has sought to undermine working people's conditions. More often than not legislation was disproportionally targeted at working people who are not on a level playing field with employers but who find themselves in lowly paid, highly casualised industries where there is little power for employees to advocate and protect themselves from the constant winding back of conditions of employment by employers who are wanting to increase their profits. That is why the Labor Party will always stand up for those working people. It is part of our history, it is part of our DNA, just as it is part of the conservatives' DNA to chip away at conditions—and not only chip away at working people but also seek to undermine the organisations that legitimately represent those people.

We hear every day attacks on unions from the conservative side of politics. Many of the conditions which we enjoy today as working people, and have enjoyed in our careers outside this chamber—sometimes influenced by this chamber—are conditions that the unions have fought for over many years. They are in areas like workers compensation, occupational health and safety and, more broadly, industrial relations: wage protection, conditions of employment, safety in the workplace, access to reasonable and flexible arrangements have all been campaigns that have been led and won by unions. Despite the picture that those opposite have attempted to paint, unions have always been prepared to engage in constructive and productive discussions about how to ensure that the industrial relations system provides productive and efficient processes to support a growing economy. They are part of that discussion, they are central to the discussion, and that is important because a growing economy is good for working people in the sense that it produces jobs and creates wealth and allows that wealth to be shared. That is what we would hope for, anyway.

This bill might not be called Work Choices—I know the scars of Work Choices remain on the other side of the chamber—but the overreach in the bill, albeit a little more hidden than it was in Work Choices, is there. This bill seeks to undermine the role of unions, it seeks to reduce their effectiveness in the workplace and it is a step towards getting rid of collective bargaining. The result of that is less about the unions and more about the outcome in individual workplaces and how ordinary Australians who turn up for work every day will be affected. The elements in this bill—particularly in areas like part 4, the individual flexibility arrangements; part 5, the greenfields arrangements; and part 8, the right to entry—would certainly make workplaces more insecure and again disproportionately affect those on the lowest incomes, the poorest people, working across the community. I know we have heard coalition senators say that it is just implementing a review that Bill Shorten instigated, but it is not. It does that and it goes a lot further. By doing that it seeks to get rid of some of the safeguards that were put into the bill, particularly in IFAs, for a particular purpose.

I will just look at the bill in those particular areas. Part 4 seeks to amend arrangements in relation to flexibility terms in modern awards, enterprise agreements and individual flexibility agreements. It will allow employers and employees to make individual flexibility arrangements about when work is performed, overtime rates, penalty rates, allowances and leave loading if these matters are dealt with in a particular enterprise agreement.

Labor, as others will know, was the party when in government which introduced individual flexibility arrangements, in 2009. That goes to the point I raised earlier that they were introduced—and I will refer to them as IFAs—because the Labor Party agrees that flexible work practices can deliver benefits to both employees and employers if applied appropriately. But, at the same time, there have to be protections for vulnerable workers. That means the safeguards that were put into the legislation were put in there for a reason. They cannot and should not be imposed on employees in terms of a one-way discussion as a means of ripping away conditions such as penalty rates. There have to be some limits to it. Examples have been provided where an employee swaps a condition or forgoes a relatively insignificant monetary benefit for a non-financial benefit and that is a positive outcome. But, again, as I say, it is also about the safeguards that are provided to ensure that particularly vulnerable employees are not forced into situations that see them trade off conditions for relatively little benefit.

As I understand it, the review that looked into this matter did provide advice that the monetary condition forgone or the money forgone must be relatively insignificant and that the value of the non-monetary benefit must be proportionate. But these are not terms found in this bill. Again, the devil is in the detail when it comes to industrial relations, because we have been there before. The conservative side of politics have form: what you say you are going to do and what you actually do or provide for through legislation are not the same. That goes to some comments made by Senator McKenzie in her speech within the last hour where she kept referring to providing a 'fair, balanced and simple industrial relations system'. When those words are used by a conservative politician it always raises my ire because the code for 'fair' when it is being used in that context is usually unfair; 'balanced' usually means skewed, and skewed to one side of the employment relationship, and it normally is not the employee's side; and 'simple' usually means getting rid of conditions and entitlements. That is actually the language. It sounds very nice, because I think everyone would say, 'Yes, we need a fair and balanced system and we would prefer simple arrangements to be in place.' But when you actually understand what that means, the language of a conservative government means unfair, skewed and removing entitlements that have been hard fought for and campaigned for, usually over many years, and they need to be protected. And then, when you look at who will protect those conditions, you see that it will be the strongest, the loudest and those who will advocate the hardest for them, the trade union movement. There are other aspects in this bill, which actually seek to undermine the role that unions are legitimately allowed to play within the workplace, and I will touch on those in a moment.

Interestingly, when I was reading the Bills Digest, which, as a new senator I find is always a very good document to go to to get across legislation because it also provides a good analysis of stakeholders' views on the bill, I saw a quote from the Business Council of Australia from their submission that, I think, they provided to the Senate committee:

… today's Bill is an important first step in reforming our workplace laws to be a better fit for a more productive and competitive economy …

This, again, goes to the level of mistrust that exists across the community around changes to our industrial relations system, largely because of the impact that Work Choices had on ordinary Australians and their working conditions. Picking up on 'this is an important first step', they then go on to say:

… but more changes are needed to ensure a system that works for all workplaces and all workers.

Again, going back, this forms part of a suite of bills—and there are more before the Senate at the moment—that seeks to undermine unions, working people and creates a more insecure environment, particularly for low-income and casualised workers.

Again, consider the impact that this bill would have, if it were allowed to pass the Senate unamended. I think Senator Xenophon made some comments about the ability for women to negotiate more flexible arrangements. I strongly support that, particularly for women with caring responsibilities, whether it be of children or older parents. We know that women as carers are disproportionately overrepresented across Australia. When I apply that to this bill and the safeguards that have been taken away, I cannot see how this will not disproportionately affect working women in a negative way.

We already know that there are more women who work at the award minimum compared to men. We already know that women are more likely to be casual employees and that they are predominantly found in many of the low income professions, like cleaning and child care. We know that they are proportionally less well paid and that they are usually working under award conditions and entitlements, so awards are very important to them. They are often in professions where there is not a huge capacity for advancement—where the structure within the workplace does not allow for huge advancement opportunities—and I am speaking in a very generalised way here.

By removing the safeguards, this bill is saying: not only are you paid the least and not only do you have the most insecure employment; what we would like you to do now is trade off what little you have in order to get a bit more flexibility for the employer or your own arrangements. It is a constant series of trade-offs. It is not about building up and creating a better environment for women juggling kids, older parents and other responsibilities. It is a constant, slow but determined chipping away at those conditions that are important to women and should not be traded off. I cannot see how this bill, as presented, will provide people with the right to, in Senator McKenzie's terminology, 'a fair, balanced and simple environment to work in'.

This is also coming at a time when we now know that we have almost 800,000 Australians unemployed, where the unemployment rate has a six in front of it, where we have particularly young Australians struggling to find work and where we have a government that would like to ensure that they do not have any access to any social security for five weeks or so now while they are attempting to pull themselves together if they do not have a job. This is the environment that this bill seeks to operate in. Not only are there genuine difficulties for people who are unemployed and trying to find work; the level of inequality that exists across the community is the highest it has been, as I understand it, for 75 years. It is in this environment that we are presented with a bill that seeks to undermine and reduce the ability of working people to be represented by unions and to have a fair environment in which to bargain with their employers.

In relation to greenfields agreements and right of entry: go out into a workplace where you see vulnerable groups of workers and have a look at how it operates. Do you seriously expect that, for people who want to call the union in but are a bit worried about letting the boss know, this invitation to invite the union is something that can be done? It beggars belief. It shows a complete lack of understanding about how some of these workplaces operate and about how vulnerable particular groups of workers are, to believe that a union then goes to the Fair Work Commission and has to apply for an invitation to enter a workplace to deal with workplace issues. I have been a union organiser—many years ago now—and I have also worked as an advocate for people with a disability in sheltered workshops. The thought that that group of workers could get together and say, 'We'd like the union to come in, but we have to go through this process, and hopefully we can remain anonymous, ' and that that would allow them as employees to be protected to raise a legitimate issue—whether it be around a condition of employment or a more urgent issue like workplace safety—just completely ignores the reality of how thousands and thousands Australians experience their workplace every day. This is why it is so important to ensure that unions are able to enter workplaces for legitimate reasons and conduct themselves in a legitimate way and also for unions to be able to bargain on behalf of their employees. It is so important that employers engage in that constructively and also acknowledge the legitimate right of unions to participate in that discussion.

Unions are there to provide large-scale advocacy for groups of workers that want them to act on their behalf. There should be no reason why we seek to reduce their influence. We know that the conservatives do not like unions. We know that the conservatives like to paint them as illegitimate organisations. But throughout the history of this country there has been the need for collective bargaining and collective action in order to improve the lives of those Australians who need that collective action to support them. That is why the Labor Party has raised these concerns. Labor has raised them in its dissenting report and they are going to be continuously raised by other Labor speakers. It is fundamentally important. We cannot allow a bill that looks harmless until you read the detail to go through without putting on the record the legitimate concerns of hundreds of thousands of workers who do not have a voice in this place.