House debates

Monday, 9 September 2019


Fair Work Laws Amendment (Proper Use of Worker Benefits) Bill 2019; Second Reading

5:08 pm

Photo of Adam BandtAdam Bandt (Melbourne, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Those on the government benches and those in various places who are considering supporting this bill may not realise it, but, in many respects, this bill is a recipe for more industrial action. In many industries that are going to be hardest hit by the effects of this bill, like the construction industry, it pays to know a little bit about the nature of that industry before charging off with a bill that is politically motivated and is said to achieve one certain end but is in fact going to do something quite different to the industry.

Most people would be aware that in the construction industry, for example, you have not only lots of employers but also lots of subcontractors. When there's a project the head tenderer, the head company, might bid on that project and get the project, but very rarely do they themselves employ all the people who work on that project. They'll employ lots of subcontractors. Those subcontractors will in turn engage employees, or they may even go through further subcontractors themselves. All of the people who are going to work on that project building a hospital or erecting some kind of new government building may not be there from beginning to end. They may do one particular job on that project for one particular subcontractor. That may come to an end and they may then go off and find work somewhere else.

Unlike people who, say, might work in one job with one employer for five years and have some entitlements saved up at the end of it when they leave and move on to something else, someone who works in the construction industry is perennially going from employer to employer to employer, from job to job to job, because that is the nature of the industry. That means that, potentially, you're being made redundant or you're being terminated at the end of every job, and then you go off and find something else. Something that for many of us might happen every five or 10 years, if that is how long you choose to stay with your employer, happens for many workers in the construction industry on a regular basis.

What's happened in the construction industry because of that is that the employees, their representatives the unions, and the employers have come together and said: How can we make this work to ensure that someone who works five years straight through, all the way through, but for multiple employers, can be sure that they're going to get all of their entitlements? How can we make this work, especially in the case where some of the smaller employers might phoenix—be here today, gone tomorrow and then resurrected somewhere else at some later stage? Even if they don't phoenix, even if you don't have an employer who is trying to flout the rules, the nature of the industry means that people will move from job to job.

So what has happened as a result? They've all sat down and, rather than have a big fight at the end of every job about whether someone has been made redundant and is entitled to redundancy pay, and rather than have a fight about whether someone has been unfairly dismissed when their employer lays them off and shifts them over to another employer because that's the way the tender has gone, they have agreed: 'No, let's put the money into a central pool. Let's get employers to contribute to a central pool so that everyone who works in the industry knows that, no matter what the status of their particular employer—whether they're working on a different job tomorrow from the one they worked on yesterday—their entitlements are secure.' That means that not only are the workers looked after but employers get the big benefit of industrial peace, as well. Employers now know that, if they don't get a particular job, people who were working for them could be laid off and perhaps even moved over to a completely different employer in a way that you couldn't do in other industries, because you can't transfer people around like that in other industries. They know that they can do that and that the employees will be okay with that, because all of their entitlements are secure and are being managed by an organisation that is representative of employees and employers and their respective organisations.

These income protection schemes bring the benefit of stability to these industries, and, because they are managing funds together, they are able to use interest rates on those funds for things that benefit the industry as a whole, things such as occupational health and safety training. In my state of Victoria there is actually an agreement between employers and employees to ensure that high standards of OH&S are upheld, and that is funded in part by some of the extra interest that has accrued on these worker-benefits schemes. Because they do it this way they are also able to provide training that suits the industry. Again, I'm stressing that this is done between employers and employees. They are able to use the money, the interest that's raised on top of this. They are able to use some of the results of their investments, which happens when you come and do things collectively at scale, to get training done that suits the needs of the industry. It provides a measure of industrial peace and it also provides services to the industry in a way that suits employers and employees in the industry.

You would think that this government of free marketeers, who tell us about the primacy of contract, would love a situation where people in the industry have sat down and negotiated for themselves arrangements that suit the particular industry. That is what we have got when it comes to looking after people's benefits; when it comes to services like counselling that are provided to people that are specific to a particular industry; when it comes to training; when it comes to occupational health and safety; when it comes to providing insurance to people and being able to negotiate those things in bulk. That is what we've got at the moment, but all of that is under threat from this bill for nothing more than naked ideological reasons.

Things like occupational health and safety, for example, where you've got employers and employees working together with government and coming together to use funds to do that, are directly threatened by clause 329LD of this bill. It is out there trying to interfere in what employers and employees have negotiated to suit their industry, simply because the government doesn't like it. The government want to shift a lot more of this work about looking after people over to their mates in the insurance sector, shift it off to the banks so that perhaps they can make a bit more money, or to the financial sector so they can make some more money out of things like insurance products. If occupational health and safety has to be a victim of that by the wayside then so be it, because this mob care more about money than they do about safety. Why else would you bring in a bill that says that an arrangement that works at the moment, where you have effective co-funding and co-management by employers and employees of something as basic as occupational health and safety and training, now has to be threatened and ripped apart by this government just because the government doesn't like it? That's what clause 329LD of this bill will do.

Clause 329MJ of the bill also threatens the ability to negotiate insurance for people collectively on behalf of a whole workforce by using the clout that comes with working together. We also see with section 329LD of the bill that wellbeing services, which are so essential in an industry like construction, where the rate of suicide is higher than in the general population, are threatened by this bill. Why is this happening? It is happening because the government says: 'What would people have to hide if they went out to contract on everything like industry training, for example, where it now has to be funded at market value and on commercial terms? Why should anyone have any concern about that?' Well, have you seen what has happened to the training system in this country? Have you seen how many dodgy operators stick up their hand and say, 'Yes, we can provide you something cheap,' and it turns out that they're providing you something that's cheap because it's useless. That in turn has blown out both Commonwealth and state budgets, and now the government is having to rein that in. The geniuses behind this bill have said: 'Actually, we want more of it. We want to force industries like construction to hand over money to more of those dodgy training providers because—' Why? Because of what? This bill is a solution in search of a problem. The best that the Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations has been able to come up with is to point to activity that happened not before the government first introduced this bill but after. He points to the fact that after a version of this bill was first introduced in the last parliament some funds took action to deal with the fact that, if the bill passed, they were going to be restricted in the kinds of services that they were going to be able to provide. They knew they weren't going to be able to provide the counselling services, the insurance services and the like. And so, according to submissions that they've made to the Senate committee, what did they do? They gave some of the money back to the people who own the fund for the purpose of providing those services so that the counselling services and the like could continue to be provided.

When we said we were going to introduce the bill some people turned around and modified their actions so that they could continue to provide those services in case the bill came in. The best that the government could do was to say: 'Aha, we've got you! You transferred money out of the fund.' Yes. Well, der, Sherlock, of course they did, because you were about to introduce a piece of legislation that said important services that the employers and the employees wanted to continue were now no longer going to be done, or at least were going to be at threat. So don't use the fact that people did things after you introduced the bill to put themselves in a good position to provide the services that people need as justification for this bill. If the government had a smoking gun of some industries or some funds that had somehow been using money in some unlawful way, you would think they would be shouting that from the rooftops. But, no, they don't have that. The best they can do is to say that people took defensive action in response to a bill that's going to harm their ability to provide services. Well, that just doesn't cut it.

What I can say is that in Melbourne this will jeopardise the stability of the construction industry and the people who work in industries like it, whether in the electrical component of it or in construction. In those industries, where people move from job to job, they are now making it harder for the employers and employees to come together to look after each other and to allow that to continue in an agreed manner. What they are also jeopardising is training. The government has not once come in and said, 'Here's a training centre that is providing substandard training.' No. The training that is being provided and the occupational health and safety services that are being provided under the schemes that this government is attacking are top of the class in the country. They're top of the class because they're done in a way that meets the needs of the employers in the industry. The employers get to sit down and say, 'This is the kind of training and the kind of OHS we want.'

And it is largely self-funded. These aren't some great big slush funds that benefit unions or employer associations. They provide services to the industry. When this bill cuts them out and says, 'No, things like occupational health and safety, or industry training, or wellbeing or assurances are now all at risk,' what that does is start to erode the whole foundation of this scheme that has seen employers and employees come together to bring some level of stability. You are going to see instability in the industry. You're going to see services decline, you're going to see standards decline and you're going to see pushback.

I don't expect the government ever listens to evidence or ever listens to reason, but I say to everyone else who's considering supporting this bill: be careful. Be very, very careful because this is not a bill about improving accountability. This is a bill that's ideologically motivated, and there will be pushback.

5:23 pm

Photo of Keith PittKeith Pitt (Hinkler, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It's my great pleasure to rise to speak on the Fair Work Laws Amendment (Proper Use of Worker Benefits) Bill 2019. It's always great to follow the member for Melbourne; it gives me plenty of material to discuss for the next 15 minutes.

For those opposite it's, 'Governance: what is it good for?' Well, according to those opposite, absolutely nothing. Absolutely nothing! We're not talking about tiddlywinks here. This is $2 billion of workers' entitlements. It is an incredible amount of money, held for redundancy pay, sick leave and other benefits for workers in many industries.

To follow on from the member for Melbourne, and the calls for the smoking gun and evidence and everything else: there was this thing called the royal commission—not just one but two royal commissions—recommending changes. So I think it is in the best interests of Australian workers for these changes to go through the parliament. It is in the best interests of those individuals who work in the construction industry, which is a transient industry; there is no doubt about that. It could be half a day, a day, a year, three years or six years on a major project. It's the reason why things like portable long service leave were put in place and why these types of funds are available. But I think the fact that there is no governance and management is just quite incredible.

So we have two royal commissions recommending changes, we have the facts and we have $2 billion under management, and, once again, what we have from the opposition—and I'll say it again—is: 'Governance, what is it good for?' Apparently, absolutely nothing. We need to ensure that the money is managed properly and not spent on things which are not the choice of the individual who owns those assets. And they are construction workers—hardworking construction workers. I'm sure you have many of them in your electorate, Madam Deputy Speaker Wicks, and I'm sure you've met many of them. I'm not the only one in this place to have worked in construction and heavy industry; they are genuinely good, hardworking people and we should ensure that their money is protected, looked after, managed and utilised for what is in their interests, and that it doesn't become a slush fund for individuals to spend in any way that they decide.

The bill also amends the Fair Work Act to prohibit terms of a modern award or an enterprise agreement requiring or permitting contributions for the benefit of an employee to be made to any fund other than a superannuation fund, a registered worker entitlement fund or a registered charity, giving effect to recommendation 49 of the royal commission's report. I'll say it again: what is wrong with that? It is their money. Why can't they make those selections? Why can't an individual decide that they will set up their own super fund? Many of them have those, particularly those small businesses, and are able to utilise that system.

Let's look at how this works. You go along to a major construction site and you bid for that work. You are potentially a small subcontractor or a medium-sized organisation. You're working with a prime contractor who, in turn, is working with the CFMMEU and others. But, on arrival, what's determined is that you must meet the enterprise bargaining agreement for that greenfields site—all of those requirements, including the contributions and where they will go—and you have no choice as to how that operation ends up. So this is about fairness, it's about choice and it's about giving an individual an opportunity to make their own decisions about what happens to their money.

It requires any term of a modern award or enterprise agreement that names a worker entitlement fund or insurance product to allow an employee to choose another fund or insurance product. Imagine that! You get to choose your own insurance fund! It may well be the one that you had at the last job site or in fact the one that you've had for some years. Or it could be the one that you know the operators of—who you are confident with and who you believe will act in your best interests—and that you think covers what you want. Why can't you make that choice? Once again, on governance, those opposite say, 'What's it good for?' Absolutely nothing according to them. We want to ensure that every individual has these opportunities.

The amendments also prohibit any term of a modern award, enterprise agreement or contract of employment permitting or requiring employee contributions to an election fund for an industrial association, giving effect to recommendation 43 of the report. Once again, imagine that—governance that prevents an employee's money from being contributed to an election fund! I think that's fair and reasonable. I think the majority of the people who are listening to this broadcast would think it is fair and reasonable. Why is it that you show up at a heavy construction site and you have to make a contribution to an election fund as part of your local agreement, particularly if you're a subcontractor or anything else?

The bill will also prohibit any action with the intent to coerce an employee to pay amounts to a particular worker entitlement fund, superannuation fund, training fund, welfare fund or employer insurance scheme, giving effect to recommendation 50 of the report. So the employers have not got out of this. There were things found in the royal commission which reflected very poorly on large employers in this country. They paid for industrial peace. That is what happened: they paid for industrial peace. This bill will prevent those types of contributions being forced on employers and being forced on the employee. It is their money.

The bill will also amend the RO Act to require registered organisations to have written financial expenditure policies that have been approved by the committee of management. Once again: 'Governance, what is it good for?' According to those opposite, absolutely nothing! Imagine having to have financial expenditure policies? Perhaps that might have prevented the activities of some former members of this House and what they did with the union funds provided by their employees and union members. I think this is a more than fair and reasonable requirement.

The bill will require registered organisations to report certain loans, grants and donations, responding to issues raised by recommendations 10 and 39 of the report. Imagine that: you happen to be a construction worker on a site, but you have to make these contributions, forcibly. It is completely wrong. It is unacceptable. That is the reason we are putting up these changes to the legislation. The bill will also require specific disclosure by registered organisations of the financial benefits obtained by them and persons linked to them in connection with employee insurance products, welfare fund arrangements and training fund arrangements. Once again, I ask you, Mr Deputy Speaker: what is wrong with that? This is governance at its best. These things should be in place for $2 billion worth of employees' money. It is their money; they made the contribution. They did the work. It was their hard toil, their sweat, their pain. It was their hands, their tools. They are the ones that made the contribution, and their funds and their money should be looked after in a reasonable way. That is the reason we are making these changes. They are fair; they are recommended. They are put up by the royal commission.

The bill will also introduce a range of new penalties. As we know, there are some organisations, individuals and businesses in this country that do not do the right thing, and unfortunately we do need to put these penalties in place to ensure compliance with financial management disclosure and reporting requirements. Once again, this accords with recommendations 9, 10, 17 and 45 of the report from the royal commission. What is wrong with that? As we've heard from the member for Melbourne, where's the smoking gun? We don't need a smoking gun. We have two royal commission recommendations, made by credible individuals, with so much evidence it has been overwhelming. I say again: it is not just unions; corporate Australia has been caught out on a number of occasions, and this type of monopoly and activity quite simply has to end. So we will make the changes that are necessary. We will put forward the bill. We will ensure it passes this House, and I am hopeful it passes the Senate, because quite simply these are changes that need to be made. We need to ensure we protect the assets of the working individual in this country. That is what this is about and nothing else. I commend the bill to the House.

5:32 pm

Photo of Ged KearneyGed Kearney (Cooper, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Skills) Share this | | Hansard source

Well, we have yet another Orwellian misnomer for a bill here today. The government are becoming experts at this. We had the repairing medevac bill, when it was clearly obvious to everybody that there was nothing wrong with that bill; it did not need repairing at all. We had the ensuring integrity bill, when it was doing no such thing, other than destroying workers' rights. I think the government should look to start ensuring their own integrity, perhaps the integrity of their own frontbenchers, or working on banks or on employers who are stealing wages. And now we have the Fair Work Laws Amendment (Proper Use of Worker Benefits) Bill. The government are the master of weasel words. The Attorney-General is attacking unions and employers for doing exactly what this misnomer purports to be saying. They are ensuring the proper use of workers' benefits. They are ensuring that workers get what is rightfully theirs when things go wrong, when the work stops, when their benefits are at risk. What is wrong with that? It makes perfect sense, particularly if you are worker in a precarious industry.

The Attorney-General likes to point in particular to a fund called Protect. It is a workers benefits fund for workers in construction and electrical services. If the government bothered to find out what it's like to work in construction and electrical services they would know that this environment is precarious. The contracts are short term; they are project based. The work is tenuous. It is dangerous work. Every time a worker in this industry goes onto a work site they are putting their health at risk and, in many instances, their lives at risk. It is a boom-and-bust industry. We know that. Businesses often, sadly, fail. We had the example in the last decade of the Hastie Group and PSG Elecraft—well-known cases of companies that saw large numbers of workers lose their jobs when they failed, when things went bad. This was because of poor corporate management. I think it is a stroke of genius that the industry has set up workplace benefit funds. They're a godsend for people who work in industries like construction and electrical services. They were a godsend for the workers who worked at Hastie Group and PSG Elecraft because, in both cases, the workers were able to access their hard-earned entitlements thanks to the workers benefit fund.

Workers in construction and the electrical trades often move between contractors, projects and worksites. It's a tough life. You're hoping that there will be another project or that this project will be stretched out just that bit longer. You're hoping that there will be another contract. You're hoping against hope that you can provide another pay packet for your family. In these industries, what workers benefit funds do is ensure that entitlements are actually carried over from job to job. These entitlements are protected in an independent scheme that moves with the worker. It moves with them from project to project, from contract to contract. These funds also, as extra protection, provide income protection insurance, and this is vital because of the nature of these industries. When a worker's project finishes, she or he loses any accrued sick leave, and they have to start all over again. Sadly, many workers in these industries end up working with no sick leave accrued at all. It can leave them in a terribly precarious situation should they fall ill.

It's like when I was a nurse working in the public sector. I could actually move my entitlements with me if I continued to work in the public sector, moving from public hospital to public hospital or to public healthcare providers. It was a godsend to me as a young nurse with a young family knowing that I had the security of bringing those entitlements with me. If I was a nurse in the private sector, it would not have happened. You lost all those hard-won entitlements if you had to change jobs.

Income protection from the workers benefit funds like Protect provide protection of those entitlements, and these protections are negotiated via industrial agreements. They are set up by enterprise bargaining agreements. Now, I don't know if those on the other side know about those, but this means that agreements are negotiated between bosses and workers. The contributions are approved by members and their employers. They negotiate in good faith, and these things are administered, in this instance, by Protect as a third party. Yes, they negotiate in good faith—something this government has no idea about.

The previous speaker, the member for Hinkler, seems to think that EBAs are actually stealing things from bosses, but they are not; they are negotiated, as I said, in good faith. All this government know how to do, it seems, is to point the finger and blame everybody else for their failings and their incompetence. They are pointing the finger at workers and their unions, right through to the Governor of the Reserve Bank. They blame everyone else for their failings—failings for an economy that is not growing properly and that has had sluggish growth since the GFC. They are blaming everybody else for the lack of growth in jobs and skills, for the problems we are seeing in aged care. This government have big problems to deal with, but what are they doing? They are here to bash poor people. They are here to bash workers and their unions. They are basically here to tear up the social compact that has served this country so well for decades. They rip billions of dollars out of social services, only to give little tidbits back here and there, and expect a pat on the back for that.

Here we have an example of employers working together to avoid tragedy and hardship, and, for some reason, this government can't stand it. The workers benefit funds provide a vital safety net for workers who work in industries with a high rate of insolvency. There's phoenixing and there's corporate mismanagement. Decades ago, the Victorian branch of the National Electrical and Communications Association, which is an employer organisation, and the ETU, the workers organisation, or the union, became joint sponsors of the Protect redundancy fund. It was created to ensure that workers and their families are protected in times of hardship. It protected from redundancy. Can you imagine the heartache and pain of workers who lose their job immediately—the absolute chaos that that throws the family or the household into, the worry and the heartache of that? I know what that's like. Through my union career, I've had to work with people and help people who have been through such a personal disaster. Far too many people lose out.

So what on earth is wrong with coming up with a way to make life easier for people when that happens?

It seems to me that, instead of punishing employers and unions who have set up these funds for just that purpose, we should perhaps be looking at legislating protection of entitlements, like the ETU and NECA have done, for all workers instead of trying to do away with those protections under this silly bill.

Benefit funds like Protect are run independently of the employer group and the union. There is a proper approved governance structure around these funds. They have a board. They are regulated through the corporations tax and trust law. ASIC and the ATO regulate them. If the Attorney-General has a problem with them then he should be going to ASIC and the ATO, not destroying the benefits that these workers have from getting these entitlements.

Now, from time to time, these funds make a surplus. That is because of good governance, sensible investment decisions and plain old good management. What is wrong with that? Those on that side should be shouting praise for this. Were it anyone else but unions doing so well, they'd be frothing at their surly mouths with praise. Profits and surpluses are their DNA. The surplus is over and above what belongs to workers. Workers' entitlements are safe as houses. The surpluses are then used by the employers and unions to benefit the workers. It is not profited away or secreted off to the Cayman Islands. It's not doing dodgy deals based on some bloke in a Yass pub or trying to get government departments to change laws for somebody's profit-making scheme. No, this is all done under the auspices of ASIC and the ATO, and it goes back to the workers.

This bill restricts and penalises schemes jointly run by unions but provides no regulation for employer-run schemes. Profits from employer-run schemes can go back to employers. If a business earns interest off workers' entitlement money, it is allowed to pocket that, and the government says: 'No problem. That's fine.' But enter a worker or their union and then suddenly we need a whole pile of new regulations and restrictions or we need to get rid of the fund altogether. The hypocrisy is breathtaking. Employers are okay to secret away profits, but unions can't expend any surpluses back to members. Not even Dyson Heydon from the trade union royal commission—a complete political witch-hunt against unions—recommended any of the changes they are talking about for these funds. In fact, by utilising the funds' redundancy schemes, workers are saving the government money by not accessing the more complex and less accessible FEG scheme.

None of this makes any sense whatsoever. These funds have paid out millions of dollars to redundant workers and have provided tens of thousands of workers with countless additional benefits, like the ETU does with the fund surpluses from Protect. I have here a list of some of the services that are provided to the workers from surpluses: free counselling hotline, free domestic violence awareness seminars, free postnatal depression awareness training, free gambling prevention, free anxiety and stress management services, free women's self-defence courses and free autism management behaviour support. It goes on. There's workplace training, first aid training, hazardous wiring training, height awareness training, asbestos awareness training and free preparation for work support. They actually help provide workplace support with tutorials for conflict management and workers comp schemes. There are myriad health services, from free mental health support to suicide prevention, awareness and training; drug and alcohol awareness training; LGBTQI inclusivity training; free health checks; skin checks; and support to quit smoking. It goes on and on. These are benefits, and they are benefits that the unions are proud to provide their members. It just adds insult to injury that the government is trying to take this away from members who are thankful for these services. I have spoken to many ETU members who say it is wonderful to access this for themselves and their families. They love it.

The bill will give more power to the now discredited and politicised Registered Organisations Commission. We remember the appalling scandal that was the AWU raids. The ROC should be abolished, not given more powers. The minister is merely attacking workers and their families. He has, barefaced, misled the public about the surpluses and what they are used for. He is trying to make a case against unions that simply isn't there.

Why on earth would any member of this House want to treat workers with such outright disdain and contempt? Why on earth would a minister risk workers' lives by denying such accessible and vital services? Why on earth would any member of this House want to take such important protections away from tens of thousands of families? Why? Because the minister doesn't care one iota, not one hoot, not one little tiny jot about workers. And he simply hates unions. Why isn't this government screaming to the rafters about a raft of other issues, like older Aussies dying while waiting for aged-care packages? Why aren't they turning this House upside down about the behaviour of the banks and actually implementing the recommendations of the banking royal commission at breakneck speed? Why aren't they sorting out the mess that is the NDIS, with families desperate for support being forced to wait and go without services and literally fall apart with the stress of dealing with the NDIS? What are they doing about employment, low wages and insecure work? Why aren't they closing the gap for our First Nations people? They have no other agenda. We will see 2½ years of nothing other than chasing down a small government approach that will leave us nothing for the community and nothing left of that social compact other than perhaps an army, and a poorly resourced one at that.

According to this government, if you are poor it's your fault. If you're sick, bad luck. If you're unemployed, you can go hungry. If you are employed, you can work for a pittance. If you want an education, you can pay for it. If you are old and need care, good luck with that. If you are young and need a leg-up, go and see a charity. Anything that varies from that path is to be destroyed, including the hard work of unions.

5:46 pm

Photo of Andrew WallaceAndrew Wallace (Fisher, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Fair Work Laws Amendment (Proper Use of Worker Benefits) Bill 2019. This is the second of the government's vitally important industrial relations bills which have come before the House in recent times. In the debate on the government's ensuring integrity bill I said that reform was about making sure that we no longer tolerate a situation where we have one rule for militant unions and a different rule for everyone else. The bill before us now is about applying that simple precept to another important aspect of union activities. It's a basic principle, fundamental to our system of financial regulation, that if someone is managing a lot of other people's money, then we insist that they follow mandated governance rules to ensure that investors can reasonably expect that their money is being deployed in their best interests. The banks, credit unions and super funds, managers of large amounts of other people's money, are over seen by APRA, the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority. We mandate that they have independent directors and that they meet strict reporting standards and keep written policies. We mandate that they act prudently to protect the interests of those whose money they manage. The managers of other people's money enjoy a special fiduciary responsibility to manage that money appropriately and in accordance with the law.

However, there is one kind of large organisation that holds and invests billions of dollars of hardworking Australians' money yet does not have to follow any of these sensible rules and regulations. Millions of dollars every year are entrusted by hardworking Australians to what are called worker entitlement funds, controlled by union and employer organisation officials. In total more than $2 billion is now held by these organisations. The money for these funds comes from employers, who are forced to put in as much as $100 per employee per week. As many as 30 per cent of enterprise agreements compel payments into funds like these. In the case of that most unscrupulous of unions, the CFMMEU, the figure is as high as 60 per cent. I wonder why that might be?

These funds are supposed to pay and protect workers' entitlements. Unfortunately, too often they do no such thing. Unscrupulous unions skim at least $25 million every year from these funds. They are able to do this because right now the basic rules of good governance that we rightly apply to banks, credit unions and super funds do not apply to worker entitlement funds. Worker benefit funds do not need to be managed by trained professionals or even by people of good character. They don't need independent directors, they don't need to be transparent or provide even the most basic of reporting and they don't need to state in writing what their policies on investments are. There is no legal requirement for them to act responsibly, to use workers' funds in the best interests of the workers or even to tell them where their money is going. In the absence of this regulation, workers' benefit funds have too often become another murky realm of union secrecy and dodgy practices. When the CFMMEU has accrued more than $16 million worth of fines across hundreds of separate contraventions of the law—and the ACTU's leadership believes that unions are above the law—it is clear that, more than anyone, some unions desperately need strict governance rules and the disinfectant of transparency. Time and again, we have seen that unions need governance rules every bit as strong as those that we apply to the private sector. It cannot be one rule for super funds and another for the unions. It is clear that this legislation is much needed.

Uplus, for example, is a Victorian income protection scheme and is a joint venture between insurer Coverforce and arguably the most lawless union this country has ever seen, the CFMMEU. The scheme sometimes provides free travel, insurance and ambulance benefits to workers whose employers pay into it—as long as they belong to the CFMMEU, of course! Those workers with an interest in obeying the law and who rightly don't want a bar of the CFMMEU get nothing. So where does the scheme's money go? Of it, $810,000 a year goes in undisclosed payments to the CFMMEU.

In another example, there has been more than $245 million of workers' money held in a scheme named Protect, which supposedly exists to provide workers with redundancy and income protection. Employers have been forced to pay into the fund on their employees' behalf by arrangement with the Victorian Electrical Trades Union and the National Electrical Communications Association, or NECA. Despite what the member for Cooper said in her speech just now, the Heydon royal commission discovered that $4.5 million of that fund is funnelled straight into the coffers of ETU Victoria, while another $330,000 goes back to NECA. Without the royal commission, workers would have known nothing of this use of their money, because no regulation exists to force the fund managers to tell them.

Unfortunately, in Queensland we have our own version of these opaque funds in the form of the Building Employees Redundancy Trust, BERT for short. It holds $130 million of workers' money and it is controlled by the CFMMEU, along with the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union and the Queensland Major Contractors Association. This fund, like many others, regularly uses millions of dollars in money, which should be helping vulnerable workers, to prop up its own funds. In this case it has even used these funds to make illegal payments to striking workers.

It is a theme we so often return to when it comes to some unions in this country. But, simply put, enough is enough. These funds need to start acting in the interests of their members just like their counterparts in the corporate sector. They have shown time and again an inability to do this consistently on their own, so now it is time for us to regulate to force their hand. This is what the bill before the House will achieve.

The bill requires funds to be run by people of good character. You wouldn't think that would be a sensational concept. It requires funds to have at least one independent voting director on their boards and it requires the funds to be managed at arm's length. This bill will require workers' money to be responsibly invested and it will require transparency in the form of regular reporting to workers, employers and the Registered Organisations Commission. The bill will require the registered unions and employer organisations that run these funds to have written policies on basic matters like how they make financial decisions, how they use credit cards and how they treat hospitality and gifts. Finally, this bill will put these funds under the proper regulation of the Registered Organisations Commission to ensure they comply with the law and manage workers' money responsibly.

None of the standards set in this bill should be controversial or even problematic unless, of course, you are controlling these funds and you are perhaps not of good character, perhaps not acting in the best interests of those who you purport to be looking after or perhaps not even acting independently. In short, if you are doing the right thing, you have nothing to fear from this bill.

However, no worker should ever be forced to contribute to any specific scheme like this—even if it is properly managed—if they do not feel they need to. So this bill ensures that enterprise agreements and employment contracts cannot include terms that force workers to contribute to a particular union approved fund. It is simply unacceptable that unions put pressure on employers to contribute to specific schemes that are not in the interests of workers; nor is it acceptable to force workers to participate against their will. As we've seen to date, this pressure has too often been needed precisely because those schemes were to the direct financial benefit of the union. It is wage theft, plain and simple, and this bill will stop it.

As I said in our earlier debate on registered organisations, I firmly believe that not all unions are bad. Many—perhaps even most—unions provide important services for their members. I'll go so far as to say we need unions in this country. They undoubtedly have a role to play in preventing unscrupulous employers from taking advantage of their workers. I don't oppose unions and neither does this government. What we do oppose is the illegal conduct of unions who continue to break and flout the law. We oppose unions who flout the law and we oppose unions who believe that they are above the law.

The debate on the bill currently before the House and our earlier debate on the government's ensuring integrity bill have enumerated an overwhelming mass of examples of union illegality and corruption. There is no doubt that some unions in this country are selling out the very workers that they purport to protect. These unions have proven again and again that they cannot be trusted. That's why this bill also requires unions, employer groups and employers to disclose any financial benefit they will receive from promoting or arranging insurance products or payments to workers' entitlements, training or welfare funds. Workers needs to know when a conflict of interest arises. Where they discover that their interests are being sold out for the benefit of their union, its officials or the employer, I hope workers will take action to protect themselves and force reform from the unions that have abandoned them.

For those who may think that these are some kind of victimless crimes, think again. We all pay for the extra costs of this sort of union lawlessness. As much as, if not more than, 30 per cent greater costs are incurred on union building sites than non-union building sites. That figure, in my estimation from 30 years in the industry, is very conservative. We are all paying for those additional costs.

As I've often said in this place, sunlight is the best disinfectant. This government is determined to apply it liberally to the bad unions in this country and to the unscrupulous practices exposed in the Heydon royal commission. The time for one rule for the unions and one for everyone else is over. Members opposite now need to do the right thing: they need to stop accepting tainted donations from lawless unions like the CFMMEU. Those opposite must show some tough love to their mates in the union movement and help us to stop the rot of corruption and self-interest which has infected the CFMMEU and others. This bill is a vital step forward, and I commend it to the House.

6:00 pm

Photo of Joanne RyanJoanne Ryan (Lalor, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The member for Fisher pretty much summed up the import of the Fair Work Laws Amendment (Proper Use of Worker Benefits) Bill 2019. He said quite clearly that workers' rights and entitlements were a cost—not a fair day's pay, not a safe workplace. He sees it purely through the lens of a cost to business. I think that's an important thing to note in discussing this bill.

I said today in the House that nothing had changed in the weeks that we'd been away, and this debate highlights just that. This government has not changed its attitude towards workers, towards unions, towards collectivism. It continues on its anti-union tirade, and this bill is part of that tirade. What we see from the government in this bill is that it is not concerned with protecting workers; it is purely about attacking unions. It is all about putting corporations ahead of workers, seeing workers as costs. It is not ensuring an equal playing field because it sets out one set of rules for workers and another for corporations. The government wants to effectively shut down worker-run funds and, at the same time, allow employers to set up and run their own funds. The measures in this bill, as far as worker entitlement funds and financial management of unions are concerned, far exceed the measures that apply to corporations, despite the rhetoric you might hear from the other side. We heard the member for Fisher twice mention the disinfectant of transparency—and that from a party that voted today against a National Integrity Commission! The disinfectant of transparency, it seems, only applies to some of us.

There is no corporate equivalent for this bill. This bill adds a burden by putting new restrictions around worker entitlement funds and financial management of unions, whilst employers get carte blanche with worker entitlement money. So the question is: why are employers given complete trust when over recent years we've seen many examples of employers ripping off their workers?

The member for Fisher mentioned wage theft. Yes, we've seen a lot of it, an extraordinary amount of it. We saw it with 7-Eleven, which was found by the Federal Circuit Court to have violated workplace law—including failing to pay the minimum hourly rates, failing to pay casual loadings, failing to pay weekend and public holiday penalty rates and providing false and misleading pay records—following legal action brought by the Fair Work Ombudsman. How does this get exposed? This wage theft gets exposed by unions. This wage theft gets exposed by investigative journalists. We saw pizza giant Domino's workers underpaid for almost five years, with franchisees encouraged by management to underpay their staff. Chatime was also caught up in widespread underpayment issues, not just among its franchisees but in the corporate stores owned by its head office. Caltex was found to have failed workers by underpayment of wages and nonpayment of overtime and weekend penalty rates. The list goes on and on, yet this government wants workers to trust employers like this rather than worker entitlement funds, which, I might add, have been operating successfully for many years.

I do note that not all employers are unethical. I also note that not all unions, despite the rhetoric from those opposite, are doing the wrong thing by their workers. There are ethical employers. There are those whose workers' entitlement moneys are dealt with correctly, and there are those that I've highlighted today that help to paint a picture where history clearly shows that not all employers will do the right thing when it comes to their employees. We don't have to look far to check those facts. Worker entitlement funds exist to ensure that workers' entitlements are protected and to provide important services to workers, such as training, counselling support, suicide prevention and funding of OH&S officers. Even Dyson Heydon conceded that these training funds provide a public good, and that could all be put at risk by this bill.

We all remember Mr Heydon, the royal commissioner who was booked to speak at that Liberal Party fundraiser. We cannot forget that this all started with the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, which was set up as a political witch-hunt. Its purpose was to damage unions in Australia, not to implement protection for workers. After all was said and done, did Heydon recommend the onerous restrictions we now see laid out in this bill? No, he did not. This is just another example of this government's obsession with attacking unions, because this bill goes far beyond anything that was put forward in the findings of the royal commission. Instead of giving more power to the Registered Organisations Commission, this government should be abolishing the ROC, especially given it is the body that was thoroughly politicised and discredited over its role in the AWU raids scandal. This government wants to give it more power to interfere in the affairs of workers. Well, I guess we shouldn't be surprised.

On this side of the House, we firmly believe that allegations of serious breaches of registered organisations should be dealt with by ASIC. We also believe that unions or anyone who breaks the law or operates outside the law should face the full force of the law—law that already exists for that explicit purpose. If the government truly believed in corporate equivalence, then the government should ensure that companies and registered organisations are overseen by the same regulator. Let's be honest: this bill would not be in the House if the government truly believed in corporate equivalence. So it is clear that this is just another attack on unions.

When the discredited royal commission was unable to demonise the unions, this government decided to introduce this antiworker bill to tie unions up in red tape, and you have to ask why after years of being in this place and hearing red tape being described in incredibly negative terms and the need for red tape to be removed from all sorts of areas of public life and corporate life. But here we see red tape being placed by a government, so it leaves you to wonder: why should unions be tied up in red tape while this government has spent six years taking what they perceive to be negative red tape out of everywhere else? They talked negatively about the red tape of safety measures in childcare centres, but now unions need red tape?

Why do we, on this side, defend collectivism? Why do we defend trade unions? Because they, as much as an independent media, are a pillar of our democracy. Our trade union movement is important. It does a job that government don't want to do. It makes sure that our workers are safe on their job sites. To the member for Fisher: as someone with three sons who work in the building trade, let me tell you that I can sleep at night if I know they're on a union job because I know they're safe and I know they're decently paid. So what you see as a cost, as a mother and as a member of this parliament I see as a protection for workers. The government want to introduce red tape for unions. They want to wrap them up in complying with this red tape, and they'll have less time to do their jobs—the jobs their members pay them to do, and that is to protect workers, fight for better pay, fight for better conditions and fight for safer workplaces.

I stand in this House today to say to this government: I, along with my colleagues on this side, will defend the rights of workers, and I'll defend the rights of unions to protect workers because, although the government have amended the bill since it was first introduced, those amendments are not substantive and simply do not address Labor's centrist concerns with this antiworker bill.

6:09 pm

Photo of Graham PerrettGraham Perrett (Moreton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Education and Training) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Fair Work Laws Amendment (Proper Use of Worker Benefits) Bill 2019. It is yet another Orwellian nomenclature from the ministry of truth opposite—unbelievable! This isn't legislation; this is 'wedgislation'. I mean, fair dinkum, we've dealt with this before, yet here it is back again. What do we have? We have a government focused on union bashing—that's their favourite pastime—rather than actually looking after the national economy and the best interests of the nation. Those opposite don't care about the terrible conditions that employees have to put up with. No, they're trying to wrap the representatives of working Australians in red tape so that they can't actually do their job.

What do unions actually do? They go out and fight for better pay. They fight for better conditions, they fight for safer work places and they fight so that everyday Australians have a secure job. We see from the government opposite and the legislation that they bring forward—the 'wedgislation' they bring forward—that they don't care whether worksites are safe. This bill is not going to make any worker safer, and it's not going to give workers better pay or any better conditions. This bill is just going to make it harder for unions to do their job by putting new restrictions around worker entitlement funds and the financial management of unions.

This is a political strategy, not a plan to protect workers, and I say this having worked for a union in the past and having been a proud member of two unions. In fact, I will do a call out to the Independent Education Union that I used to work for, which had its 100th birthday on Friday night. It was great to go along and join Terry Burke, Brad Hayes and all those people connected with that union, a union for private schools. I don't think there were any Liberal MPs at that function for some reason. I don't know what it is. Maybe it's their obsession with making things difficult for unions.

This bill will effectively shut down worker-run funds, while allowing employers to set up and run their own funds. It will create an unfair playing field, with one set of rules for workers and another for corporations. The measures in this bill far exceed the rules that apply to corporations, and it's not like we haven't seen unscrupulous corporations ripping off workers. For those opposite, who seem to be asleep at the wheel, I remind them of 7-Eleven—it wasn't back in the dark ages; it was just a few years ago—Domino's pizza and Michael Hill Jewellers; the list goes on. Meanwhile what is happening opposite? We have tumbleweeds blowing in front of us, with a deafening silence coming out of those opposite.

The government's not worried about the employers or the impact their behaviour has on the employee—the lives they can wreck and damage. They are only fixated on unions. If a business earns interest off workers' entitlement money, they pocket that and the government says, 'No problem; that's fine.' But if workers want to have a say in how that money is spent then all of a sudden we get all these new regulations and restrictions. Worker entitlement funds are there to ensure workers' entitlements are protected. They're used to provide important services to workers, such as training, counselling support, suicide prevention and the funding of OH&S officers. Commissioner Dyson Heydon during the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption conceded that training funds provide a public good. Commissioner Heydon made that clear. Even the royal commission, which was just a political witch-hunt, basically, did not recommend restrictions this onerous.

This bill does nothing to protect hardworking Australians, but it gives more power to the Registered Organisations Commission. Remember, the ROC was the body discredited over its role in the AWU raids scandal. It was an absolute joke that such a body could be so politicised and yet still be operating under this Attorney-General's watch. The ROC should be abolished, not made even more powerful. This bill is just a continuation of the Morrison government's obsession with unions, and that obsession knows no bounds. It's a disgrace that this government just does not actually care about workers.

The Australian Labor Party, with its long history of standing up for workers and of working with the union movement with collective groups to make sure we look after workers, took to the election a suite of policies to protect workers and make sure building companies cannot avoid their obligations to employees, to government, to home owners and to honest businesses. I have a particular interest in this, with three brothers working in the building sector. What did those policies include? The tradie pay guarantee: a requirement for large Commonwealth construction projects that would ensure that if tradies do the work on time they get paid on time so they're not carrying that debt; a $7 million tradie litigation fund, to give the Australian Securities and Investments Commission the ability to run more difficult court cases without draining the corporate watchdog's resources; and a director identification number so that all company directors would be required to obtain a unique director identification number with a 100-point identification check, as well as increased penalties associated with phoenix-like activity. And there is name and shame, that would allow the Commissioner of Taxation to name individuals and entities as a penalty for the most serious tax offences.

They are policies that would make a real difference to working Australians, and I would ask the Morrison government to embrace them. Here they are, in their seventh year in office; they've had all that time to turn the economy around, to fight for workers and to ease the cost of living and what have they done? What's their legacy? So far, we've got economic growth at the lowest level since the global financial crisis; we've got household living standards declining under the Liberals, with real household median income lower than it was in 2013 when they came to office; and wages are growing at one-sixth the pace of profits, with the government presiding over the worst wages growth on record. What a legacy! We have 1.8 million Australians looking for work, or looking for more work; household debt has surged to record levels, increasing by $650 billion under the Liberals to 190 per cent of disposable income; business investment is down 20 per cent since the Liberals came to office and is now at its lowest level since the 1990s recession; and consumer confidence is down over the year and consumption growth is weak. Productivity, one of the greatest measures of what the economy is actually doing, is declining. Australia became one of the two fastest-growing economies in the OECD under Labor and the eighth fastest when the government changed hands in 2013. But what's the record now? We've dropped to 20th. Gross debt has risen to over half a trillion dollars, with net debt more than doubling under the Liberals.

This piece of legislation—or 'wedgislation'—is just an attempt to distract from their long list of failures. Labor actually has a positive plan to stop dodgy bosses ripping off subbies, workers and taxpayers—policies that would make a real difference. In contrast, the coalition took tax cuts to the election—and that was it. And now we've seen that since they brought in their tax cuts Australian retail turnover fell by 0.1 per cent in July. And who was the hardest hit? The poor old cafes, restaurants and takeaway services—they fell 0.6 per cent. The tax cuts certainly weren't the panacea that the government expected. Consumer confidence is weak and Australians, who are already worried about their wages and job security, are cutting back on spending. And what's the government's response? They have no response. They have no economic plan. They've just got some political wedge tactics—not anything that will actually increase or boost wages or create jobs and increase consumer confidence.

So rather than creating a positive plan to get the economy going again, the government brings on another attack on the good old whipping boy, the union movement—the mighty union movement that only does good things for working Australians. Shame on this Morrison government! Trade unions have such a proud history in Australia. Workers rely on the union movement, even if they're not a member and paying actual union fees. All Australian workers deserve to earn a fair day's pay for a fair day's work and at the end of the day return home safely to their families. It would be a very different working environment if trade unions did not exist.

Let me give a list of all the things spontaneously provided to workers by employers. That's it; nothing! If it weren't for unions we actually wouldn't have these things: annual leave; industrial awards that underpin pay, terms and conditions of employment for millions of workers; penalty rates, although they're also under threat from this Morrison government; maternity leave; superannuation; equal pay for women; health and safety and workers compensation; sick leave; long service leave; redundancy pay; allowances for things such as uniforms; meal breaks and rest breaks—workers once had to get through the whole day without a break; collective bargaining; and unfair dismissal protection, and that's just the beginning of the list.

If ever there was a time when workers needed fearless union representation it is now, and I say that particularly for the construction industry. There has been significant slowing in the annual rate of growth in average weekly earnings for adult men working full time in the construction industry between November 2013 and November 2018. For all employees in construction during that period, there was annual average growth in average weekly earnings of 0.8 per cent, considerably below the annual average growth of 4.7 per cent achieved between November 2008 and November 2013.

But the growth in average weekly earnings is only one measure to gauge how crook the economy is. As I said, arguably, the best measure of wage growth by industry is the wage price index. Using this measure, the average annual growth in wages in the five years to December 2018 was more subdued in male dominated industries such as mining and construction. The growth in those industries was 1.6 per cent and 1.9 per cent, respectively. The all-industry average growth was 2.2 per cent. What is most telling is that in the previous five years, from December 2007 to December 2013, the average annual growth in mining and construction was four per cent and 3.5 per cent, respectively. So it's absolutely clear that wages in those industries are stagnating.

On top of stagnating wages, on the Morrison government's watch we've got dodgy building firms deliberately avoiding paying workers. We have spoken about phoenixing on many occasions. It is the practice where dodgy directors deliberately burn companies in an attempt to avoid their obligations to the employees, to government, to homeowners and to honest businesses who work with them. Phoenix activity not only hurts hardworking Australians, their families and their communities but costs the economy billions of dollars. One estimate is that it costs the Australian economy in excess of $5 billion per year, more than $200 for every Australian, but the Morrison government is doing nothing to stop these dodgy companies from ripping off hardworking Australians. Instead, it attacks the very organisations that do stand up for workers and their families.

It's clear that the Liberals are driven by a hatred of unions to the point where their blinders impact their ability to see clearly. They only exist to attack unions. Unions make sure work sites are safe for workers. Union officials need to be able to enter work sites to carry out inspections. The very lives of workers depend on union officials being granted access to work sites. I've mentioned many times the lives that have been saved by preventing people from accessing asbestos laden material. Surely no-one would argue that shutting down an unsafe work site until it can be made safe is not a life-saving function of the union movement.

Is the Prime Minister tightening up the laws and penalties against this despicable behaviour by dodgy builders that endangers the lives of working Australians? No. Is the Prime Minister tightening up the laws around corporations who rip off workers' entitlements? No. The only industrial relations laws the Morrison government has brought into parliament are focused on attacking unions, and the government should be attacked for so doing.

6:22 pm

Photo of Chris HayesChris Hayes (Fowler, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'd also like to make a contribution in the debate on the Fair Work Laws Amendment (Proper Use of Worker Benefits) Bill 2019. At the outset, as you've probably noted already, Deputy Speaker Vasta, Labor will oppose this bill. This bill is just another attack on worker representation in this country. As a matter of fact, it's another attack on the very fundamental role that trade unions play.

I would have thought most people in this place would at least acknowledge the fundamental role that unions have played in Australia not simply in Australian workplaces but also in the Australian economy. I'm not sure about those opposite, but, for those of us here who have been around for some time, we would have heard the member for Kennedy, who is probably not well known as a rabid trade union official, speak on this. I recall when he gave a speech about workers' conditions in this country. What he was saying was that, if anyone thought the conditions that we enjoy in the workplaces in Australia did not come from the trade union movement, they had rocks in their head. As I say, he's not known for being a mad lefty! He's certainly nowhere near that. He's not known for being the champion of the trade union movement, but he was certainly a realist when it came to identifying that the benefits that we enjoy in our workplaces have a lot to do with the successful operation of the Australian trade union movement.

This bill by a government which is determined to attack worker representation is an attack on the whole trade union movement itself. Here is a simple test. Just think about it: when was the last time that any of those opposite said anything beneficial about the trade union movement? When do they say anything about mates in construction that go around building sites? No doubt they have a connection with the CFMMEU and other building unions that look after workers who are particularly prone to suicide and that issue. I have heard them mention the AMA once or twice, which, yes, I have to concede is a very powerful union in this country. But in terms of looking after workers in ordinary workplaces, there are not many times that they say anything beneficial about those unions.

I worked for the Australian Workers Union. At one stage, I was the assistant national secretary of that organisation. I recall having discussions with shearers et cetera on those things—as a matter of fact they were members of the old Country Party, which those sitting opposite were once called. One big difference in those days, I suppose, was that we didn't get caught up in the legalities of having to sign and dot everything in order to effect an agreement. In those days, a handshake was really what consummated agreements that were honoured by those representing pastoral industries, for example, as well as other areas.

I understand many things have changed. I'm not sure whether lawyers have got much to answer for in all of that, but I do know things have changed in that regard. But what hasn't changed is the way that those opposite view trade unions. My brother, as you are aware, Mr Deputy Speaker Vasta, is the head of the Health Services Union and he was recently involved in a very major dispute in New South Wales about the protection of doctors, nurses and patients in public hospitals. There have been recent instances in public hospitals of nurses and doctors being bashed—in Melbourne, one was killed; in Blacktown, someone was shot; others have been stabbed. Here's a trade union that is going out to look after the community. By the way, I don't think the Liberals in New South Wales seem to take the same view about trade unions as the Liberals that sit opposite us in here. In New South Wales there might be the view that they do need to work with the representatives of Labor in those areas to effect a decent outcome, not only for members of the union but also for the community generally.

I note that the bill before us certainly has been amended since its first iteration. The government did take account of many of the issues that had been raised by this side; nevertheless, the changes are not substantive and they continue to place a pretty onerous burden on unions. This onus goes far beyond the recommendations of that highly controversial royal commission that we 'had to have'—the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption. In that, Justice Dyson Heydon actually noted these funds that existed. He didn't note them in such a way to discredit their operations. As a matter of fact, he had noted some of the beneficial aspects of these funds that existed.

This bill is a clear indication of the government's priorities when it comes to industrial relations. It hasn't decided to do something to address stagnant wage growth, wage theft or issues of unsafe conditions—whether it be in the transport industry, in the construction industry or anywhere else for that matter—or deal with unfair workplaces—and it's not only those workplaces that belong to Liberal donors; there are other unfair workplaces as well. This bill is simply trying to weaken the existing trade unions within the union movement. They are trying to wrap unions up in so much red tape that it makes it harder for unions to look after workers' interests, fight for better pay and conditions, and fight to ensure better workplaces so that people can go to work and come home safely.

This bill will impose an added burden by placing restrictions in predominantly two areas: worker entitlement funds and the financial management of unions themselves. The bill is not about protecting workers, as those opposite seem to want to claim; it is certainly about attacking what they consider to be their political enemies. Worker entitlement funds are in place for a very important reason—to ensure that workers' entitlements are protected. They provide critical services to workers, such as training, counselling support, suicide prevention, and occupational health and safety on worksites. The bill places limits on when worker entitlement funds can become registered or stay registered, on what sorts of organisations can operate the funds and on the actual make-up of the board of the funds. It is a way of making it so prescriptive and regulated to make sure they can control not only the funds but who can be a trustee and who can run and manage the funds. We are talking about funds which are predominantly union assets.

The bill seeks to shut down worker-run funds by allowing employers to set up and run their own funds. As a corporation, under this arrangement they are quite free to do that. It creates a set of rules for workers and allows for corporations to be free of those restrictions. If this government's rhetoric on corporate equivalence were to be truly believed, wouldn't you think the effort would have been made to have some equivalency when it comes to running such funds? But that goes beyond the scope of this particular bill. The bill doesn't exist as a measure to assist in any way with all the matters these funds were originally created to address—to assist workers on site with occupational health and safety training, suicide prevention or any of the other matters these funds are largely responsible for. That just shows that this is gross hypocrisy. Over the past year or so we have all seen and read many examples of employers ripping off workers—high-profile chains such as 7-Eleven, Domino's Pizza, Michael Hill and no doubt others. Shouldn't we be doing a little bit more to protect those who unions are basically in operation to look after—the workers?

I will let those on the other side in on a bit of a secret. Unions don't exist because they are written into the Constitution. Unions don't exist because parliaments decide that they should exist. Unions exist to fulfil a need, and the need is to look after workers, employees, to give them a chance to collectively bargain, to look at health and safety on worksites and to gain better conditions. The code in all that is that the mob opposite just don't like this notion of collectivism. They don't like the idea that people can band together to have a discussion to determine what is in their best interests. As a matter of fact, they don't trust them to be able to do that.

One thing I know about the trade union movement is the degree of democracy that exists within it. As someone who has worked in the union movement, I know the frustration that exists over the degree of democratic processes that you need to go through and how often you need to go through them. Ultimately, the members of the union, the paid-up members who decide they want to join a union, make the decision as to who it is they want to run their organisation.

Once again, it is almost to the point of hypocrisy that this bill also seeks to give more power to the Registered Organisations Commission—a body that quite frankly was thoroughly discredited in its role over its raids on the AWU. Having represented the AWU in the past but also having represented policing organisations, I understand that there will be times when things will occur and powers will need to be brought to bear, whether people have exceeded their charters or not. But here's an instance where it was very political: the minister's office was tipped off about the raids in advance, allowing them to tip-off the media. By the time the police arrived at the AWU offices in Sydney, they had to basically get through a barricade to execute their warrant because the media was there. The media had placarded the place because those opposite, in display of absolute hypocrisy, through the Registered Organisations Commission and the minister's office, decided to tip-off the media before the police could execute their warrant and their role under the law. That shows you what those guys over there think of the legal process. It shows you that they don't want anything to get in the way of their political agenda. And what was their political agenda at that stage? It was to get Bill Shorten, the member for Maribyrnong, in the lead-up to a federal election. Let's not try and sugar-coat this. They did everything possible to use their influence, not only their legislative influence but their influence over the media, to ensure that they could get a political scalp. As I understand it, even from my discussions with the head of the AWU at that stage, the information that was sought was already in the hands of the Heydon royal commission, if they cared to look. But that wasn't the point. The point was going out and executing those warrants and putting the union on public display.

I happily oppose this legislation. I oppose it for what it stands for—the very hypocritical approach of trying to turn unions into something which they're not. Unions are designed to look after workers, and that's what unions should and must do. (Time expired)

6:37 pm

Photo of Matt ThistlethwaiteMatt Thistlethwaite (Kingsford Smith, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Financial Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm speaking in support of the amendment moved by the member for Watson to the Fair Work Laws Amendment (Proper Use of Worker Benefits) Bill 2019. Again, this bill completely highlights the government's lack of an agenda when it comes to economic management. This bill is another attempt to wedge the Labor Party and attack the rights of working Australians and their representatives.

We all know that the Australian economy is floundering. Growth is below trend. We're seeing increases in unemployment. We're seeing sluggish wage growth. We're seeing very low rates of inflation. Housing approvals have tanked. We're seeing very low rates of business investment. Consumption is sluggish in the Australian economy. And what does this government want to do? Instead of developing a plan to protect jobs and to grow the economy, all it wants to do is come in here and try and move legislation that wedges the Labor Party. But the government is too smart by half, because all this bill is about—and the Australian public should be well aware of this—is attacking and diminishing and reducing the rights of workers, their conditions at work, the people that represent them and their jobs representing them.

These laws are fundamentally unfair, and Labor will not be supporting them. They make it possible for government ministers and disgruntled employers to shut down certain elements of unions and deny working people their right to organise. Nothing like that applies to business, to the banks or to politicians. Workers should get to choose who they want to represent them, not Scott Morrison and this government. This particular piece of legislation—and other pieces of legislation that have been introduced into the parliament in recent weeks aimed at the rules of unions, their ability to form, their ability to appoint people as organisers, their ability to represent workers and their ability to effectively engage in bargaining for wages and conditions—is effectively the government attacking the average Australian union member.

Those opposite would like you to think that the average Australian union member is a building worker, but that couldn't be further from the truth. At the moment, the average Australian trade union member is female, works in a service sector and is employed in the public service. So we are talking about nurses—the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation is the largest trade union in the country at the moment. We're talking about teachers. We're talking about police officers and law enforcement officers. They are the average trade union members in this country. They are the people that this government wants to attack.

That is what this legislation does: it attacks the rights of nurses, police officers and teachers, who are the typical union members in this country at the moment. It limits their ability to organise, to bargain collectively for wages and conditions and to choose their representatives and the conditions under which they save and plan for the establishment of funds to ensure that they can be protected at work, through occupational health and safety measures, through delegates having appropriate training and through other conditions that make workplaces safer and more effective. They are the types of people that this government wants to attack through this legislation. The government is trying to wrap the notion of the building construction worker in legislation like this, when that couldn't be further from the truth. It is really attacking nurses, teachers, law enforcement officers and others, who make up the bulk of union membership in this country. The government is trying to wrap unions in red tape so that they can't do their jobs—fighting for better pay, better conditions and safer workplaces.

This bill would add to that burden by putting new restrictions around worker entitlement funds and the financial management of unions, restrictions that don't apply, by the way, to corporations and other organisations. You don't see the government applying these sorts of restrictions to the big banks, which have just been through one of the worst rip-off and scandal ridden eras in Australian history, as exposed by the royal commission. This bill will add to the burden by putting new restrictions on those funds, and that's exactly what the government wants. This is not about protecting workers; it's about using wedge issues to attack its political enemies—the union movement and the Australian Labor Party.

This bill will effectively shut down many worker-run funds while allowing employers to set up and run their own funds as alternatives. It's one set of rule for workers and another for corporations. That is exactly the modus operandi of this government, and we're not going to stand for it. We're going to call it out for what it is. If the government truly believed in corporate equivalence then this bill wouldn't exist, because the measures in the bill far exceed what applies to corporations.

We've seen many examples of employers ripping off their workers in recent years through wage theft. There's a litany of cases of mainly unorganised workers, vulnerable workers, who work in itinerant positions, on either casual or part-time bases, who haven't received their fair entitlements and haven't received the right pay, particularly for working shift work and for working on weekends. 7-Eleven, Domino's Pizza, Chatime, Michael Hill jewellers—the list goes on, and this government wants to attack the ability of unions to organise in workplaces and to establish training funds to ensure that they can train more workers to be union delegates, to identify hazards in workplaces when they exist and put in place measures to ask employers to rectify those hazards, and to ensure that people are safe at work. This is an attack on the rights of people to form those unions and to work in a safe manner in their workplaces.

If a business earns interest off worker entitlement money then they can pocket that, and this government says that's no problem; that's fine. But if a worker wants to have a say in how that money is spent then all of a sudden they get new regulations and restrictions. Worker entitlement funds are there to ensure that workers' entitlements are protected and to provide important services for workers, such as training, counselling support, suicide prevention, funding for OH&S officers and training around occupational health and safety. These are all important aspects of workplace life, particularly in the occupations that I mentioned earlier around the delivery of services—people that have to work with members of the public and have that emotional attachment to working with members of the public. I'm particularly talking about people who work in the medical services industry, particularly on the frontline in our hospitals. These are people who need counselling and suicide prevention services, who need help when they have a bad run at work. Yet this bill potentially restricts the ability of unions to raise funds to establish those important services that support workers in workplaces throughout the country. That is despicable. We've all heard of the increasing rates of mental health problems, particularly in some of those industries that I mentioned earlier around law enforcement and in the medical profession. To try and restrict the services that are available to these people, by dint of the fact that you're making the conditions for the establishment of funds to provide these services harder, is not on, in my view. It is not on in this day and age.

Even Dyson Heydon, the royal commissioner who was put in place by the former Abbott government, conceded that training funds provide a public good. This could all be put at risk by this bill. Even that royal commissioner didn't go as far as recommending these restrictions here, which are so onerous. This bill goes far beyond what was put forward by the royal commission. It is another example of this government's obsession with attacking unions, because they think that Australians believe that a union equates with a building and construction worker, when that is not the case. Really what they are doing in this bill is attacking the many workers that work in service industries and other occupations—and, indeed, building workers, who work very hard. It's all to disguise the fact that they don't have a plan to deal with a failing economy. They don't have a plan to arrest the decline in growth that's occurring in the Australian economy: the fact that 1.8 million Australians are now out of work or seeking more hours; the fact that the retail industry has been smashed by low levels of consumption expenditure; the fact that wages growth has been non-existent for many people. Many of those people that I mentioned earlier working in those difficult occupations haven't seen real increases in their incomes for a long period of time and are struggling to make ends meet and to pay the family bills. There is no assistance from the government. There is no focus in this parliament on changes and legislation that would help those people, that would boost infrastructure investment, that would provide tax cuts for people earlier than is scheduled by this government, that would look to changing some of the ridiculous forecasting scenarios that have been present in this government's forecasts, both around the budget and MYEFO. They're not interested in doing any of that, not at all. They just want to come into this place and attack the rights of unions and workers because they see an opportunity to wedge the Labor Party. That's not leadership. That's not running the country in the interests of working Australians and their families.

We maintain that this bill would give more power to some organisations, like the Registered Organisations Commission, which was thoroughly politicised by this government and discredited over its role in the AWU raid scandal. This bill would give sweeping new powers to interfere in the affairs of workers and their representatives. We maintain that allegations of serious breaches by officers of registered organisations should be dealt with by ASIC. If you believe that companies and registered organisations should be treated the same or similarly, then surely you would use the same regulator.

The bill has been amended since it was first introduced in the last parliament, but those changes are not substantive and simply don't address Labor's central concerns with this antiworker, anti-union bill. For that reason and for all the reasons I mentioned, this bill should be opposed.

6:49 pm

Photo of Ed HusicEd Husic (Chifley, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

On the weekend, we had reports coming out of the Liberal convention that was held in New South Wales. We had reports that the coalition weren't coming up with things that they could do to make life easier for people. We didn't get any practical things that would address the things that Australians are concerned about in their day-to-day lives. What we had was game playing—this whole notion that the coalition would basically be setting tests, as it were, on Labor in returning to parliament this week. We're not sitting that much for the rest of this year because the coalition, as has been evidenced for quite some time, have no idea about what they will do now that they're in government and have not set too many weeks for this parliament to sit to get things done that would make life easier for people. But, instead, they've always got time to play games. They've always got time to politic.

We've got this piece of legislation before us, the Fair Work Laws Amendment (Proper Use of Worker Benefits) Bill 2019. This is not about tackling what a lot of people are worried about, which is, for example, why their wages aren't moving. When they've got bills to pay or things that they want to do with their families, why aren't wages moving higher than what they are? Why is it that you can have a government in a budget say that they expect that wages will increase in the next 12 months and it never actually happens? You have, apparently, a Treasury that has the best forecasting capability in the country making predictions that this government take forward and include in their budget, but we never see them actually occur.

Look at the stats. Look at the way the wage price index grew over the five years to December 2018—so the bulk of the time the coalition have been in office. It grew at an average of 2.2 per cent. But if you look at the five years leading to December 2013, when we had a global financial crisis, with all the pressures on businesses and the way that economies were performing, wages grew at 3.3 per cent. So they grew at 2.2 per cent in the five years from 2013 to 2018, but before that they were growing at 3.3 per cent. Where is there a bit of legislation, where is there some sort of action by those opposite, that will actually help people get more in their pocket, not less? I ask that because that's how people feel—that they're not actually keeping pace. They can see all these other people doing very well. Profitability is up, shareholders are doing well, and big CEOs are getting big pay packets and bonus on bonus, yet there's very little to show for people expecting to see some better outcome for their own wages. In fact, wages growth is getting worse under the coalition, and they don't have a plan.

They do have a plan to politic. They do have a plan to game play in this place and bring these bits of legislation forward, instead of actually doing the hard work of making life easier for people. As has already been pointed out, it's not just that people are not getting better wage growth than they expect. Look at the number of people who are unemployed—700,000, roughly. It doesn't really change much. As much as the coalition talk about 1.4 million jobs being created under their watch, there's still this stubborn unemployment rate of 700,000 people. On top of that, when the Australian Bureau of Statistics asks people, 'Are you happy with the type of work you're getting? or 'Are you happy with the hours that you're working?' over a million people are saying no. This is underemployment. Whenever you hear about this, there are people saying that they want to work in a much more secure job and they want to be able to get more hours to pay their bills.

I have people in my part of Western Sydney coming up to me and asking: 'How much longer do I have to work as a casual for? Why can't I get a full-time job that gives me the certainty that I can pay the bills, put the kids through school, put clothes on their back, get a house and pay the mortgage?' In some suburbs, over three-quarters of the people are renting because they can't get the homes that they want. They can't get finance, and if they can't get finance then it's largely because they haven't got the type of job with the type of pay coming in that allows them to do it. We don't see anything that shows this coalition government is determined to fix that. There is nothing to fix insecure work, nothing to fix the fact that there are some people who have been forced to work, particularly in labour hire agencies, for extended periods of time, going from job to job but still with no sense of permanence. In Sydney or in some of the big housing markets across the country, not only are people not getting the wages that they want, the work they think they deserve or the hours that will help them out but the ones who do have homes have seen house prices plummet. That is because the coalition, in their desperate attempt to do anything other than reform negative gearing, badger regulators to pull the handbrake on the housing market. So those workers who thought they had a nest egg in their home worry about prices dropping like a stone in some of the biggest housing markets in the country, because the coalition are playing games and doing things they reckon will make the smart win on the floor of this place. They tell everyone they're not part of the Canberra bubble but are very much at the heart of the bubble themselves.

The coalition come in here with their stunts and this type of legislation, with all the so-called tests they are putting to our side of politics, instead of being able to meet a test themselves. The test for those opposite is: what are you doing to make life easier for people across this country who are doing it tough, who aren't seeing their pay packets increase, who aren't seeing their hours increase, who aren't seeing security in their work and who aren't seeing the value of their homes increase to give them a nest egg? But those opposite come in here and beat their chests and say that they have taken a stand on this.

I referred earlier to wages growth declining in this country. The coalition, over the last 20 years, have made it their big deal to make it harder for working people to bargain. They have made it harder for people to call for things in their wage agreements for better outcomes. It's no surprise that we're seeing a floundering of wages growth under this government, because they have totally watered down the power that exists at the negotiating table for working people to work together to get better outcomes. Why would we be surprised that there's no improvement in wages in this country? It is no surprise that the coalition would stick to the view that they don't want working people to be able to organise against very powerful employers, who have an army of HR experts and an army of lawyers and who can basically skew agreements in the way that they want to deny working people the right to stand up and say, 'No, I deserve better. I deserve more. I can't keep living from pay cheque to pay cheque or holding down more and more jobs.'

The ABS also revealed that the rate of growth in the number of people who are holding down not two jobs, not three jobs but four jobs, just to make ends meet, has doubled over the last 12 months. This is stuff we don't talk about in here, but people have to live it every single day and there's no game plan from those opposite. We keep saying we want to leave a better place for the kids who follow us than the one we inherited, yet when I was growing up people never had to work four jobs at all. It was one job, and maybe mum went out and worked. They didn't hold multiple jobs between them, yet those opposite have no game plan on that. Why? It is because the coalition will never fix this up. The answer is to give working people stronger rights so they can say, 'I deserve better.' In an economy where the businesses are getting more profit, where the shareholders are doing well and where the CEOs are doing well, working people should be able to expect more. I know those opposite will say this is the ranting of a red-flag-waving Labor Party member. Wrong. The economy is strong when we all do well, and if there are a lot of people that are doing well in this economy we should also see working people do well, because it will give them more confidence in the economy working the way it should. But, if you say to those opposite, 'Let's see a better outcome on wages; let's see people do better and be able to argue better at the negotiating table,' you will never, ever see it come out of them—not at all. There's no way in the world they will argue for that. They'll say they want a better wages outcome. They won't have a wages policy. They'll have game-playing like this type of legislation, but they won't come to the parliament and say, 'We've worked out a way that working people will do better in the economy.'

When you look at economic growth, profits are always getting a larger and larger slice of the pie, with very little for wages, and this is undermining people's faith in the way the economy's working. Some businesses get that. They know that stronger businesses come when people have a commitment to those businesses because they've got a share in the growth. That is the thing that people get. If we continue the way we are going at the moment, we will have less and less faith in enterprise bargaining being able to deliver for working people, because they'll say: 'We turn up to the negotiations. We're told what we can't negotiate. We're told we can't do X, Y or Z in terms of taking a stand for ourselves, and then we've got to cop something that's below average or just mirroring the inflation rate, where people feel like they're not getting ahead. We've just got to cop that.' So what happens then with enterprise bargaining, which we're told is supposed to be very good for the economy? It can't constantly be good for one side of the negotiating table as opposed to the other. Otherwise we just go back to the old way we used to do wages, a centralised wage-fixing system that delivered an outcome every single year. That's what business and the coalition have got to think about when they're thinking about the future of the way in which wages get determined in this country.

Again, these are serious, difficult, tough issues to fix, but you're not going to get the answer from that side of politics, because they're quite happy with the arrangements the way they are. As long as they pretend they're doing something, we're all supposed to be okay with that. Wrong. People should be doing better out of this economy. People should be getting a fairer share. We should build confidence in the way that everyone has a slice of that pie, and we're not going to get anywhere debating these types of pieces of legislation that are more make-work for the coalition to make them look tough and give them something to do on the floor of parliament whenever it actually does sit through the course of the year. In the meantime, people are struggling with the number of jobs that they've got, not being paid the wages that they really deserve and being told they have to work the hours that they cop when they know they need to work more. We constantly have this downward spiral. Working Australians deserve better than this government playing games in the way that it is doing with this legislation.

7:03 pm

Photo of Bob KatterBob Katter (Kennedy, Katter's Australian Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Very seldom do I pay compliments in this place, but that was a very excellent contribution from the previous speaker. The Liberal Party don't understand their own roots. They don't understand where they came from. Bob Menzies's name is synonymous with the existence of the Liberal Party, which he formed. His grandfather was a trade union leader where the Eureka Stockade had taken place, and he was a trade union leader not all that long afterwards. Eureka, contrary to public opinion, were not trade unionists; they were the miners. They were the mine owners that were complaining about government taxation and overregulation. But, all the same, I repeat that Bob Menzies's grandfather, of whom he was very proud, was a trade union boss at the very town where the Eureka Stockade had taken place, which was one of the biggest industrial areas in this country in the days of the goldmining.

To get you thinking right on this, I think one of the great quotes was an altercation between Walter Reuther, head of the motor vehicle builders union in the United States, and Henry Ford. And Henry said: 'Wally, you come here and have a look at this machinery, because this machinery's going to go in here and I don't need your workers. I don't need any workers at all. I'm going to replace them with this machine.' And Walter said, 'Henry, if there are no workers who's going to be there to buy your cars?' There was reportedly a thundering silence from Henry Ford. He hadn't thought about that part of it.

In the Great Depression, the big retail businesses in Australia—the equivalents of Woolworths and Coles in the day and the big general stores in Sydney—were tenaciously fighting for public works and expenditure of government moneys. They were on the side of the worker because the worker had no money in his pocket and the businesses were all going broke. My own grandfather is very famous. He's in the history books. He gave over a million dollars, in terms of today's money, to the strike fund in the 1890s. Those people who didn't like him said he was just giving it to the workers so they would have money to spend in his shops. He claimed, of course, that he believed in the working man and that they were the solid backbone of the nation. They were the ones who dug the gold out of the ground and they were the ones who mustered the cattle and sheared the sheep—that was his reply.

There's a wonderful story told about Les Thiess. He was the first person to import bulldozers to Australia, and when they had desperate coal shortages in New South Wales they brought him in to open-cut mine. At that stage there were still pit ponies working in the mines in New South Wales. There was an enormous reaction against Thiess and the use of bulldozers in open-cut mining, which would do away with their jobs. There were massive strikes. They closed down the whole of the coal industry. New South Wales and Victoria were freezing in the middle of winter. They called a general strike. They were all down at the pub drinking with this new bloke, who was a dozer operator, drinking with them. They said, 'What's your name, mate?' And he said, 'Les Thiess.' 'Are you related to this Tory bastard from Queensland who's taken all our jobs?' And Les said, 'No, I'm not related to him; that's me.' They said, 'What are you doing drinking in the pub with the lot of us? He said: 'Mate, I'm a plant operator. I'm not a rich person. They wouldn't have me in their pub.' They said: 'Hey, fellows, this is Les Thiess. He's not a bad sort of bloke,' and they all went back to work.

I'm afraid that there's a little bit of class connection here with the Liberal initiatives. There are leftovers from a past age when we had working classes. I'm very pleased to see some of the Liberals using the words 'aspirational classes'. I represent the aspirational classes. The vast bulk in my electorate work as miners. If I were representing Cairns, as I do represent the southern part of Cairns, the vast population of the people I represent would be fly-in miners. If I were in Townsville, I'd be representing miners. The farmers I represent—we rang up three people to run for us in the last state election. They were all farmers' sons. They were all working in the mines. I dare say that there would not be a farming family in North Queensland that does not have a relative working in the mines, and I would say that a quarter of the farms are only still owned by the farmers because there is someone working in the mines. So it is vitally important for us to be able to keep up those jobs and our incomes from those jobs.

What's happening to the miners? They have to live two weeks on, two weeks off. They live away from their homes. They don't see their kids play football on the weekend. They don't see their daughters in the eisteddfods on the weekend. They're not at home, so their kids have been brought up, to a large degree, without one of their parents, or, in some cases, both of their parents. We are now working incredible hours and we're working under conditions where we don't live in our home anymore. We were on $200,000—this is very hard and very dangerous work. We have fatalities. There is no way they can be avoided. I worked as a miner myself and I worked my own mines. I own my own mines and I've worked my own mines, so I've walked both sides of the fence. But it is an intrinsically dangerous occupation. It is done in extremely hot, dry, desolate conditions in very remote parts of Australia, and you need that sort of money to be able to justify working in those conditions. We were on $200,000 a year because of active and aggressive trade unionism. We've now been cut back to $100,000 a year and fly-in mining.

I don't want to leave out the ALP here, because it was the ALP who introduced fly-in mining. It was the ALP who took the temporary worker visas from 325,000 under Howard to 640,000 under their government. It was the ALP government in Queensland that privatised the railways and took railway employment from 22,000 down to 7,000. It utterly destroyed the towns from which I come—a series of railway towns in the midwest of North Queensland. Those towns are almost ghost towns today because they stripped us of 1,500 railway jobs. Everything is carried from the coast in trucks now, costing us six times more than when the railways were carrying that freight.

So the railways were privatised by the Labor Party and the Labor Party in Queensland half privatised the electricity industry, which sacked 2,500 workers. I copped a lot amongst my union mates because I was in the government that stood up to them in the electricity dispute—the famous watershed in Australian industrial history. It was a stand-up bloodthirsty battle. I was on the other side of the fence, and I'm proud to say I was because I think the boys had just overreached themselves. They were asking for ridiculous terms, pay and conditions. They wanted a week on and a week off and pay that was superior to the income of a member of parliament. That might have been fair enough, but combined with the fact that they were only going to work one out of every two weeks it was a bit rich—they weren't living away from home or anything. They went too far and we stood up to them, and I'm not going to shy away from being one of the people involved in that dispute.

When the unions go too far, yes, you've got to stand up to them. But at the present moment we're being shredded on all sides. One in two jobs that have been created since 2013 have gone to a temporary visa holder. I will tell you what temporary visa holders work for. I'm not going to name the industry, because I've got a lot of good friends in this industry and I think some of them are doing this. But I'll tell you what it is: they work a 60-hour week, these temporary visa holders from overseas. They get paid about $700 a week and they pay $150 for board and lodging, which consists of a bedroom that I can almost reach across and touch both walls in. It has three beds stacked one on top of the other on one side and three beds stacked one on top of the other on the other side. And they pay $150 for the privilege of having one of those beds and sharing the bathroom facilities with some 20 people. Increasingly, those are the job options in North Queensland.

We have a bloodthirsty battle in Queensland over the coal industry. We have only two industries in Queensland, really. Everything else pales into insignificance beside the sugar industry and the coal industry. Yes, we have hard rock mining but it's nothing like the size of the coal industry. It's negligible. We have an aluminium industry, which is significant, but it's nothing like the sugar industry or the coal industry. And we have a government in Queensland that wants to close down both industries. The ALP government in Queensland would close down both industries! I've never thought that they were particularly characterised by intellectual capacity, the leadership of the Labor Party in Queensland, but it takes a particular type of callous viciousness to destroy the jobs and the livelihoods of the coalminers of Queensland. My union, the CFMMEU, of which I am a proud member, has stood up to this. No-one else in Australia has stood up, but they've stood up and they've had to fight and take on people who they've worked with and been friends with all of their lives, their Labor colleagues. The split is now becoming venomous and bloodthirsty in Queensland, and it will worsen. Whilst the lily pad Left controls the Labor Party in Queensland, the hard Left are going to be left with nothing. There are no jobs in the sugar industry and there will be no jobs because there will be no sugar industry. That's because, 'Oh, the sugar industry is destroying the Barrier Reef.' The sugar industry has been there for 200 years; the Barrier Reef is still there.

They have brought in temporary visas. They were not brought in by the Liberal Party; they were brought in by the Labor Party. There is a strong strain of hypocrisy coming off this side of the House here. Fly-in mining was banned by the Court government in Western Australia and banned by the Bjelke-Petersen government in Queensland. That ban was an enormous benefit to the people who worked in the mines. The minute the Labor Party came in along with their big corporate friends, they abolished the ban on FIFO mining in Western Australia. We know the corruption related to that decision; it is an ugly part of Australian history. In Queensland they abolished the ban on FIFO mining.

A town like Mount Isa—a proud town that was growing and prosperous and one of the richest towns in Australia, with 36,000 people—is now a town of 19,000 people, and half of them are the left-behinds. They're not the sort of people that can get jobs working in the mines. The poor workers have a very limited home life. They're only home one week out of two.

They're bringing in 640,000 people on temporary visas. Of those, 200,000 are migrants; 440,000 temporary visa workers are coming into Australia every year. So we have 640,000 people, almost all adults coming from overseas, almost all eligible for work, chasing 200,000 jobs. When I went to university, it was called supply and demand. Where you've got a massive oversupply of labour, the price for labour is going to go through the floor. Where we were getting 200,000 experienced miners, we're now getting 100,000 and soon we'll be getting 50,000. When you cut the throats of the only people that are fighting back—the CFMMEU, and I think there are not many other unions that are standing up proudly like they are and fighting the good fight. Yes, all right; they may not be perfect people. Let's face it, we as a union had to inherit the building labourers, and there was a famous comment when we complained that they're a bunch of criminals, that they'd kill people and we didn't want them. Bob Hawke said, 'No, you blokes are commos; you can handle them!' So we ended up having to inherit and trying to pull back into a gear a union that was completely out of control. We haven't done a bad job in pulling them back. It may not be perfect at this stage, and I'll be the first to admit that.

I think the government is genuine in what it's trying to do, but there's a very strong element of class struggle, which belongs in the early part of the last century, and there's a very strong element of politics like you're the good guys and this other mob, the unions, are the bad guys. That is not healthy for Australia. It's not the tradition of the Liberal Party, which was started off by Bob Menzies, the very proud grandson of one of the great union leader of this country.

7:18 pm

Photo of Tony ZappiaTony Zappia (Makin, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm pleased I was in the chamber to listen to the member for Kennedy because, unlike on other occasions, on this occasion I pretty much agreed with most of what he said. After the 18 May election, it was my expectation that a priority of the Morrison government would indeed be to continue its attacks and pursue the ideological destruction of unions and worker organisations in this country. My expectation has proven to be correct. We saw it as one of the first issues on the agenda a couple of weeks ago when we debated some other industrial legislation, and now this legislation goes to the heart of attacking unions in this country.

It's an attack which began under the Howard government in 1996, and I can well recall the waterfront saga in 1998 and then the Work Choices legislation prior to the 2007 election. It was clear to me from both of those events and, in particular, the Work Choices legislation that the Australian people are not fools. They understand fairness and unfairness when they see them, and this legislation is another example of unfairness.

The attack on trade unions continued in 2013 when the coalition was re-elected under former Prime Minister Abbott and we had the Heydon trade union royal commission. That was a deliberate attempt to look for reasons to change the laws relating to the operations of unions in this country. Regrettably for the coalition, that royal commission didn't deliver the findings that the coalition had hoped for. But this government, in order to justify its anti-union agenda, is relying on the Heydon royal commission to bring into parliament legislation which goes well beyond what the Heydon royal commission had recommended. I have to say that whilst the Fair Work Laws Amendment (Proper Use of Worker Benefits) Bill 2019 includes tougher accounting controls and restrictions on worker organisations—the Heydon royal commission might have alluded to some of those matters in their recommendations—it seems to differentiate between the laws that should apply for unions in this country and the laws that apply for industry organisations in this country. Indeed, the laws that will be implemented if this legislation goes through the parliament are much more onerous than the obligations that are placed on industry in this country.

Whilst that doesn't surprise me, it does concern me. It concerns me for this reason: we had a royal commission into the banking sector in this country, which handed down its recommendations. The lack of enthusiasm by this government to implement the recommendations of the banking royal commission, when contrasted to its enthusiasm for implementing recommendations of the Heydon royal commission, where it goes beyond what the commissioner recommended, is very clear to us on this side of the House. While the government puts the blowtorch on unions—and, in doing so, weakens them—the real losers in this legislation become the men and women whose primary protection of their income and their entitlements comes from the worker organisations that represent them. What this government is really doing is not attacking the unions but indirectly attacking the men and women workers of this country, because they are the ones who stand to lose the most.

I will go to some of the detail in this bill. The bill amends the Fair Work Act to make changes to the regulation of worker entitlement funds. Those changes put additional requirements on the governance, financial reporting and financial disclosure requirements of worker entitlement funds. They place limits on when a worker entitlement fund can become or stay registered, including what sort of organisation can operate the fund, the make-up of the board of the fund and the way in which the assets of the fund can be used. The bill also amends the registered organisations act to introduce new rules and penalties around financial records and reporting for all unions.

Worker entitlement funds exist to protect workers' entitlements and provide services to workers, such as training and counselling support. Often, the funds operate in industries where there are high levels of phoenix operators and unfunded entitlements. Whilst the government will make it sound like these changes are to benefit workers, they are in fact burdensome regulations aimed at making it more difficult for unions to achieve better pay and conditions for their workers.

If the Morrison government is so concerned about protecting workers, then why isn't it doing more to stop employers who are underpaying their workers or taking advantage of them in so many other ways? Recent very high-profile examples of underpayment by employers demonstrate that much more needs to be done. Yet, for all the high-profile cases, there are many more which don't make the media. In one example that my office was contacted about, a young worker was employed for a short period of time. She received pay slips which, as expected, detailed the withholding tax and superannuation payments. Her pay arrived in her bank account. However, the first sign of something not being right was when she didn't receive a group certificate. When trying to lodge her tax return online, her pay details from the employer did not automatically download. It seems highly likely that the employer didn't pay the withholding tax to the Australian ATO and didn't pay the superannuation contributions either. My understanding is that, in these cases, it's the employer's responsibility to meet those obligations, not the employee's, and the issue of the tax debt is a matter that the Australian tax office should be pursuing. Nonetheless, the loser in this case is the young employee who works for a short period of time and then, when she attempts to lodge her tax return, is unable to do so. In the process, it's clear that she has lost her super and that she will get no tax refund that she probably would have otherwise been entitled to.

In a different situation that I'm also aware of, a small number of employees stayed on for a short period after the rest of their colleagues were terminated in a particular industry in order to help complete the wind-up of a business that was undergoing liquidation. It was a big business. As a consequence of remaining and the date of their termination being when all other employees had left, the business was then reclassified as a small business because it only had a handful of employees—the ones who stayed on to finalise the liquidation of the business. This meant that, unlike their colleagues, those remaining workers who had stayed on to wind-up the business did not receive the full benefit of the Fair Entitlements Guarantee because the business was reclassified as a small business. They lost thousands of dollars.

I raised this matter with the government. In his response, Minister Porter indicated that there may be an opportunity to consider the application of this rule as part of the government's broader review of industrial relations law. I look forward to the government's consideration of this matter because, as I've pointed out, the workers lost thousands of dollars for doing the right thing and staying back to wind-up the company. I suspect that this might have been an unintended consequence of the current industrial law.

In May this year it was reported that Fair Work inspectors had undertaken an audit in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland of almost 1,400 businesses. The audit found more than one in five of those businesses underpaid their workers. In its submission for the inquiry into wage theft in Queensland, the ACTU argued that wage theft has become a business model, with workers in large businesses being routinely exploited. It is a sad fact that often it is the lowest paid workers, who can least afford it, who are the ones ripped off the most. There are numerous ways that workers are being ripped off. Some of those mentioned in the ACTU's submission include: failing to pay superannuation, failing to pay for breaks, failing to pay overtime, the compulsory use of employer provided staff accommodation to claw back wages, withholding of wages on the basis that it will put visa status at risk, not paying for trial or training periods, misclassifying workers as independent contractors, deliberate employee misclassification, not paying annual or paid leave, not paying appropriately for higher duties, phoenixing-type activity—where a firm goes into liquidation or administration to avoid having to pay employee entitlements and re-emerges under a different legal structure but with the same or related individual control—and failing to deduct or remit taxation amounts.

In the short time left to me, I want to relate another case of how this government is supporting the demise of working entitlements and conditions in this country—that is, its support for outsourcing, subcontracting, the loss of penalty rates and the like. One SA government worker told me only last week how his work within the South Australian government got outsourced. It has subsequently been outsourced from one entity to another on several occasions. He made it very clear that every time a new entity takes over the work that was previously done under direct employment of the South Australian government, this person loses entitlements. He either loses wages or has to work longer in order to get the same wages. It's a clear case of the person's working conditions and income being slowly eroded as a result of the outsourcing that took place. His example is typical of what is happening to workers around the country.

If this government is serious about protecting workers' benefits, these are the issues that it should be focusing on. There are many of them out there. They have been brought to the attention of this House time and time again, and I'm sure that the government is well aware of them. I say to members opposite: if you are serious about improving workers' benefits and you want to treat them the way that you would like to be treated then this legislation isn't the way to do that.

Debate interrupted.