Senate debates

Wednesday, 21 March 2012


Fair Work Amendment (Textile, Clothing and Footwear Industry) Bill 2011 [2012]; Second Reading

10:00 am

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations) Share this | Hansard source

Australia's fashion and clothing manufacturing sector is doing it tough. Be it the enterprises or the workers and contractors engaged in that sector, they are doing it tough. But this bill, the so-called Fair Work Amendment (Textile, Clothing and Footwear Industry) Bill 2011 [2012], which we are debating, will make this tough situation even worse for the 8,600 enterprises and 22,000 workers engaged in the sector.

Regrettably, the Senate committee inquiry into this bill was cut short—as is this debate today—courtesy of the Greens-ALP alliance majority in the Senate, ruthlessly and recklessly using their numbers to avoid scrutiny. The chief industry body in relation to this sector was denied a hearing by the committee because the hearing was so truncated courtesy of the Greens-ALP majority. But you got it right: the union got a hearing, as it should have done, so I have no criticism of that. I will turn to the union later. But the industry body that deals specifically with textiles, clothing and footwear was denied a hearing. This is now just another example in a very long list of the Greens-ALP majority in this place deliberately truncating Senate inquiries and debates on bills to ensure that they are not put under the sort of scrutiny that the Australian people expect of us. The reason the Greens-ALP majority do not want this scrutiny is that they know their legislation is only designed to enhance trade union bosses' powers rather than enhancing the economic wellbeing of our nation or enhancing the benefits to individual workers and enterprises.

Let us be clear: there has been exploita­tion in this sector. That is why the coalition always had special protections in our legislation for outworkers. I pay tribute to former senator Judith Troeth, from my side, who as a distinguished former chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations ensured that we got the balance right. I regrettably was unable to sit in on the Senate hearing, and no wonder because, if you blinked, you would have missed it—it was that short. As a result of my inability to attend, I did avail myself of a briefing by the TCF Union and I congratulate Ms O'Neill and her colleagues from the union on giving me a well-presented and professional briefing. They did their membership proud. However, we do disagree on the best way forward.

One of the things that have always struck me about the TCF sector and those that are exploited in it is that those who are vulnerable are those who do not have English language skills. That is why I repeat, as I do on a regular basis, the importance of government in ensuring that new entrants to this country are properly supported with language skills. Having proper English language skills is the fundamental ticket to ride to social justice, to social integration and to personal empowerment. If you cannot read a bus timetable, you cannot get around. If you do not know what the product labels tell you, you do not know what you are buying. If you cannot read the language, you do not know what the award entitles you to. As a result, English is a very fundamental prerequisite for our fellow Australians, albeit new arrivals, to be able to actively and equitably engage within our community.

The sad fact is that these people with poor language skills are often exploited by their former fellow countrymen, and that is also a matter of great regret. They seem to do a disservice to people from countries that they themselves came from. I say that as an aside in this debate, because it is vital to recognise that those who are exploited are often those who have very poor language skills. To those who say that we should be celebrating multiculturalism and those things, I say simply: don't forget the vital need to encourage people to learn the English language, because without it they cannot engage in Australian society.

Having accepted and acknowledged that there is exploitation in the sector does not mean that you therefore have to treat every single person in that sector on the same basis and force everybody into an employer-employee relationship. Indeed, in doing so we will do a huge disservice to the young, the vibrant and the innovative. I will talk about that later.

In the meantime, let us have a look at the government's justification for this bill. The government's justification, as presented by the then minister, Senator Chris Evans, was based on a reference to a 2007 report by the Brotherhood of St Laurence and a 1996 Senate Economics References Committee inquiry. It is interesting to note that it is both those reports, from which the Labor Party must have finally wiped the dust, which have motivated them, but both those reports were there before the Fair Work Bill was presented to this parliament and passed. The government knew about these reports. The government knew about the assertions made in those reports and the government deliberately dismissed the matters in those reports as they drafted and enacted the Fair Work Bill.

So one has to ask: why is it that these two reports have bubbled to the surface? Indeed, a number of people who I understand assisted in negotiating the Fair Work Act—indeed, Ms Gillard told us that she negotiated the Fair Work Act—got the balance right. In getting the balance right, from time to time you have to dismiss the assertion of certain trade union bosses—that comes with the territory. That is what Labor did to get the sign-on of certain businesspeople.

Having got the legislation through with the sign-on of certain businesspeople, what do Labor do? They have that locked away; they then move the amendments which they were not prepared to put into the original bill. Talk about a sell-out; talk about deception; talk about the Labor government, because that is the hallmark of the Labor government. They say one thing and do another straight after the event, be it the carbon tax, be it private health insurance, be it the definition of 'marriage' or be it the treatment of textile, clothing and footwear workers in the workplace relations regime of this country. They do a deal, they sign it off with somebody, they say, 'This is a great balance; well done,' they get that locked away and then, with a Greens-ALP majority in this place, they force through this legislation in breach of that which has previously been agreed, relying on reports that were in existence at the time and were deliberately dismissed. No wonder the government want a truncated debate. No wonder the government wanted a very truncated Senate committee inquiry into this bill, because they would have been embarrassed in trying to justify why these two reports, which allegedly underpin this legislation, all of a sudden have become so important.

They also need to justify the 12 amendments which were put into the Senate late yesterday. They were not part of the Senate inquiry or any of the analysis but they are now part of this truncated debate. Clearly we will not have time for any proper committee stage, if we are lucky enough to have a committee stage. We will not get explanations as to why we have these last-minute amendments. Exactly the same approach was taken by Mr Shorten, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, in relation to the Office of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner legislation. Make sure the Senate inquiry is finished, make sure you have a truncated debate in the Senate and then whack in the amendments, which are far-reaching and devastating, to ensure there is no proper public analysis of the government's changes.

This government is abusing the parliamentary process because it can gain a majority in this place courtesy of the Australian Greens, who, under the Howard government, were the champions of every single clause of every single bill, which had to be analysed for every comma and full stop. It is not so now under the Greens-ALP alliance. They want everything swept through without any consideration and it happens not only in this place.

Remember the so-called 'new paradigm' we were going to experience when Ms Gillard signed up the country Independents, Mr Windsor and Mr Oakeshott? What a disgraceful turnout that has been. They are complicit in this as well. Never once have we heard them complain that the government is guillotining legislation through the Senate, that the government and the Greens are disallowing proper analysis of bills. We were promised all this under the new paradigm. There was going to be new transparency, greater accountability. All of that has been thrown out the window by this government with the complicity of those so-called country Independents.

I said earlier in my contribution that this bill will stifle the young, the innovative and the entrepreneur. Allow me to read a letter I received recently:

I am an emerging Australian Fashion Designer starting a label from home. I would like to draw your attention to the Fair Work Act and the Textile, Clothing, Footwear and Associated Industries 2010 (the TCFAI Award) Modern Award regime which defines me as an outworker, despite my 4 year degree in fashion from Ultimo TAFE. The current TCFAI Modern Award definition has a "catch all" definition where anyone working from home in the fashion industry is an OUTWORKER … yes, I can be considered an OUTWORKER if I sell to a boutique or department store, because of the deeming provisions of the award. Most graduating & emerging Australian Fashion Designers starting out, establish a trading relationship with a fashion boutiques on “indent”. In the eyes of the law, MA000017- Schedule F that would mean boutique owners are required to pay me as an employee, including all benefits and entitlements under the National Employment Standards and unfair dismissal laws. This is unfair and an unworkable regime that disadvantages me and other graduating & emerging Australian Fashion Designers, and is making it very difficult starting up a new business, as no boutique owner will agree to employ me, and I don’t want to be employed by them either.

Beyond that as a fashion student/designer, if I hand out work to a “maker/outworker” to sample a design I am obligated by law to employ them with full benefits and entitlements, and that is against the law for me to employ them casually. Further I am aware that in the final form of the Fair Work Amendment (Textile, Clothing and Footwear Industry) Bill 2011 (the Bill) currently before parliament, deems all outworkers to be employees for most purposes of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Clth) (the FW Act) including the National Employment Standards, Superannuation and unfair dismissal laws. As a start-up business, in the beginning it will be challenging to pay myself, never mind employ a ‘maker/outworker’ on a regular basis, and pay all these entitlements. Again this is unworkable and in trading in such an environment, I face prosecution in breach of the TCFAI Modern Award 2010. The risks are too great.

I would like you and your government to consider this letter and make the necessary changes to allow me and other graduating & emerging Australian Fashion Designers making samples and small orders (with business turning over less than $100,000 per year) to apply for exemption to this onerous and impractical regime, as part of the Modern Awards Review 2012.

There you have it: a young, innovative individual who will be stifled. Is this really what we want for our modern economy in the 21st century, that the young and the innovative are so stifled that they cannot do that which they want to do? We have heard it firsthand and it makes sense. That is what happens when you try the one size fits all. But we know this government has a severe dislike for independent contractors. They see independent contractors as potential union members and employees. As we have seen from the Health Services Union, we know how some of the union bosses behave with union members' moneys.

Back to the issue at hand. We also have from designers and makers in Australia their very real concern. One such letter I got says:

I am writing to you today in great distress … We have developed this brand over the last two years with the soul of the brand being an Australian made product.

… … …

Over our journey so far we have met many wonderful people in the fashion industry. From designers to stylists, to garment makers we have a wonderful and colourful collection of talent here in the fashion industry in Australia. By introducing changes to the Fair Work Act that doesn’t allow the fashion industry to employ the use of outworkers in the production of garments you will be forcibly restricting the amount of garments that can be produced in Australia. Not only by the way manufacturing companies will be forced to employ but also by the increase in production costs that will result from this. Making an already expensive process even further out of reach for the average Australian.

We … are proud australians and who have seen over our generation many great brands including iconic Victorian names such as Rip Curl and Quiksilver send all there production off shore and even more recently Pacific Brands was forced to do the same in a whole other manner.

The plea in this letter is:

… I implore you to severely look at any changes you make that would effect a great industry that is trying to put the "Aussie" back in "Aussie made!!!

This bill will stop putting Aussie back into Aussie made. This bill will unfortunately adversely impact the 8,600 enterprises and the 22,000 workers in the textile sector. It is a matter of regret that this legislation is in breach of the deal that was struck when the Fair Work Act was originally implemented. Whilst it disappoints it does not surprise, because we know that this is a government whose word cannot be trusted in any area of endeavour that it engages in. Having said that, the coalition does believe there is a better way forward in looking after the needs of exploited workers, and we have put that on the record in the past.


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