Thursday, 9 February 2006
Questions without Notice
I address my question to the Minister representing the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Senator Abetz. I refer to a report in the Financial Review on 27 January which stated that, under current Australian workplace agreements, employers in a meat-packing company in South Australia, majority owned by the Packer family, did not treat Australia Day as a public holiday last month and posted notices to the 250 staff stating that it was a normal working day. Given that it is possible under the current laws for employers to abolish Australia Day, how can the government claim that public holidays will be protected under its new regime in which the no disadvantage test will be removed?
No, it was the day that I was being sworn in, Senator Hutchins. With regard to the company to which Senator Fielding refers, I make the following points. As I understand the facts, this company had had Australian workplace agreements in place for a considerable period of time. Workers had been asked, and it had been usual practice for them, to work on Australia Day for the previous seven years. It was part of the Australian workplace agreement that they would make themselves available to work on public holidays in exchange for an extra week of annual leave. So these workers got five weeks annual leave in exchange for being asked on occasion to work on Australia Day.
Yes, Australia Day is an important day, but these workers signed up to the agreement knowing that they might be required to work on Australia Day but that, in exchange, they would be given an extra week of annual leave. I think I have indicated before that our friends in the media gallery here have come to a similar agreement with their employers. I think they get extra annual leave for being required to work on public holidays. This is not an unusual situation. We as a government say that people should be free to enter into arrangements that suit them. It seems to me that those workers who have allegedly complained must have signed up to this agreement knowing that they have been required in the past to work on Australia Day and also knowing that they get the benefit of an extra week of annual leave. It seems that they were not complaining about the extra week of annual leave in their agreement, but they were complaining about being required to work on a public holiday which, as I understand it, had been common practice in that business for a considerable period of time. This reflects that Australian workplace agreements allow for flexibility for employers and employees to come together to suit both their needs. That is why in an employment situation such as the one that Senator Fielding refers to, the employer requires staff to work on Australia Day in exchange for which the employees get an extra week of annual leave. I reckon that is a pretty fair deal.
Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I am glad the article was read, because it did go on to say that the workers had planned to strike about the issue but called it off because staff feared going on strike because of retaliation. How can the government claim that this new legislation will not tip the scales in favour of employers of people whose skills are not in high demand?
With respect, I refer my previous answer to the honourable senator. The situation is that employers and employees in this country are being freed up more and more, as we believe they should be, to be able to make their own personal arrangements. If their arrangement is such as they contract it, both sides are contracted by it. From the other point of view, if work had dropped off and the employer said, ‘I don’t really need these guys to work on public holidays anymore,’ the employer could not have curtailed their entitlement to five weeks annual leave, because that was part of the agreement that the employees were guaranteed. What we have is a good, flexible system that will be expanded under our legislation. (Time expired)