Wednesday, 27 August 2014
Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014; Second Reading
I would like to congratulate the member for his excellent address. As usual, he summed up the bill very well. I rise to close the debate on the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014. I would obviously like to thank all the members for their contributions to this debate, particularly government members. This bill delivers on a range of commitments in our election policy, which was released well before the federal election—nothing more and nothing less. There have been a number of misconceptions about this bill during the debate, and it is important that I take this opportunity to set the record straight.
In relation to greenfields agreements, it is clear that, to assist economic growth, we need to encourage investment in new projects. Let me be clear: these are brand and projects that do not yet have any employees but need to get off the ground and running very quickly. Business will not invest when union bosses use their role in greenfields negotiations to effectively exercise a veto by demanding unsustainable wages and conditions. To address this and stimulate vital investment, the bill requires unions and employers to bargain for greenfields agreements in good faith and also provides a new optional three-month negotiation time frame for the making of these agreements.
There have been claims that these amendments exclude unions from the bargaining process. This is false. Employers will need to bargain for greenfields agreements with the union or unions that are able to represent the majority of future employees, as is currently the case under the act. If agreement cannot be reached within an optional three-month negotiation time frame, an employer will be able to take its proposed agreement to the independent umpire for their consideration against the relevant tests.
I also remind members that there are extensive measures in place to protect the interests of future employees. In addition to the existing approval requirements, including the public interest test and better-off-overall test, the amendments provide that greenfields agreements made under the new three-month negotiation process must also provide pay and conditions that are consistent with prevailing industry standards. These amendments balance the needs of business and employees and will help to create more investment, more projects and more jobs for the country.
Under the Fair Work Act union officials were given wide access to workplaces for discussions with employees. The changes to the right-of-entry provisions broke undertakings that the pre-Fair Work Act arrangements would be retained. This has led to a situation where some workplaces are experiencing an excessive number of visits, with the previous government's own Fair Work Act Review Panel citing examples of workplaces experiencing hundreds of visits per year. This bill protects the rights of workers to be represented in the workplace while balancing the right of employers to go about their business without unnecessary disruption.
Contrary to some members' claims, there will be no requirement for an employee to ask their employer or be identified to their employer if they wish the union to visit their workplace. If proof of an invitation to the workplace is required, the bill provides that a union may obtain an invitation certificate from the Fair Work Commission. This ensures that if employees wish to remain anonymous then they can. The bill does not impact on the ability for unions to enter workplaces for workplace health and safety reasons or to investigate possible breaches of industrial laws or instruments.
The bill restores balance by removing the strike-first talk-later loophole under the Fair Work Act. To be clear: it does not remove the right of employees to take protected industrial action. It does, however, require that bargaining has commenced before protected industrial action can be taken. This change was recommended by the previous government's Fair Work Act Review Panel and will help ensure that costly industrial action is not taken prematurely.
The proposed amendments relating to individual flexibility arrangements have been the subject of extensive commentary, much of which is highly misleading and does not stand up to scrutiny. Let me be absolutely clear: contrary to claims made by some members, the bill does not remove any of the existing protections when entering into an IFA under the Fair Work Act, nor does it change the existing requirement that the employee must be better off overall. The legislation will continue to require IFAs to be genuinely agreed to by the employee and employer. It will continue to require that the employee is better off overall compared to the relevant modern award or enterprise agreement.
Honourable members would not often hear me quote former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, but Ms Gillard, as the architect of the fair work laws, made it clear in a speech on 2 October 2009:
I want to make it clear, because there have been some wrong statements about this matter, IFAs are nothing like AWAs. Very far from it. Strict protections ensure that IFAs can never be used to disadvantage employees.
Every IFA must be genuinely agreed to and can only be made if the employee is better off overall than under the relevant award or agreement. And the Act provides an employee can terminate an IFA at any time.
That was true then and is still true today under this bill.
In addition, the bill will require that IFAs include a genuine-need statement recording the employee's view about how the IFA meets their genuine needs and results in them being better off overall. Existing protections to ensure an employee cannot be pressured or forced to agree to an IFA will also be retained, as will protections that prevent prospective employees being required to agree to an IFA in order to gain employment. Breaches of these arrangements can result in significant penalties including fines for the employer and compensation for the worker.
The reforms contained in this bill respond to overwhelming evidence of problems with the operation of the Fair Work Act. The measures remove some existing impediments to productivity and growth, helping to build a more stable, fair and prosperous future for Australia's workers, businesses and the economy. The amendments implement the coalition's publicly stated election policies—nothing more and nothing less—so I call on all members to support the passage of this bill and again thank all members who participated in the debate.