House debates

Thursday, 11 May 2017


Fair Work Amendment (Corrupting Benefits) Bill 2017; Second Reading

12:53 pm

Photo of Graham PerrettGraham Perrett (Moreton, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Fair Work Amendment (Corrupting Benefits) Bill 2017. We are only four months away from the Liberal-National Party government starting their fifth year of government, and I still find it very difficult to find a government agenda coming out of this parliament, but it is easy to see where the priorities of those opposite are. They are not concerned about fixing the economy; we saw that on Tuesday night with the continuation of debt. They are not concerned about creating jobs; we saw that on Tuesday night. They are going to fall way short of their target, and we are going to have more unemployed, according to their projections. They are not concerned about standing up for the vulnerable or for low-paid workers. Instead, they have turned to them as some form of revenue. No, this government is just interested in obfuscating when it comes to addressing the real issues.

What does this bill before the chamber do? It implements just three of the 79 recommendations of the Heydon royal commission, recommendations made more than 12 months ago. The government has had a year to legislate recommendations from the Heydon royal commission but in that time it has actually done nothing. It was a super-urgent political exercise before the election back in 2015 but since then there has been nothing. Thankfully, at the same time, we have had a response from the Leader of the Opposition, the Hon. Bill Shorten, who brought in a private member's bill to preserve take-home pay and protect penalty rates. Sadly, this legislation before the chamber does nothing in terms of making sure that Australian workplaces are fairer.

What does this bill do? As I am sure anyone would know, the Labor Party abhors corruption in any form. We will not stand for corruption whether it is in unions or any organisation. I find particularly repugnant the idea of low-paid workers' union fees being misused by any union official. Thankfully, they are rare and rogue and punished by the union movement and the criminal law, as they should be. We will support legislation that is properly drafted and applies to companies and registered organisations. But this bill creates new offences for so-called 'corrupting benefits'. The one concern I have about this bill is that there are different tests of intention for making or receiving a bribe, depending on whether you are a union official or an employer. It appears that the legislation would make it easier to prosecute a union official rather than an employer. That does not happen with similar offences in the Commonwealth Criminal Code.

Another concerning aspect is that the bill appears to possibly limit the ability of unions to provide training to employees because that would be seen as a benefit and so be excluded by the legislation. This government does not have too many union members in it. This government fundamentally fails to understand the work of unions and the benefits that all workers reap from unions being allowed to protect workers and make sure their workplaces are safe. It is not just for those who voluntarily give up their wages to be in a union who benefit, but all workers benefit. Unions are responsible for many of the workplace entitlements that we take for granted today. They were responsible for sick leave in the 1920s, annual leave in the 1930s, the eight-hour day in the 1940s, unfair dismissal protection in the 1970s, banning asbestos in the 1980s and domestic violence leave in the noughties. The weekend—the thing that Australians value terribly—is, sadly, currently under threat by the decision to reduce penalty rates, but I will come back to that in a minute. I cannot overstate the importance of having strong unions to protect our Australian workforce; in fact, all Australians benefit.

I want to speak briefly about asbestos on worksites, because there are more than 980,000 construction workers in Australia and some of these workers are being unknowingly exposed to asbestos on their worksites. Seven hundred Australians still die every year from asbestos-related diseases. Asbestos has been banned in Australia since 2003, so no Australian should be exposed to asbestos in any new materials. Sadly, that is not the reality. Building materials containing asbestos are being illegally imported into Australia from other parts of the world where it is not illegal. This poses enormous health risks, not only to workers on new building sites but also to all of us if we later live in or work in buildings that contain this product.

Asbestos is an insidious substance. It is impossible to know that you are being exposed to it until the damage has been done and it is too late. The asbestos fibres are so small that they appear like a pinprick on a magnified follicle of human hair. Exposure to asbestos can cause asbestosis and mesothelioma; both are deadly diseases and there is no cure for either of these diseases. As an example of the value that unions provide to workers and that their training of workers provides benefits, I will share a story told to me by Andrew Ramsay, who was a workplace health and safety coordinator with the CFMEU. Sadly, Andrew is going to retire soon, and I thank him for his incredible service to the CFMEU and to the broader labour movement. Andrew tells me that he was at home one weekend when he received a phone call from a building site in Brisbane that is now the Executive Building in William Street. The person on the other end of the phone said they thought there was asbestos on this building site, a Queensland government project. Andrew was a little disbelieving. Knowing that asbestos was banned in Australia and illegal to import, he could not imagine how asbestos could recently turn up on a building site.

Investigations were made. Sadly, it was confirmed that indeed there was material on the site that contained asbestos. Their particular material contained 60 per cent asbestos. Just to put that in context, the old fibro sheets that some of us might have had in our backyards contained about 10 to 15 per cent asbestos. This material, being used by workers today and trimmed with a power saw because it did not quite fit the specifications, had 60 per cent asbestos. The material had been imported from China and manufactured to the specifications to fit a particular situation, but it did not fit and then the workers took to it with a power saw. What did Andrew do? He immediately shut the site down. Obviously, it is unfortunate. If you know what a construction site involves—the number of people involved and the jobs lined up because of that—then you know to shut it down is a tough thing.

It is unfortunate that this illegal substance somehow made its way past border control and into Australia under the watch of Minister Dutton. Shutting down the building site when asbestos is suspected is necessary to protect the health of all workers. It was the diligence of the union delegate that ensured that the banned substance was not being used in that building site. We are informed that there are 69 job sites across Australia that have had material containing asbestos delivered to them. That is appalling. A few days later, after that discovery, we then had the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection actually blaming the CFMEU for driving developers to use illegal and dangerous products on their building sites. Those were actually the words that came out of Minister Dutton's mouth.

Instead of continuing that obsession with union bashing, Minister Dutton needs to do his job and protect our borders, which seem to be completely porous when it comes to legal and dangerous products. Tightening up our borders would not only ensure that workers are safe from these dangerous products but that ensure our buildings will not be time bombs when they start deteriorating in years to come. We also need to promote safe Australian products that are asbestos free. That then creates local jobs, rather than jobs in other countries.

The Turnbull government has been completely incompetent when it comes to managing these imports. The Turnbull government needs to act now to stop these imports and significantly increase the penalties for those who are guilty of putting Australian lives at risk by importing these deadly products. But I have not heard any words come from those opposite to thank the unions who put in place the training to make sure that the worker was aware enough to say, 'Maybe this is asbestos.' That sort of training—where they are able to recognise something that is very, very dangerous—would be removed by this legislation, despite that training being something that would have actually protected the construction workers and those who will use the building in the future.

I think this government is completely impotent when it comes to protecting workers. They have not stood up for the 7,000 of Australia's lowest paid workers who will face a pay cut of up to $77 a week. We know that these cuts will actually disproportionately hit women. The people in my electorate will have to work longer hours for less pay. We know the Prime Minister could stop these cuts if he wanted to, but sadly too many opposite support these cuts. How can a government that claims to be fair give millionaires a $17,000 tax cut with one hand and then take $77 a week from the lowest paid workers with the other? How could you pretend that was fair? How could the word 'fair' pass your lips if you were doing deeds like that? If you cared, you would do something. Instead, you are wrapping your mouth around words that you are saying but not doing. Only a government completely out of touch could do both of those things. We going to see that occur on 1 July.

Penalty rates are not a luxury; they are a necessary part of the equation when it comes to putting food on the table and paying bills. It is unions who were part of that process that made sure Australian workers could have weekends to spend time with their families. Workers who work weekends should be compensated for not having that time with their families. I know what it is like. I am married to someone who worked every second weekend doing shiftwork, and also I was raised as one of 10 children by a single mum who had to do a lot of shiftwork just to put us through school and feed us.

I also know that young people will be particularly hard hit by these cuts. University students have always relied on weekend work and penalty rates to fund their studies. I was told by Lucas Kennedy, the President of the Student Representative Council at Griffith University—Nathan campus is in Moreton—that cuts to penalty rates will force students to work more hours during the week. This will take them out of classes and study sessions that they should be attending during the week, and this at a time when they have also had an announcement in the budget that they will be paying more HECS fees and paying more HECS fees earlier when they start working, at $42,000.

These cuts to penalty rates will not stop with hospitality workers and retail workers. You know that is the agenda of those opposite. We heard it from nearly 70 or 80 of those opposite before the independent umpire handed down that decision. I think there is a risk to workers in clubs, to hairdressers, to beauticians and to restaurant workers, who will also have their penalty rates cut. That will be another 323,000 workers affected. And it will not be long before the employees in those industries that have nurses, aged-care workers, teachers, community disability workers, cleaners and construction employees are all at risk of having their penalty rates cut.

Labor supports workers being compensated through penalty rates for working on weekends and public holidays. We know that these workers rely on penalty rates for their everyday living expenses. If the Prime Minister cared about protecting workers, he would be supporting Labor's bill to stop these cuts to penalty rates. He would protect the take-home pay of people who rely on penalty rates every week to live. Sadly, the silence coming out of Point Piper is deafening.

The narrow focus of this bill before the chamber is a reflection of the Turnbull government's ideological drive. It will not do anything to stamp out corrupt payments between companies. The Turnbull government needs to listen to all Australians who are concerned about their jobs rather than just having a Prime Minister worried about his own job.

1:07 pm

John McVeigh (Groom, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Today it is a pleasure to rise and speak on the Turnbull government's Fair Work Amendment (Corrupting Benefits) Bill 2017, most particularly because yesterday I had the opportunity to speak on our Fair Work Amendment (Protecting Vulnerable Workers) Bill 2017 as well. They are both proof of the focus of the Turnbull government on protecting workers and being a true friend of workers right throughout this nation.

On 22 March 2017, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull introduced this bill to the House to criminalise the giving, receiving or soliciting of corrupting benefits between employers and trade unions. This bill, then, bans such corrupt and secret payments made between employers and trade unions. It also requires disclosure by both employers and unions of financial benefits they stand to gain as a result of an enterprise agreement, before employees vote on that agreement.

Those opposite would have Australian workers believe that there is no need for such legislation, that there is nothing to see here, that unions are guaranteed to always act in the best interests of members, but sadly and unfortunately we know that that is not always the case. It reminds one, I must say, of the Charles Dickens character Mr Pecksniff, a man who liked to take the moral high ground, always pompously setting about the appearance of being involved in the betterment of society whilst actually doing very little. Isn't that what those opposite do here on a daily basis? They strive to maintain a facade of representing workers but repeatedly fail to do so. Perhaps the Labor Party should come out and admit the wrongdoing and tell the truth about the way that some of their leaders and union mates actually treat union members and workers.

Let us start to have a look at what has been really happening in recent times. The Heydon royal commission uncovered a raft of payments between unions and employers that were designed to ensure that companies got favourable treatment from those unions. The commissioner called those payments 'corrupting benefits'. Some officials were paid private kickbacks that they used for personal gain. Some officials used threats to extort money from employers to simply bolster the union coffers. Others extracted payments to bolster their status and power, particularly within the Labor Party—as we learned through the evidence presented.

As the Prime Minister has very clearly outlined in this House on repeated occasions, Thiess John Holland paid AWU Victoria $300,000 plus GST while they built the EastLink freeway extension in Melbourne's eastern suburbs for services that were never provided and nor were the payments disclosed to AWU members or employees. ACI operations paid AWU Victoria around $500,000 while they laid off workers at their Spotswood glass manufacturing facility, and it was predominantly used to offset a loan to renovate the union's Victorian office and for other general union costs. Clean Event paid AWU Victoria $75,000 to maintain an enterprise agreement that paid cleaning workers well below award rates and stripped them of penalty rates and shift loadings over time—again, never disclosed to those cleaning workers.

Unibelt paid the now opposition leader $32,000 to fund his 2007 election campaign manager while they were negotiating an enterprise agreement with the AWU, of which of course he was national secretary at the time. Chiquita Mushrooms paid AWU Victoria $24,000 while it was casualising its mushroom-picking workforce—again, never disclosed to the workers. Winslow Constructors paid AWU Victoria around $200,000 and provided lists of employees names that were secretly signed up to the union with the payments hidden behind false invoices—such was the evidence that we saw presented to the commission.

The government is rightly focused, therefore, on ensuring full disclosure of any payments and most definitely on banning illegitimate payments as the key objectives of this bill. The Heydon royal commission called them 'corrupting benefits', as I said, and recommended that they be outlawed. We are therefore amending the Fair Work Act to make it a criminal offence to give, receive, offer or to solicit such payments. This prohibition will apply to unions and employers.

The Labor Party, I believe, should support this important reform to outlaw corrupting benefits and payments because the writing is obviously on the wall. Independent research confirms that national union membership is on the decline, and I would suggest that is little wonder. Australians are wary of the stories of corruption and pocket lining and of those opposite who want to condone such behaviour and intimidation. In contrast, we on this side of House should not have to stand here and lecture the Labor Party about the role of union leaders but clearly we need to remind them to put their union members first.

Union leaders are paid by members to represent their interests, which members rightly should trust will be the first priority of their union. We on this side of the parliament stand for: a fair go, endeavour, working hard, doing the right thing, backing small business and workers right across the nation. It is time therefore to end these secret deals between unions and employers to ensure transparency of any payments because we are committed to the interests of workers and to the rule of law right throughout this great nation.

1:14 pm

Photo of Shayne NeumannShayne Neumann (Blair, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Fair Work (Corrupting Benefits) Bill and in favour of the second reading amendment in relation to protecting take-home pay.

What a load of sanctimonious, self-righteous claptrap we just heard from the member opposite! It is just ridiculous to think that. They come in here and give us lectures all the time. They never send in a piece of legislation that promotes workers' rights that they will not vote against—again and again! This is the party of Work Choices, and they presume to give us a lecture about workers' rights. When it comes to workplace health and safety they never stand up for workplace health and safety. And look what is happening on 1 July this year, when 700,000 Australians are going to lose up to $77 a week. These people will not lift a muscle or move an inch—they will not lift a finger, they will not legislate and they will not do anything—to help the lowest-paid workers in this country. And then they give us this nonsense from over there that they are standing up for workers' rights. Honestly! It is the party of the ideologues—the Right-wing ideologues over there who cannot see what they really are or what they stand for. The Australian public will work them out. They work them out from time to time and they vote them out. I have confidence that they will do that next time at the federal election.

This particular piece of legislation is a cover, a smokescreen. It is a smokescreen in relation to what is happening and their failure to protect the take-home pay of vulnerable workers. At the same time we hear the Treasurer getting up at the dispatch box and giving literally tens of thousands of dollars to the highest-paid income earners in this country and they think it is fair. They have the audacity—the arrogance—to call it a fair budget, and to use 'fairness' in the title of their budget. It is ridiculous. This piece of legislation is once again a smokescreen—a cover, a mirage—to actually protect their position.

The Heydon royal commission was an attack on the trade union movement and the workers' representatives who are standing up for working men and women every day in the workplaces of this country. It took them about 12 months or so to do anything about it. Where was this legislation earlier? It came about and was rushed into this parliament, ill-conceived and poorly drafted, because the Prime Minister wanted a cover. He wanted a cover and to be seen to be doing something. We just debated it, the vulnerable workers legislation before this chamber. It is a half-baked, half-hearted and lukewarm response, not doing anything about resourcing Fair Work Australia or the Fair Work Ombudsman properly and not doing anything in relation to protecting workers. We have seen the egregious examples of exploitation by 7-Eleven, Caltex, you name it, and they will not do anything about it.

Again, migrant workers are the most vulnerable people in this country. How many more reports are there going to be from the Fair Work Ombudsman? How many more Senate reports do we want to see? But they come in and produce this sort of legislation before the chamber.

We are against corruption and criminality in any form. It should be stamped out, whether it is in business or in unions or in any part of the economy, any part of our community or any part of our society. But they come in here and lecture us about this stuff, as if somehow they are the great mates of the workers. They will never see a pay rise that they will not oppose.

At the moment, we are seeing damage to the budget. Why? Because wages are at an historic low. We have had very high unemployment in this country and high underemployment. One of the facts in this country is that wages are too low, so budget revenues are not getting up there. That is the impact on the budget. We see it in the budget papers that were handed down on Tuesday night. The trouble in this country is that those opposite do not see what they really are—the ideologues opposite. Often those people—Liberal and National Party members—who have been elected and who come into this chamber get captured by the ideologues, the hard, Right-wing conservatives, and so pieces of legislation get passed in this place, whether under John Howard, under the member for Warringah or, in fact, under the member for Wentworth. Or they attempt to pass legislation that is not in the best interest of the economy, of the community or of workers' rights.

This timing of this particular legislation is so political. It is clearly the case. Where was the urgency in the last 12 months? Where was it? It did not happen. The mentality of this government in terms of this antiworker legislation is so clear. Even when antiworker legislation was the justification for dragging this debate onwards, the government cannot see what they really stand for. They just cannot see it. Their priorities are out of touch—constantly out of touch.

In the last few months and in the last budget we have seen the disconnect this government has with the working people of this country. Those opposite cannot admit the fact that they cannot understand that working people are going to suffer from 1 July in this country. That means that they will be struggling to pay their rent, struggling to pay their mortgages, struggling to pay their school fees and struggling to pay the education costs for their kids. Instead of devoting their attention to the needs of working people, the government seem desperate to stop fighting amongst themselves and to pass legislation that might pick them up in the polls—even to pass a budget that might help them in a Newspoll every fortnight. That is what they are on about.

At the same time, we have this legislation before the chamber. We have seen legislation giving big tax cuts for big business, for multinational tax corporations. In fact, we have seen tax cuts for the banks that they claim they are supporting. They are taxing them $6.2 billion but they are giving them tax breaks of about $8.4 billion. The government say, 'We are so tough on the banks,' but they are giving them big tax cuts in the legislation that the Treasurer introduced today. That this bill has been rushed into this place after such a prolonged stretch of irresponsible and ineffective governance is beyond belief. It is not simply a coincidence. The government are hell-bent on wasting the parliament's time. They are rushing in legislation and not tackling the problems that actually affect workers and their families. If they devoted more time to governing than to attacking the Labor Party and the labour movement, they would actually be able to address the challenges facing this country and do something about them. We would see some progress in the economic debate and on the economy of this country.

Instead, we have a missed opportunity by the government to develop lasting and considered legislation to improve the situation in this country and to tackle corruption. If they were serious about tackling corrupt behaviour they would not try to force legislation through the chamber without any consultation and without any review at all. If they were serious about tackling corruption, they would consult employers, unions, industrial experts and experts on criminality and criminal behaviour, and then they would achieve longstanding and lasting reform that might endure. In the space of a matter of weeks we have seen this legislation announced and introduced, and today it is on for debate. Their legislation is compromised, effectively. This is all about another attack on the union movement.

Let us be clear, we will never stand for corruption in any shape or form nor for any criminal behaviour at all. We are simply against it. We will never oppose properly considered legislation that takes concrete steps to crack down on underhand behaviour and criminal activity, wherever and whenever it occurs. Whether this legislation achieves what it hopes to is open for real, serious debate. The consequences of the government's hurried approach are obvious in the legislation. It is so poorly drafted it is unlikely to strike a blow against corrupt companies and organisations. It is likely to make life more difficult for those people who are trying to do the right thing. The so-called corrupting benefits offences are largely similar to the existing Criminal Code offences of bribery of a public official, of bribery of a foreign official and of corrupting benefits given to or received by a public official. There are very important differences in the circumstances.

First, the bill establishes a different test of intention for the act of making or receiving a bribe, making it easier for a union official to be targeted. This bill is all about targeting union officials while protecting the employer, as they always do. For an offence to be registered against the company, it must be proved that the company that is paying a bribe intends to influence a union official or act improperly. In contrast, officials of registered organisations need only ask for a bribe intending that the company believes that the official will tend to be influenced to act improperly, regardless of what the official's actual intentions are, for that person to be convicted. By direct comparison, in the equivalent corrupting benefits Commonwealth officials offences in the Criminal Code, the test of intending to influence applies equally to both the party giving the corrupt benefit and the party receiving it.

The bill makes it an offence for employers to provide cash or in-kind payments to either a union or a person nominated by the union, while also preventing unions from requesting or receiving such payments. The offences created under this bill do not even require the person making or receiving a bribe to be acting dishonestly. That is a real flaw in this legislation. Unlike the equivalent Commonwealth Criminal Code offence, which requires evidence of dishonesty, it is unclear that this element would have to be proved in offences under this bill. I do not think it will. Therefore, it lowers the burden of proof for the prosecution of union officials, which is what this legislation is all about.

What is particularly concerning in relation to this is the issue of dishonesty. It is entirely possible under this legislation that a union official who approaches an employer on behalf of a worker that he or she represents, a worker who has just been made redundant and might be seeking a payment of a lawfully owed entitlement under, say, an enterprise bargaining agreement or an award, could be guilty of an offence under this legislation. That is simply astonishing. A union representative going about his or her work—seeking to assist a worker, a member of their union, lawfully seeking a redundancy payment as part of their entitlements in an EBA or an award—may find themselves in a position where they could be prosecuted. I think the absence of dishonesty in relation to it is a really serious problem in relation to the legislation. This is ridiculous. It is outrageous. It is unnecessary. It is an overreach of government power. It prevents union officials doing their most basic duty.

Those opposite say they want union officials to go about and do what they need to do—that is, honestly, appropriately and regularly representing their workers, their members—but they make it hard for a union official to actually do his or her job. The bill mandates that unions and employers disclose any benefits that they or related entities may receive following the outcome of an enterprise agreement. If the government spent less time focusing on the ideological attacks and more time listening to the people, then they would know that these types of disclosures are already made by unions to their members throughout the enterprise bargaining process.

I just think those opposite do not get that enterprise bargaining process. We hear it at question time, we hear it in speeches made by those opposite. I repeat: we have no patience with and we have no time for anyone who tries to subvert the system to cheat workers and union members. We know, through hard experience in the Labor Party and the labour movement, that the offences created by this particular piece of legislation are, at best, confusing—they are clearly unclear—and, at worst, they create an uneven system that penalises union representatives and helps employer representatives. It means that for union officials, representing their workers, the power imbalance is tilted against them even more as they negotiate with large companies. Really, it is preventing them from carrying out the core duties that they do. It is breathtakingly hypocritical of those opposite to attempt to frame this bill as being for the benefit of workers and their representatives in the trade union movement.

We know that people are doing it tough at the moment. We fought hard to protect family tax benefits and pensions. We fought hard to stop what have been described in the media and across this parliament as the zombie measures in legislation. If the government is about genuinely tackling corruption in Australia, why is there no mention of corrupt payments between companies? And why aren't they doing something about that, when the corruption perceptions index reported that corruption in Australia was on the rise, placing us on the international watchlist? Why aren't they doing anything about that? We have had report after report detailing individuals associated with some of Australia's largest and most well-known companies making corrupt payments to facilitate dodgy business arrangements. And thanks to a recent Deloitte investigation into business practices, we know that while corrupt practices in businesses are widespread, instances of self-reporting are dangerously low. Corruption hurts consumers, it undermines market forces, it reduces trust in Australian businesses. That is why we need proper legislation in relation to this, not this half-baked form of legislation before the chamber.

The government should stand up for workers. They should stand up and stop people who are working in the retail, hospitality and fast food industries from losing their penalty rates from 1 July. They should work with the Labor opposition to get forward serious, real, bona fide legislation that deals with corruption. They should stop these ideological attacks. They should stand up for the people that they claim they represent, not just small business but also the workers in our economy.

1:29 pm

Tim Hammond (Perth, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Fair Work Amendment (Corrupting Benefits) Bill and also to support the amendment moved by the honourable and hardworking member for Gorton. It will come as no surprise to anyone here that over a year ago Dyson Heydon handed down his recommendations from the royal commission—the same royal commission that was estimated to have cost over $46 million—

Photo of Mark CoultonMark Coulton (Parkes, Deputy-Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 43. The debate may be resumed at a later hour. The member for Perth will get to complete the next 14½ minutes of his speech at a later time.