Tuesday, 26 August 2014
Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014; Second Reading
I rise to speak on the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014. I would like to start with why this bill is important. Firstly we need to recognise as a nation the difficulty we have and the mess we are in with our debt and our deficit. We have had six years of completely dysfunctional government and six years of back-to-back deficits. In fact, we saw today the release of Paul Kelly's new book, Triumph and Demise: The broken promise of a Labor generation, at around 500 pages. I think there were one or two pages of triumph and about 498 pages listed as demise!
We know what that demise is. We are now north of $300 billion in debt, and we know that, if nothing is done, that number will blow out to $667 billion and then continue to increase to $1 trillion. Currently the cost to the economy is $12 billion a year—$1 billion every month, $33 million every day, 70 per cent of which flows out of the country. That is just the interest on the debt we have accumulated. We have also heard about the wonderful Sydney desalination plant, currently mothballed, costing the taxpayers of Sydney an extra $500,000 every day of the year.
To get ourselves out of this problem we as a nation need to lift our productivity. We need to grow the economy, and the best way we can do that is to make sure we give business the confidence to go out, invest and innovate. That is the only way we can do it. I was fortunate the previous week to be at the Reserve Bank hearings in Brisbane. We heard Reserve Bank Governor Stevens talking about the needs of 'animal spirit', but the comments that were not reported were the comments of the other Reserve Bank board member, the assistant governor, Dr Philip Lowe. I think his words about the importance of the decisions we make here in this parliament encouraging small business entrepreneurs are important. Dr Lowe said:
… monetary policy cannot drive sustainable, stronger growth in our economies. It comes through structural reform and entrepreneurship. And it is really the task of political leaders and business leaders to put in place the preconditions for that …
… the message is that when the legislature is putting forward new laws and new regulations we need to be very mindful of the effect it has on the ability of people with new ideas, which ultimately are going to be the source of our growth and our income, to come forward and to test these ideas in the marketplace, to create the environment where that is really what they want to do. They have got the ideas—there is no shortage of ideas out there. We have to create the environment in which they do that. It is really up to our parliaments to do that.
That is exactly right. It is up to the parliaments here to make sure that we are doing things that encourage business to invest because that is what will drive the growth in the economy. Unfortunately, over the past six years we have seen broken promises—especially on the issue of workplace relations. We have seen the broken promises. We know, going back before the 2007 election when Labor was first elected, the Labor Party promised time after time after time that there would be no changes to unions' right-of-entry laws. In fact, in a press conference on 28 August 2007, the then deputy opposition leader, Julia Gillard, said:
We will make sure that current right of entry provisions stay. We understand that entering on the premises of an employer needs to happen in an orderly way. We will keep the right of entry provisions.
We know the history. These promises were not kept and unions were given much easier access under the Fair Work Act provisions, which were then exploited. That meant that businesses faced excessive workplace visits from unions even when the employees at that workplace were not union members or when they had not even asked for the union's presence. This is a problem that has been exacerbated in some workplaces by unions competing to represent employees at that workplace.
Of course, the true engine room of our economy, what we need to drive that growth, is our small business sector. We have seen over the past six years 500,000 jobs lost in that sector—500,000 jobs lost in the small business sector over the previous six years. What we need to do is go back to restoring the balance in our workplace laws and to get that balance right because over the previous six years the balance was tilted too far away from the people taking risks: those entrepreneurs in our economy who we need to drive and to create the prosperity to create the employment.
The other thing we have seen is the great decline in trade unionism over the years. If we go back, from August 1992 to August 2011 the proportion of those who are trade union members of the workforce has actually—
It is a bit disappointing that the opposition cannot rake up one member to be in the chamber. But we now have the good member for Melbourne Ports joining us. It is very pleasing to see that we have at least one member of the opposition here during this debate.
What I was saying while there was a dearth of members there on the opposition side was that there has been a significant decline in trade union membership. From August 1992 the proportion of those with union membership has fallen from 43 per cent to just 17 per cent of the workforce. This is the lowest proportion of union membership recorded in the history of our nation. In fact, if we look at union membership it is holding up, of course, in the public service, but in the private sector we are down to 12 per cent of employees with trade union membership. What we have seen in the royal commission is the union blackmail, the harassment, the coercion, the corruption and the bribery. With the things that we have seen, is it any wonder that union membership is at such low levels in our nation's history?
I want to get back to the details of what this bill actually does and how it restores the balance. Firstly, the bill reforms the greenfields agreement to remove the current union powers to veto, including good-faith bargaining rules to negotiations by allowing an employer to seek approval of a greenfields agreement after three months of bargaining while protecting future employees by retaining existing agreement approval requirements and ensuring agreements are consistent with prevailing industry standards. Secondly, the bill deals with the excessive right-of-entry visits by union officials by limiting the right of entry for discussion purposes to unions that are covered by a relevant enterprise agreement or who are invited to the workplace by a member or prospective member. The reforms will also involve the repealing of objectionable amendments to the provisions introduced by the former government in 2013 relating to lunch room invitations and also helicopter joy-rides. Thirdly, the bill provides that underpaid workers receiving interest on unclaimed money will be back paid for that when it is held by the Commonwealth, when the amount is at least $100 and when it has been held back by the Commonwealth for at least six months. It will also be implementing a number of recommendations from the 2012 Fair Work panel not implemented by the previous government.
In the time allowed, I will quickly go through those. They are simplifying the interaction between workers' compensation and annual leave; requiring employers to give employees a reasonable opportunity to discuss requests for extended unpaid parental leave before a request can be refused; clarifying the circumstances where annual leave loading is payable on termination; a range of measures to improve the operation of individual flexibility arrangements, including ensuring enterprise agreements cannot unduly limit their scope; increasing unilateral termination for a period of 13 weeks; clarifying the existing position that monetary benefits can be traded for non-monetary benefits; and providing a defence for employers to an alleged contravention of a flexibility term where they reasonably believe that the requirements of the term were complied with. Also introducing a new protection for employees who make individual flexibility arrangements by providing that employees must provide a statement confirming the reasons they consider that the conditions they have negotiated make them better off overall; removing Labor's 'strike first, talk later' loophole in the act by providing that an application for a protected action ballot order cannot be made unless bargaining has commenced—also delivering on Labor's 2007 election promise that such scenarios would not occur; providing that industrial instruments do not transfer with workers who transfer on their own initiative between associated entities; and, finally, providing the Fair Work Commission with clearer powers to dismiss unfair dismissal proceedings without a hearing or a conference in certain circumstances, such as where an application is frivolous or vexatious, or the applicant fails to comply with a Fair Work Commission direction or order.
This is part of the coalition's task of getting on with the job of fixing the mess that we inherited. The carbon tax is gone. The boats are as good as stopped. We are fixing the mess on the NBN. We have made a decision on an airport for Western Sydney with our first international airport for Western Sydney. We have the roads of the 21st century and the construction has started and the plans are underway. We are tackling the budget deficit and we are also restoring a fair and sensible balance to the workplace act. And we can see the results today.
Today, we had the release of the ANZ-Roy Morgan Consumer Confidence ratings. That has shown the results of the sound steps that the coalition are making. There has been an 11.1 per cent rise in household perceptions about their financial situation compared to last year. Of course last year was when the previous Labor government was in power. In 12 months we have added 11 per cent to consumer perceptions. Because of the measures that the coalition are sensibly putting in place, we now have consumer confidence back above its long-term average. The ANZ chief economist, Warren Hogan, is quoted today as saying:
Signs that consumer confidence is bouncing back, combined with strengthening business surveys, gives us more confidence that the non-mining recovery remains on track.
The Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014 is a part of the coalition repairing the mess we inherited. It restores the sensible balance to the Fair Work Act and I commend the bill to the House.
Here we are again: a coalition government attacking workers' pay and conditions, exhuming one of the worst elements of the dead, buried and cremated Work Choices. It is interesting that government members cannot remember their own words they uttered, not in the dim, dark past but in the recent past. Work Choices were dead, buried and cremated—but apparently not. This bill is the beginning of Work Choices mark II. It will enable employers to cut basic award entitlements. If my memory serves me correctly, and I am sure it does, the last time the coalition tried this, former Prime Minister John Howard belatedly admitted his error and at least sought to implement the no-disadvantage test. I distinctly remember it; I was in the parliament at the time. It is hard to see this government, even in the face of the strongest possible evidence, ever having the humility to admit its own mistakes or errors. We only need to see what they are doing with their current budget to realise that.
Night and weekend pay is a core part of the budgets of millions of Australian families. The Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014 is designed to cut the pay of Australians. I am fully aware of how important overtime payments are for night and weekend work, having been married to a MICA paramedic for many, many years. The base wage for a MICA paramedic—a job that is quite exhausting, onerous, difficult and vitally important to the community—is actually very low. The only way to make a decent wage out of being on the road, serving the community and saving lives is through overtime payments. This legislation could see the end to all that. This bill and the ideology behind it seeks to deny the fact that penalty rates for working unsociable hours are a fair and reasonable form of compensation for the negative impact these hours have on a worker's family and social life.
For the first four years of my married life, my husband and I had never spent Christmas together and we did not have Easter together. It took until about my fifth wedding anniversary for us to spend the day with each other. This is the reality of the lives of shift workers. I do not begrudge that; that was the understanding. When we were first married, my husband was working a rotating eight-day structure. We did not actually know from week to week if it was morning, noon or afternoon. It was terrible trying to coordinate any social engagements with the pattern of the roster. Then the ambulance in Victoria moved to a 10-14 roster—two 10-hour days and two 14-hour nights. That sounds horrendous and it is, but it concentrates it into four days. You knew the pattern and you could get your lives together. You could actually work out things. 'Yes, our friends are getting married this weekend. We'll actually be able to go to that together.' It had this enormous impact on your life.
Of course, once I entered parliament my husband actually had to change his career because you cannot coordinate being a parliamentarian with being married to a rotating shift worker and have children. So he went casual and went on this terrible thing called the reserve roster for many years, where you would, literally, be woken up in the morning to be told where you were off to and what shift you would be covering. Without the penalty rates, none of this would have been viable or reasonable for people doing this day to day. Indeed, on two of our applications for home loans, it was only when my husband's overtime and penalty rates were included that we could actually borrow the money to buy a home because his base wage was so insubstantial that it was not recognised. He said: 'It's a rolled-in rate. I generally get this and I generally get some overtime.' So that was what the bank actually took as his payment. His actual base rate without any of that was so insignificant we would not have been able to buy a home.
People working these unsociable hours deserve this compensation. Eighty per cent of Australians agree with this proposition. It is only the minority on the government benches opposite me that think that it is reasonable not to compensate someone working unsociable hours. If this bill is passed, 4.5 million Australians will have their wages cut. These include paramedics, security guards, bakers, cleaners, factory workers and hospitality and retail workers—people who are the backbone of our society. It is a diverse list of industries and there will also be many more industries where workers could no longer rely on penalty rates, thanks to this legislation.
I was visiting a factory in my electorate only the other day where they work a 24-hour rotating roster. Again, as most of the guys in the plant said, 'It is actually a very good company to work for, but if it wasn't for the overtime and penalty rates for working the longer shifts, it wouldn't be viable to stay here.' These were workers who were promised by the Prime Minister before the election that he would not cut their wages—another broken promise. This Prime Minister is intent on actually never keeping a promise he made before the election. Labor understands how hard it is for families to keep on top of costs and just how important it is to keep the certainty of penalty rates in place while also offering flexibility in the workplace. Under Labor, individual flexibility arrangements were used to give employers genuine flexibility, not to cut wages.
I always love this terminology 'flexibility'. It is flexible one way, the one way where the worker is ripped off and the employer gets everything they are seeking. Labor's key safeguard was the 'BOOT' test. Individual flexibility arrangements had to ensure employers were 'better off overall'. That is the basis: better off overall. Yes, you could trade something off, but in the end the bill would ensure that key protections were in place. This bill will allow night and weekend rates to be traded off for an unlimited variety of non-monetary benefits.
One of the last actions before I came into parliament, in my former life at the Finance Sector Union, was negotiating the enterprise agreement at ANZ Bank. The biggest thing everybody wanted there was to maintain their RDO—their rostered day off. It was the sacrosanct thing that people in that place wanted. Most of them were mums. Most working in branches of banks were women who—and men also—needed the certainty of knowing you eventually were going to have a day in the week where you might be able to make medical or dental appointments, or you could perhaps organise to take your mother out for a coffee or something like that.
A lot of people are not just interested in monetary reward; it is the certainty of conditions that they want. So if you had something where you could trade of a non-monetary agreement, it was something that people were looking for, but you had to be no worse off. It could not just be a cash grab to strip away wages. For non-monetary benefits to be taken into account under Labor's BOOT safeguards, they had to be relatively insignificant and genuinely agreed to; not a sign-it-or-lose-the-job type agreement. Under this bill the safeguards have been removed. Labor's safeguard to limit the use of non-monetary trade-offs are replaced by a short note providing for, apparently, any 'benefits other than an entitlement to the payment of money' to be used. No security, no safeguards—not even going back to Howard's agreement of a no-disadvantage test. Nothing.
The requirement that it be relatively insignificant and genuinely proportionate is gone. This opens the door to weekend and night pay being traded away for all sorts of non-monetary items, which comes nowhere near compensating workers at a rate equitable to their penalty rates. I was recently at an organisation where the manager said, 'I give them a Coles voucher every once in awhile and that keeps them happy.' No, it doesn't. It doesn't pay the bills; it doesn't make up for unsociable hours. Without these safeguards, overnight and weekend penalty rates can be traded away, just as they could under John Howard's much hated individual contracts—the parts of the Work Choices legislation that were meant to be 'dead, buried and cremated'.
This bill also continues on in the well-established Liberal-National Party tradition of attacking workers' rights to collectively organise. The bill says that 1.5 million Australians on the award safety net will need to show their employer they invited a union to their workplace if they need information and support. If passed, workers will lose easy access to the information and support which is available to help them understand their rights when negotiating with her employers. It opens the door to exploitation of vulnerable people, such as recent migrants, who in the real workplace of Australia will now be expected to know immediately that they need to ask their employer if they can invite the union into their workplace. How ridiculous! You are having a dispute or a misunderstanding with your employer. You are scared and vulnerable enough, and you have got to go to your employer and say, 'Can I invite the union in?' It just belittles. It has no understanding of how unions work, how collectivism works and what is needed to protect people in their workplaces.
Most of the businesses I dealt with in my previous life were happy to have you come on site. You did not just rock up. You didn't just bash down the door. You generally arranged it, organised a time and you went into the tea room. Especially when you were dealing with rotating shift work, you were dealing with a call centre, you couldn't just do it. There is a complete misunderstanding about how this works. People are allowed to belong to groups so long as you are not belonging to a group that is called 'a union'. That is what does my head in. It seems to be the name. Somehow they are this vile creation—as opposed to a group of individuals coming together for the protection of each other. I would have thought that that was a basic human right. Indeed, the Catholic Church has intoned that that is a basic human right.
These migrant workers, many in my electorate, who have come to Australia may be employed in their first job in Australia. They are doing their best to please their employer. In reality it may be very unlikely that they need to speak to a union—but they might. And they are presented with a document and told that they can sign away their rights. Do they say no? Of course they don't.
In the real world, lack of knowledge, the insecurity of the workplace and fear of unemployment mean that people do sign away their rights. They will be exploited and they and their families will lose out. How can someone who does not know that help is available be expected to ask for it? In the real world, it is 'take it or leave it' and that is all that they will be told when it is time to sign on the dotted line. Given the precarious nature of the employment situation at the moment and the high rates of unemployment, particularly among youth—again, you are going to sign it. You are going to take the job, you are going to be exploited later, and you are going to have no recourse. You might not, but you might. That is why we all have insurance. Isn't this just a basic form of insurance that people should be entitled to have?
A government which is apparently so devoted to freedom in our lives is attempting to deny some of this country's lowest-paid workers the right to unionise so that big business—and, indeed, small business—will have the freedom to pay these people even less than they are currently. Meanwhile, higher-paid Australians who are already on collective agreements will have ongoing access to union information and support. All Australian workers deserve the same right of access to unions regardless of where they work, how much they are paid and if they are on an enterprise agreement or not.
The Prime Minister promised he would only implement changes from the Fair Work review. But that was just another hollow promise he never intended to keep. The notion that an employer must offer an invite before unions can provide support in the workplace was rejected by the Fair Work review panel. The panel agreed that people on the award safety net should not have their access to union information and support reduced. But here we are, debating a bill that seeks to severely reduce the ability of the lowest-paid people in Australia to access union information and support if they need it. Australians on the awards safety net will be the most vulnerable. They need help from unions to know their award rights. They need help to know when not to sign those rights away. And they need help to improve their rights by joining with others and winning the better living standards that come with collective bargaining. Without these rights, workers will lose pay and conditions. They will lose time with their families and friends with little or no compensation, and they will be left struggling to stay above the poverty line.
These amendments are an attack on Australians' rights at work and should not be proceeded with. I will finish by quoting an ambo, Paul, who was interviewed by his union and said:
Weekend and night pay takes an experienced ambulance paramedic's pay to $71,000. That is a 26 per cent increase on the base rate, as compensation for shifts of 14 hours and 10 hours and working any time of the week, day and night, all with unpredictable overtime.
Without that 26 per cent you would find people have to get another job. I have done 10 years and I want to stick it out. It's incredibly rewarding in many ways but it's tough on families. We are always juggling child care, relying on friends and family …
Without that extra pay … would lose their experienced people …
I rise today to strongly support the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014. This bill contains policies we took to the last election to make Australian workplaces more flexible, more productive and, most importantly, fairer for both employers and employees.
As someone with a background in industrial relations, I am very pleased to be part of a government that is serious about making sure we improve the system. I do not subscribe to the view that the spectre of Work Choices should forever cloud the coalition's approach to IR. Of course, we have to be vigilant to ensure that the practices that occur in our workplaces reflect community expectations and that reforms are designed to keep pace with changing trends in the modern workplace. We have to be ever mindful that our IR policies reflect the Australian ethos of a fair go—and that means a fair go for all, not just union bosses. This bill strikes the right balance.
At the outset, I want to draw the attention of the House to the comprehensive policy document that we produced before the last election, entitled The coalition's policy to improve the fair work laws. It is a very detailed 38-page booklet which goes through each of the changes we intended to make to the Fair Work Act. It states:
A Coalition Government will keep the Fair Work framework and work to improve them. Although there are some problems with the current laws as set out in this document, there are also many positive aspects. The Coalition will work to improve the operation of the Fair Work laws so that workers, business and the economy are better off.
It goes on to outline our plans to restore union workplace access rules to make them fairer—to make sure that access rules are more like those that were in place prior to Labor's unbalanced amendments. We also signal our intention to deal with excessive right of entry visits by union officials.
Our policy will: improve the process for the negotiation of greenfield agreements to ensure that unions can no longer frustrate bargaining for these agreements through unsustainable claims and delays. It will improve workplace productivity and flexibility by enhancing the scope for employees to make individual flexibility arrangements that meet their needs. It will close the 'strike first, talk later' loophole in the good faith bargaining rules, which Labor refused to address; and it will maintain the value of unclaimed wages recovered for workers by the Commonwealth. These are exactly the reforms we are undertaking with this bill, and I will detail some of these later in my speech. I also want to point out that this bill enacts a number of recommendations of Labor's own Fair Work review panel's 2012 report—which, incidentally, was commissioned by the now Leader of the Opposition.
This bill clearly delivers on our election commitments in relation to the Fair Work Act—no more and no less. These are not radical changes; these are sensible amendments to ensure that workplaces meet the needs of employees and employers alike. These are improvements to the Fair Work Act. They do not change fundamental protections for workers, but they do reduce some of the more obstructionist and unbalanced power that remains for union bosses. We were upfront before the election about our plans, and we have worked to deliver our commitments. We are getting on with the job we were elected to do.
So what is Labor's response? Naturally, they oppose this bill. They are standing in the way of letting the government fulfil our election commitments—just as they opposed our legislation to scrap the carbon tax, just as they are blocking our attempts to fix the economy by opposing responsible budget measures. This is an opposition hell-bent on opposing any attempt by this government to fix the mess they created. You would think they would be a little more circumspect and let us get on with the job of reversing the decline that occurred on their watch. But not this mob. However, I suspect that with this bill it is not just about being obstructionist. I suspect that with this bill it is more personal: it is more about their own self-interest.
Why do Labor oppose this bill?
The answer is very obvious: they oppose it because they are still, despite the Leader of the Opposition's empty rhetoric and platitudes, very much beholden to the union movement. Make no mistake: Labor and the union bosses remain as co-dependent on each other today as they have ever been. Understandably, the unions do not like this legislation because it curbs some of the excessive power that the former government granted to union bosses—for example, union workplace access.
Our changes will fairly and sensibly balance the right of employees to be represented in the workplace, if they wish to be, with the right of employers to go about their business without unnecessary disruption. Ironically, it was the Labor Party itself that promised in 2007 that there would be no changes to the union right-of-entry laws. In a press conference on 28 August 2007 then deputy opposition leader, Julia Gillard, said:
We will make sure that current right of entry provisions stay. We understand that entering on the premises of an employer needs to happen in an orderly way. We will keep the right of entry provisions.
Ms Gillard had already recognised that excessive workplace visits by unions had the potential to impact on productivity when she said in June 2007:
We would not want to see changes to the right of entry systems that jeopardise work performance.
It was reiterated again on 28 August when, as announced today, Labor said, 'Federal Labor will maintain the existing right-of-entry rules without exception.'
Sadly, Labor did not keep these promises, and unions were given much easier access to workplaces under the Fair Work Act provisions which were exploited. This has meant that many businesses, even those whose employees are not members of a union or who have not asked for a union to visit, have had to deal with repeated and excessive visits by unions. The problem gets even worse when you have multiple unions competing to represent employees at a workplace. The former government's Fair Work Act review panel noted the excessive nature of some union access, with the Pluto LNG project receiving over 200 right-of-entry visits in only three months. BHP Billiton's Worsley Alumina plant faced 676 right-of-entry visits in a single year. Our changes will reduce the capacity for unions to deliberately harass and disrupt businesses in this way. These right-of-entry amendments should not really be contentious. They are, after all, a reflection of Labor's publicly stated position prior to the 2007 election.
I also want to point out that most reasonable union officials will find that these changes do not impact, in any way, on their sensible approach to their right-of-entry activities. However, they are necessary to curb the excesses of some union bosses who, sadly, believe they remain a law unto themselves. Other sensible right-of-entry changes include repealing the previous government's amendments made in 2013 that expanded union right-of-entry rights even further by allowing for uninvited lunchroom invasions and required employers to pay for the cost of union boss joy-rides to remote worksites. Those amendments gave unions the right to insist on addressing workers in the lunch room, even when the workers had not requested their presence and are not union members. This is unfair to the 87 per cent of private-sector workers who are not union members. As Minister Abetz so eloquently put it, it is unfair for all workers that just want to eat their lunch in peace.
This bill will, in fact, restore the sensible arrangements that were previously in place, requiring union officials to comply with the reasonable request by the employer to hold discussions in a particular room. Employers will continue to be prevented from nominating locations with the intention of intimidating, discouraging or hindering employees from participating in discussions. The former government also introduced obligations on employers at remote worksites to provide union officials with transport and accommodation to enable them to access those sites. We will repeal this costly and onerous piece of regulation and instead reinstate the previous approach in which unions and employers can reach their own arrangements in these circumstances. I suggest that travelling to worksites might be a better use of union funds than some of the expenses we have seen claimed by union officials like claim Craig Thomson or Michael Williamson.
Ms MacTiernan interjecting—
The changes to right-of-entry provisions in this bill are not revolutionary; they are common sense. They are designed to strike the right balance between ensuring a productive workplace and ensuring union members can be effectively represented. As I said before, reasonable union leaders have nothing at all to fear in these reforms. So I say to the members opposite that they should be wary of the language that they have used in this debate and the alarmism with which they have opposed the issue. It is nice to see that some members from the opposition have actually turned up, because not that long ago we looked around the chamber and there was no-one here from the opposition—so it is good to see you here and interested in the debate that is taking place.
The shadow minister for employment and workplace relations made the absurd claim that this bill is part of the some crusade against the employment conditions of workers across Australia. It is a line right from the union playbook and clearly demonstrates how Labor really is the parliamentary wing of the union movement. It was Labor that introduced IFAs to enable workers and their employers to mutually agree on conditions that suit their individual needs. IFAs are an important option to enable employees to, for instance, manage their child care or other caring arrangements, to spend time with family or for other commitments. They are specific to the individual and not to the workforce as a whole.
When we talk about the need to encourage more women in the workforce, flexibility and, in particular, the ability to be able to manage the demands of family life are huge factors. I also think flexibility is the key for harnessing the experience and wisdom of our seniors in the workplace, as many would like to remain in the workforce but have more flexibility when it comes to hours, time off and other conditions.
When we talk in this place about work and family balance, we need to recognise the importance of workplace flexibility. Managing Work Life Balance International, an HR consultancy based in New South Wales, says:
Workplace flexibility is a critical component of any attraction and retention strategy. Australian and international research clearly indicates that employees, be they Baby Boomers, Gen X or Gen Y, perceive flexibility in when, where and how they achieve their work commitments to be a key factor in maintaining their motivation and commitment to their employer.
They go on to say:
Best Practice employers have put processes in place that ensure their responses and management of flexible work options meet the requirements of the legislation, are non-discriminatory and address the needs of the business and the employee.
So I think it is very important to note that more flexible workplaces tailored to suit individual needs are an increasingly important component of any modern IR system. They are, of course, not favoured by the unions. Perhaps this failure to recognise that collectivism does not always suit the needs of individuals and the workplace or produce the best outcome is part of the reason why union membership has plummeted in the last 20 years, falling from 43 per cent of males and 35 per cent of females in 1992 to just 18 per cent for both genders in 2012.
Of course, when we talk about flexibility and IFAs, the government is very mindful that protections must be in place for employees. The amendments in this bill to IFAs are based on the fair work review panel's recommendations. They also include further new safeguards to ensure that employees are better off.
Despite Labor's hysteria, the fact is that the current IFA framework in the Fair Work Act will stay, with additional protections put in place. For example, this means that an employer cannot force an employee to sign an IFA or make it a condition of employment; the employee must be better off overall than they would have been under the applicable modern award or enterprise agreement; and a worker must provide a statement to the employer saying that the IFA meets their genuine needs and that they are better off overall.
Under the current system, unions can restrict the scope of flexibility terms under enterprise agreements through the bargaining process to only cover a single matter—for instance, the taking of leave. This means that workers may be denied the chance to have IFAs on other matters even if they and their employer want to agree to more suitable arrangements.
Once again, the amendments will deliver on the promises made by Labor themselves in 2007 and provide that IFAs may be made in relation to all of the matters currently prescribed in the model flexibility term, to the extent that those matters are covered in the agreement. This will ensure that workers have access to fair flexibility without a veto by union bosses.
This bill also implements the Fair Work Act Review Panel recommendation that employers should, in limited circumstances, have a legal defence if they enter into an IFA in good faith believing it meets all the requirements of the legislation when it turns out later that it does not. The bill also strengthens protections for employees by requiring a statement setting out that the arrangement meets their genuine needs and results in them being better off overall. This will make the position absolutely clear: employees will only make IFAs that provide for non-monetary benefits when the employees themselves make a clear statement in writing of why they are better off overall. Two further amendments recommended by the fair work review panel will be made to provide clarity and certainty to both employers and employees.
In the time remaining, I would just like to commend this bill to the House. I believe that it is an important part of our plan to boost productivity and ensure fairer, more flexible workplaces. These are sensible and reasonable reforms, and I do commend them to the House. I am proud to be part of a government that is taking a sensible, positive approach to industrial relations.
I speak on the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014. As other speakers have referred to, this particular piece of legislation deals with union workplace access, right of entry issues, greenfields agreements, what some people call the 'strike first talk later loophole', individual flexible arrangements and other Fair Work Act recommendations, and interest on money held for unpaid workers.
This particular bill deals with some of the recommendations of the Fair Work Act Review Panel established by Labor when Labor was in government, which had a report back in March 2013. The coalition, in opposition and in government, have promised a couple of things in relation to this particular bill and in relation to their industrial relations policies. They promised that, as to this particular bill, they would not go any further than they promised during the election campaign and that they would be implementing the recommendations of the Fair Work Act Review Panel report of March 2013. It appears, on the face of it, that the coalition, as they have done with so much when in government, have said one thing before the election and done just the opposite after it. This particular bill is more evidence that the coalition will do one thing before an election—will promise anything to get into office—and then do exactly the opposite upon coming to the Treasury benches.
This is, once again, evidence of their twisted priorities and their obsession—their right wing, ideological obsession—as to industrial relations. I have said a number of times in speeches over the years that, in some countries, geography, religion, socioeconomic backgrounds, culture, even race and ethnicity divide political parties in those countries. But, in Australia, if you want to look at the division between the major political parties, it is about industrial relations. Every time the coalition gets into government they cannot help themselves—they simply have to attack workers and make it more difficult for those organisations which represent workers to do their jobs. We do not believe that what the coalition is doing with this legislation implements what they said they would do before the election, and it certainly does not implement the recommendations of that panel I referred to.
The government is using weasel words—almost Orwellian words; tricky language—to overstep its mandate in relation to individual flexibility arrangements, greenfields agreements, and right of entry and other matters. They simply are.
This bill is all about taking away conditions and making it worse for Australian workers. We do not believe at all that this particular bill 'restores the balance to the sensible centre'. It is not about that. The 'sensible centre' for the coalition is way out to the right.
Workers ought to be wary of this government, as previous coalition governments have undertaken right-wing, hard agendas with respect to industrial relations. I think Australian workers have not forgotten Work Choices, and they have neither forgiven nor forgotten the coalition. That is why this government when in opposition ran away from any major changes before the election. But we know that the workforce of this country and the workplaces of this country were transformed by individual statutory agreements. Under the infamous Australian workplace agreements, wages were driven down. And, like other speakers in this debate, I will speak about the circumstances behind which we are seeing an ideology foisted on the Australian public, and the historicity of this particular debate. I will be looking at what the coalition did in the past and what they are planning to do and looking at how this legislation goes down that way during my speech.
It is worth remembering the industrial relations landscape when Labor came into power in 2007 after 11 years of coalition government. We saw the AWAs come in, we saw Work Choices, we saw the ditching of the no-disadvantage test for the five minimum conditions known as the Australian Fair Pay and Conditions Standards. We saw every other award entitlement apart from those conditions, such as penalty rates, overtime rates, allowances and consultation rights left unprotected in law and vulnerable to AWAs taking away those rights that workers in this country had expected and enjoyed for decades. We saw Work Choices tear away the unfair dismissal protection for workers for all businesses with fewer than 100 employees and further exempt all businesses from unfair dismissal laws where dismissal was for a bona fides operational reason—and bona fides operational reason was the excuse given again and again.
In practice, we saw this happening. The consequences were devastating in Australian workplaces. The average AWA employee worked a 13 per cent longer work week than their peers who were employed under collective agreements. For example, in New South Wales, female AWA employees worked 4.4 per cent longer hours than their counterparts engaged in collective agreements but earned 11.2 per cent less. It was also common practice for there to be no wage increases during the life of an AWA. Twenty-two per cent of AWAs in April 2006 contained no provision for wage increases during the life of the agreement, and this figure rose to 34 per cent in April to September 2006. In 2006 the median AWA worker earned 16.3 per cent less per hour than a comparable worker in a collective agreement. In the hospitality industry average AWA earnings in 2004 and 2006 were 1.8 per cent and 1.6 per cent below average earnings of workers reliant on award minimum respectively. So they were below the award minimum.
Employees most negatively affected by AWAs included women, low-skilled workers, employees in small firms and workers with less bargaining power than others. Women on AWAs earned less than women in collective agreements in every single state and territory by margins raging between eight to 30 per cent. Female casual workers on AWAs received average earnings of some 7.5 per cent below average award earnings.
So Australians hated this. That is one of the major reasons why Labor came to power in 2007. And we are seeing the start of it with legislation like this coming back. We stood up for workers. We abolished Work Choices and returned real fairness and flexibility to workplaces through the Fair Work legislation. Make no mistake: Work Choices haunts the coalition in relation to this. That is why they kept talking about it being 'dead, buried and cremated'. They promised that again and again. But we see in this particular legislation before the House, once again, the coalition overreaching in its commitment to workers and to the detriment of workers. That is what we are seeing.
Labor introduced individual flexibility arrangements in the Fair Work Act to enable the negotiation of fair and genuine flexibility in the workplace, while protecting workers rights and making certain that no worker could be worse off. Individual flexibility arrangements already provide an enormous flexibility without statutory arrangements being put in place. The government now claims that out of the goodness of its heart it is going to provide employees with clarity and certainty around the use of IFAs. Unsurprisingly, there is some chicanery here. The Fair Work Amendment Bill mandates that flexibility terms of an award or agreement require that an IFA, if entered into, must include a genuine needs statement.
Now, what is a genuine needs statement'? Do not bother asking an Australian worker—most of them would not have heard the phrase, I am sure. It was not promised by anyone in the coalition before the election. And do not bother checking The coalition's policy to improve fair work laws, which was their policy from May 2013. You may have been mistaken in relation to this, but the phrase 'genuine needs statement' is not there. It turns out that a 'genuine needs statement' is essentially a testimonial provided by an employee at the time they enter into an individual flexibility agreement. The bill says that such a statement sets out why the employee believes at the time of entering into the IFA:
(i) meets the genuine needs of the employee; and
(ii) results in the employee being better off overall than the 11 employee would have been if no individual flexibility 12 arrangement were agreed to …
So do not worry about that then in the circumstances. The employee completes a genuine needs statement and has an IFA and that is the end of it. And you wonder what the purpose of that statement is.
Labor is concerned that this particular statement which, remember, is essentially nothing more than a testimonial from the employee, is likely to work in conjunction with legal defence provisions included in the Fair Work Amendment Bill in relation to individual flexibility arrangements. Under the current act, a defective individual flexibility arrangement is deemed to have been contravened when it remains on foot until withdrawn. Employers may face prosecution for breaches of a flexibility clause where the individual flexibility agreement did not result in the worker being better off overall.
Now, if found guilty, penalties may be awarded against the employer and compensation paid to the worker. Under the defence proposed in this bill:
An employer does not contravene a flexibility term of a modern award in relation to a particular individual flexibility arrangement if, at the time when the arrangement is made, the employer reasonably believes that the requirements of the term were complied with, …
And what would prove that an employer had reason to believe they were being complied with in terms of the flexibility condition? Why? Of course, the genuine needs statement could be provided by the employee. What a lucky coincidence for the employer!
The employer may then offer this statement as evidence of a reasonable belief and escape penalty or the requirement when they may have underpaid the employee. So it is about helping the employer. It is about providing evidence to assist the employer. It is not about helping the employee at all; it is about helping the employer. It is a provision that makes it more difficult in terms of fairness in the workplace.
Although the coalition policy identified 'reasonable leave defences' with respect to recommendation 11 from the Fair Work Act Review panel, the recommendation itself was that the defence only be available to employers who had notified the Fair Work Ombudsman of the IFA. As you may have guessed, Mr Acting Deputy Speaker, the Fair Work Amendment Bill before the chamber today contains no requirement that the employer notify the Fair Work Ombudsman in writing of the IFA, the name of the employee or the award or agreement under which the IFA was made. All this was suggested by the review panel in recommendation 10. It was all ignored in the legislation before the chamber.
Then there is the curious case of the 'better off overall' test. For the purpose of this test, the Fair Work Amendment Bill proposes inserting a note providing that 'benefits other than an entitlement to a payment of money may be taken into account'. That is all well and good. Recommendation 9 from the Fair Work Act Review panel details changes to the 'better off overall' test with respect to non-monetary benefits. Reassuringly, although the coalition's policy to improve fair work law was silent on the 'genuine needs' statement, it does mention recommendation 9 in a section that lists the kinds of recommendations that a future coalition government would implement. Let's have look at the text of recommendation 9. It says:
The Panel recommends that the better off overall test in s.144 (4) (c) and s.204 (4) be amended to expressly permit an individual flexibility arrangement to confer a non-monetary benefit on an employee in exchange for a monetary benefit, provided that the value of the monetary benefit foregone is specified in writing and is relatively insignificant, and the value of the non-monetary benefit is proportionate …
However, despite promising to implement recommendation 9 the note purporting to do exactly that fails to implement the safeguards recommended by the review panel.
You have to be a bit suspicious of a government that sees no need for the monetary entitlement that an employee foregoes when entering into independent flexibility agreement to be written down, or that it is at least proportionate to the non-monetary benefit that it is being exchanged for. And Australian workers can quite reasonably ask what this government is trying to hide from them in this circumstance.
And we should consider the workers most likely to be impacted by this bill—those workers that I referred to earlier in my speech who are worse off under AWAs. The AMWU submission to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee inquiry on this bill identified that those workers who are reward reliant are 'predominantly casual, 55 per cent; and part-time, 65 per cent, with 75 per cent earning less than $18.60 per hour, meaning that their bargaining position when it comes to employer initiated flexibility arrangements is already at a disadvantage'.
The government's suggestion that this bill provides greater protection and certainty for workers in relation to individual flexibility agreements is pure bunkum. It is complete and utter nonsense. We have heard about it time and again from those speakers opposite. I suspect that many Australians will see this bill for what it is: the first step back towards WorkChoices and the government's dark and relentless right-wing agenda desiring to erode wages and conditions of Australia's most vulnerable workers.
I rise today to speak on this second reading amendment to the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014. The Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014 is the fulfilment of a coalition policy made prior to the 2013 election. No surprises here. It was a policy that outlined to the people our commitment to ensure Australian workplaces can get on with doing what they do best—that is, promoting jobs growth and productivity. And we are, in government, delivering on that commitment. Not only does this bill deliver on the coalition's commitment but it also delivers on broken election commitments made by the Labor Party prior to the 2007 election, and recommendations from the Fair Work Review panel, which was commissioned by the now Leader of the Opposition in 2012.
The Fair Work Amendment Bill will help to restore balance in the workplace through a number of features. It will improve the negotiation process for greenfield agreements to ensure that unions cannot actively set out to exasperate bargaining for these agreements through unrealistic and unsustainable claims and delays. Such claims and delays can threaten the very workers they purportedly support, threaten investment and delay the commencement of major new products that are crucial to our future—particularly, as far as I am concerned, Tasmania's future.
Another feature of this bill restores union workplace-access rules reflecting those in place prior to Labor's unbalanced amendments, and deals with excessive right-of-entry visits by union officials. It also improves workplace productivity and flexibility by enhancing the ability of employees to make individual flexibility arrangements with their employers to meet their genuine needs as determined by those employees. As the member for Braddon, I have a responsibility to ensure that flexibility arrangements are in place that will meet the needs of the employees in my electorate.
Another feature of the bill is that it removes the business-destroying 'strike first, talk later' loophole in the good faith bargaining rules which the previous, Labor government refused to address. Finally, the bill will maintain the value of unclaimed wages recovered for workers by the Commonwealth.
While the amendments contained in the Fair Work Amendment Bill are vital for the future economic growth of this country, and therefore for jobs growth, they are perhaps even more important for regions in Australia that are struggling at the moment to attract investment, and in areas like Tasmania, where the former state and federal governments conspired with fringe political interest groups to try and destroy an entire industry. I speak here, of course, of the forest industry. As this newly elected coalition government, together with the newly elected state government, sets about rebooting the Tasmanian economy and promoting jobs growth, laws such as those to be enacted by this bill will only build confidence for businesses to take the financial risk of putting on extra employees without facing the undue risk of unwarranted actions by overzealous officials.
The contrast between this government and the previous government cannot be greater than when it comes to economic matters, and this bill demonstrates the contrast dramatically. I have heard people say that the former, ALP government was addicted to debt and deficit. That is true, but in some ways debt and deficit was not really their addition; their addiction was cover-up. It was a government so incompetent that the only way it could hide its failings was by distracting the country on a regular basis with massive, uncosted, ill-thought-out spending programs. They went from one program to another. You would wake up in the next news cycle and there would be something else to be hailed by the leader—like a street-corner magician wanting to distract you while they empty your pockets
This government, in stark contrast, is not here to spend the country into the ground. It is here to create the conditions whereby businesses can thrive and employ more people and create prosperity.
The formula to prosperity is not that difficult. It is getting those environmental conditions right. The Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014 will go some way to achieving this by ensuring labour unions are not abusing their rights to represent employees in the workplace. The changes aim to get the balance right between the right of employees to be represented in the workplace, if they wish to be, and the right of the employers to go about their business without unwarranted disruption. This was a key election commitment of the Labor Party in 2007. It was one of the many commitments the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government failed to honour. They said one thing in opposition and another in government. When in government the Labor Party relaxed laws pertaining to right of entry. Labor's broken promise led to some atrocious abuses of the widely accepted right-of-entry principle. For example, the Pluto LNG project received over 200 right-of-entry visits in a three-month period. Furthermore, BHP Billiton's Worsley Alumina plant faced 676 right-of-entry visits in a single year.
But the unions in these cases of mass disruption are not my principal concern here. My concern is for the small-and medium-sized businesses that do not have teams of lawyers or the financial backing to take on these cashed-up unions determined on using right of entry to justify their own jobs. For small-and medium-sized businesses—the steam engine of our economy, I believe—these sorts of disruptions have the potential to inflict significant pain on productivity and influence decisions to employ even more workers.
As it stands—after former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd broke his promise to implement a level of common sense on right of entry—right of entry for discussion purposes can occur when the relevant union is entitled to represent the industrial interests of the employees at the workplace. This means that unions can enter the workplace and hold discussions even if they have no actual members at that workplace and even if no-one has sought their presence. Importantly, this bill will amend the act to ensure that entry to a workplace by a union is fixed to the recognised role of the union representative at that workplace or to an employee's request for the union's presence at that workplace. A union will only be entitled to enter a workplace for discussion purposes if: firstly, they are covered by an enterprise agreement or, secondly, they have been invited by a member or employee that they are entitled to represent.
The bill also enacts the right of an employee to seek a union representative to enter the workplace under anonymity. In this case a union will be able to apply to the Fair Work Commission for an invitation certificate. The Fair Work Commission must issue a certificate if it is satisfied that a worker, who performs work on the premises and whom the union is entitled to represent, has invited the union to the workplace to hold discussions. The certificate, importantly, will not identify the employee who has made the request. This will restore the balance in the right-of-entry regime so that it is similar to prior to the commencement of the Fair Work Act and is, in fact, absolutely consistent with the bipartisan consensus at the time of the 2007 election—a fact that seems to have been missed, conveniently, by those who have spoken before on this bill. Furthermore, the bill gives the commission the ability to ensure union officials do not abuse their position by disrupting workplaces and inflicting an unreasonably high frequency of visits. Under the current arrangements it is only in the most extreme cases that the commission is able to act. This bill centres the pendulum, allowing unions to go about their business but not at the expense of productivity in our workplaces.
Another aspect of this bill that I want to focus on is greenfields agreements. Importantly, this bill will wind back union power to unilaterally veto greenfields agreements. This veto provides unions with the power to disrupt and frustrate the process of these agreements with unrealistic demands on wages and conditions. The Fair Work review, established by the now Leader of the Opposition, highlighted this very concern. It is not our review; it is the now Leader of the Opposition's review. According to this review, these union tactics:
… potentially threaten future investment in major projects in Australia.
Again, these words are not my words, these words are not the Minister for Employment's words and these words are not the Prime Minister of Australia's words. These are the words of the review initiated by the now Leader of the Opposition. Unfortunately, that potential has been realised with major resource projects worth billions of dollars being delayed.
The bill will extend existing good faith bargaining rules to greenfields agreements to raise the conduct and tactics used in bargaining negotiations. This means that both the employer and the unions will be required, among other things, to consider and respond to proposals appropriately and in a timely manner. To assist in timely agreements, this bill will establish an optional three-month negotiation time frame. This time frame will apply where appropriate notice is provided by an employer to the relevant union or unions. If the parties are not able to come to a satisfactory agreement the employer will have the ability to take its proposed agreement to the Fair Work Commission for approval. The agreement will need to meet the workplace agreement requirements under the Fair Work Act, which you would expect, including the 'better off overall' test. The agreement will also have to satisfy a new requirement that it provides for pay and conditions that are consistent with the prevailing standards within the relevant industry for equivalent work. I repeat: the agreement will also have to satisfy a new requirement that it provides for pay and conditions that are consistent with the prevailing standards within the relevant industry for equivalent work.
Consistent with the existing framework, the Fair Work Commission must also be satisfied that the union or unions to be covered by the agreement are able to represent the majority of future employees. This is vital to ensuring that major projects are not needlessly held up by unions intent on making unreasonable demands in order to gain the upper hand in negotiations. These tactics, which have become so commonplace in so many workplaces around this country, have no place in this economy or in a fair nation and this government, through this bill, will not allow them to continue.
By any measure this bill is reasonable. This bill is fair. And this bill takes up, in part, many of the issues raised by the very review that the Leader of the Opposition, in his former capacity as minister, ordered. These are not my words. They are not the words of the government. They are, in fact, the words of the review ordered by the now Leader of the Opposition. Any fair-minded person will understand, if they are not in the pockets of the unions, that this is fair. It is reasonable and it is in the best interests of the restoration of the prosperity and financial viability of many companies in Australia. More importantly, it is in the best interest of seeing more people employed in jobs in this great country.
I always enjoy following the previous member when he speaks. He very selectively picks out recommendations and accuses members on this side of being in the pockets of the unions. I could throw back the accusation of him being in the pockets of the employers, but that would not be true—because he is in the pocket only of certain employers and that is quite a worry. The previous speaker said this takes us back prior to the commencement of the Fair Work Act. What I would say to the previous speaker is: it is back to the future—back to Work Choices. I believe that is where members of this parliament want to take us: back to Work Choices.
The Fair Work Amendment Act 2013 is further proof of how this government sees the Australian people, because they said one thing before the election and are doing another thing after the election. Remember those words, 'No return to Work Choices'? Every piece of industrial relations legislation that has been through this parliament has taken us a step closer to Work Choices. The people of Australia will remember it. The people of Australia will know that they have been deceived by the Abbott government. Each and every day this government demonstrates to the Australian people that it cannot be trusted. When it comes to workplace relations and negotiation between employers and workers this government has a very jaundiced, one-sided view on how those negotiations should take place.
The vast majority of the provisions of this bill are anti worker. We need a government that is about providing jobs, one that is about looking at both sides—what is best for business and what is best for workers—and at the same time is generating jobs. In under 12 months the Abbott government has charted a course to return to Work Choices, yet it has done nothing—absolutely nothing—to address the issue of full-time jobs collapsing across this country. Every day we hear about another major employer either moving offshore or jobs disappearing. At the same time this government has absolutely no plan whatsoever for jobs. The government is all about cutting pay and conditions and making it harder for working Australians.
The Prime Minister does not speak the name of Work Choices. His ministers do not speak the name of Work Choices. Those on the other side of this parliament avoid the words Work Choices. But in reality we are on that track, back to Work Choices. We want to make sure that the bill that is before us does not take us back to that point, but it is very difficult when you have zealots on the other side of this parliament that are rabid in their hatred of unions. The one thing that they want to do is see that we return to Work Choices. The workers get less pay and poorer conditions and, at the same time, there will be an enormous impact on the lives of families.
The opposition opposes this fair work bill because it is a continuation of the government's crusade against employees' conditions and wages. It is a continuation of the race to the bottom. This government will not rest until we have a US-style situation in Australia where workers are working for $5 an hour. This government does not believe in providing workers with a voice. It is about disempowering workers and creating a state where workers have to take what they are given—where they do not have strong representation and unions do not have the right to enter workplaces. The previous speaker was talking about how a worker could ask to invite a union into the workplace. Even if that were anonymous it is not too hard, in many workplaces, to work out who invited the person in. Then that worker worries about being vilified and the consequences of that act.
Before the election and when introducing this bill, the government promised that, when proposing amendments to the Fair Work Act, those amendments would not go any further than its pre-election promise—that was point No. 1—and that it would implement specific recommendations 'directly' from the 2012 Fair Work review. It would definitely appear that the government has broken its promises on both these counts. The government has gone much further than its pre-election promises in a number of places, including individual flexibility arrangements, greenfields agreements and right of entry.
I would like to first spend a little time on right of entry. The government is seeking to restrict union access to work sites. It claims—this is what it is claiming; it certainly is not the fact—that, currently, right-of-entry provisions are skewed in favour of unions and that Labor created a situation where unions could visit workplaces where employees are not members of unions. This is the government moving to disempower workers in the workplace. This is the government moving to stop workers having a voice in the workplace. This is the government denying workplaces the right to have unions enter. Quite frankly, it is not good enough. This bill will restore the arrangements that existed prior to Labor's changes. Union officials will have to comply with 'a reasonable request' by an employer to hold discussions in 'a particular room'. Reasonable request? Who determines what reasonable is? Particular room? Even a particular room can be very intimidating. Employees will be prevented from nominating locations and employers will nominate locations that will intimidate, as I stated.
When it comes to greenfields agreements, the government claims that unions are too easily able to frustrate the making of greenfields agreements. This bill will extend good-faith bargaining rules to the negotiation of greenfields agreements. For example, employers and unions will be required to participate in meetings with each other. There will be new, optional, three-month negotiation times and, if agreement cannot be reached within that time—this is the really telling point—the employer will be able to take its proposal directly to the Fair Work Commission for approval. So it is really not negotiation; it is about skewing the system very much in favour of the employer.
There are a number of individual flexibility agreements, greenfields agreements and right-of-entry agreements. In a number of cases, including in individual flexibility agreements, the government has clearly overstepped its pre-election commitment. It is doing this by using tricky language, as we have come to expect this government always to do. I want to touch on individual flexibility. Individual flexibility is a trade-off of money for benefits that are non-financial. That can be good if it involves small amounts of money and creates a degree of flexibility, but it is not good when it is used to whittle away the working conditions of workers in a particular place.
This legislation is really about the government very much seeking to change the balance in the workplace and take away workers' conditions. I want to concentrate a little more on those flexible agreements. Flexible work practices can, as I was saying, deliver benefits to both employers and employees if they are applied appropriately. The key factor there is fairness. At the same time, vulnerable, low-paid workers and their families must be protected. These are the lifters and carriers. These are the people who the Treasurer targets with his cuts. These are the people who the budget seeks to impose the greatest hurt and pain on. These are the people who this Abbott government is seeking to inflict more pain on. If these flexible agreements are imposed on unsuspecting employees, quite often, if you do not have the proper union representation, you can agree to a condition that you really do not understand. At the end of the day, when they find out that their pay has gone down and their conditions have been weakened, it is really difficult for workers. They are the losers in that situation.
I know there are some very good people on the other side of this House—people who do not really want to see workers disadvantaged. Any flexibility should be a win-win for both the employer and the worker. It should not be a situation where the employer benefits and the worker is disadvantaged. It is about both parties, and this is a system that is already in place across a majority of enterprise agreements in Australia. It really concerns me when we have this sort of legislation before the parliament. The government is unreasonably proposing that a key safeguard be abandoned, traded away through its flexible agreements. The expert panel stated:
… if a nonmonetary benefit is being traded for a monetary benefit, the value of the monetary foregone must be relatively insignificant, and the value of the non-monetary benefit is proportionate.
That is not what I see this legislation do. Despite the clear prescription for 'relatively insignificant' and 'proportionate', these are missing from the bill that we have before us today.
The government has also included a requirement for employees to provide their employers with what it has misleadingly labelled a 'genuine need statement'. I think that genuine need statement is something that really skews this legislation. Who determines what a genuine need is? The arbitration on that would really disadvantage the workers in a workplace unless there are some fair minded employers out there who will interpret it in the spirit of genuineness—and I am sure there are some like that. But, where there is a statement of genuine need, who determines what 'genuine' is? The statement is intended to catch an employee's state of mind at the time the flexible agreement was agreed to. How do you do that? That is the question.
This government has tried to pass this off as an employee safeguard. It is not an employee safeguard. It is actually a tool to discriminate against employees. I think this government should hang its head in shame. This legislation is antiworker. This legislation is anti-union, but this government is always anti-union. In industrial relations, to establish a good industrial relations system you need balance between the employers and the workers. You do not start a vendetta against the union movement or one side of the equation. For the government, it is punish one, punish all. It is really only concerned about one thing, and that is punishing workers and punishing unions. (Time expired)
I appreciate the opportunity to speak on the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014 today and wholeheartedly endorse it. You would recall that the 2007 election was not a great moment for our side; we lost many people. That is the nature of politics. People make a decision about what they see in front of them; and, unfortunately, they decided against us. I think it would be fair to say that, particularly on the east coast—not so much on the west coast—the Work Choices argument was a fair influence on many people. Again, not on the west coast; I was elected with a 2½ per cent swing. My good friend the member for Swan was elected with a one per cent swing despite the worst advertising that could have been thrown at us, as indeed ran in the rest of the country. But I know that, in the cases of the member for Brisbane, who is the former member for Petrie, and the member for Fisher, who is the former member for Longman, the moment was not lost on them. Everybody on this side of politics remembers that there were lessons learnt about things going too far. There was a no-disadvantage clause in the Work Choices policy, and I think that was a mistake. The Labor Party, the government back at the start of 2008, kept reminding us and talking about Work Choices. For years they talked about Work Choices, and it was not lost on us. So what we see in this bill is exactly what was promised before the last election. There is no Work Choices anymore; it is just a sensible rebalancing to the centre.
I know the other side has a great interest in this. The arguments that we have heard against this bill are really not about the workers, not about the employees; they are really about the vested interests of the funders of the other side—the union movement—and the preselectors of the other side, of which something like 50 per cent are again from the union movement. It is not really representative of private-sector workers. Eighty-seven per cent are not members of a union. It is much higher, of course, in the public sector. But 87 per cent of private-sector workers reject union representation, and I think there is something in that. When we talk about and implement this policy of rebalancing the Fair Work Act, what we are really doing is speaking up in the best interests of the majority of workers in this country. The reason for that is that, without development, without businesses, without the very strong private sector, there are no jobs for anybody beyond the public sector, and an economy must have a strong private sector to thrive. That is really where the jobs go.
As I said, I understand why there is this stoic defence by the Labor Party against any change at all to the Fair Work Act. I know there is a battle on the other side of politics between the extreme left of the Greens and the not-so-left of the Labor Party. It is a battle for who is actually getting the funding from the unions. I know the piper is to be paid. If people want their preselections and funding for their election campaigns, the industrial arm of the Labor Party—or maybe the political arm of the union movement—has to do as it is told. If they do not, who knows what is going to happen with these factional deals? As former senator Louise Pratt found out, a lot of people can be victims of deals between the factions over there. While certain union leaders might just parachute into a safe seat, if you live by the sword, you die by the sword; and, in any case, you have to do as the bosses tell you.
Turning specifically to this bill, as I said, it is about returning to a fair balance. We are trying to do something that is going to be good for workers and good for business so that there are more jobs and a can-do attitude. The first point I would like to talk about is the greenfields projects. A can-do attitude is required when we are talking about investments. The questions must be about what are the advantages for Australia and what benefits can Australians gather by working hard on these new projects. Labour arrangements must be put in place so that investors know what the costs will be. As I said, no investment does not help the country. It does not help the employees or potential employees, and there will be no-one for a union to represent if this is not done properly.
It is wrong for any party in such matters to seek to frustrate any agreement in an attempt to merely start talking about the wages or the other benefits before they even know the country and the future investments created. Instead, we propose to ensure good faith bargaining and to set time limits so that there is a requirement to actually be constructive in these negotiations, and I really do wonder sometimes how that can be objected to. Put very simply, the employer informs the union of the proposal and then there is a three-month period to get an agreement. That is where the can-do attitude comes in. You have three months to work it out; that is a long time. It is around 100 days to come to an agreement. If they still cannot come to an agreement after three months, it is then that the employer can take the proposed agreement to Fair Work. That agreement has to comply with the existing requirements and of course satisfy the 'better off overall' assessment. That is a really critical point because in the end no-one will go backwards as a result. I find it disappointing that those on the other side are suddenly so against Fair Work, that they are harbouring a belief that Fair Work will not ensure that these rules and laws will be carried out. It is disappointing.
The next point I would like to speak about is the issue of right of entry, and that is really about freedom of choice. If a person wants a union to represent them, then fine. But if a person does not want a union to represent them or preach to them or cajole them in the workplace, then they should not have to put up with that either. As I said, in the private sector 87 per cent of people have come to that exact conclusion. On the issue of workplace access for unions, there really is a current imbalance in the access rules. What is proposed is a fair and sensible balance. It will, of course, ensure employees have the right to be represented in the workplace if they wish to be, but it will also take away the level of unnecessary disruption to employers so that they can get on with running the business that actually employs and generates the returns. Again: if they were not generating returns, then no-one would have a job in any case.
As we know, and I know a lot of speakers have referenced this, back in 2007 there were certain guarantees given by the then shadow minister, Julia Gillard, that the existing rights-of-entry laws would remain. That was from 2007, so the arrangements before the 2007 election were that they would remain. Instead, through the original Fair Work Act, easier access was provided. This took the form of excessive workplace visits from unions. It did not matter whether the employees were union members or not. They did not even need to ask for the union to come to the site. They were the extreme arrangements and that was what faced us.
Add to that the competition for membership between several unions and it became a worse problem. Difficulties running a business enterprise were made that much more difficult. I do wonder what those opposite would consider to be a fair number of right-of-entry visits. As the minister noted—this is relevant to Western Australia—the Pluto LNG joint venture project had 200 right-of-entry visits from unions in just three months—that is more than two a day. I think others have also mentioned that BHP's Worsley Alumina plant had 676 visits in 12 months—again, something in the vicinity of two a day. This does not actually create productivity; this is disrupting people and pulling people off their jobs and getting in the way.
Therefore, it is little wonder that action has been required and that is why we are here. On this point, what is going to change is that, yes, a union will still be able to enter a workplace where they have an existing representative role via an enterprise agreement or if employees have asked them to attend. But if there is no existing role an employee who wants to remain anonymous can still seek to have the union come to their workplace but the union then has to make an application to the Fair Work Commission to obtain an invitation certificate. This request has to be proven to the satisfaction of the commission after they have ascertained that a worker has invited the union, and that that worker does work on the site. To protect the anonymity of the worker, their name will not be on that certificate. These changes will restore the balance and will be consistent with what both sides of politics said before the 2007 election.
One of the great defining features of the previous government's departure from everything they had said before the 2007 election was excessive right-of-entry visits. As I said, 676 visits to BHP's Worsley Alumina plant in a single year. While those opposite may think that the destruction of productivity is acceptable, clearly it is not. This bill will provide the mechanism for the commission to deal with disputes about excessive right-of-entry visits for discussion purposes. The previous government's faux attempts to deal with this problem were to place amendments in the Fair Work Act that were ineffective and were almost impossible to use. Their plan was to allow action on excessive visits only where there had been 'unreasonable diversion of the occupiers' critical resources.' Contrast that with our plan to allow the commission to possibly suspend the entry permit or revoke it, to place conditions upon it such as time limits. In this way, the history of the union's previous actions will be considered and the permit will be conditional.
As the minister said, 87 per cent of private sector employees are not union members and it is right that the rights of those workers are not impacted by union visits. The amendments address the venue for unions to address their members. The employer will have to nominate a room that is reasonable and fit for the purpose, but the lunch room at lunchtime will not be such a room. The travel and accommodation costs of union officials visiting remote worksites should be borne not by the business but by the union officials and their members. I recall that former CFMEU union secretary Kevin Reynolds had a top of the line Range Rover, so it is not as though they do not have four-wheel drive vehicles to support this.
I want to turn to some comments made by the member for Shortland. She made some false allegations about reducing people's pay and conditions, and I think she might have even quoted the individual agreements. I would like to clarify that. It was under the Fair Work Act of the former government that individual flexibility agreements, IFAs, were enshrined. IFAs are important because they allow employers and employees the opportunity to agree on conditions for the employee that suit the business and the employee. It gives them greater flexibility. In retaining this, it is clear that an employer cannot force an employee to sign an IFA or make it a condition of employment, and the employee must be better off overall than they would have been under the applicable modern award or enterprise agreement.
There is no doubt that this bill restores things to a sensible balance. There are loads of protections for workers, but for the opposition it is not about protection of workers; it is about protection of their pre-selectors—the union movement. We are getting back to a very small centre, and I endorse this bill.
I rise to speak in opposition to the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014—I know this is a surprise to those across the bench! I do so because this is another bill in a long tradition of propositions that come from the coalition which seek to reduce the rights of working people in the workplace. Notwithstanding their statement that they seek to promote a sensible centre, we never see from the coalition a proposition which ever gives rise to benefits for employees. At the end of the day, this is a bill which is in the tradition of a government and a political movement which when you look inside you see in there the beating heart of Work Choices. This is very much a contemporary manifestation of that. It is on that basis that we seek to oppose this bill. We also oppose it because, in essence, it represents a broken promise, a broken promise from a government which before the election said that they would go no further after being elected than the pre-election commitments that they made. That has not been honoured in this bill, where there are provisions that go beyond those proposals that were put to the Australian people this time last year.
The coalition said that they would implement specific recommendations directly from the 2012 Fair Work review. Again, propositions contained within this bill go well beyond what was contained within the Fair Work review. Not only does this represent a manifestation of an itching desire on the part of the coalition to walk down the path of Work Choices, to resurrect it; it also represents a series of broken promises compared to the proposition that they put to the Australian people this time last year. This is particularly the case in relation to individual flexibility arrangements, greenfields agreements and the right of entry, all of which are contained within the bill. I want to deal with each of those points.
Individual flexibility arrangements were introduced by the former Labor government, acknowledging that there are circumstances in which employers and employees may well want to enter an agreement which differs from the enterprise agreement or the award which pertains to a particular workplace, and that such a flexibility arrangement may well represent a win-win for both the employer and the employee in the workplace. That is obviously something to be encouraged. At the same time, there is a real risk that when you put in regimes of this kind they can be exploited to the detriment of an employee.
The safeguard that was put in place by Labor at the time was the BOOT, the better off overall test, which sought to make sure that there was a protection for employees with the individual flexibility arrangements that they entered into. At the heart of that was a proposition which said that it would be possible to sacrifice, potentially, conditions which had a monetary value associated with them in return for a non-monetary benefit and where that were to occur, it needed to be the case that—and this was recommended by the expert panel—the monetary value that was to be foregone needed to be relatively insignificant and the value of the non-monetary benefit needed to be proportionate. That was at the heart of the expert panel's recommendation in relation to individual flexibility arrangements.
That is not what we see in relation to the proposition which is put before us in this bill, where it makes it clear that that relationship between the insignificance of the monetary benefit foregone and the proportionality of the non-monetary benefit gained does not form part of the flexibility arrangement contained within this bill. That, in our view, opens up a real possibility that workers can be exploited through an individual flexibility arrangement which may well mean that people are asked to give up significant conditions that are either existing in a workplace agreement or a workplace award. That is a key example where people can be significantly worse off. We all remember the no disadvantage test, which was such a key component of what was removed during the Work Choices legislation. This has echoes of that, and so it is very important that it be contested within this parliament, and that is why we oppose it.
In relation to greenfields agreements, greenfields agreements clearly have their place within the industrial system, where you do have a new workplace which needs to be established based on a set of working conditions, and obviously they are often done so on the basis of negotiating those agreements with a relevant union which may represent people covered by the kind of work that would be the subject of the workplace and therefore the agreement. But what this provision provides is an ability to put employers in a much greater position of power when negotiating those agreements. Specifically, the provision that requires that an employer notify a three-month negotiation period has the effect of beginning a clock which will run for three months. During that time it would in effect be possible for the employer not to significantly or seriously negotiate with the union in relation to the agreement, and once the clock expires after the three months the employer is then given the opportunity of taking whatever is in place at that moment to the Fair Work Commission. It would have the effect of, in essence, allowing an employer to negotiate with itself in order to come up with what is ultimately taken to the Fair Work Commission. There is nothing in that which represents fairness or a sensible centre in terms of the workplace.
Finally, in terms of the specific issues that I want to deal with, is right of entry. Right of entry is an important provision which gives employees an opportunity to consult with unions about the issues they have within their workplace. There is a balancing act which needs to be undertaken, which Labor undertook in government, to balance the rights of employees to gain the advice that they want to gain from their union whilst also not giving rise to a situation where you see an unreasonable obstruction to the operations of an employer's business. That is common sense. Balancing the rights of an employer to continue their business as they will and the rights of employees to get information is at the heart of any right of entry provision. But what we are seeing in this proposition is an ability to further restrict unions from being able to consult with employees in a workplace, and that balance is upset.
There is also the proposition of an invitation certificate, which is couched in terms of seeking to give rise to or provide for anonymity for employees who want to have a union come into a workplace in order to give them advice. But I do not think anyone can seriously suggest that a proposition of an invitation certificate could realistically remain anonymous in circumstances where you have a small workplace. If you are talking about 15 or 20 employees, a union turns up by virtue of the issuing of an invitation certificate, it would be very difficult to maintain any anonymity around the person who gave rise to that certificate. Therefore, as a proposition, we see that as being unrealistic and therefore one which would mean that the ability for individuals in those circumstances to be able to consult with a union would be seriously curtailed.
In all of this there is nothing which seeks to create the sensible centre that the government talks about. This is nothing more than starting the walk down the path towards Work Choices—walking down the path towards a situation where employees are further disempowered within the workplace, where their ability to maintain their conditions of employment are further curtailed.
But what I find extraordinary about this bill coming forward before this parliament at this moment in time is the preoccupation that exists with his government in pursuing this kind of legislation when we have in Australia the loss of manufacturing and the increase in unemployment that we are seeing. In my electorate of Corio, based as it is on Geelong, we have seen in the last 12 months or more, the two pillars of our private sector economy—Ford and Alcoa—announce that they will no longer continue operations in Geelong. At the beginning of this month we had Alcoa conclude its smelting in Geelong, having pursued that activity for more than 50 years. We have an enormous amount of people whose lives have been placed in a position of uncertainty as their employment is removed from them. All of that has happened whilst we have seen this government effectively goad the car industry offshore. No-one will forget the words of the Treasurer in response to Holden last year and what has then ensued in relation to both the car industry and manufacturing in general. That ought to be the focus of the government's activities—dealing with that issue, making sure that we maintain a manufacturing industry in this country and making sure that regions such as mine are given the appropriate resources to transition from a significant economic shock such as that which the closure of a company such as Alcoa represents in Geelong. Yet we have seen none of that from this government. When it comes to the question of employment and jobs, what interests this government is walking down the path of unveiling Work Choices again. It is about limiting employees' rights within the workplace rather than making sure that this country continues to have the kinds of industries that will employ people going forward.
There is a real sense in Geelong that this is a government that has cut Geelong loose in terms of its manifest failure to maintain manufacturing in Australia and its failure to assist Geelong in the transition from the loss of those employers—and then, in the context of the budget, reduced the social safety net for many people who are now going to need it. Instead of doing any of that, what we have before us is this bill which seeks to limit employees' rights in the workplace and which is, at its heart, a fundamental broken promise.
I rise tonight in support of the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014. It is a bill that delivers on key aspects of the coalition government's election policy and does not go any further. This bill sets out to deliver these amendments to the Fair Work Act. It includes greenfield agreements, right of entry and individual flexibility arrangements, and it closes the 'strike first, talk later' loophole. These were recommendations made by the 2012 Fair Work Act review.
In 2013, Labor conducted a review of the Fair Work Act but did not implement any of the recommendations from the review. The coalition's Fair Work Amendment Bill is offering employers and employees the clarity and certainty that Labor was unable to deliver. Many of the changes outlined in the bill will have a great effect on businesses and workers throughout the country and a positive effect on workers and businesses in my electorate as well.
Let us look at greenfields agreements first. This bill will improve the greenfields agreements negotiation process to ensure that unions can no longer frustrate the making of these agreements by seeking excessive wages or conditions or by refusing to agree at all. As the former government's Fair Work review noted, in somewhat understated language, these practices 'potentially threaten future investment in major projects in Australia'. It is not policy that drives the economy, it is not government control and it is not union control; it is the efforts of both employees and employers. And all they want is to get on with the job. That is what this bill is all about.
Amendments to the greenfields provisions will help unlock new investment and prevent needless delays to new projects. These amendments will send a strong message to overseas investors that Australia is open for business and that projects can get underway quickly. Along with these amendments, the bill addresses the current imbalance in union workplace access rules. Currently, some businesses face excessive workplace visits from unions—even when their employees are not union members and have not asked for the union's presence.
In 2007, the Labor Party promised on multiple occasions that there would be no changes to the union right of entry laws. In a press conference on 28 August 2007, the then deputy opposition leader, Julia Gillard, said:
We will make sure that current right of entry provisions stay. We understand that entering on the premises of an employer needs to happen in an orderly way. We will keep the right of entry provisions.
As we know, these promises were not kept and unions were given much easier access to workplaces under the Fair Work Act provisions, which were routinely exploited by some—I note 'some'—unions. Unions are now allowed to enter a much wider range of workplaces for discussion purposes, including workplaces where that union has not traditionally had members or played a significant role. In addition, Labor's amendments removed the previous ability for employers to specify an appropriate location within the workplace for unions to meet with employees and instead set the workplace lunch room as the default meeting place. This has led to disruptive 'lunch room invasions' which unions have used to target employees who did not wish to meet with them. You can imagine an employer trying to sit down with an employee on their lunch break to discuss different things. It would not be acceptable. Certainly in this case it does seem to be a bit excessive.
Furthermore, Labor's most recent amendments also introduced an obligation on employers to pay for the cost of transport of union officials to remote work sites, such as offshore resources projects. This has created an employer-funded 'union boss joy ride' scheme which has also been abused. Should this not be covered by membership fees? Thousands of hardworking Australians who are union members pay their membership fees every year. Should not union delegates' travel fees be covered by those fees? That is what those fees are for—not for companies to pay for union officials to visit remote work sites. The former government's Fair Work Act review panel highlighted the problem, noting that the Pluto LNG project—as the previous member mentioned—received more than 200 right-of-entry visits in only three months, while BHP Billiton's Worsley Alumina plant faced 676 right-of-entry visits in a single year. This, in both cases, is more than two visits a day. That is a lot of visits, isn't it?
On a more local level, I approached several business owners in my electorate when I decided to speak on this bill because I was interested to see if they, too, had been affected by excessive right-of-entry visits. Unfortunately, they had. One of these business owners said she has had to deal with union reps turning up every two weeks. I stress that she did not want her name or the name of her business mentioned out of fear that her business would be targeted even more. This business owner is losing productivity because of right-of-entry visits. Two years ago she was employing around 160 people; today she is down to 47. When I asked her what these visits were for, the only practical reason she could give was that these union reps were out to pressure her employees and herself to join a union EBA.
She drew my attention to an email that was sent out by the CEO of Brisbane-based air-con manufacturer, Siganto and Stacey, that was the basis of an article put in TheCourier-Mail last month. It said:
The 46-year-old company’s construction arm has closed, assets will be liquidated …
Sacked workers were briefed on entitlements and allowed to collect personal items yesterday morning.
In an email sent to staff on Monday night, company CEO William Siganto described his “bitter disappointment”.
“There have been difficult projects, delays and confrontation,” Mr Siganto wrote.
Confrontation from unions. Our changes to right of entry will reduce the capacity for unions to deliberately harass and disrupt businesses in this way. Furthermore, the bill before us today will improve workplace productivity and flexibility by enhancing the scope for employees to make individual flexibility arrangements that meet their genuine needs as determined by those employees.
Although IFAs were included in the Fair Work Act since its commencement, this bill addresses the shortfalls to Labor's 2007 election policy to introduce IFAs. I understand the need for employers to enter into IFAs with employees. IFAs offer flexible workplaces that ultimately deliver benefits to both the employers and the employees—benefits such as greater job satisfaction, improved productivity, improved efficiency and, ultimately, improvements in the employees' motivation to continue working. IFAs allow employers and employees to enter into specific arrangements for when work is performed. For example, it should allow for them to determine remuneration on overtime rates and penalty rates, provided the employee is not worse off. It can simplify the task of a pay clerk—for example, having one hourly rate instead of working out an overtime rate, laundry allowances and all the other allowances that are often included. There would be just one higher hourly rate.
An important aspect of IFAs is that an employer can consider non-monetary benefits to an employee, provided the employee is better off overall under the IFA, and that is set out in writing—how this arrangement will benefit them. One example may be a pay clerk who is working 20 hours a week permanent part time. They are given a certain amount of work to do each week. They may do overtime; they may decide to work a couple of extra hours to meet all the aspects. Rather than having the pay clerk work out overtime on those extra hours that they have worked, they are paid a higher hourly rate to simplify the process. As long as the employee is not disadvantaged, this seems quite reasonable.
This government's proposed amendments to IFAs has the potential to deliver a more user friendly process for employers in which they can bargain with their employees. While IFAs were introduced in 2009 by the Gillard government, not many employers have adopted them. This is because the IFAs turned out to be not as flexible as initially planned. Under Labor's Forward with Fairness policy implementation plan, released in August 2007, the IFAs flexibility pertained to: rostering; hours of work and rates of pay; provisions that certain award conditions may not apply when employees are paid above a fixed percentage, as set out in the award; an arrangement to allow the employee to start and finish work early to allow them to collect their children from school without the employer paying additional penalty rates for the early start.
This bill will ensure all current protections for employees, making IFAs remain in place. And it sets out to provide additional protections, which include: an IFA cannot be a condition of employment, only a worker can approach an employer for an IFA, an employer cannot force an employee to sign an IFA, an employee must provide a statement to the employer saying how the IFA meets their genuine needs and how they consider themselves better off overall.
This bill sets out to implement the review's recommendations. This bill responds directly to the Fair Work review panel's recommendations, whilst, at the same time, keeping the current IFA framework. Amendments to this bill will provide a more balanced workplace relations system, whilst safeguarding workers' conditions and protections. This bill implements the coalition's publicly stated election policy—nothing more and nothing less.
This bill seeks to provide a harmonious working relationship between the employee and the employer where together they can work out individual circumstances that will benefit both parties. I trust that when this bill is passed it will ensure that businesses feel confident that flexible arrangements can be made.
The government is strongly committed to these measures. They are necessary to help build a more stable, fair and prosperous future for Australian workers and businesses and the economy. That is why I support the sensible and measured reforms presented in the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014.
This bill will enable employers to undercut basic award entitlements—a move that even former Prime Minister John Howard admitted was a key mistake of Work Choices. And of course former Prime Minister John Howard subsequently reinstated the no-disadvantage test in 2007.
Let us not be in any way confused by the multiple speeches filled with talking points that we have heard from those on the government back bench in the course of the debate on this bill, the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014. This is part of a war that the Liberal Party is waging on weekend and night pay, and it is just the first step to an open slather on cutting the pay and allowances of Australian workers.
The bill goes much further than the coalition's pre-election policy which was published in May 2013. It goes much further than the fair work review panel's recommendations. Of course, this kind of legislation, now being introduced to the parliament, is what we have come to expect from this government—a government which said one thing to the Australian people before the election and has done another, in so many areas, after the election. Before the election we had a vague policy on industrial relations from the Liberal Party, designed to reassure Australians that they were not proposing to attack Australians' wages and conditions, and very much vague in order to ensure that their true intentions—a hard-right agenda that we see now being implemented by this government in so many areas—their real intentions, were to go much further than anything they had said before the election. It can only be said that what this Liberal Party said before the election was intended to deliberately mislead Australian voters.
Night and weekend pay is a core part of the budgets of millions of Australians. Some 4.5 million Australians work in sectors where night and weekend pay rates apply, and it has, for a very long time, been an expectation of Australians—a very large majority of Australians—that people who work nights and weekends should be paid more. That is something that has been confirmed by recent polling by Essential Research, who found that some 80 per cent of Australians believe that people who work at night and on weekends should be paid more.
What this bill does is to set up circumstances designed to cut Australians' pay. It is worth looking a little bit at the history of the industrial background to this by noting that—contrary to what has been said in multiple speeches by those opposite—under the Labor government, individual flexibility arrangements or IFAs were used to give employees genuine flexibility, not to cut wages.
The key safeguard that Labor introduced was, of course, the BOOT—the better off overall test. IFAs had to ensure that employees were better off overall. What this bill does is to make changes that will remove that key protection. It will allow night and weekend rates to be traded off for an unlimited variety of so-called non-monetary benefits. For non-monetary benefits to be taken into account under Labor's BOOT safeguards, they had to be relatively insignificant and genuinely agreed to. Under this bill, these safeguards will be removed. Labor's safeguards to limit the use of the non-monetary trade-offs are replaced by a short note providing for, apparently, any 'benefits other than an entitlement to the payment of money' to be used. The requirement that these be relatively insignificant and genuinely proportionate has gone, and it will open the door to weekend and night pay being traded away for all sorts of non-monetary items—perhaps even pizza.
Without these safeguards, overnight and weekend rates could be traded away just like they could be under John Howard's hated individual contracts. And I hear one of the government backbenchers saying, 'Let them have a choice.' 'Let them have a choice' is, of course, the illusion that those opposite would like to present, pretending that every worker in Australia has a real choice, when he should know—and I believe that those opposite do, in truth, know—that not every Australian worker has a real choice; that very often the pressures that are brought to bear on them by their employer, the pressures that are brought to bear on them when they do not have the protection of a union, the pressures that will be brought to bear on them when they do not have the protection of legislation, mean that there is no real choice. So 'Let them have a choice' is the illusion that those opposite put forward when John Howard introduced his hated Work Choices laws, and now we hear again the echoes of Work Choices: 'Let them have a choice.' Well, 'Let them have a choice' was firmly rejected by the Australian people at the 2007 election, and this government should be ashamed of itself for returning, in the sly way that it is seeking to return, to the Work Choices regime that was so resoundingly rejected by Australians in 2007 and will be rejected again at the next chance that the Australian people get at the ballot box.
I just wanted to give as an example one of my own constituents—Paul Toll, who is a paramedic from Aspendale. Paul Toll is in no doubt that if extra pay for night duty, for overtime and for weekends were stripped away most of Victoria's experienced ambulance staff could not afford to stay in the job. It would be a devastating loss of experience and commitment but no-one with a family could afford to do the job for its base rate of $56,000 a year. That is what Paul Toll tells me. Weekend and night pay takes an experienced ambulance paramedic's pay to $71,000—that is a 26.7 per cent increase on the base rate—as compensation for shifts of 14 hours and 10 hours, and working any time—because this, of course, is what paramedics and ambulance workers have to do—of the week, day and night, all with unpredictable overtime.
This is what Paul said, 'Without that 26 per cent you would find people have to get another job. I've done 10 years and I want to stick it out. It's incredibly rewarding in many ways, but it's tough on families. We are always juggling child care, relying on family and friends.' That is what Paul Toll said. Paul went on to say, 'Without that extra pay, Ambulance Victoria would lose their experienced people who provide that supervision for the young graduates coming in. Already a lot of us are looking around at other options. My wife works full-time and we are already struggling to pay bills and the mortgage.'
That is the kind of dedication that we have come to expect from ambulance workers and paramedics in Victoria and, indeed, throughout Australia, and it is those kinds of Australian workers—paramedics and ambulance workers—whose night and weekend pay rates are at risk. They are under threat if this bill is allowed to pass.
I would go on to say that it is not just this attack on weekend and night pay that we see in this bill. There is another aspect to this bill that I should mention in the remaining time available. It is a bill which says that some 1.5 million Australians on the award safety-net will need to show their employer that they invited a union to their workplace if they need information and support. This goes back to the interjection before from the government backbencher, to the effect of, 'Let them have a real choice.' I say it again: in the real world of Australian workplaces, vulnerable people, including perhaps by way of example, recent immigrants, will not get access to their union and to the information they need if the changes proposed in this bill go through.
In the real world, fear and insecurity and lack of knowledge mean that people do sign their rights away. In the real world it is a 'take it or leave it' situation, which is why we legislate in industrial relations to provide basic protections to Australian workers and why Labor will fight on every occasion to preserve those rights and protections for Australian workers, because what we will fight for is a decent workplace—one in which every Australian worker is respected.
Meanwhile, putting the provisions of this bill to one side, higher-paid Australians already on collective agreements have ongoing access to union information and support. All Australian workers deserve the same right of access to a union, regardless of where they work, regardless of how much they are paid and regardless if they have an enterprise agreement or not. Again, what we see is a coalition backflip. The Prime Minister promised that he would only implement changes from the Fair Work Review. But not one of these union information proposals arise from that process. Not one. In fact, the Fair Work Review Panel specifically rejected the idea that people on the award safety net should have lesser access to union information and support. The Fair Work Review Panel also rejected the idea of employee 'invitations'—so called—being issued before unions can provide that support.
Indeed, Australians on the award safety net absolutely need access to union information more than any other workers. These are workers who need help from unions to know their award rights. These are workers who need help to know when not to sign those rights away. And they need help to improve their rights by joining with others and winning the better living standards that come with collective bargaining.
This other part of the bill, these amendments, are a transparent attack on Australians' rights at work. They appear designed to keep people on the award safety net, or on IFAs that undercut that safety net. Regrettably, it is what we have come to expect from this government, which thinks that attacking the Labor movement, attacking the union movement and attacking unions is what they were elected to do. Of course, that is not what they said to the Australian people before the election. Nothing of it! They did not say to the Australian people before the election that they were going to embark on a wholesale attack on workers' rights and information being provided to Australian workers on the rights of unions to serve workers in every industry in Australia. Of course they did not because they wanted to create the false impression that they were not planning, as is now apparent, a return to Work Choices.
We are seeing here the first steps—the first small steps—of a return to the harsh industrial relations regime that Australians were forced to endure when the Howard government got control of the Senate and rushed legislation through both houses of parliament, introducing the hated Work Choices regime. We are seeing here in this bill again the first steps being made by what is, regrettably, a very hard-right Liberal government indeed. Again, this is not anything they liked to talk about before the election. We are seeing here from this government their first steps on the path of return to work choices.
The government deserves to be condemned for bringing this legislation into the House. Australians will see it for what it is, which is an attack on workers' rights, an attack on workers' rights to information and an attack on the entirely appropriate role that is played by unions in the Australian workplace.
What confected outrage have we just heard from the member for Isaacs. It was so confected that he tripped over himself, lost his spot and did not quite know how to finish. He knows, like everyone else in this place knows, that all we are doing here is honouring our election commitments. We took workplace relations policies to the last election and we are seeking to implement them. In doing so we are also ensuring that the previous Labor government implements the policies it took to the 2007 election. As we know only too well, they were the ones who said one thing before the election and did another thing after the election.
Just while the member for Isaacs leaves, still bloated by his confected outrage, I will give him an example. This is what then Deputy Leader of the Opposition Julia Gillard said before the 2007 election:
But, sadly, Mr Deputy Speaker Vasta, as you know only too well, that is not what happened. The Labor government, when in power, could not help itself. I do not think it even needed the union movement to twist its arm. It just said, 'What would you like? What would you need?'—especially when we saw Prime Minister Gillard needing that union support to prop up her failing leadership. She decided that the key ingredient for her to survive was for her to give her union movement what they wanted. It was not the union movement as such; the union bosses who control the numbers were controlling her destiny.
One of the first things that Prime Minister Gillard relented on was union access to workplaces. This bill addresses this. It will address the current imbalance in union workplace access rules . Before the election, we said that we would fix this, and fixing it is what we are doing. We are doing it in two key areas. We are doing it with regard to the eligibility requirement for right of entry. They will be broken down into two key ingredients. Are the members of a workplace covered by an enterprise agreement? A union will only be entitled to enter a workplace for discussion purposes if they are covered by an enterprise agreement or they have been invited by a member or employee they are entitled to represent. I would have thought that is fairly straightforward, fairly simple and fairly uncontroversial. That is why we are seeing such confected outrage from those opposite. They have no genuine grievances when it comes to this bill. What we are putting in place are common sense, straightforward requirements that say to unions, 'If you want to access a workplace, there are some requirements that you need to abide by.' In very much the same way that we ask people to behave in a polite manner, that is what we are asking the union movement to do when it requires access to premises.
There are also changes being made with regard to right of entry when it comes to frequency disputes. What we do not want to see is union entry day after day after day. In some cases, sites are being visited up to 144 times a year, which leads to an unreasonable diversion of the occupier's critical resources. Sadly, this is a tactic which has been used by various union bosses to disrupt workplaces: unreasonably seek to gain access to a workplace day after day after day. These provisions seek to change that in, once again, a very straightforward, sensible way which is perfectly in line with the commitments that we took to the last election.
There are also the changes that will be made when it comes to repeals. The bill will also repeal the previous government's amendments, made in 2013, that expanded union right of entry even further by allowing for uninvited 'lunchroom invasions' and requiring employers to pay for the cost of union boss joy-rides to remote worksites. As all of us here would know, especially when it comes to remote worksites, we have people doing their jobs. They often work in fairly tough conditions. They work in a way that makes sure it benefits them and benefits the productivity of the enterprise they work for. The last thing that they need is the distraction caused by people deciding that they will go for a ride and seek to disrupt a remote workplace. This section makes sure that that sort of hindrance, that type of intimidation, can no longer take place. When it comes to right of entry, we are putting in place sensible safeguards to make sure that unions cannot exploit right of entry provisions. These are consistent with what then Deputy Leader of the Opposition Julia Gillard said in 2007.
There are three other key components of this bill that we think need to be addressed. The second one goes to greenfields agreements. As we have heard from the former Labor minister for resources, what is occurring with greenfields agreements is meaning that the development of new sites is not occurring because of the expense incurred for these major projects because unions, sadly, are holding some of these projects to ransom. Once again, it is not just our side who are saying this. Reasonable people on the other side are also prepared to admit that, when it comes to greenfields sites, there has been a problem with the way the Fair Work Bill has been implemented and we need to address that.
The bill will extend good faith bargaining rules to the negotiation of greenfields agreements to improve the standard of bargaining conduct. This will mean that employers and unions will be required to, for example, attend and participate in meetings with each other and consider and respond to proposals in a timely manner. Once again, this is straightforward and sensible. This is not radical change. This is common-sense change to make sure that, as we develop greenfield sites, unions cannot put themselves in a position where they hold the projects to ransom. And there is nothing here that those opposite should be afraid of. As a matter of fact, their own review of the Fair Work Act said some changes are required in this area.
The third important aspect of this bill is to do with fixing the 'strike first, talk later' loophole. Once again, this is very uncontroversial. Would those opposite like to see continue the idea of unions striking first and then deciding to negotiate? Surely, the fairer way to do it is to ensure that there are negotiations before strikes occur. Once again, this is consistent with the promises of the Labor Party prior to the 2007 election and the recommendation of the Fair Work Review Panel. In his speech to the National Press Club on 17 April 2007, the then Labor Leader, Kevin Rudd, said:
Industrial disputes are serious. They hurt workers, they hurt businesses, they can hurt families and communities, and they certainly hurt the economy. They—
will not be able to strike unless there has been genuine good faith bargaining.
Well, that is what we are trying to achieve here. I know that many of those opposite now try and disown their association with Prime Minister Rudd. But he said this prior to an election and I think it is beholden upon the Labor Party to say: 'Yes, we understand that and, yes, we are happy to abide by what he said because he took the Australian people into his confidence that this is what he would do.' Sadly, that is not what was finally implemented over the six years of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government. We want to hold Labor to account and make sure they honour their own commitments and the promises they made to the Australian people.
Fourthly, and importantly, this bill seeks to make individual flexibility arrangements, which are in the Fair Work Act, workable so that workers and employers can use them. We want to make sure that if a worker wants to negotiate better arrangements in his workplace, and do that through these individual flexibility arrangements, they can do so. So far, these arrangements have proven to be almost unworkable. We want to make sure that they are workable, and we want to put in place additional protections because we want to make sure that these individual flexibility arrangements work for both the employer and the employee.
It is incredibly important that we get this right—and it is incredibly important for the union movement. The union movement now only represents 13 per cent of the private sector Australian workforce. So a union needs to make sure that its behaviours and practices represent workers and that the workers want to work with the union and be members of the union. If they get it right, there is a place for them to do so. But at the moment they must be asking themselves, 'What are we doing wrong?' And the Labor Party should be saying, 'Are we seriously helping the unions to do their job and play their role?' With private sector union membership at 13 per cent the Labor Party needs to be saying: 'Maybe we do need to look at what the government is proposing here. Maybe these are sensible changes that will help the union movement in the way it goes about its business. And, in the long run, that might be better for the union movement—rather than just taking the blind ideological approach that any change in this area cannot be countenanced, that any change needs to take us backwards rather than forwards.'
So I appeal to the Labor Party: think about the good you could do by agreeing to these sensible changes—changes which this government took to the last election and, in many cases, changes which honour commitments that you made to the Australian people in the lead-up to the 2007 election. These are fair-minded, reasonable changes which will make our workplaces a lot better and lead to job creation. I commend the bill to the House.
The Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014 does two things. Firstly, it purports to respond to the 2012 Fair Work Act Review and the 53 recommendations that arose from that review. Secondly, the bill purports to implement coalition election policies. Neither of those claims are accurate when you look closely at what is in the bill. It is interesting, when you listen to speakers opposite, to hear how they are prepared to distort the interpretation of what is in the bill to suit their arguments. Many of the 53 recommendations which arose from the 2012 Fair Work Act Review were, in fact, implemented by the last Labor government with respect to the Fair Work Amendment Act 2012 and subsequently the Fair Work Amendment Act 2013. Both those acts implemented the recommendations which we on this side of the House thought were fair and reasonable.
Going to the second point in respect to the claimed that this legislation implements coalition election policies, again that is not true either. I would suggest that members opposite who come into the House and constantly make that claim look carefully at what their policies specifically said in the lead-up to the 2013 election and how they match up with what is in this legislation because close scrutiny will show that the legislation goes much further than those opposite claim it does and goes much further than the policies they took to the 2013 election said they would do as well.
As many members on this side of the House have already made clear, this legislation is the first step to the Abbott government implementing its extreme, right-wing industrial relations policies, policies which the coalition failed to get through this place in 2007 because they failed to win the election, I believe largely because the Australian people rejected their Work Choices policies. Most Australians I spoke to at the time, regardless of on which side of politics they stood, saw right through those policies and knew they were bad for all working Australians. Indeed several people, whom I know are not supporters for our side of politics, were not concerned about Work Choices for themselves but for the children and their grandchildren, who they felt would perhaps not have the experience to look after their workplace conditions in the same way they were able to do.
As others have clearly spelt out, the name 'Work Choices' may be dead, buried and cremated, but the ideology is alive and well in the minds of coalition members and in the minds of their key political puppet masters. This legislation covers the key issues of union right of entry, greenfield agreements and individual flexibility arrangements. Those of the three key areas where I suspect we differ from coalition members with respect to the legislation. These are matters for which, in this legislation, the balance of fairness is heavily skewed in favour of the employers against the employees. Not surprisingly, I speak in support of the very sensible amendment moved by the member for Gorton—that is, that this bill be not given a second reading. Contrary to what the government claims, the propositions in this bill go much further than their commitments made before the election and the claims being made by members as they come into the chamber to support this legislation. I just heard the member for Wannon. It is interesting how different people can read this legislation and come into this place to put their own interpretation on it. I suggest members opposite look not to comments from the people on this side of the House and not to the comments from members of their own side. If they were to look to the Parliamentary Library's assessment of this legislation they would find that the concerns we have are very clearly articulated in the paper put out by the Parliamentary Library.
It should come as no surprise that we see another election commitment broken—that is, the commitment on industrial policy which the coalition took on the 2013 election. Since its election, we have seen this government break promise after promise. We have seen it with the $80 billion cuts to health and education. We have seen it with changes to pensions, when they promised not to make any such changes. We have seen it with cuts to industry assistance, cuts to the ABC and SBS, cuts to research institutions, cuts to Newstart payments, the $7 doctor tax and the increases in petrol tax. There is a litany of broken promises by this government so it should come as no surprise that they are also going to break their promise on matters of industrial relations, which they fought so strongly for in the 2007 election, which they lost, but which they have not given up on.
The Australian public have been betrayed by the Abbott government. Let me tell members opposite that the people I speak to clearly tell me that they know it. They are no fools and they know when they are being given spin by members of the coalition, particularly by the Prime Minister himself. There is another matter relating to all of this legislation which is deeply concerning. It is one thing to come into the House and constantly attack the unions. I have heard that since 2007 when I was first elected. Every time there is any form of industrial legislation brought before this place the first thing members opposite do is attack the unions. Rather than going to the substance of the legislation that is being debated, there are always generalisations about the union, never once looking at the specifics and the detail of what is being proposed.
They have now gone even further since the election of the Abbott government—that is, to blame working Australians, as part of their narrative, for why the Australian economy is in difficulty and for why so many Australian businesses are also having their own problems. 'Do not look at other factors but look straight at the workers and blame them.' We are hearing it continually from those opposite. We heard it in respect of the Toyota and Holden autoworkers where their wages and conditions were being blamed for the difficulties the automakers were having in Australia. We heard it with respect to SPC Ardmona where all sorts of claims were being made about the wages and conditions of those workers—claims that simply were not true—and it took a member of the coalition to come into this place and refute the comments of her own Prime Minister.
We have heard it constantly in respect of the woes that the restaurants in this country are having where, every time we talk about difficulties, the first thing that members opposite do is blame the workers who work for those organisations for the demise of those industries. I find those attacks on working Australians very unfair and, quite frankly, very wrong.
We are told that workers' remuneration, work packages and entitlements are causing so much difficulty in the Australian economy. What members opposite are trying to do is set a narrative, whereby working Australians are expected to lose conditions that, in many cases, have been hard fought for over the last 100 years or so and to work longer hours—and I now see that on a regular basis—for less pay, with fewer working rights. I frequently speak to people who tell me that they work much more than 40 hours a week, but they do not get paid for it and that it is expected of them. It has now been ingrained into them that, if they do not do that, they will be seen as someone who is perhaps not contributing their fair share to the workplace.
We know full well that those same people probably work where they do because they need a job. They have bills to pay and they also have families to keep and the like. So they cannot afford to stand up for their rights because they cannot afford to, in any way, risk losing their job. So we see them being put under pressure and, bit by bit, their work entitlements are being taken away from them. This legislation goes in that very direction and takes it just that little bit further.
We have also seen Australian workers being put under pressure to accept the conditions that they work under by the easing of regulations relating to allowing foreign workers to come into Australia on 457 visas and do work that could otherwise be done by Australians. There is only one reason for that: those workers more than likely come from countries where their wages and conditions are much less than those of Australian workers.
They are prepared to work in Australia for the same conditions—maybe better conditions—that they might have worked for in their own country and certainly for much less wages than what Australian workers would. It is a way of putting pressure on Australian workers to lower their own standards.
We know that most employers want to do the right thing by their employees and we know that most employees want to do the right thing by their employers. But there is no doubt in my mind that there are many unscrupulous employers who are prepared to take advantage of workers whenever and wherever they can. People have come to my office not once, not twice but time and time again where they have been badly treated by their employer and sought assistance from my office. It happens; it is the real world. Just as it is the real world in that I have no doubt that there are employees who do not do the right thing by their employer. But we need to strike a fair and proper balance and this legislation simply does not do that. What concerns me most about this legislation is that the people who are likely to be the worst affected, the people who rely the most on support from their unions, the people who are not in the best position to enter into individual agreements with employers are likely to be those people on the lowest incomes, young people, new arrivals, women and part-time workers. They are already at the low end of the scale in terms of the income they receive. Yet they are the people who most rely on support from outside and, for workers, that support comes from the unions of which they are members. Yet this legislation is clearly trying to make it much more difficult for them to get support from the unions by not allowing unions a right of entry as easily as they might have had in the past. It is part of a belief, an ideology that the Abbott government and coalition members opposite have and which they will continue to have if they support this legislation.
I doubt very much that any member opposite would ever want to be treated unfairly by an employer. I doubt very much that any member opposite would like to see conditions cut or work entitlements taken away from either them or any family member. But yet that is exactly what they are agreeing to do if they support this legislation.
The legislation was referred to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee. I understand that Labor produced a dissenting report. I want to specifically talk about the part that deals with greenfields agreements, because I think that is one of the critical parts of this legislation. It is clear from this legislation that the greenfields agreement component is skewed in favour of employers and, in particular, the notion that if you do not have an agreement within three months then you can go to the commission certainly smacks of trying to deliberately set up a framework whereby you can stall the negotiations for three months, waste your time, drag your feet and then, at the end of three months, you do not have to negotiate anymore. That is not what the recommendations from the 2012 review suggested but yet coalition members are saying it was part of the review and that is why they are doing it. That is simply not the case.
This legislation, as many of my colleagues on the Labor side of parliament have already made clear, is the first step by the Abbott government and coalition members to reintroduce all of the elements of Work Choices, albeit under different names. Labor is opposed to this bill and the member for Gorton, speaking on behalf of Labor members as the shadow minister, has made it clear that we will oppose this legislation and we do so for good reason because it does not strike a fair balance between the rights of workers and the rights of employers.
The ideological divide that separates the two sides of this House are pretty clearly defined on most issues, no more though than in the area of industrial relations. While the Labor Party does not stand for much, one group that it does advocate for robustly and steadfastly is its union mates. In other words, it can never ever be accused of putting the interest of its union mates last. While that is not necessarily a good thing; at least, I suppose, it is something. A lot of those on the other side posture around making a show for the nightly bulletins without any real conviction behind what they say. That is not surprising given the lack of consistency that the Leader of the Opposition has shown over the years. The movable feast that was his position on the party leadership in previous governments is a case in point.
By contrast, this is a government that is prepared to actually stand for something, to stick to its guns and not shift its position to suit the prevailing fashions of the day. This government was determined to stop the deaths of asylum seekers trying to arrive here by boat, so we can tick that off. This government promised it would scrap the carbon tax, so we can tick that one off. This government made it clear that it will roll back Labor's debt, which is still a work in progress.
It is with genuine pleasure that I am part of a government that is prepared to make reforms to fix the problems that hold back this country. Australia as a nation and the Northern Territory as a future state have enormous potential but under Labor this was frittered away in the interests of political opportunism, glad handling and carpet bagging. The coalition is introducing a new way focused on sound economic management and a big-picture government.
I spoke in this chamber during the last parliamentary sittings about the predominant role that Labor handed trade unions in this country and how instead of representing the interests of fee-paying members, the power was vested in dodgy union bosses. Today I rise to speak on the Fair Work amendment Bill 2014, legislation designed, again, to chip away at the union monolith bequeathed to this country by Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Bill Shorten. The bill is structured to deliver on our election commitments regarding union workplace access, individual flexibility arrangements and the removal of the ability to strike first and talk later. I should point out that these were all commitments made by Labor prior to the 2007 election but were killed stone dead by the removal of Kevin Rudd. Union ideologues like Bill Shorten were not having a bar of these reforms and Kevin Rudd was a victim of the current Labor leader-at-all-costs protection of the union movement and the mates who backed him through his political rise.
This legislation has five main points that combine to restore balance to the workplace. Firstly, it will improve the process for the negotiation of greenfield agreements which will ensure that unions will no longer have the capacity to frustrate bargaining during negotiations of these agreements through unsustainable claims and delays. These can threaten investment and stymie the commencement of major new projects, reduce incentives and come at a considerable cost to entrepreneurs and to the workers. This legislation will remove the effective union veto power over greenfields which have enabled them to frustrate the making of these agreements by seeking exorbitant wages and conditions or refusing to agree at all. This right of veto has already delayed major resource projects worth billions and billions of dollars.
This legislation intends to improve standards for bargaining conduct which means that employers and unions will, for example, be required to attend and participate in meeting with each other and consider and respond to proposals in a timely manner. To do this, this legislation establishes a three-month negotiation time frame which will apply where appropriate notice is provided by an employer to the relevant union or unions. At the end of the three months if there is no agreement reached then the employer will be able to take its proposed agreement to the Fair Work Commission for approval. The agreement will have to satisfy a new requirement that it provides for pay and conditions that are consistent with standards within the relevant industry for equivalent work. In line with this, the Fair Work Commission must also be satisfied that the union or unions to be covered by the agreement are able to represent the majority of future employees.
Secondly, it will establish union workplace access rules which restore the balance between workplaces and unions. Under Labor, union bosses had carte blanche to do what they wanted in the workplaces. As I said, this balance needs to be restored. This bill will improve workplace productivity and flexibility by enhancing the scope for employees to make individual flexibility arrangements that meet their genuine need as determined by those employees. No longer will unions be able to stand in the way of decision making by individuals. The amendments will provide clarity for employees around the use of individual flexibility arrangements which are an important tool to enable workers and employers to agree on conditions while ensuring workers are actually better off. These amendments are designed to promote flexibility for workers and employers in a range of different areas. For example, if a worker is also a carer for an elderly parent or another loved one, then time away from the workplace can be built into the agreement—likewise with childcare arrangements or other unrelated but important commitments that an employee may have. This will be of particular use in the Northern Territory and in my electorate of Solomon, where a lack of family support can present challenges for workers who do not have understanding employers or are reluctant to take time off from paid employment to care for sick children.
Two further amendments recommended by the Fair Work Act Review panel will be made to provide clarity and certainty to both parties. First, the unilateral termination period for IFAs made under enterprise agreements will be extended from 28 days to 13 weeks, consistent with the position for awards. To buttress this, the 13-week unilateral termination period for both modern awards and enterprise agreements will be placed in the legislation. The second amendment will confirm the existing position that the better-off, overall test for IFAs can be satisfied by exchanging monetary benefits for non-monetary benefits. This, along with the government's new requirement for a statement in writing from the employee, will provide greater protection and certainty for all parties.
All other rules relating to an IFA will be retained, including that they cannot be made a condition of employment, that they must leave the employee better off overall and that they must genuinely be agreed to. Under our amendments, an employer cannot force an employee to sign an individual flexibility arrangement or make it a condition of employment. An employee must be better off overall than they would have been under a modern award or an enterprise agreement. It will also close the strike-first, talk-later loophole in the good-faith bargaining rules and will also maintain the value of unclaimed wages recovered for workers by the Commonwealth. It will do this by amending the Fair Work Act to provide that protected industrial action can only be taken if bargaining for a proposed agreement has commenced. This amendment will mean that industrial action cannot be the first step in the bargaining process and in doing so it removes the whip-hand that unions currently hold.
I have been referencing to the Fair Work Act Review panel during this speech; it is a body initiated by the now Leader of the Opposition back in 2012 but never implemented by the Labor government. The panel made a number of recommendations that this government will implement, not because they are courageous or because we are going out on a limb, but because we are not beholden to the union movement for our daily bread. These are sensible measures that any sensible government can see are overdue for delivery. This legislation will clarify the interaction between leave and workers compensation by removing an exception that allows employees to accrue or take leave while absent from work receiving workers compensation. It will also clarify the circumstances where annual leave loading is payable when a person leaves their job. This is intended to restore the long-understood but sometimes confused position that workers are only entitled leave loading when they leave a job if it is expressly provided for in their award or workplace agreement. The government will introduce a requirement that an employer must give an employee a reasonable opportunity to discuss their request of extending their unpaid parental leave, unless the employer has already agreed to the request. It cuts red tape around the transfer of business rules to assist employees who wish to move between associated entities.
It also gives the Fair Work Commission clearer powers to dismiss unfair dismissal proceedings without conducting a conference or hearing in circumstances where there has been a clear breach by either party of an order or direction. It is also important that this substantial package of measures passes through this parliament to restore procedural fairness for employees and employers. The key words that I have identified in the reading of this legislation are 'clarity', 'flexibility', 'consistency', 'certainty' and, most important of all, 'fairness'.
Under the Labor government these concepts were ignored in place of political expediency and solidarity with their union mates. It is beyond me why Labor, time and time again, are on the wrong side of the argument when it comes to industrial relations reform. It even lacked the bottle to implement the recommendations made by its own Fair Work Review panel from 2012. It was symptomatic of a government paralysed by division and rancour that had followed it across to the opposition benches over the past 12 months. This legislation gives the Labor Party the chance to show to the Australian people that it has seriously changed direction and is committed to supporting the greater good, rather than reacting on the basis of ideological belief. It would be retrograde and absurd but hardly surprising if the Labor Party tries to block these amendments. I appeal to the crossbenchers in the other chamber to have a very close look at the sensible proposals outlined in this legislation and support its passage in the interests of employers, employees and the economy. We have to stop listening to Labor's scaremongering about WorkChoices; this has nothing to do with WorkChoices.
In December this year we will mark the 110th anniversary of the Conciliation and Arbitration Act. It was then, as it is now, probably one of the most controversial pieces of legislation that has ever been debated by the Commonwealth parliament. In fact, the 1904 act did not have an easy birth. It saw the collapse of three governments—the first Deakin government, the Watson government and the Reid government—before it was established in law. The government of Chris Watson, the then leader of the first Labor government in this country, that ushered through the Conciliation and Arbitration Act and appointed, shortly thereafter, the man who was at that time the Attorney-General of this country, Henry Bournes Higgins—he was also one of the finest High Court judges—as the President of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration.
It is a shame that the member for Solomon is not here to hear this, because she said in her contribution that Labor is always on the wrong side of this debate. I beg to differ, and history will bear this out. Henry Bournes Higgins, in his memoirs, described the architecture of the Conciliation and Arbitration Act as a new province for law and order in this country. He said this with quite some experience because, as a barrister at equity before the Melbourne bar and a president, for many years, of the Court of Conciliation and Arbitration he saw many cases. He also had experience of the bitter industrial disputes which characterised employer and employee relations before the establishment of this court.
He said that the conciliation and arbitration legislation established a new province of law and order in this country. That judgement of Henry Bournes Higgins echoes down over the 110 years since the first piece of real, robust industrial legislation was passed through this Commonwealth parliament.
Over those 110 years three things have been pretty constant in this debate. The first thing that has been constant has been the dogged opposition of the Liberal and National parties and their progenitors to any form of regulation which gave workers a fair go and, at some point in time, restricted the power of employers to dictate the terms and conditions of employment. I will not say that the Liberal and National parties and their progenitors have not moved in their attitudes over those 110 years, but if there has been one constant it has been their dogged opposition to these forms of legislation. Whenever they get the opportunity they do their darndest to unwind the reforms that have been put in place by Labor governments. It has been so since the great friend of the Liberal Party, HR Nicholls, attempted to undo the work of the Court of Conciliation and Arbitration in the Harvester case. It has been so since Stanley Melbourne Bruce—the first Prime Minister of this country to lose not only an election but his own seat around the very issue of workers rights and industrial law—attempted to cancel the Commonwealth regulation in the industrial relations sphere. It has been so since the former Prime Minister John Winston Howard and the hapless member for Menzies, his workplace relations spokesperson—ably assisted by the member for North Sydney, who was brought in at the last moment to help with the task—tried to sell this dead cat to the Australian people. It has been the constant from the time of the fall of the first Liberal government to the fall of the last Liberal government. They have had it in their sights to unwind the reforms that have been put in place in workplace relations by the Labor government.
The second constant in those 110 years has been the clash between two founding principles. The first is adopted by those on the other side as the right to collective bargain versus the freedom of contract. In a nutshell this is the principle that lies at the heart of every single dispute within parliament and between employers and employees when it comes to the big disputes that have defined industrial relations history in this country.
We know—we see it in the legislation before the House today—that this notion of the freedom of contract is little more than a Trojan Horse for those who wish to determine, line by line, the terms and conditions of employment with little right to negotiate for their employees. This notion of the freedom of contract, as espoused by those radicals—many of them represented on the other side of the House in this debate today—is little more than a Trojan Horse to be able to dictate the terms and conditions of employment to an employee. We saw this great battle between the freedom to contract and the right to collective bargain played out in that tortuous instrument known as the Australian workplace agreement—I will have a bit more to say about that in a moment—and we see it again today in the amendments that are brought forward in the name of individual flexibility agreements.
The third constant in over 110 years of industrial regulation has been the absolute repudiation of the so-called commitment of those opposite to small government and red tape when it comes to the regulation of industrial relations. And I say that quite purposefully, because never has so much needless regulation been introduced in the name of freedom
Never have so many new constraints, new conditions and new requirements been introduced by a government that espouses the principles of deregulation and the reduction of red tape. Never has so much red tape been introduced in the name of deregulation. When you look at the three constants that have characterised the debates on these legislations for over 110 years, they have been: the constant opposition of the Liberal and National parties to regulation by this parliament; then, when they yield that ground, their absolute repudiation of any pretence that they stand for a reduction in regulation and red tape—they are willing to wrap every workplace and every industrial agreement in this country in as much red tape as they can land their hands on when it comes to workplace relations; and that constant conflict between the right to collective bargain versus the right to freedom of contract.
Never has there been so much wanton slaughter of the ordinary, everyday meaning of words in the cause of legislation than we have seen in this legislation before the House. It is competitive. It is even competitive with the performance of the former minister for workplace relations the Hon. Peter Reith in his famous 'more jobs, better pay' legislation that was designed to deliver the exact opposite. In this legislation we see the denial of access to workplace fall under the heading of 'right of entry', freedom of contract becomes the 'right to dictate' and good faith bargaining stands as the right to conduct a perfectly good negotiation with yourself or those who you have hand-picked to negotiate with if you are the employer seeking to establish a new greenfields agreement.
I turn to a few specific problems with the bill. I want to talk about the individual flexibility agreements because their history is instructive. They were borne of the demise of Australian workplace agreements but, indeed, reflect a concession—that is, within a collective instrument there may be a need to provide workers and employers with the opportunity for individual flexibility, provided that it does not undermine the rights of either. We knew that in introducing such a scheme that it would be important to introduce protections, so we did an analysis. The universities' research and the longitudinal studies that were conducted on AWAs found that over 80 per cent of Australian workplace agreements had provisions within them that reduced the overall conditions of employees. Over 80 per cent of them reduced the actual take-home pay, wages and conditions of employees who were subject to them.
The picture was even worse for women and people from a non-English-speaking background, which sheds a light on the reality of the capacity of individuals to bargain. Deputy Speaker, I wager that if you and I sat down to bargain we would probably have some bargaining power and, perhaps, the skills and professions that put us in a privileged place within the labour market. But most, if not many, are not so privileged and so protections are necessary. We saw ridiculous things; we saw penalty rates, overtime entitlements and monetary entitlements being traded for pizzas and videos. This is not right to any proper thinking person. The protections were put in there. The 'better off overall' test that these provisions seek to undermine was put in the legislation to ensure that these sorts of abuses could not occur. Individual flexibility arrangements, yes, but these sorts of abuses, definitely not.
In the name of individual flexibility we see some quite odd provisions within the agreement. They have removed those restrictions on the things that an individual flexibility agreement could cover, thereby permitting the trade-off of monetary for non-monetary—and without proper scrutiny perhaps pizzas and videos could once again be a feature of individual flexibility agreements. The idea that a statement of mind of the worker at the point in time of contracting is going to be used as some sort of protection really is risible, because anybody who turns their mind to the reality of these sorts of negotiations and the situations in which this is likely to arise will understand that this is a nonsense. Think about this: the example where an individual flexibility agreement has been arrived at by inducement, unfair inducement and perhaps coercion—that is, a worker has been asked to sign an agreement but we know that there has been an improper form of inducement or, indeed, the worker did not understand, through no fault of their own, what they were being asked to sign up to at the time. How can an additional statement that the worker is also asked to sign, at the very same point of time that they sign the offending agreement, be some sort of protection or defence against abuse? It is an absolute nonsense. It is almost as ridiculous as some of the statements that have been made by those opposite.
The problem at the core of this is: when they see rights and entitlements, they do not see protections for ordinary workers—they see union bosses. They do not see rights and protections and they do not see the organisations that protect those rights and protections; they see some bogey that they have dedicated their lives to destroying.
I rise today to speak on the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014. As federal parliamentary representatives we have a duty to ensure that what we do in this place will help build a stronger, more prosperous Australia. This bill will do that by delivering on another one of the government's election commitments—that is, to improve industrial relations by balancing the rights of employers to run their business without unnecessary workplace interruptions with the rights of employees to have proper representation within their workplace. There are a number of important elements to this bill but in the time available I will confine my focus to the following three elements, namely: fairer workplace access; individual flexibility arrangements; and the removal of the 'strike first and talk later' approach.
There is currently an imbalance in the workplace access rules. The Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government changed the law to give union officials unilateral access to workplaces. This had a direct and immediate impact on many business owners and employees who just wanted to get on with their job and operate efficiently and effectively without unnecessary and uninvited visits from union officials. As it currently stands, right of entry for discussion purposes can occur when a relevant union wants to enter a site and hold discussions. They do not need to have any actual union members at that particular workplace, nor does their presence need to be sought by employees, for them to access that workplace and those employees.
It should not really come as a great surprise, then, that as a result of these changes to the law there were many abuses, with excessive and unwarranted workplace visits resulting from unions wanting to flex their muscle or cause disruption to a particular workplace. Many workplaces were held hostage to turf wars between unions looking for union members. There are many examples of such abuses, as I have outlined before. One such example included more than 200 visits to the Pluto LNG project under this provision of the law. What is worse is that all of these 200 visits occurred in under a three-month period. BHP is another example, targeted at their Worsley Alumina plant with 676 right-of-entry visits in a 12-month period. What we saw under these provisions of the law were lunchtime invasions by union officials dictating that they would hold these discussions in places where employees were having lunch. The employees in many of these workplaces could not escape such discussions, even if they wanted to, because these were the only places where these discussions could be held and where their lunch could be had in peace and quiet. What we had were any private sector employees—87 per cent of whom are not union members—being subject to these union campaigns. The bill before the House proposes to address these issues by restricting access for discussion purposes to unions covered by an enterprise agreement, or to occasions when a union official has been invited by one of the members or an employee they are entitled to represent.
There are protections in place for employees who might wish to remain anonymous. They can make an application to a union for a union member to come on site. That union can then make an application to the Fair Work Commission to enable the visit and an invitation certificate will be granted. This invitation certificate will only be granted where the commission is satisfied that it is not simply a fishing expedition by the union but in fact the result of a bona fide invitation.
Under this bill the Fair Work Commission would be able to suspend, revoke or impose conditions on an entry permit should they feel that excessive right-of-entry visits have taken place. This includes the combined visits of all unions, not just of one specific union. This will be welcomed both by employers and employees right around the nation.
Measures in this bill also include protections pertaining to individual flexibility arrangements. It is important that individuals be able to make arrangements with their employer that suit those individuals but also suit the employer. The measures within this bill will prevent an employer from forcing an employee to sign an individual flexibility arrangement. They will ensure that the employee remains better off than they would have been, with an employee statement confirming that their individual flexibility arrangement will meet their genuine needs and they will be better off than they would have been under the applicable modern award or enterprise agreement. This way we will see individual arrangements being accommodated with safeguards in place.
There are also changes to greenfield agreements in this bill that will ensure that enterprise agreements for new projects can be negotiated efficiently. Union officials, under the legislation that stands today, were preventing the start of projects through unnecessary delays, often hijacking greenfield agreements with ambit claims. This ultimately threatens investment and also jobs. The good faith bargaining rules will be extended under this bill to the negotiation of greenfield amendments, meaning that employers and unions will be required to meet with each other to consider and respond to proposals in a timely manner. To ensure that agreements are met in a timely manner this bill will establish a new optional three-month negotiation time frame which will apply where appropriate notice is provided by an employer to the relevant union or unions. Should an agreement not be reached within this time frame, the employer can take a proposed agreement to the Fair Work Commission for approval. This will deliver a lot more certainty to employers and also, ultimately, to employees, who will benefit from new employment opportunities.
The final aspect that I would like to highlight in the bill is changes to the strike-first, talk-later arrangements that existed under the previous legislation. The Labor Party, prior to the 2007 election, recognised that these loopholes under the Fair Work Act were a serious problem, resulting in escalating industrial activity and strikes. The Labor leader even acknowledged, prior to the 2007 election, in his National Press Club address:
Industrial disputes are serious. They hurt workers, they hurt businesses, they can hurt families and communities, and they certainly hurt the economy
will not be able to strike unless there's been genuine good faith bargaining.
We stand in this chamber and we agree with that statement. The only problem was that the previous government did not enact those changes. They talked a big game, but they were not prepared to follow through.
We will, however, follow through, and this bill does just that. We will amend the Fair Work Act so that protected industrial action can only be taken if bargaining for a proposed agreement has commenced. This will mean that industrial action is not the first step in the bargaining process but will occur only when good-faith bargaining has been exhausted. This will restore balance to our Fair Work Act and ensure that bargaining does take place on a good-faith basis and is in fact the first thing that both unions and employers do, rather than create simply more and more strikes.
There are many other important measures in this bill. I do not have time to address each of them individually; however, the measures that I have outlined work towards ensuring that certainty and clarity are once again restored to workplaces around the country and that our industrial relations laws work in favour of both employees and employers. I commend the bill to the House.
I rise to oppose the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014, just like I oppose the Treasurer's so-called fair budget, with its so-called fair changes to pensions, fair cuts to education, fair GP tax, fair changes to Newstart eligibility and fair changes to higher education, training and apprenticeships. I rise to oppose the ludicrous, ridiculous situation where this government would retain the word 'fair' while making amendments that are clearly not fair.
When I was working in schools in the western suburbs of Melbourne, I saw the impact on local families of then Minister Abbott's Work Choices legislation. I saw students exploited by individual contracts. I heard directly from these students about being paid in pizzas. I heard time and time again about kids who did not get a job when they asked about conditions and overtime arrangements. I saw parents put under pressure in their employment too. I saw people being made casual after many years of permanent employment. I saw people lose penalty rates. I heard about people being sacked without warning. I remember one mother being sacked who, when she asked why, was told it was due to a personality clash. In my community, Work Choices is a dirty word. No-one wants to return to the Work Choices regime.
We have all learnt the hard way that the government made a lot of promises before the election that it appears they had no intention of keeping. This legislation is yet another example of broken promises. Before the election, and even when this bill was introduced, the government promised the proposed amendments would go no further than their pre-election promises and would only go to those recommendations from the 2012 Fair Work review. They promised a workplace review that we are still waiting for, and the clock will tick over to one year of this government in a little over two weeks. So, nearly 12 months on, here we are and those opposite are doing exactly the opposite to what they said they would do. They are moving amendments that have the potential to hurt workers, and they are deceptively doing this while still calling it a Fair Work bill. Let's be honest: this is being done to fly under the radar while the public are learning every day about another unfair measure in their unfair budget.
But we on this side of the House know that Work Choices is in this Prime Minister's blood. We know it from this quote from 2002, when he said:
If we're honest, most of us would accept that a bad boss is a little bit like a bad father or a bad husband. Not withstanding all his … faults, you find that he tends to do more good than harm. He might be a bad boss but at least he's employing someone …
I will speak not to the inherent patriarchal gender bias in this statement, which equates bosses to fathers rather than parents, but to the attitude that the government brings to this amendment bill and that is inherent in the now Prime Minister's statement. Let me translate it for you: better a bad parent than no parent. Better a bad boss than no boss. Better a bad job than no job. Fair work indeed! No, this is the road to nowhere like fair work; this is the road back to Work Choices.
This bill makes changes to individual flexibility arrangements, greenfield agreements and right-of-entry provisions, as we have been hearing for most of the afternoon and into the evening. I know what this will mean for the constituents of Lalor: workers will suffer. I agree that, in some circumstances, flexibility in workplace agreements can be beneficial, but only if applied appropriately. We know that, under Work Choices, 65 per cent of workers lost penalty rates and hundreds of thousands of workers were pushed into individual contracts. These contracts then meant that 70 per cent of those workers lost shift loadings, 68 per cent lost annual leave loadings, 49 per cent lost overtime loadings and 25 per cent no longer had public holidays. We also know that 3.5 million workers lost protection-from-unfair-dismissal provisions. Those were the former students and parents that I remember being adversely affected during this time. This bill must not allow arrangements that can be used to rip away penalty rates and other working conditions.
The current fair work system as introduced by Labor is acknowledged to be a fair and equitable system for both employees and employers. I remember the strong mandate Labor had when it won the 2007 election—a strong mandate that was delivered through Labor's Fair Work Act. The Australian people sent a strong message to the Howard government and to IR minister Abbott that Work Choices had gone too far. In response, like in so many areas, the LNP made all sorts of assurances in the lead-up to both the 2010 and 2013 elections. The current Prime Minister promised there would be no return to Work Choices and that the recommendations of the 2012 review of the Fair Work Act would be delivered without change. However, like so many promises, this one will not be delivered. What this government wants to do is make small but significant changes.
Let's look first at the individual flexibility arrangements. There is a current provision for workers to negotiate and trade a monetary benefit for a non-monetary benefit. It is important to note the monetary benefit forgone must be relatively insignificant and the value of the non-monetary benefit must be in proportion. For example, if a worker wants to negotiate swapping a scheduled RDO for a day the kids have off school, this can be negotiated at the local level. Employers can negotiate for extra hours to be worked to meet an urgent deadline in exchange for extra annual leave. As a school principal I managed arrangements like these on a daily basis and found no difficulty doing so.
But, by taking away the 'relatively insignificant' and 'proportional' provisions, we can see what the government's true intention is. This small omission has the potential to allow employers to strip away workplace provisions. The bill's own explanatory memorandum outlines the ability to forgo penalty rates in exchange for flexible hours. I am not sure anyone thinks penalty rates could be considered relatively insignificant; and, with the debate about penalty rates going on in the public now, I think everyone on both sides of this chamber understands that.
We saw in the past many employers go down this path. There was the famous Spotlight case where an employee received a 2c-per-hour increase in exchange for the loss of penalty rates. This is not the workplace regime we want to return to. This is changing penalty rates by stealth—without debate, without conversation, without the fight those opposite know the community is prepared to have to protect this provision and all done under the cover of a community coming to grips every day with new facets of how this cruel budget will impact on them and the community.
Let's look at the greenfield agreements. Greenfield agreements currently play an important role in the Fair Work Act. It can be a useful exercise to negotiate a greenfield agreement before workers have been employed. This ability to establish an agreement with the relevant unions and the prospective employer is beneficial, establishing the provisions and allowing for a timely and smooth transition at the project's commencement. The 2012 review identified that, unlike other forms of agreement making in the Fair Work Act, this section made no provision for good-faith bargaining and had no notified negotiation period. So what has this government included in the amendment bill to address this? Not what the review recommended. The amendments do not, as recommended in the review, require employers to take all reasonable steps to notify all unions with eligibility to represent relevant employees of the intention to negotiate an agreement. This means employers can pick and choose the unions they may wish to negotiate with—if there are any.
The review recommended a three-month termination period for bargaining under greenfield agreements, but this bill allows for employers to essentially walk away from negotiations and simply wait for the three-month period to expire, then—as only the employer can do this—taking the proposed agreements to the Fair Work Commission for assessment and approval. The proposed amendments give employers the absolute advantage in these negotiations, and therefore this fails the fairness test.
The third area of the amendment I would like to discuss is the right of entry. Just last month I had a constituent come see me about some issues in the workplace. She had been asked to meet with management to discuss concerns. When she asked for a union representative to sit in on the meeting, she was told that that would not be allowed. That is a concern under the current arrangements, so imagine a world where a union entry provision is being further eroded. That is what this bill has the potential to do.
The principal thrust of the Work Choices act when it was introduced by the Howard government in 2006 was to individualise employment relations. It was an attempt to marginalise both trade unions and industrial tribunals. The Australian public gave a very strong message at the election of 2007 that Work Choices went too far. I want to remind the House of some of the examples of the impact on workers back in 2006.
Three workers at a cabinet installation company in the west of Melbourne were sacked on the day Work Choices came into effect and then offered casual positions at a lower rate of pay. Seventy Optus workers received letters from the company, directing them to a seminar to teach them how to set themselves up as contractors. As contractors, they would be up to $300 a week worse off and would have to pay $12,000 for their own van as well as workers compensation, superannuation and other overheads. A woman employee of 15 years was sacked while she was on sick leave just days after the Work Choices laws came into effect. A clerical employee was dismissed via email for requesting her pay, which was six weeks in arrears. A university student was working in a medium-sized business that dismissed all permanent employees on the day the new legislation came into effect. They were offered AWAs with lower levels of pay and worse conditions. A young worker lost her job in a cafe after refusing to sign an AWA that included a hefty pay cut. A hairdressing apprentice was offered a contract, which included unpaid trial work as a condition of employment and no overtime and no penalty rates. These are not things we want to return to.
This bill has, to date, not received much commentary in the press or more broadly, so our debate in this chamber is critical. I can only assume that the lack of coverage is because the Australian public have resigned themselves to the idea that undermining employees is what this coalition government does, that possibly people have been distracted by the appalling and embarrassing performance of government frontbenchers across the last five weeks. I can only assume they are distracted by the terribly unfair budget that has a negative impact on so many in our communities. And I can only assume they are distracted as they ponder how to work harder to meet the cost-of-living pressures, how to earn more to pay for child care, how to raise funds to support the programs at their local schools, and how to start saving now to pay for a possible $100,000 degree for each child or to support a teenage apprentice and avoid a loan.
Those opposite need to remember that when the public go to the polls in two years' time and they focus on who to vote for, they will see unfair workplaces heavily reliant on individual workplace agreements that have stripped away conditions and pay and that were made possible if these amendments go through. Labor opposes these amendments and will always stand up for workers and employers to ensure that there is a balance. We will not allow this government to continue its race to the bottom on labour standards—a race to create an unfair Australia.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this bill. Unlike the previous speaker, the member for Lalor, I will not be speaking about hypotheticals. The Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014 certainly covers a number of issues, including addressing the current imbalance in union workplace access rules, right of entry and greenfields agreements. However, I want to focus on how we are going to improve workplace productivity through the use of individual flexibility arrangements and, as a result, increase profitability for small business because, at the end of the day, it is the small businesses that survive that are going to create the most employment in any of our communities.
We live in a 24-hour society where people can do their weekly grocery shopping online. People can go to the gym or grab a bite to eat at times when most of us are tucked up in our beds asleep. People work from home using the latest technology to communicate with offices overseas. Working hours in Dubai, London or New York could be anywhere from 4 pm to 4 am in Cairns. There are university students whose class and lecture times mean that they can only in the evening and on weekends, and parents who want to spend their days with their kids but work in the evenings when their partner is home. It is clear that flexibility in the workplace has not kept pace with the demands of modern life and the evolving challenges of modern employment.
This bill introduces amendments to provide clarity and certainty for employees around the use of individual flexibility arrangements—IFAs. IFAs were actually introduced by Labor, aimed at helping workers and their employers to mutually agree to conditions that suited their needs. The amendments in this bill are based on the Fair Work review panel's recommendations. A key factor is that employees have to be better off overall compared to their previous contract or workplace agreement. IFAs are designed to help employees to manage child care or other caring arrangements, to spend time with their families or to have time for other commitments. They are specific to the individual and are not designed as a management tool for a business. There are also key safeguards to ensure that employees are actually better off: an employer cannot force an employee to sign an IFA or make it a condition of their employment, an employee must be better off overall than they would be under the modern award or enterprise agreements that apply to them and a worker has to provide a statement to the employer saying that the IFA meets their genuine needs and that they are better off overall.
Anybody who opposes these amendments needs to explain to Australian workers why they should not have the opportunity to work out an arrangement that generally meets their own needs. These changes are something that I have been pushing for because in Leichhardt we have the highest rate of closure of small businesses in the country, with more than 400 of the Far North's small businesses shutting their doors in just a two-year period. We have experienced record unemployment levels in recent years, hitting 9.6 per cent at the start of this year, and we have seen extremely high youth unemployment. We have the unenviable record of the highest unemployment on mainland Australia with one in four young people aged between 20 and 24 years not working. This has doubled since 2007, and it is reaching a crisis point.
How have we got to this point you might ask? The global financial crisis hit Cairns very, very hard, as did the high Australian dollar, increased government red tape, a drop in tourism and the lack of new construction projects from 2007. We also have an employment environment where penalty rates have got totally out of control. Tourism in Cairns is one of our greatest income earners. It generates almost $3 billion a year for the regional economy and 11.3 per cent of the workforce in Leichhardt is directly employed in tourism—the highest proportion in Australia. Around 40 per cent of businesses in Leichhardt have some reliance on tourism industry. The inherent nature of tourism means it is not a nine-to-five enterprise. We all know that wonderful feeling on holiday when we lose track of what day of what week it is because it really does not matter.
Tourists want to go out hot-air ballooning at five o'clock in the morning, eat dinner after 9 pm, visit the late-night markets or hit the bars until the wee hours, go out for breakfast on a Saturday and dive on the reefs on a Sunday. If we are dealing with international tourists, particularly from southern Europe, their dining habits mean that they do not even consider having a meal until at least nine o'clock in the evening. Public holidays are of course a hugely popular time for visitors to come to Far North Queensland, but you can walk around Cairns and find that many businesses are not open. It is no coincidence that the very times that tourists are walking the streets looking for a coffee or a meal the doors are closed. These are of course the times when penalty rates apply. It is these rates that make it virtually impossible for businesses to open their doors, pay staff and still make a profit.
It is particularly difficult for small businesses that are run as mum-and-dad operations—and an overwhelming majority of small businesses are exactly in that category. If you cannot afford to employ someone else, you have to do it yourself. This has a huge impact on the work-life balance. People just cannot keep up with these sorts of hours without cracking under pressure. The Easter long weekend, which included three public holidays and a Sunday, should have been a financial windfall; instead, for many it was an economic disaster. There are restaurants and cafes in Cairns that did not open over Easter or dramatically reduced their hours in a bid to work around penalty rates, which allowed some wait staff to earn double time and a half, or more than $50 an hour.
The Chamber of Commerce and Industry Queensland estimated that about 60 per cent of hospitality businesses closed at stages over that long weekend. That has a huge negative impact on the experience of the many visitors who come to our region for their holidays, and of course that story is always carried back with them if they cannot get the experience they expect for the holiday they have purchased. I know that the Minister for Employment, my colleague Senator Abetz, met with business groups in Brisbane around that time and said that changing the structure of penalty rates was not on the agenda. That is why this legislation is so valuable—it is providing a means for employers and employees to negotiate better working arrangements that do not involve penalty or overtime rates. I will give a couple of examples of how it could work.
Rob is one of the maintenance crew on the dive boats that visit the Great Barrier Reef. His employment is covered by an enterprise agreement, which has penalty rates. Unfortunately, Rob's mum lives in Weipa and she is not well. Rob wants to work from Monday to Thursday so he can travel on Fridays to his mum and stay with her until Sunday. He still wants to get his normal weekly wage and he does not want to work part time. Rob speaks to his boss and they agree on an individual flexibility arrangement, allowing him to work 38 hours per week by working later Mondays to Thursdays without the penalty and overtime rates that would usually apply. Rob is better off overall because he can help his mum, something that means a lot to him, and he still gets his weekly wage.
Gemma is another good example. She is a local mum who works part time as a bookkeeper for a restaurant chain. She usually works from 9 am to 4.30 pm under an award agreement. Her husband Greg works an afternoon shift and starts work at two o'clock. Gemma would like to finish work earlier in the afternoons so she can pick up the kids from school. Gemma talks to her employer and they make an IFA so she can start work at seven and finish at 2.30, meaning she can start work before the normal hours of work for the business. Gemma is better off overall because she still works the same number of hours but can pick up her kids and avoids paying after-school care.
If you are in the service industry, hospitality in particular, getting paid double or more than your normal hourly rate is certainly a bonus and you are working public holidays or weekends to earn that. But there are a lot of people out there who would rather just be working—earning a normal wage is far better than not earning at all. We have a lot of people in my electorate, such as university students or mums, who want to work or want more flexibility in their working arrangements but cannot because employers do not want to employ them on a Sunday, a public holiday or outside of the so-called normal working hours because of the high cost of penalty rates. My son is a classic example. He is 20 years old. He is in fourth year of university. With his study schedule and his interests he is quite happy to work on a Sunday or a public holiday. He does not want to get double or triple pay; he would just be happy to get a bit of spending money. But he has struggled for a very long time to get any sort of work. The situation is absolutely adding to the unemployment and small business sustainability issue in Leichhardt and this is reflected right around the country.
There needs to be a full review of the rates. I am not talking about exploitation; I am saying that this 1950s view of the business world—from nine till five, Monday till Friday, excluding public holidays—is, quite frankly, no longer relevant. People are used to working those hours and there is no reason why one person's weekend on Saturday and Sunday cannot be another's on Tuesday and Wednesday. By no means are we saying people have to do this, and this protection is built into this legislation, but I think you will find there will be more people in employment if they have the chance to work specific hours. They would be happy with a fair rate of pay and improved flexibility without all the penalties that go with it.
As a government, we need to step up to this. I know the unions will jump up and down and, as did the previous speaker, start talking about Work Choices and such nonsense. But, at the end of the day, it is about people power. We have to reduce our unacceptably high level of business failure and our unacceptably high level of youth unemployment. We can see where the problems have come from and we have to make decisions to fix them. The unions also have an obligation—rather than running around like Chicken Little, saying the sky will fall, they should be part of this debate—to make sure that as many of their members as possible stay in the workforce. They are only going to stay in the workforce if small businesses continue to prosper and continue to employ them, rather than the situation where only mum, dad and the family are operating the business.
The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry has warned unions that they are harming young people's chances of being competitive in the job market by seeking increases in apprentice and junior wages. The ACCI is concerned about rising youth unemployment and the number of people under 24 who are neither working nor learning. It says that unions are 'not representing the long-term interests of young people'.
Deputy Speaker Goodenough, when I look at my son's case—and that of many of his friends—we are talking about a young man who is 20 years old—21 this year—who has barely had any opportunity in the workforce. As he is getting older, of course, it is going to be harder and harder for him to be able to show any qualifications or any ability to be in the paid workforce. That worries me immensely. Those part-time jobs that he got to help pay for his bit of fuel money and a little bit of entertainment as he went through his university degree are very, very critical for an employer—even after he has got his degree—looking at him to see what capacity he has to go into the paid workforce. This is why it is so important.
To be fair, there has only been a short period between when youth rates and adult rates apply. This is why it is important that we see that opportunity being captured by young people. It is not unreasonable for those entering the workforce to accept that their early years in the workforce are about building skills, gaining experience and getting a foothold in the workforce. Do that, and they will certainly find that as their qualifications improve with their education that higher wages will follow.
We all talk about work-life balance, and for many that is very hard to achieve. But by creating more flexibility in the workplace under agreements that ensure workers are better off, as judged by their own particular circumstances, I think there is a huge amount of potential here. At the end of the day we want to be a modern, dynamic, flexible economy. This goes hand in hand with creating a productive workforce that will lead to greater prosperity for our community and for our country.
I rise today to speak for the government's Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014. In considering the government's task in having these vitally important amendments accepted and implemented, I am aware of the responsibility in presenting our case. These amendments are vital and important because they will restore certainty to workplace relations and bring back balance to the workplace. They are vitally important because they will increase opportunities for business expansion, which will in turn lead to successful jobs growth and higher real wages growth. Furthermore, the amendments and their full implementation are vitally important, as they will increase the opportunities for real prosperity for individuals, for businesses, for industry and commerce and trade, and for our country.
In putting the government's case in support of these amendments, I will appeal to the facts, to cold logic and to unbiased reason. The government has already provided a comprehensive explanation of its proposed amendments, as well as a logical explanation for those changes. This was articulated in the coalition's policy to improve the Fair Work laws, which was released four months prior to the 2013 federal election. The electorate passed judgement on this policy in the form of a resounding election win for the coalition. This alone should lead the members opposite to support the government's proposed amendments, rather than resist the change demanded and expected by the electorate.
My argument today in support of the government's amendments to the Fair Work Act is based on three main elements: fairness, consistency and the common good. 'Fairness' is an often articulated term used by the opposition. All members of this government share with members opposite concerns for fairness. Rest assured our commitment to this common cause. Because of this, because the goal of fairness is one espoused by both government and by members opposite, I am sure all will judge for themselves the validity of the government's argument—the fairness that the government's proposed amendments bring to the current Fair Work Act.
My argument for consistency is based on the unassailable fact that the government amendments are not original coalition concepts or imposts being presented to a disbelieving opposition, increasingly horrified by the heartless temerity of our proposals; our amendments are the promises of the previous Labor opposition. Our amendments reflect undertakings and intentions of the previous Labor opposition. Our amendments reflect the values of the previous Labor opposition, which I trust are the values of the current Labor opposition. Those values comprise efforts always to improve the prospects and the lot of all Australians. Regrettably, the previous Labor government failed to hold itself to its own promises; it failed to hold itself to its own intentions and undertakings; and it failed dismally to hold itself to its own stated values. It is now the task of this coalition government to finish what Labor promised but did not deliver; what Labor espoused but did not support; what Labor envisioned but would not see through.
Finally, my argument is based on the common good—the common good of individual employees and employers; the common good of small, medium and large businesses and enterprises; the common good of the economy; and the common good of Australia. These amendments will increase the common weal of our Commonwealth.
The act which this government proposes to amend is called the Fair Work Act. It is therefore only appropriate that the act itself be fair. The current act legislated by the previous Labor government is, however, not fair. It is unfairly biased against one group while being unfairly biased towards another. It is unfair to employers and employees and it provides unassailable rights to unions—rights which are to the detriment of employers and employees, of apprentices and trainees and those entering the workforce, of mature and willing job seekers, and of investors and entrepreneurs. Unions now have the right of entry, which has seen many businesses suffer excessive, disruptive and costly workplace visits from unions, even when their employees were not union members and did not ask for the unions' presence. The former Labor government's own Fair Work review panel, commissioned in 2012 by the now Leader of the Opposition, found that the Pluto LNG project and BHP Billiton's Worsely alumina plant faced unreasonable, harassing and disruptive right-of-entry visits by unions.
The Pluto LNG project received over 200 right-of-entry visits in only three months, and BHP Billiton's plant faced 676 right-of-entry visits in a single year. Such attitudes and behaviour unfairly and improperly delay the investment and the development that is essential for economic growth and prosperity for all. Furthermore, employers also have rights—including the right to go about their business—