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

So-called safe rates, because, just like this bill, there has been no opportunity for the coalition to obtain answers to questions like safe rates: if the establishment of the remuneration tribunal in the road transport industry is about safer roads, then at what precise pay point will all truck drivers across Australia decide to get more sleep rather than work more hours? There is no answer to that question, no evidence forthcoming from the government that the law which establishes the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal will in fact make our roads safer. It is the same deal here, yet the government wants the vulnerable workers in this industry to believe that the something—anything—bill which we now have before us will do the job.

As for the bill itself, Ms O'Neil was at pains to say to the Senate committee that she considered that the provisions in the bill were not radical. She quite rightly pointed to, for example, the deeming provisions that already deem outworkers to be employees in various state jurisdictions like New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania. That is five out of the potential seven. Four out of the six states allow recovery of underpaid entitlements. Three of them—New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia—also have a code. So in Ms O'Neil's view this bill is not radical; it will just achieve national consistency.

That, of course, begs a couple of questions. First, if this bill is not radical and it just ensures some consistency, then I think we are entitled to see the evidence that surely must exist that the provisions that have been operating in various states for some time actually work. If the national legislation, which is this bill, is going to do the job the government says it will do, then where is the evidence that the state and territory based provisions from which it is drawn have done the job? We are not able to see that evidence.

But the flipside of that argument applies. Critics of our position are able to say, 'Why are you opposing something that already exists when it is simply about making it national?' That is a fair question, but I think it is more than adequately answered by the fact that we have not been presented with any evidence that shows that the state provisions upon which this bill is based have actually done the job that the government says this bill will now do.

This bill goes beyond what you could call traditional workplace relations principles. In fact, in some respects it turns them on their heads. I guess that is why the government is proposing with this bill to have provisions very specific to this industry. The trouble is that that turning on its head arguably creates precedent for other industries. It creates precedent for other circumstances in which this government might consider, in the words of former Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations, Chris Evans:

The government has only ever intervened to protect vulnerable workers at the risk of exploitation. TCF outworkers and owner-drivers are the two groups that meet this test.

He was reported saying this in the Financial Review on 23 November 2011. What other workers in what other industries is this government going to say suddenly meet this test so we can have a series of separate industries subject to separate and special workplace relations laws? We will not necessarily be told about it by this government before an election, because they do not bother to seek a mandate for laws like the ones we are considering right now. So there is every prospect that turning the workplace relations laws on their heads, as this bill does in some respects, will be used by this government as precedent for workers in other industries which this government subsequently decides are vulnerable and deserving of protection.

Some examples of the way in which this bill turns traditional workplace relations on its head is that it deems any outworker in the textile industry to be an employee. As the Senate committee heard in the evidence before it, this has caused great concern, for example, to those who do not consider themselves vulnerable, who do not consider themselves exploited or in need of any sort of protection offered by this government in its workplace relations regime. This legislation will essentially deem someone with a university degree setting up a garment designing business to be an outworker. So it is offering the same sort of so-called protections to those workers as it is to vulnerable and arguably exploited workers who cannot speak English. University qualified designers are given the same treatment as, in many cases, immigrants who cannot speak English. It is a sledgehammer to crack a walnut.

This bill also arguably makes independent contractors and those genuinely so, despite the hot gospelling paraded by many mem­bers opposite about the so-called prolifera­tion of this dreadful sham contracting. There is the circumstance where it is proper in commercial circumstances for there to be independent contractors who are not employ­ees, but this bill will say it is simply no longer possible for there to be an indepen­dent contractor. It is simply no longer pos­sible to be treated as an independent contrac­tor in the textile industry if this bill becomes law, and that is wrong. This bill also singles out outworkers in the textile industry as not being able to enter into individual flexibility arrangements. These things which the Gillard government think are so cool—they were their creatures—for all other workers are barred as an option for workers in the textile, clothing and footwear sector.

This bill has not been properly thought through by the government. The government itself is not convinced that this bill will do the job that it promises it will do. That is why members opposite have not offered any evidence that it will do so. They properly talk about the very distressing situations and experiences we have seen in this industry and then they simply say, 'This bill will fix it.' They do not join the dots—pretty much, as the Greens have discovered to their horror, as the government has not joined the dots with all the cycleways across country, that little dirty side deal to get the support of the Greens for the stimulus package. Oops, the government has not managed to join the dots on all the cycleways either. This bill does not join the dots.

This bill is a sledgehammer to crack a walnut, and probably one of the most concerning aspects of this bill is that it is supposedly designed to protect and intended to protect workers. The design falls down. It is intended to protect workers who are usually immigrants and cannot understand English. Yet the industry is concerned because this bill overreaches and Labor, in its desperation, has not bothered to do its homework. It has had plenty of time with Ms O'Neill and her colleagues' long and sustained—and proper—campaign for a solution in this industry. It has had plenty of time to make sure it got its detail right.

Businesses in this industry fear that, because this bill overreaches, it will lead to job losses. So the very people who this bill is supposedly designed to protect and intended to protect may well lose their jobs. You may say, 'What good is an exploited job?' In some cases, workers who are being exploited will continue to be exploited if this bill goes through, because there are rogues in every gallery. These workers today have the option to not have the jobs, exploited as they are, yet they are unfortunately continuing to work in those circumstances. The coalition is not convinced that this bill will fix the problems the government says it is designed to fix, and we look forward to seeing the proof over time since, unfortunately, this bill is going to go through this chamber.


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