Wednesday, 21 March 2012
Fair Work Amendment (Textile, Clothing and Footwear Industry) Bill 2011 ; Second Reading
I rise to speak on the Fair Work Amendment (Textile, Clothing and Footwear Industry Bill) 2011 . It would be a furphy for those on the other side to say that the coalition does not support provisions and protections for those in the clothing, textile and footwear industry. When in government, the coalition was faced with some very compelling evidence of endemic and inappropriate conduct in workplaces in this industry. We acknowledged that protections were needed for people in this industry. And, faced with this evidence of the need for additional protections in the textile, clothing and footwear industry, we took the appropriate legislative action. The coalition, throughout its time in government, maintained protections for outworkers in the textile, clothing and footwear industry in the various iterations of workplace relations legislation between 1996 and 2007. It was on this same basis that the coalition implemented workplace legislation specific to the building and construction industry. Again, we recognised that specific protections were needed for people within a certain industry. And, in considering the need for the bill before us today, the coalition notes, as has been put forward by those speaking on the government side, that there continue to be specific provisions in the Fair Work Act to protect outworkers, as there should be, as well as varying equivalent provisions in state and territory legislation.
The question that the chamber needs to ask itself is this: why are we faced this week with yet another bill that seeks to change the industrial relations landscape in this country, given in particular that no commitment was taken to the previous federal election by the government in relation to introducing amendments dealing with industrial relations? I do qualify that comment by saying that commitments in the Labor government do not mean a lot; they promise one thing before the election and as soon as they are elected they do an entirely different thing. In relation to industrial relations commitments, one would think that, given the fact that we are this week debating a number of bills that are all of an industrial relations nature, the government may have flagged with the people of Australia that when they were elected they did intend to make changes to the industrial relations landscape. They did not do that.
But the answer, when it comes to commitments from the Labor Party, is quite simple. It would appear, based on everything that we have heard to date, that yet again, as with the abolition of the ABCC, the government's motivation for this amendment is more about giving something to its friends in the union movement in the lead-up to the next federal election. The government's modus operandi has been, since its election, to ensure that it appeases the unions, and for a very good reason—because it needs to do something to offset the acute pain employees will feel and are feeling as a result of the passing of the carbon tax legislation. The unions have for some time now made it very clear that they are not happy with this government and the impact the carbon tax legislation will have on their employees—pain that has been deliberately inflicted on them by their own Labor government.
These very real concerns in relation to the impact of the carbon tax have been exacerbated in light of a new study, produced by the Energy Users Association of Australia, which has found that that Australia's electricity prices are very near to the highest in the developed world and seemingly set to actually become the highest. The study found that electricity prices in Australia have risen by 40 per cent in real terms since 2007. And the reality for Australians and for all the unions and for the employees within the union movement is that from the 1 July, in 101 days, Australian households and businesses will pay the world's biggest carbon tax, which will increase electricity prices by more than 10 per cent in the first year alone. In subsequent years prices will go up and up.
Hence the bill we have before us today. The unions know that this is the worst time in history to introduce a carbon tax. It is also the worst place in the world to introduce a carbon tax that will see electricity prices that are already at global record highs go even further. This bill represents a very small gesture by the Gillard Labor government to appease the very real fears the unions have for employees because of actions taken by the Labor government.
One of the interesting facets of this debate is that the government's justification for the protections that are required for this industry is at odds with its justification for the abolition of the Australian building and construction commission. One of the government's core arguments in support of the abolition of the ABCC was that the ABCC discriminated against certain workers and that the industrial relations regime in this country should take a one-size-fits-all approach. That was the government's justification—which was actually elucidated yesterday in this place—for the abolition of the ABCC. The government said that the industrial relations landscape in this country should take a one-size-fits-all approach. But, a mere 24 hours later, the government comes into this place with another bill, a bill that is intended to change the industrial relations regime in this country, and the reasons that it puts forward for supporting this bill are in complete contradiction to the reasons it gave for the abolition of the ABCC. The government is saying that we have to pass the bill before the Senate because a one-size-fits-all approach to the industrial relations regime does not work.
One of the other issues of concern to the coalition in examining the justification for this bill is that the government continues to suggest that the measures proposed by this legislation are required because, as set out in the committee report on the bill, government members were struck by comments made by a deputy president of the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission that related to the remuneration and treatment of outworkers. I too was struck by those comments. But the comments were made in 1987, some 25 years ago. Over the last 25 years appropriate changes have been made in legislation to ensure that workers in this industry are afforded the protections that they need. If they had not been made, those on that side of the chamber, quite frankly, are to blame. I would suggest that the government's comments, therefore, are a little disingenuous, to say the least.
An additional justification for this bill, as proposed in 2011 by the then Minister Chris Evans, was based on a reference to a 2007 report by the Brotherhood of St Laurence and a 1996 report of a Senate Economics References Committee inquiry. The government knows that both of these reports were completed prior to the passage of the Fair Work Bill. Therein lies a problem for the government, because if these reports constitute such a strong case for the bill that we have before us today, why has it taken the government so long to act? Why is it that on 21 March 2012, we are suddenly debating this legislation? If the government's concerns are so real, why didn't it address those concerns as soon as it had the first legislative opportunity to do so? That was, namely, the introduction and the subsequent passage of the Fair Work Bill.
In relation to the bill before us, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, in its submission to the Senate Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, has also expressed concerns about the evidence supporting this legislation. It said:
Apart from references in the Minister’s second reading speech to a November 2011 Channel 9 story in a Melbourne TCF “sweatshop” and a July 2011 Sunday Herald Sun report on “sweatshops and outworkers producing school uniforms for Victorian families for as little as $7 an hour”, there are no examples provided in the extraneous materials as to the precise deficiencies of the existing legal framework, what recommendations these proposals are based on (such as from the Productivity Commission or a dedicated independent inquiry by the Federal Government) and how the proposed measures will reduce possible exploitation of workers in the TCF industry.
There is no evidence that actually supports that these measures will reduce exploitation.
Then we have the evidence of the Council of Textile and Fashion Industries of Australia, who expressed similar concerns:
The arguments for introducing the legislation are based on research conducted nearly 5 years ago not current evidence and fail to acknowledge the gains made in the 10 years of existing legislation and the 4 years of investment by the Federal Government in Ethical Clothing Australia.
Indeed, in support of those concerns are statements made by the current Prime Minister when she was the Minister for Education and the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. Ms Gillard said at the time: 'I believe the fair work system is right. We worked hard to get the balance right and I believe that the Fair Work Act is right.' During the passage of the Fair Work legislation, when confronted with all of this evidence, Ms Gillard said, 'I believe that the Fair Work Act is right.'
There appears to be a problem with that statement because if there is, as we are now told by the government, such a strong case for change in the industrial relations landscape in this country, then clearly the balance was not right when now Prime Minister Julia Gillard made that statement. In fact, the very nature of this bill and the comments that Ms Gillard made to workers in this country, in particular to workers in this industry, actually shows that the government had not got the balance right.
Despite everything the government said at the time, that they were going in to bat for the workers and that they were making these fundamental changes to the industrial relations landscape in the country, and despite the Labor Party going on record as saying to the people of Australia, 'We got the balance right,' the mere fact that we are in here today debating this legislation shows that that was yet another Labor Party lie. They deliberately misled some of the most vulnerable people in Australia; hence the bill we have before us today. But, as with so much of the legislation that is currently being debated or, should I say, not being debated because, as we all know, we are not getting the opportunity to properly investigate this legislation by way of a proper committee process, we are also subject to the unholy alliance of the Labor Party and the Greens, which will, at 12 o'clock today, guillotine debate on what is acknowledged to be a very important piece of legislation.
We suspect that the government's motivation for this amending legislation is more about cleaning up a very big mess that it has made in passing the carbon tax and the economic pain that the government knows is currently being felt by those who are most vulnerable in this country. What is worse is that that pain will be further exacerbated on 1 July, when the carbon tax legislation commences.
If the government were dinkum about giving further protections to people within this industry, they would wait for the outcome of the Fair Work Act, the debate of which is currently underway. This is an industrial relations bill. The provisions of this bill should be considered as part of a total review of the Fair Work Act, along with any other changes proposed in any final and publicly available report resulting from that review.
The Bills Digestfor this bill sets out concerns of the major interest groups about this legislation. As set out in the Bills Digest:
The National Retailers Association … states that there has been no consultation with industry about the changes included in the proposed legislation and has criticised the timing of the Bill's release which coincided with the peak trading season for retailers, inhibiting the ability for the organisation to consult with its members.
And remember that this government was all about consultation—but consultation on its own terms, not consultation where you have a major industry group, faced with a major change of legislation, not being given the opportunity to actually consult with the industry.
Then there are the comments of Heather Ridout, Chief Executive of the Australian Industry Group, who voiced employer concerns about the bill. In November 2011, Ms Ridout commented in a National Press Club address that the bill:
… will add another 30 pages to the Fair Work Act to increase union entry rights and protections for workers in the Textile Clothing and Footwear industry.
Ms Ridout listed a raft of government measures, such as the Road Safety Regulation Tribunal Bill 2011, funding award wage increases for social and community workers et cetera, including the bill to abolish the Australian building and construction commission, as evidence that this bill is indicative of the government not acting in the national interest, not acting in the interests of workers but agreeing to an extraordinary series of union claims. This is what Ms Ridout said.
The (TCF) Bill implements longstanding TCFUA claims which were opposed by Ai Group and other employer groups when the Fair Work Act was being developed and rejected by the Government at that time.
In relation to the legislation before us today we are presented with a government that told the people of Australia that it had got the balance right when it passed the Fair Work Act. The mere fact that we are debating the legislation today clearly shows that that was a lie.
We have a government that has failed to identify and present sufficient evidence that the measures contained in this legislation are justified. We have a government that has failed to justify the need for this legislation, based on the consistency of its approach to other legislation, namely, the abolition of the Australian building and construction commission. We are faced with a government that is yet again delivering a suite of measures that are designed to appease the union movement in the light of the devastating impact of Labor's toxic carbon tax on the most vulnerable people in Australia.