Senate debates

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Statements by Senators

Workplace Relations

1:51 pm

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to revisit the absolute rubbish we heard from Senator Abetz yesterday during question time when Labor put it to him that he had reduced cleaners' pay and that he was responsible for a slash in the take-home pay of cleaners who work in Commonwealth owned buildings. Senator Abetz said, and I quote:

So let's get this clear: it had nothing to do with the removal of guidelines …

That statement from Senator Abetz is wrong. The Minister for Employment got it very, very wrong. The loss of pay for cleaners at the Department of Immigration and Border Protection is directly related to the guidelines which the minister himself cancelled as part of the ridiculous red-tape reduction that we have seen from this government.

The contract for the cleaning of this building came up for renewal. It was a building covered by the Commonwealth guidelines, the guidelines that Senator Abetz cancelled. It was a building where cleaners were receiving through their union-negotiated enterprise agreement, registered in the Fair Work Commission, the higher rate of pay stipulated in the Commonwealth guidelines that Minister Abetz cancelled. It is now a workplace where the very same cleaners have had a slash, a cut, in their take-home pay. And the responsibility for that cut in the take-home pay lies fairly and squarely with the Abbott government and, in particular, Senator Abetz, as the Minister for Employment.

The facts are that the successful contractor—and we did not hear this from Senator Abetz yesterday—gave the government a choice when it tendered for the contract at the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. It put three rates of pay in its tender and asked the government to choose which rate would apply. The first rate that the contractor put in their contract was to maintain the cleaners on their current rate of pay, the rate as stipulated in the Clean Start guidelines, which Minister Abetz cancelled. That was option 1.

The second rate of pay was an enterprise agreement rate higher than the award but less than that stated in the Commonwealth guidelines. And the third rate of pay—and I am very pleased that Senator Abetz is here; he can hear the truth—was the award rate, some 30 per cent less than the hourly rates the Commonwealth cleaning guidelines, which Minister Abetz cancelled, had in them.

The cleaners at that government-owned building were, once again, at the mercy of the government. What did the government do? What did Minister Abetz do? It put its own interests before the take-home pay of cleaners. Senator Abetz chose self-preservation and opted for the lower enterprise agreement rate, slashing the take-home pay of cleaners. Why did the Abbott government do that? Because the Abbott government and Minister Abetz were not prepared to own up to the mistake that he, Senator Abetz, made in cancelling the guidelines and slashing cleaners' pay. He could not find it in himself to be big enough to say, 'Okay, we'll agree to the top rate.' The contractor gave the government three options. The government and Minister Abetz had the choice to not slash the take-home rate of the cleaners but, instead, they chose to slash the rates of pay for these low-paid, part-time women cleaners. Again, the minister was wrong, when he said:

… wages should be set either by an enterprise agreement or under the modern award and not by government interference.

Whether or not cleaners in Commonwealth buildings received the guideline rates, all rates were set by a union-negotiated agreement. Minister Abetz had a choice with respect to this contract and he alone chose to reduce the take-home rate of pay for cleaners. It is abundantly clear and absolutely clear that Minister Abetz is wholly and solely responsible for the reduced wages—that cut in their take-home pay—of cleaners in the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, by around $2 per hour.

Both the Prime Minister and Senator Abetz misled the parliament when they claimed, in the Prime Minister's case:

I want to make it absolutely crystal clear that no cleaner's pay is reduced—

and in Senator Abetz's case:

No cleaner will have their wages reduced as a result of the guidelines ceasing to apply.

In the case of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection cleaners' wages have been reduced as a result of guidelines ceasing to apply and because Minister Abetz was not big enough to admit he was wrong. So he took it out on the cleaners and slashed their pay. No ifs, no buts—'It is crystal clear,' to use the Prime Minister's language, that the cleaners' pay cut rests with Senator Abetz and the Prime Minister. More broken promises!

Unfortunately, the cuts in cleaners' pay in Commonwealth-owned buildings, in buildings that the Abbott government is responsible for, will not stop there. The spiralling down has begun. Every contractor who now competes for contracts in a Commonwealth-owned a building will use a reduced rate of pay. They may not be as thoughtful as the contractor was in the immigration building and offer the government a choice to continue the Clean Start guideline rate of pay; they will simply spiral down to the award. Why is that? Again, it shows how out of touch the minister and the Abbott government are. The simple facts are that that is an industry that competes on the rates of labour. So where an advantage can be gained between paying an enterprise agreement rate and the award rate, which is 30 per cent less, to win that contract you can bet your bottom dollar here and now that, over time, we will see the award rate applying in every single Commonwealth building. That 30 per cent cut in the take-home pay of cleaners will absolutely and categorically be at the hands of Minister Abetz.

He has an option right now to restore those guidelines, to give the cleaners back their decent rate of pay but, instead, he is trying to blame everyone else except himself. I know, and those cleaners know, that it is the Prime Minister and Minister Abetz who are responsible for the cut in take-home pay. Senator Abetz is nothing but a Work Choices warrior. (Time expired)

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (President) Share this | | Hansard source

It being 2 pm, we now move to questions without notice.