Senate debates

Tuesday, 5 September 2017


Fair Work Amendment (Repeal of 4 Yearly Reviews and Other Measures) Bill 2017; Second Reading

12:34 pm

Photo of Chris KetterChris Ketter (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to support the Fair Work Amendment (Repeal of 4 Yearly Reviews and Other Measures) Bill 2017. To finish off my contribution: last night I was talking about looking at, for example, the retail award, which I have had some experience with in my former life as a trade union official. I noted that there are something like 1.3 million retail workers across Australia, of which probably the majority would be covered by the award system that covers their conditions of employment. Let's say there are 200,000 members of the SDA, which covers those retail workers. That means that there's over a million workers across Australia in the retail industry who receive the benefits of the work that the unions—not the SDA, but other unions—perform in order to maintain our award system.

For the benefit of those listening to parliament today: a lot of people are under the misapprehension that the award system is something that was generated by governments, and that conditions of employment are there because of government legislation or decisions of government. Whilst it's true to say that the architecture of our industrial relations system has come about because of the actions of various levels of government, it's important to make the point that the award system that we have in this country, which is virtually unique throughout the world, relies on the involvement of the trade union movement in order to ensure that those conditions of employment not only come into existence but they are also maintained and improved over a period of time.

For the benefit of those listening, it's important to note that if we're looking at a four-yearly review, which we're now moving away from, there is still going to be the ongoing opportunity for individual unions and, indeed, employer organisations to approach the Fair Work Commission to make applications to vary the various awards. But it's important, generally, for people to be aware that our system of awards came into existence nearly a hundred or so years ago—probably around a hundred years—in the state systems, and that's where I've had my greatest exposure to the award system. Although we had the Commonwealth legislation in 1904 and various states enacted comparable industrial legislation shortly after that, a lot of people are not aware of the fact that it was actually the union movement which had to apply, in those early days, a hundred years or so ago, for the making of an award to cover the industries that those unions represented. Prior to that, there were no minimum conditions of employment. The union movement, on behalf of its members, rallied and made applications to the various tribunals around Australia in order to get minimum conditions of employment established. That is, I think, a fact that a lot of Australians are not aware of: the important role of trade unions in establishing the award system, in arguing for the improvement in the award system, and, in fact—what's most relevant to this topic today—in protecting the awards against attacks by employer organisations. Employers routinely come forward into the various tribunals to apply for reductions in either penalty rates or other conditions of employment, on the grounds of flexibility, et cetera. I think it is important to note that history.

When it comes to the retail award, an award I am most familiar with, I know that the conditions that people take for granted in the awards that we have today came about because of the cases that were taken by unions as part of their day-to-day activities. For my own part, some of the more significant cases I was involved with were the introduction of a 38-hour week into the retail industry in the 1980s and the introduction of occupational superannuation as an award entitlement at around the same time. These are things that had to be fought for. People in the workforce don't understand the history of those things now, and, therefore, they take them for granted.

I want to skip forward to the creation of our modern award system, which was a historic achievement of the Rudd government and something which was initiated under the Howard government with the moving away from the dispute-settling power, under the Constitution, to the corporations power. The Howard government started the process of centralising our industrial relations system but was never able to complete the arduous task of bringing together a system of national awards applying to particular industries. That is, I think, a proud achievement of the Rudd government, but just because we had a Labor government in place didn't mean that unions had a lay-down misere to put in place reasonable conditions of employment in those various awards. In the case of the retail award, for example, there was dispute as to whether or not the national retail award that was going to come into existence in 2010 would have, say, the Sunday penalty rate of 200 per cent as a standard. So, in the lead-up to the introduction of that 2010 modern award, the SDA had to run a case in 2008 to set the Sunday rate at 200 per cent. We did the same thing in respect of the fast-food award, to have a 200 per cent penalty there. In December of 2008, the commission decided that the retail award would be set at 200 per cent for Sunday. Unfortunately, the fast-food award was set at 175 per cent for Sunday, and subsequently we found that employers in that industry sought to cut the 175 per cent rate to 150 per cent. So there have been an ongoing series of cases rotating around these issues of penalty rates. The awards were set in 2010 with the standard penalty rates in place, and then we had the two-yearly interim review of the modern award system, and once again employers took the opportunity to attack the penalty rates which had only just recently become a standard of the modern award, set by the commission. Between 2012 and 2013, the SDA had to run another case to defend the 200 per cent penalty against the employers seeking to reduce the rate to either zero per cent or 150 per cent. In the fast-food award, the SDA successfully defended the 150 per cent Sunday penalty against employers seeking a zero per cent penalty. By July of 2014, the Sunday penalty rate had reached 200 per cent.

So it's important to note that the issue of penalty rates is not something which has been left unaddressed over the course of their history of being settled. It is something which has been very regularly prosecuted and which goes to the issue of the relevance of that particular rate. Then we moved to the first four-yearly review of the modern award system, which commenced in 2014. This was a further case—the third case in around six years or so—where employers were seeking to cut the 200 per cent award rate in retail and the 150 per cent rate in fast food. Of course, the rest is history. In February of this year, the Fair Work Commission, regrettably, decided to reduce the penalty rates in the retail and fast-food awards.

I make those points because I'm very concerned that a lot of people out there in the community do not understand what happens with these penalty rates, how they come into existence and the incredible amount of work that is involved in relation to the trade union movement maintaining our system of awards. And I reiterate the point that the work of the union movement is not only on behalf of its members. They, of course, are its primary objective, but, because of our unique system, we have millions of Australian workers across all industries who are the beneficiaries of the work of the trade union movement in maintaining our awards. I think that's important to note because we currently have a federal government which does not appreciate the work that unions do. In fact, on a regular basis—a daily basis—the government wants to demonise the trade union movement and demonise union officials, and that is not very helpful to a proper discourse on this issue, particularly at a time when we have people like the Governor of the Reserve Bank advising that unions should be more proactive in seeking wage increases, because at the moment we are stuck in a cycle of historically low levels of wage movements. So these are precisely the wrong behaviours from our federal government to address this issue. After all, Mr Morrison, the Treasurer, has indicated that low wage growth is probably the single greatest threat to our economy going into the future.

I also want to reiterate the point of maintenance and protection of award conditions. If there is one group of workers around Australia that really have benefited from the work of the union movement, it is retail workers in Victoria, who were confronted in 1993 with the abolition of the state award system by the then Premier, Mr Kennett. The award system was abolished on 1 March 1993. That meant that there were no penalty rates and no conditions of employment. It was basically a scorched-earth policy on the part of the Liberal government in Victoria. That left the SDA with the task of seeking to provide award coverage through the federal system. What then ensued was that the SDA Victoria branch, through the national office, had to serve a log of claims on 35,000 retail employers throughout the state of Victoria. This naturally took some time. On 29 December 2000—a historic occasion—a dispute was found between the SDA and 24,400 retail employers across Victoria. What ensued was the making of a roping-in award for 17,628 employers in August 2002. What eventually happened was that an interim award was made on 17 January 2003. Then there was a case, of course, on the issue of what was going to be the appropriate penalty rate for Saturday and Sunday work in the new federal award that applied in Victoria. That wasn't finally settled until 3 December 2003, over 10 years after the decision by the Liberal government of Victoria to abolish the award system.

I make that point because it highlights the fact that, if there's one group of workers throughout Australia that can say that their conditions of employment relate purely and solely to the work of a trade union, it is retail workers in Victoria. I pay tribute to Michael Donovan, the secretary of the Victorian SDA branch, and the work of that branch over that period of time. That is some of the history, which I think is very important for people to hear about in this place.

Coming forward to 2017, we know that workers' take-home pay is under attack by this government, a government that doesn't care about workers who are faced with cuts to their take-home pay. That is the explanation for the amendment which we seek to make in relation to this bill. Despite record low wages growth and rising unemployment and underemployment, this government continues to pursue policies to the detriment of Australia's most vulnerable workers. The cuts disproportionately affect women as well. We know that the cuts to penalty rates will not stop at the retail industry.    They will extend to other areas, and other employers are lining up to make similar applications. We know that there are proceedings in relation to clubs, hairdressing, beauticians and restaurants. If these cuts transpire, a further 323,000 workers are in immediate jeopardy of having their penalty rates cut. Labor, through our various union affiliates, has a great and proud history of standing up for workers' pay and conditions in the face of destructive coalition governments such as the one that we have today.

In relation to the other aspects of the bill, I note that there is bipartisan support for the removal of the four-yearly reviews, and that is welcome. I note that there are other changes in this bill which are accurately described as amendments to the Fair Work Act, not as reforms. This government is trying to trumpet abolishing four-yearly reviews as a reform rather than what it is, simply the removal of a process of review from the legislation. We have also been concerned that the removal of the four-yearly review doesn't have any unintended consequences. It's important that the awards continue to be reviewed over time, as they have been, to meet the modern award objective. That's done through a process where workers and employers have the opportunity to have equal access and equal standing. I commend the bill with those amendments. (Time expired)


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