Tuesday, 5 September 2017
Fair Work Amendment (Repeal of 4 Yearly Reviews and Other Measures) Bill 2017; Second Reading
I too rise to speak on the Fair Work Amendment (Repeal of 4 Yearly Reviews and Other Measures) Bill 2017. Before I go to the elements in the bill, some of which Labor has managed to convince the government to change for the better and some of which we will continue to debate, I want to put this four-yearly review and the Fair Work Act in a broader context. I listened when Senator Ketter was speaking about his time at his union, where a considerable amount of time was spent on the award modernisation process. I too, at that time, worked at United Voice. For a period of time I was responsible for industrial relations at the national union. I absolutely agree with Senator Ketter that the award modernisation process was something that unions were heavily invested in and spent an inordinate amount of time on, particularly as United Voice is a broad-based membership union. There might have been one or two awards that United Voice didn't have an interest in, so we were extremely busy over that two-year period.
Industrial relations in this country really matter. I think what gets lost—certainly by the government—is how industrial relations can protect the rights of vulnerable workers. When we look at award workers, I think what's overlooked or perhaps forgotten by the government is that it's predominantly low-wage workers in this country who rely on the protections of the award. We already know through academic research that there's an enormous difference between the conditions of female and male workers. Yesterday was Equal Pay Day. We know that we have a shocking gender pay gap in this country, which hasn't moved for 30 years. My state of Western Australia has the highest wage gap in the country, and there's a very solid reason for that. It's because another Liberal government, under Mr Court and his industrial relations minister, Mr Kierath, absolutely tore the award system to bits.
Even though modern awards are much smaller documents and cover only a range of matters, if we want to appreciate the value of awards in this country and what happens when you start tinkering with awards and the protections around them—and I would argue that four-yearly reviews are a protection to award workers even though they have been used in the wrong way by employers—we only have to look to Western Australia to see what the Court government did when, for the first time in our history, it said to the employers in Western Australia, 'You can undercut the award.' We had long held to the view that awards were the safety net. They were the very minimum rate of pay which could be paid to workers in this country. That was not so for Mr Court and his extremely aggressive industrial relations minister, Mr Kierath. For the first time in Western Australia, and indeed the country, employers were able to undercut awards. Awards that had been put in place a hundred years ago were able to be undercut.
What we saw almost immediately in areas where wages are in competition—this is something the government doesn't seem to appreciate—was that when margins are slim, in contracting industries like security and catering, or where there's stiff competition, such as in the early childcare sector, wages are a predominant part of payroll—in the early childhood sector probably making up 75 per cent of the pay. When people are competing in the contracting industry for a contract, if they can snip wages, that's what they'll do. Under the workplace agreement system in Western Australia, for the first time ever, employers were able to strip away award conditions so that overnight, we saw the contract cleaning rate in Western Australia drop by $2 an hour.
Of course, despite most companies actually not wanting to cut wages, when they were up against a big employer who did cut wages, in order to compete they had to go to the lowest common denominator. We saw penalty rates disappear. We saw the hourly rate disappear. We saw ridiculous contracts come into place and zero minimum where you were just told to come in at a whim. And we saw wages and conditions of cleaners—they were the first area that was attacked—disappear almost immediately. What impact does that have on a worker? First of all, cleaners thought they could move to another contract cleaning company. But, lo and behold, they soon found out it didn't matter where they went. The employers were also in the race to the bottom. Their wages were not protected. What happened was that cleaners started working two jobs. I know it's quite common to hear in this place that people are working two jobs. But we heard of cleaners working two and three jobs, and sometimes four jobs, just to try and make up for the loss in wages that had hit their pockets because of this abandonment of the wages system.
It didn't just stop in the contract catering industry. It happened in the contract security industry, where rates of pay dropped. Let's be very clear here. We're not talking about very high rates of pay. We're talking about people on low rates of pay—in today's wages, $20 to $21 an hour. In those days under Court-Kierath, it would have been about $15 or $16 an hour. These were not high-wage workers. They were also part-time workers. The security industry was next. We saw one big contractor drop rates and all the rest of them follow.
I heard Senator Birmingham in here yesterday during question time talk about all the innovation that's going on in the early childhood sector. That's a low-paid sector and remains so today because the government tore apart any of the principles that Labor had put in place to increase wages in that sector. But then young workers were given disgraceful, two-page individual agreements. They weren't really individual agreements; the employer would put 15 agreements exactly the same across a childcare centre. So we saw in the early childhood sector, also, a stripping away of wages. Why? It's because, predominantly, it's an area that attracts young people who have no idea about the history of what the wages were in that sector before individual workplace agreements. Of course, if you said no and went to another early childhood service, the chances were that they would have the same individual agreements.
We also saw during this stage employers and employer consultants making a lot of money out of these shocking individual contracts, because most small employers don't know a lot about industrial relations, so they fall victim to people who come around and say, 'We can take care of your industrial relations.' So we saw a lot of shonky individual agreements being peddled by the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Western Australia and by a whole lot of other consultancy groups. Some of them were very bad, and some of them, because they were put out by shonky operators, were easily knocked off in the various courts you could go to. But, again, that was expensive. Workers were often afraid to put their hand up and be singled out in the workplace, so times were tough.
Certainly from a Western Australian perspective and my experiences under Court-Kierath, with really bad workplace agreements legislation, I can see the value of having protections in our industrial relations system and the value of having a floor that you can't go below. I certainly wouldn't want to see this legislation have any unintended consequences that make it easy for employers to once again start stripping away award conditions. We've already seen some of this, and, as I said earlier—in the federal arena under the Fair Work Act—most low-paid workers still rely on awards.
Again, if you look at the early childhood sector, there's something like 6,000 services across Australia. It's predominantly women who work in the early-childhood space. Many of them are young women who are there because they love the job and really value the opportunity of working with young children. But, of course, love doesn't pay the bills, and it certainly doesn't pay the rent. Many young women find themselves at the age of 27 still living at home because they love their job but they're not making enough money to be able to even rent a property, and buying a property is certainly out of the question. Those workers across the 6,000 childcare services in this country really do rely on the award service—absolutely. That pays their wage. These workers are on $20 or $21 an hour. These are workers with diplomas and certificate IIIs. Again, we see the furphy of, 'If you just get yourself qualified, you'll get a better rate of pay.' But the reality is that, for women workers and low-paid workers on the award, they need all of the protections that we as a parliament can make sure are in the act.
We're not just talking about early childhood educators. We're also talking about cleaners—the cleaners in this place. We know the story here. They haven't had a wage rise for years and years and years. They were part of the Clean Start Collective Agreement which the government cancelled, and those workers are now back on the award. We're also talking about disability services. We've seen the NDIS, which is a champion piece of legislation that Labor put in place. In 20 years to come, it will absolutely be the new Medicare. It's a brilliant piece that enables people who have a disability to be properly cared for and looked after and to be able to be independent in this country. But disability-care workers are extremely precarious workers. They get a text message when they're required to work. This is what we've come to in this country. They get a text message that says, 'Come to work today; we've got an hour of work for you,' or, 'Come to work next week; we've got two hours work for you,' or, 'Sorry, we don't need you today—don't come.' That's all done by text message. This is not just about the workers out there picking tomatoes, which I certainly heard about as the chair of the Senate inquiry that looked at visa workers. These are everyday, ordinary Australians, and it's not their pocket money, as some people may choose to imagine. Again, these are women. This is their bread and butter. This is how they are making the money to feed their kids, to pay their rent and to pay their school fees—yet there is the indignity of receiving a text message. There are very few home care disability workers in Western Australia who actually see the boss and get a roster. Most of them get a text.
So, there again, workers need whatever protections we can offer them through our industrial relations system to ensure that that abuse stops. I'm sure most people in this place would agree with me that getting a text saying to come to work or not to come to work is a very inappropriate way to run your industrial relations system and to run your workforce. It is just not appropriate. But that's how low we've come.
With hospitality workers we saw the attacks. We begged the government to step in and do something about penalty rates. For anyone on the government side to think that losing penalty rates does not have an impact on low-paid workers again demonstrates how out of touch they are, because you can't lose 15, 30 or 40 per cent of your income without it having an impact, particularly when you're on 20 bucks an hour. The reason people work on the weekends is to increase their take-home pay so that they don't have to work three or four jobs, or be an Uber driver or be a worker who gets texts from the disability services employer. Decent jobs—what's happened to that notion? What's happened to the notion of decent pay? What's happened to the notion of decent work? It's just gone. It's as if you don't appreciate that at the end of these reforms are human beings who vote, thankfully, and who can speak for themselves. If you cared to ask them, they could tell you what impact losing penalty rates has on them, award-reliant workers.
I read in the media that the employers are now after hairdressers. Everyone in this place who goes to a hairdresser knows that they stand up all day. I don't know how they do that. Their backs must ache at the end of it. They must get repetitive strain injuries, because not only are they standing but they're standing with their arms at shoulder height most of the day when doing people's hair. They're dealing with chemicals. I've seen a lot of them using chemicals without gloves. Again, these are low-paid workers—20 bucks an hour—yet we're going after their penalty rates. I saw an employer the other day quoted in a newspaper as saying that if they were able to reduce penalty rates they could employ another hairdresser. Goodness gracious me, do we really want another hairdresser on low pay? How does that help the economy? How does reducing people's income and putting more people into low-paid work help the economy? It doesn't. When we have the governor of the Reserve Bank coming out and saying, 'Hey, we've gone a bit far,' we really do need to sit up and take note.
I want to make sure that when we tinker with the system, when we look to abolish the four-yearly reviews, we really understand what we are doing. I want a commitment from the government that any unintended consequences that start to give employers a back-door way to reduce award wage workers' wages even further will be looked at. Already, under minimum awards we have minimum start times of zero for some workers. This is just not on. It does not create a modern, productive economy. It just does not.
If the loss in penalty rates is carried over to the hairdressing industry, where will it stop? Are we going to go after aged-care workers next, because I'll tell you what: I was speaking to some aged-care workers just last Sunday and they're very nervous. Are we really going to attack the penalty rates of workers who look after some of the most vulnerable people in Australia—the people in aged-care homes? I hope not. Really, it is time for the government to show some leadership on this issue and say: 'Stop. This is the line in the sand. We will not support any further attack on penalty rates.' But I suspect the gate is open now. Certainly, Labor have said all the way along, 'We are very worried about where this penalty rate onslaught will stop.'
But I'm pleased to say that, with this bill, the government has listened to some of the amendments that we have put forward, and we will put forward further amendments. The time has probably come for those four-yearly reviews to be abolished. The current review hasn't finished. There was a time and place for them. Labor are always prepared to look at sensible, fair amendments, but only if they don't disadvantage the lowest paid workers in this country. Certainly, when you come out of a union such as my union, United Voice, you see the lowest-paid workers in this country, you see disadvantage every day and you see exploitation by employers. That's not to suggest there aren't employers who do the right thing—of course, there are. But when we inadvertently or when we deliberately put pressure into the system that ultimately impacts on workers, that's when it starts to be unfair.
We should be a country that proudly looks at how we have a system which protects workers, particularly low-paid workers, to make sure they can't be exploited. We've seen some shocking cases of exploitation across all aspects of this country. It doesn't matter where you work now, there's exploitation. I would seek assurances from the minister that this bill doesn't have adverse consequences, and, if it does, that we will look to amend those very quickly, because workers right now, in 2017, need their unions and they certainly need the protections of really strong legislation to make sure that they are not being taken advantage of, they are not being ripped off and they are able to join their union when they choose to protest their rates of pay.