Senate debates

Tuesday, 13 March 2012


Workplace Relations

8:40 pm

Photo of Matt ThistlethwaiteMatt Thistlethwaite (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Over the years I have had the great pleasure of visiting many workplaces throughout Australia. From my time as a union official to more recently as a senator, I have had the great honour of visiting workplaces such as the Mackay Sugar factory in Queensland, the Orange Base Hospital—where I have worked and consulted with wonderful health professionals, who are doing a great job looking after our sick and injured—and the Peak Gold Mine in western New South Wales, just outside of Cobar.

Over those years I believe I have gained an appreciation for not only the characteristics of a good and productive workforce but also for the signs of a happy and efficient workforce. I have noticed over recent years that workers have not forgotten about the industrial relations system of the Howard government but, thankfully, they no longer fear their industrial relations system. The Australian people elected a government in 2007 that took away that fear and restored fairness to their industrial relations system. They voted for certainty—certainty of their penalty rates for overtime or weekend work, of their annual leave and casual loading and of their job security in an increasingly uncertain global economy.

This government delivered that certainty and restored fairness to workplaces by implementing the Fair Work Act in Australia. It ensured that low-income workers' rights were again protected—they had the protection that they needed to earn an adequate income to enable them to participate fully within our society. This year, the government kicked off with a major policy announcement: to review the operation of the Fair Work Act in this country. That review will examine whether or not the fair work legislation is operating as intended and identify any areas in the legislation which could be improved to achieve consistency with the goals and objectives of the act. The review is encouraging healthy debate, public discussion and a dissection of industrial relations—the hallmarks of a strong and vibrant democracy.

In the debate and public discourse regarding the Fair Work Act, the key question people should be asking is: what makes an effective workplace relations system? What criteria should we as legislators apply to our industrial relations system to ensure that it promotes job growth in our economy, that it provides liveable incomes for people so they can actively participate within society and, importantly, that it fosters cooperation between workers and businesses while at the same time providing fair and reasonable wages and conditions? The standard should, by any objective means, be the protection of vulnerable workers' rights. It should be a system that encourages cooperative relations between employers and employees and a system that encourages the creation of more enterprise agreements.

When one has an objective look at the indicators, one can only reach the conclusion that the Fair Work Act achieves the right balance, is providing certainty and efficiency and is meeting the objectives for which it was established. The National Employment Standards, modern awards and the national minimum wage establish a safety net of fair wages and conditions. This safety net allows low-paid workers, the most vulnerable in our workplaces, to earn a reasonable income so that they can participate in our society, so that they can be consumers providing support for domestic demand in our economy and so that they can be savers, ensuring that a pool of investment funds is there to grow our economy and ensuring that they are able to buy assets—most notably a family home to provide security for their family. Importantly, the Fair Work Act does not allow vulnerable workers to be forced to negotiate, as individuals, conditions that are below the award standard, as was the case under Work Choices. The changes in the Fair Work Act have made a real difference to the lives of working Australians. In simple terms, the test of whether it is working is whether workers have the opportunity to earn a fair and decent living under the system, and that is the result that we are seeing under the Fair Work Act.

In terms of fostering cooperative workplace relations, a great objective measure is the number of agreements that are being made between employers and employees and unions throughout the country—whether or not the legislation is fostering agreement making at the workplace level. When we have an objective look at the figures associated with agreement making in Australia at the moment, one can only reach the conclusion that the Fair Work Act is an effective piece of legislation. Active agreements at 30 June 2011 totalled 23,403. This represents a rise of 30 per cent, from 17,532 active agreements at 30 June 2008 under the previous workplace relations system towards the end of its days. The trend increase in agreement making under the Fair Work system indicates that in more workplaces, employers and employees are sitting down to negotiate terms and conditions that suit their business—an outcome that must be fostered under this legislation. The reality, in terms of the economic position of Australia, is that profit share for business and labour productivity is also growing. The system as a whole has delivered for business, for the economy and for hardworking Australian families.

The Leader of the Opposition has unfortunately made some unjustified claims regarding the operation of the Fair Work Act, becoming a cheerleader for the cries of big business to cut rights and conditions. The Leader of the Opposition is constantly saying that Australia has a productivity, flexibility and militancy problem under the Fair Work Act, but the facts speak otherwise. The reality is that the Leader of the Opposition is rallying the conservative faithful and the high end of town, but when we look at the facts the opposite is the case. In terms of labour productivity, our workforce is achieving more each year per unit of income. Although rates of growth in labour productivity have not been as strong as in the 80s and early 90s, the trend is on a growth trajectory and is consistent with many other Western democracies and many medium-sized economies such as Australia. I argue that the National Broadband Network will make a big difference to productivity, particularly multifactor productivity, throughout this country. In the couple of years since the Fair Work Act came into operation, labour productivity has continued to grow.

The Leader of the Opposition claims that there is a militancy problem, but when we look at the number of lost days due to industrial disputes throughout this country we find that they have been falling since the early 1990s. We have seen a huge reduction in the number of days lost due to industrial disputes since a high point of 105.3 days per 1,000 employees just 12 years ago under the Howard government. Under Labor last year, the number of days lost per 1,000 employees had fallen to 15.9 per year. The opposition are not talking about fairness when they talk about flexibility. They are not talking about the sort of flexibility that means that a working mother can leave work early to pick up her kids. We know that they are talking about flexibility that will reduce penalty rates, reduce overtime rates and cut back on entitlements. When we look at whether or not the Fair Work legislation has achieved jobs growth, cooperation and efficiency in our economy, on any objective measure it is a successful piece of legislation that this government is proud of.