Tuesday, 8 November 2016
Barely a day goes by in this parliament without the hopeless government and their hapless Prime Minister floundering about the place. We know that they are divided on so many issues. We see that day to day. The backbench is pushing along a weak Prime Minister, a Prime Minister who called, for his party, the most disastrously long election campaign in living memory. It has resulted in a Senate that is chock-a-block full of, let's just put it this way—and I do not want to disparage the other place—erratic individuals about whom we are now seeing one question mark after another being raised in terms of its composition. I think it is quite a difficulty for the country. We have got a government that is really 'in office but not in power'. I think the member for Warringah referred to this government in those terms. It tells you everything about the state they are in. Where do they go back to? Rhetorically, they go back to immigration on one hand and beating up on unions on the other.
I wanted to devote this speech to the trade union movement, the importance of trade unions and the importance of their role not just in the economy but in our society. The importance of free trade unions is a critical thing. It is a marker of a society's ability to have economic fairness and social justice. The ability of unions to organise and to participate in the economic life of the country is an indicator of not just how fair you are and not just what kind of economic outcomes you get but how civilised your society is. We are seeing that this government really is not interested in that, except as a rhetorical device to beat up on.
The role of unions is, firstly, to advance conditions. Secondly, it is to ensure compliance of wage agreements and the like, to bargain on behalf of their membership in workplaces and to play a very valuable role in safety. I did a bit of occupational health and safety work for my union, the SDA, and I could regale the Federation Chamber and its members with some of the egregious examples of safety, even in quite significant companies. If you had a compliance problem on wages in a store or an outlet, you would often find that you had a safety problem as well. If you get compliance variations or people doing their own thing in one area, you inevitably get it in safety as well. That shows up in a whole range of impacts, but at its most extreme end workers do not come home from work—they die on the job.
Barely a week goes by these days when we do not see a compliance issue in the newspapers. Most recently, The Sydney Morning Herald exposed Caltex workers being paid $12 an hour. Caltex is a very significant company. For them to have the workplace regulator raiding their establishments about allegations of intimidation and systemic wage fraud is a very serious issue indeed. The Sydney Morning Herald has reported a number of times that, despite Caltex reporting a half-yearly profit of $318 million, with $375 million reported in the previous period, workers—mostly students from Pakistan and India on student visas—have been paid as little as $12 an hour. That is a very serious issue, and in one of Adele Ferguson's very good investigations The Sydney Morning Herald has revealed that Syed Aqeel, for instance, who worked for the Grange Caltex service station, was paid $12 an hour when he started, as an accounting student from Pakistan, working overnight shifts. If the customer drove away without paying for petrol, the franchisee made him pay for it. This is not an unknown practice in service stations; it does pop up from time to time. They will try to make the console operator responsible for theft. In no other retail establishment would we consider this to be acceptable. That can basically destroy a worker's wages for that shift in a matter of moments. While theft from service stations is a serious issue, it should not be the workers who pay for it. In the words of Mr Aqeel:
We stand there for eight-hour and 10-hour shifts and we are getting nothing, and if someone drives off, you have to pay out your whole shift money.
That is what is going on in New South Wales. In 2012 another family member of that franchisee had to pay $18,367 in unpaid wages after an audit in that area.
If this were just one example, we could say it was one egregious employer, but we know it is not. We know from 7-Eleven and from the chicken industry, from Baiada, that there are many workplaces now exploiting people on visas, using the fact that they are there on student visas to exploit them—standing over them and using it as a point of leverage to force them to accept below-award wages. It is a pretty serious issue. Joanna Howe, a professor from the University of Adelaide, wrote a very good article in The Sydney Morning Herald on 4 November, which began:
Visa rules disempower student workers. Caltex shows there is a systemic problem involving the serious mistreatment of international students at work in certain industries.
In these cases, international students were highly reluctant to complain to the authorities about alleged gross exploitation, the franchisor's head office was allegedly complicit in the exploitation or tipped off its franchisees …
About the raids. This is a very significant company, which has significant responsibilities for fuel supply, basically building into their business model the exploitation of workers who are ostensibly here to study. They are being exploited in the most egregious way.
Having not just good regulators but trade unions in these areas is particularly important. When we look at what has happened in a whole range of areas, we see that unions are completely necessary. The government are desperate to hide their own divisions, both in policy terms and in personnel terms. We know that they are divided on policy. Not a day goes by that we do not see a very active backbench—and I have seen Deputy Speaker Hastie out there on numerous ABC programs—raising one issue or another. Barely a day goes by when we do not have a very active backbench throwing up policy. I do not think all of it is particularly welcomed by the executive. And we see the member for Warringah in the House auditioning, just by his sheer presence—he is hanging his shingle out—for a new job in cabinet, with veiled threats to the incumbent Prime Minister.
Government members interjecting—
I knew I would get them eventually! I knew, if I baited the hook, the member for Goldstein would jump out of the water and onto the hook! He could not resist. He is of course another one auditioning for the frontbench. There are many people auditioning at the moment. Why wouldn't you, when you have got such instability in the government? But the one thing we do know is that they will refuse the legitimate role of trade unions in this country, every time. That is where they fall back to. It is a blight on their own party, which in fact has many supporters who are union members, who deserve representation on the conservative side of politics and do not deserve to have their organisations diminished and blackguarded in this place. Trade unions are good institutions. They have worked for the economic and social progress of this country, and their role in this country and in our society should be defended and applauded.