Senate debates

Tuesday, 12 November 2013


Dowell, Ms Jennifer

6:34 pm

Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is with heartfelt sadness that I participate in the adjournment debate to acknowledge the life and work of a great Australian, Jennifer Dowell. Jenni was an inspirational figure in the Australian and international union movement, a wonderful mother, a caring daughter and a loved sister. She was a comrade to thousands of workers, a fierce negotiator and a dear-friend. Jenni died on 16 October this year, in tragic circumstances.

I first met Jenni when we were a couple of new organisers with the Food Preservers' Union. We shared amongst many things the same passion for representing workers and this camaraderie grew into a friendship of over 25 years. Jenni joined the Food Preservers' Union in 1976 while working at the Batlow Fruit Co-op.

After being a vocal workplace delegate for many years, Jenni moved to Sydney in 1988 and took on a position as an organiser with the FPU. She soon became the New South Wales regional secretary and upon the FPU's amalgamation with the metal workers in 1994, Jenni became the Food Division's regional secretary in New South Wales. She then went on to become the national secretary of the Food and Confectionary Division of the AMWU in the late 1990s—a position she held until the day she died.

Jenni was not ambitious for herself; her drive came from a frightening commitment to the cause of justice. Jenni also had a tough early life as a single mother. She balanced raising Melinda, her daughter, who made her inordinately proud, with her increasing responsibilities in the union. Her greatest love and admiration was reserved for her daughter Melinda and son-in-law Jimmy.

We were foodies—a term that is hard to explain unless you have been one. We stuck together, we battled issues and we were tough. We had to be. In our industry female workers were traditionally only employed casually at peak production times across the year. The permanent jobs traditionally went to the men. We worked closely together, supporting one another whenever we needed it, laughing together often. In fact, I cannot remember a time when we talked that we did not have a good laugh at some stage.

Jenni had to overcome sexism both directly in the industry and, again, from across the union movement to reach her position. She beat the sexism by being the best and earning respect. She believed in justice and fairness. She hated hypocrisy, elitism and superficiality. Jenni challenged poor management but also challenged her members to be honourable and fulfil their responsibilities as skilled and committed workers. No-one was tougher than Jenni; she battled tirelessly for her members and was one of the best negotiators I have ever worked with. She was highly respected both by her members and by management because she worked with honesty and integrity, and demanded the same from others. She recognised that the industry was vulnerable because of international pressures but she did not become parochial or insular. She wanted fair trade, and full and complete lives for every worker on the planet. She was respected on the international union scene because she operated with those same values.

Jenni's passion for helping workers across the world saw her elected as a vice-president of the international union of food and allied workers in 2002. The IUF is the international body for over 12 million workers in the food industry globally, with some 388 trade unions in 124 countries represented. From its founding in 1920, international labour solidarity has been the IUF's guiding principle. As a member of the IUF's Executive Committee Jenni was instrumental in shaping and furthering the IUF's work on outsourcing and on precarious forms of employment. At the executive meeting in 2004, she described the AMWU's successful struggle, through organising and bargaining, against subcontracting and casualisation at Nestle and Simplot in Australia. The Nestle example found its way into the IUF manual called Outsourcing and casualization in the food and beverage industry: the threat to workers and unions and union strategies for fighting back, which was published in 2006.

As a member of the IUF women's committee Jenni served on the drafting committee of the IUF Action Program for Equality, which was ratified by the IUF in 2007. In 2007, she was also elected to be one of the two vice-presidents of the IUF women's committee. Through her advice, unionists across the world were able to implement strategies to put women's rights firmly on the bargaining agenda and in workplace policies in some of the key companies within the food industry, such as Nestle and Unilever. This has been of great importance not only for union members in Australia but for women workers around the world.

Jenni tackled with great determination gender inequalities such as job discrimination linked to maternity, the persistent undervaluation of women's work, and domestic violence. Well before the previous, Labor government introduced Australia's first publicly funded paid parental leave scheme, many workers in the food industry were in receipt of parental leave rights through their enterprise bargaining agreements—and, as I highlighted earlier, Jenni persuaded employers to re-evaluate women's jobs through a fairer job-classification system and recognition of their multiple skills, as well as developing further training schemes. These achievements were a source of inspiration to women and men trade unionists in other countries.

In preparation for the world IUF Women's Conference in May 2012, Jenni suggested that domestic violence should be included in the agenda as one of the aspects of violence against women. Her presentation of the program developed by the ACTU to assist workers who are victims of domestic violence was an eye-opener for many delegates and made people realise that it is indeed a workplace issue. A few months ago, the AMWU reached a collective agreement with the food company Heinz which included a clause on domestic violence. This campaign, and the subsequent agreement with a major multinational, serves as a model for other IUF unions who continue the difficult struggle against violence in all its forms.

Jenni won great respect within the IUF women's committee for her outstanding sense of justice and for her fearlessness in taking up the struggle. Her contributions were always thought provoking, and she transmitted her courage and her dignity to her sisters in the movement. Jenni focused her working life not only on improving conditions for workers but also on helping companies become as sustainable as possible. In recent years, she confided to me that she thought that she had failed. But the workers who have been touched by Jenni over the years would vouch for the fact that she had inspired and assisted thousands of them.

Food industry workers were for many years labelled simply as 'unskilled'. This term was used as an easy way to suppress the wages and conditions of workers. It also affected a worker's morale and future workforce opportunities. Jenni led the campaign to develop skills classification and training, helping many of her members gain overdue acknowledgement of the complexity of their work. This recognition empowered food industry workers and strengthened their performance. The campaign was not simple. She fought for many years for her members to have their skills recognised. She did this in such a way that members wanted to learn, and became proud of their skills, of their piece of paper, of their recognition.

Jenni also had to convince companies that the training and accreditation would increase the effectiveness of their workforce. She was proud of her members who participated in the programs. They may have been working at the factory for 30 years; so why did they need this certification, this piece of paper? This competency based training counted towards a trade qualification, providing evidence to employers of a worker's skill set. Through Jenni's persistent work with many across the food industry, many workers are no longer labelled 'unskilled'.

Jenni and I came from the factory floor to the role of union officials. This meant we lived the challenges our members were facing, and it was a tough gig. Jenni was proud to represent her members, those workers who placed their trust in her. She enlivened every meeting she attended, and I know that we will hear her voice in every factory and in every part of what we do for the rest of our lives.

We admired her courage, her wit, her perseverance and her faith in a better world. We grieve with her friends and her family, and with unionists across the world. We will miss her tremendously, but the world is a better place because of her.