Wednesday, 17 March 2021
Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021; Second Reading
For most of my working life, I've worked in the trade union movement, and I've proudly worked for United Workers Union. It went through a number of amalgamations in all the time that I worked there. But there are some things that have never changed. It is the union which represents some of the lowest-paid workers in this country—cleaners, security officers, aged-care workers, childcare workers, hospitality workers and so on. These are people who don't have the luxury of flexible working hours. These are people who were the heroes of our pandemic. These are the aged-care workers who were in this place yesterday begging those few on the other side who actually met with them to do something about the royal commission into aged care, to start to really lift the lives of people who find themselves in aged care. These are workers who earn around $22 or $23 an hour. They work part time. But, these days, they work in insecure work. Most of them are at the beck and call of their current employer. Most of them have to work two and three jobs to survive. And that's the story of my working life as a proud trade union official at United Workers Union.
Of course, as a trade union official, I've seen these sorts of bills be presented by conservative governments over and over and over again. I have never seen a conservative government put forward an industrial relations bill which benefits workers in this country—never. And I would challenge those opposite to stand up and prove me wrong, because that has been my life's work. I worked for United Workers Union for more than 20 years. I'm very proud to be in the Senate. But to suggest somehow that, in 2013, when I left United Voice, as it was called then, I forgot about those workers, that I left those workers behind—that I forgot about the 20 years that I worked alongside, acted on behalf of and advocated for these workers and stood in picket lines in the rain and the heat with them—you are sadly mistaken. They are in my veins and they're in my heart, and I will defend the rights of workers until I take my last breath, because that is ultimately who I am.
During the Court Liberal government days in Western Australia, I saw the first wave, the second wave, the third wave of industrial relations reform. I saw a Liberal government reduce the wages of low-paid women—low-paid cleaners, low-paid early childhood educators, low-paid aged-care workers. I watched as their award rates tumbled down. And what happened to that Court government? Workers will only take so much. They rose up and voted that government out of office. As bad as the Barnett government was when it came into power in Western Australia, it didn't go near workers, because it had learnt its lesson—that, when you start to reduce the take-home pay of low-paid workers, you will wear the consequences of that at the ballot box. Of course, while I was standing alongside workers at the rallies and in workplaces and everywhere else, we were also fighting under Mr Howard's regimes, under his individual workplace agreements. And, gee, I wish someone would get those old ads out and play them. Remember those ads? Workers were going to be better off. Workers were going to be able to directly negotiate with their boss. Who could forget the individual contracts? What did we see?
Once again the casualties of those individual contracts, the workers with the least power in this country, were the low-paid workers; women workers; insecure workers. We saw them, once again, suffer the indignity of losing more money. This time it was their penalty rates. Suddenly, their penalty rates were gone because they had to sign an individual contract.
I remember Mr Howard and Mr Reith saying over and over again, 'No-one will be forced to sign these contracts.' What a load of rubbish! We all know how it works in the workplace when the boss has got all the power. You get called in and you get told, 'Sue, if you want a shift next week, here's your new agreement.' It's a one-on-one conversation. And of course there was no recourse to the Industrial Relations Commission for any worker who signed an individual contract, no recourse at all. And they were secret agreements, so if you were a 16-year-old worker, guess what? You couldn't even take that home and show it to mum and dad. That was outrageous legislation. And, whilst Mr Howard might have tinkered at the edges, it eventually cost him his seat and it eventually cost the Howard coalition government in Australia. As we saw in Victoria at the time, when similar legislation was put into place there to what we saw in Western Australia, those Liberals were voted out of office. In Western Australia, those Liberals were voted out of office. Federally, Mr Howard, the first sitting Prime Minister since Stanley Bruce to lose his seat, was voted out of office. Make no mistake: you will be voted out of office for this legislation because, despite what you say, this legislation will cut workers' wages at a time in this country when we have industrial relations legislation—yes, it absolutely needs to be reformed. You stood over there, and Mr Porter stood in the other place and said, 'We accept workers need more protection.' Well, this legislation doesn't deliver it.
In fact, the working lives of low-paid workers are much worse since I left the union in 2013. We've got the gig economy. We've got the Uber drivers. We've got all of those workers who deliver meals or who you can get to fix your tap by using an app and negotiating how much you pay them. It's disgraceful. These are human beings trying to earn a living. They should be entitled to some basic protections. They should be entitled to an hourly rate that gives them the ability to live a good and decent life. They should know, from week to week, how many hours of work they have. They should not receive a text from their boss telling them, 'Come in tomorrow,' or 'Don't come in tomorrow.' And that doesn't just happen in the gig economy. That happens to workers in the disability sector looking after some of the most vulnerable people in our community. That's how they get their work, via their mobile phone. 'Oh, there's a two-hour shift available for you tomorrow.' That is not a dignified existence. It's not a dignified existence for the person who's subjected to that kind of summonsing to work, and, in my view, it's certainly not the dignified way for the person with a disability to receive the care that they are absolutely entitled to, but that's what we're seeing in this country.
Right across Australia—even in the public service—we have casualised, contracted, insecure work. It used to just be the domain of members of the United Workers Union and the SDA—shop assistants and so on—who were seen as low paid, not very well trained and poorly educated, so therefore you could treat them with disrespect. Well, they are some of the most honourable people I've ever had the privilege to meet in my life, and many of them are friends of mine. Jude Clarke was here yesterday. She's an aged-care worker that I signed up to the union a long time ago—too long ago to remember! Jude and I have been through a lot together. The first industrial action that Jude took was when she was working in a nursing home in Geraldton. If you met or saw Jude yesterday, she was the aged-care worker with the pink hair; that's Jude. Why did she go on strike? Not for pay. Not for conditions. Not because some bully union official like me told her to. She went on strike because the residents in that nursing home—I still remember it as if it was yesterday, but it was a long time ago—had disgraceful beds.