House debates

Wednesday, 31 July 2019


Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill 2019; Second Reading

12:52 pm

Photo of Brian MitchellBrian Mitchell (Lyons, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I don't know where to begin, to be honest. This Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill 2019 is just so appalling in every way. This government's come back after the election just to bash unions. We've had stagnant wages in this country for a long time. I've just spoken in the Federation Chamber about the state of the economy under the government. Wages are flat. And what the government wants to do is demonise among the few organisations in this nation that are actively out there, every day, advocating for higher wages for workers. We know they are successful. We know it's a simple fact that unionised workplaces enjoy higher wages for their workers.

The HILDA report of 2013—not the one that was announced yesterday, but the one before that—said that in workplaces that are unionised men earn 12 per cent more and women earn 18 per cent more. Wages are 18 per cent higher if you're a woman and 12 per cent higher if you're a man in unionised workplaces. If it wants to lift wages in this country, what the government should be doing is asking: how can we help the unions do a better job? If it really believes there is a cultural issue with unions, or particular unions, it should address those particular issues and stop bashing unions.

The Leader of the Opposition gave a very good speech earlier, talking about Mr Gerry Hanssen, a Liberal Party member and building contractor in WA. Mr Hanssen was referred to by a judge as having a 'blind hatred' of unions. 'Bling hatred' is a strong term, especially from a judge. That's what we see opposite every day in this place. We see blind hatred towards unions. There's no acknowledgement from those on the opposite side of this chamber that unions have a legitimate and lawful right to exist in this country and to advocate on behalf of their members. It's a real concern, because we've seen in the past—certainly in the 1930s in Europe—what happens when you demonise and delegitimise unions and construct laws to restrict the way they can lawfully operate. We have seen what can happen as a result of that.

The blind hatred that Mr Hanssen has is, I think, replicated on the other side of this chamber. It's a shocking cycle to be in. Those opposite need to be acting in the national interest, not the corporate interest. Those opposite are not there to look after just one segment of the community. They are meant be to representing the entire community, and that includes union members. Instead what we saw in the last parliament was this ferocious defence of the big banks. A day did not pass without those opposite defending the big banks, despite the most awful perfidy on the part of the banks. There were stories in the media about the absolutely disgraceful behaviour—and criminal behaviour—by banks. Yet those opposite voted 26 times to try to avoid a royal commission into the banks. We've since had a royal commission, and 76 recommendations came out of the royal commission, but nobody on that side or, indeed, this side is suggesting that banks should be made illegal because of the criminal activities they undertook. Instead, what we seek to do is clean them up.

The Leader of the Opposition mentioned also that the average unionist is a middle-aged woman. Yet those opposite would have everybody in this place believe that every union member wears a hard hat and is a big beefy bloke in a blue singlet, full of vulgarities, on a building site. That's the picture they paint, and it's just not true. It's women in the finance sector, the health sector and the aged-care sector, women generally in low-paid jobs, who need every bit of protection they can get in the workplace and every extra dollar in a pay packet. They are the people unions represent, and they are the people who will be hurt by this legislation, if this legislation goes through, because this legislation is all about corralling unions and making it harder for unions to do their job.

What we know is that unions are finding it harder and harder to do simple things like check wage records—to go to an employer and check the time sheets and the records. The red tape they have to go through is extraordinary, and it gives the dodgy employers the time and the ability to basically hide the paperwork. By the time a union gets permission to go on site, there's nothing to see. The old days are long gone when a union official could turn up unannounced and say, 'I'm here to check your records and the wage records of our members,' and carry out those checks on behalf of members. Those days are long gone. As a result, we're seeing wage theft at extraordinary levels. It's become a business model: wage theft and theft of super. Industry Super Australia is a very reputable body; I don't think anybody over there would disagree with that. Industry Super Australia says one-third of employers are underpaying superannuation entitlements to their workers. That means 2.4 million Australians are having $3.5 billion a year in superannuation entitlements stolen from them, and one of the major reasons is that unions can't get into the workplaces to check the books and make sure their union members are being looked after.

One of the principal problems with this legislation, of course, is that it brings the dead hand of the parliament onto the democratic ideals of an organisation. Can you imagine this parliament saying to a bowling club or anybody else, 'No, you can't elect that person to be your president or your secretary. You can't have that person working for you.' It's up to the members of those organisations to determine who they want to represent them. By all means, go out there and publicly state, 'This person's got this sort of record,' or 'This person has this sort of reputation.' That should all be transparent and accountable. Let the members decide for themselves who they wish to represent them. That's certainly how this place operates. If this place had the same standards that the government seeks to impose on unions, half this chamber would be empty because half the people elected wouldn't be allowed to stand. What this legislation seeks to do is an absolute outrage.

I've watched with interest the comings and goings of this new parliament. There are a fair few new faces. Two faces I'm yet to see in these halls are those of Reith and Howard, yet this bill has their fingerprints all over it. Those of us old enough will remember Mr Reith and his attack on the trade union movement, particularly the waterside workers movement, back in the 1990s.

Did we see the style of attack that was used on unions used on the banks? No, we didn't. Where was this level of watchdog action after the royal commission into the banks? Where are the restrictions on the banks similar to those that they seek to place on trade unions?

Why go after the workers' representatives? The principal reason this government goes after the representatives of workers is that they are too good at their job. The reason those opposite go after unions is that unions are too good at their job representing their members. They represent them on wages, on safety and on all sorts of working conditions, so the big employers and the dodgy employers go to those opposite and say: 'Hey, unions are costing me money. I've got to do all these safety regulations now. I've got to pay higher wages. I've got to do all these things. How about you bringing the unions into line?' Those opposite, like good little lapdogs, doff the cap to their employer donors and say: 'Yep, sure thing. We'll bring in laws that will stop unions doing their job and make it harder for people to get good wages and to enjoy safer conditions at work.'

The original version of this bill was dangerous and extreme. That's why the 45th Parliament rejected it. We, on this side, will again reject it in the 46th, and we'll see what happens in the Senate, in the other place, where the government's trying it on again. They've got a friendlier Senate, and we'll see what happens up there. Every time they can, they bash the unions. That's all they want to do: bash unions—not lead and not govern but just bash unions.

We've seen countless examples of employers ripping off their workers in recent years, from 7-Eleven to Domino's Pizza to Chatime to Michael Hill jewellers and others. There was the recent celebrated case of Mr Calombaris. In Tasmania, the biggest theft case was that of the employees working at ACL Bearing Company many years ago. The owners walked away with all the entitlements of the workers, leaving a debt for the government to pick up. What happened to them? Nothing. Are they banned from being employers in the future? No, the government goes after the unions.

Wage theft is a real issue, and those opposite are paying lip service to it. It's become a business model. Wage theft is the real problem in this country, along with super theft and safety at work for workers. These are the real industrial relations issues that the government should be confronting, not bashing unions, which are among the few organisations in this country whose entire reason for existence is to help workers get a better deal. There is no mention of that and no mention of going after wage theft in this.

How many times have the so-called tough cop on the beat, the ABCC, hauled employers before the courts for safety breaches? None as far as I'm aware. They don't go after the dodgy employers and the unsafe workplaces, but by gee they'll go after a union member who wears a sticker on their helmet on a construction site. That's a serious breach of the law according to the ABCC—wearing a sticker on your helmet.

The reverberations that will follow this bill if it is successful will affect every working person, every member of a trade union and every employee of a trade union, and that's what those opposite are trying to achieve. As I say, it's not just the big, beefy blokes in the blue singlets who are affected by this; it's teachers, aged-care workers and childcare workers—people who are on low incomes and in insecure work, who need every single bit of protection they can get. Those opposite are not seeking to protect those workers; they're seeking to put barriers in the way of better protections. We have the architect of this disgraceful bill, the apprentice to Mr Reith, walking into the chamber now.

What we know of this bill is that it seeks to hobble the ability of unions to operate within their own governance structures, structures that have been in place for years and have stood the test of time. Talk about a sledgehammer to crack a walnut! There is not a systemic issue with unions in this country. There may be one or two examples that they could deal with; in fact, the existing law could deal with those. But instead they see this as an opportunity to bash unions, to get unions out of the way and to stop unions from being able to represent low-income workers in insecure work. The effect of this legislation will be to keep wages stagnant, to hurt safety conditions at work and to prevent union officials from doing their job and looking after their workers.

This bill is far more extensive and extreme in the regulation of unions than what exists for business or indeed, as I said, for politicians. It will make it possible for government ministers and disgruntled employers to shut down unions and to deny working people their right to choose their own representatives. It's an absolutely outrageous assault on the right to freedom of association. Those opposite like to talk about freedom of association, the freedom to choose and liberty, and this is just an absolute assault on those principles.

This is an outrageous bill. I fully support the member for Watson's amendments, because this bill is a disgrace. It's antiworker, it's anti-Australian and it should fail the House.


No comments

Log in or join to post a public comment.