Senate debates

Wednesday, 21 March 2012


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

11:04 am

Photo of Mary FisherMary Fisher (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

Members opposite say that they were struck by the comments of a then deputy president of the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, which was essentially Fair Work Australia in one of its former guises. They say that they were struck by the comments made some 25 years ago by the deputy president of that body. They were struck by those comments about the state of conditions and pay for workers in the textile and clothing industry. And they are so struck, that somehow that is now a basis for this bill, the Fair Work Amendment (Textile, Clothing and Footwear Industry) Bill 2011, which is presented to the parliament after a very much-truncated Senate committee inquiry, allowed less than one day, where particular witnesses who wanted to appear before that committee were denied the opportunity to do so by the Labor dominated committee. In particular I am talking, for example, about the Council of Textile and Fashion Industries of Australia. So members opposite are struck by the comments of a learned person made some 25 years ago and for that reason we are presented with a bill which is subject to inadequate inquiry, which is not going to be able to go to committee in the inadequate time that we have before the chamber today and for which there is zero mandate.

It has all happened so quickly that I forget which bill Senator Thistlethwaite was speaking about, but I think it was the building and construction industry bill. In that speech he placed much importance on the mandate that he claimed the government had for the building and construction industry bill. Funny that he was conspicuous by his silence as to the mandate that the government has for this bill—because, of course, it does not have one. If it was so compelling, why did the government not say that it would be changing the protections that already existed, which were put in place by the Howard government in the late 1990s to protect textile and clothing industry workers? If they wanted to say they had a mandate, why didn't they promise something then?

The Howard government and the coalition have long recognised that there is exploitation in this industry and have tried to do something about it. There has been some criticism of the adequacy of those provisions, but the trouble with the government's bill is that we are struck by the lack of evidence that it will work. I note the presence in the gallery today of Ms O'Neil and her colleagues. I do want to pay tribute to the tireless work that she and others have done to help workers in this industry. I do not for one minute want to take away from the good intentions of the union and Ms O'Neil, and I am not trying to be condescending in saying that. This bill will pass. I hope that it will do what the government says it will do. I fervently hope that it will, because some of the evidence with which the committee was presented at its recent hearing is heartbreaking. And it is heartbreaking to think that those sorts of experiences continue to occur despite the length of time for which there have been provisions in the federal laws and also in state laws. It is absolutely heartbreaking.

Senator Thistlethwaite said that workers in this industry are more often than not immigrants, that they have poor English skills and that they have little concept of their rights. I would suggest that unfortunately they also have little concept of what this bill is about in its detail and whether or not it will actually help them. I do not want to be condescending and I do not want it to be taken that I am trying to take away from the very good efforts and the very good campaign that was being run long before I came to this place. My problem is that I am not convinced that this bill will do the job that the government is telling everybody—including the very vulnerable workers in this industry—that it will do. I think this is a snatch-and-grab job by the government, a kitchen-sink job. Throw anything at it to see if it will fix the problem, because nothing else has worked. If the government really has the confidence that this bill would work, why is the government not allowing the bill the proper scrutiny that this chamber would normally give—particularly when the government did not say, prior to any of the recent elections, that it intended to do this?

In the lead-up to the last two elections, this government talked about abolishing the Australian Building and Construction Commission on the basis that it discriminates against one set of workers and because there should be one set of workplace relations laws for all. The coalition has always acknow­ledged that where there is compelling evidence of ongoing and systemic issues in any industry then we are prepared to consider industry-specific legislation for those industries. Take, for example, exhibit A: the special provisions attached to the then Workplace Relations Act about the textile and clothing industries; and exhibit B, the Australian Building and Construction Commission. But not this government. This government, up until now, has said, 'The ABCC discriminates. There ought to be one set of laws for all.' To find evidence of that you do not need to look much further than the comments of government members when talking about the need to abolish the ABCC. Mr Neumann said in the House of Representatives on 13 August 2009:

The truth is that the Cole Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry was … to ensure that the salary and conditions of those hardworking men and women in the building and construction industry would find themselves subject to a different rule of law than any other worker in any other industry.

I have a fundamental belief that, whether you live in Palm Beach, Perth, the Torres Strait or Tasmania, there should be one law for all.

There are no qualifications on that from Mr Neumann and no qualifications on that from any other member of the government, and the comments were of course echoed by the cheer squad for the government, the ACTU, on 28 September 2010 when talking about the Building and Construction Commission: 'There should be one set of laws for all workers, regardless of the industry they work in.' No qualifications at all. Yet, when we got to the recent sitting of parliament, the government realised, 'Oopsie! We'd better change the hymn sheet, because we're going to want to wind back the Australian Building and Construction Commission at the same time as we build upon specific provisions for textile and clothing industry workers, at the same time as introducing completely new workplace relations laws'—because that is what they really are—for the trucking and road transport industries in the form of the so-called safe rates legislation.


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