Tuesday, 5 September 2017
I rise this evening to tell the Senate about the shameful treatment of a group of overworked, underappreciated and underpaid workers in my state of Victoria and their struggle to get their employer to pay them a decent wage. As is too often true in cases such as this, these underpaid workers are mostly women. I am referring to the 600 pathology workers who have a long-running industrial dispute with their employer, Dorevitch Pathology, a subsidiary of the Primary Health Care company. These workers are among the lowest-paid pathology workers in Australia. Despite the fact that Primary Health Care has made an estimated $1.2 billion in profits over the past decade, these workers have not received a pay increase in all of that time. This means, of course, that after allowing for inflation, their wages have gone backwards in real terms.
It is important to understand that these are skilled workers who perform work which is vitally important to public health in Victoria. Dorevitch provides pathology services under contract to 32 Victorian public health services, 29 of which are in regional areas. Over 70 per cent of all medical diagnoses in Victoria are based on the skill and expertise of Dorevitch's workers. They are expected to meet very high professional standards, and I will come to an instance about why this is so important shortly.
We, as a community, and as a public, expect our pathology workers to have those skills, because if they get it wrong there can be dire consequences. It is a disgrace that, despite their high skill level and the importance of their work, their pay has deteriorated so far that they could now be earning more money stacking shelves in a supermarket. Why do I use that particular comparison? I use it because these workers know that their teenage kids, living at home, earn more money per hour in their part-time after school jobs stacking supermarket shelves than they do. No wonder they feel outraged. This has been going on for years.
The importance of highly-skilled pathology work has been underlined by the flu epidemic we have experienced over this past winter in Victoria—the worst outbreak of flu in 15 years. Approximately 10,000 Victorians have been diagnosed with this flu. In August, we saw the sad case of a nursing home in Wangaratta where eight elderly residents died of this particularly virulent strain of the flu. This underlines the fact that any disruption of pathology services will hit regional areas particularly hard since there is often no alternative service. Pathology workers are in the front line of both preventing and detecting such outbreaks of infectious disease. This is all the more reason why they should be paid at a level appropriate to their skill and expertise.
The existing enterprise agreement between Dorevitch and the Health Workers Union expired in 2007—that's right, 10 years ago. Since then, the company has used every trick it can think of to delay negotiating a new agreement, ignoring the requirement of the Fair Work Act that it negotiate in good faith with its employees through their union. As a result of the long delay, Dorevitch's workers are now receiving on average $7,000 a year less than the industry standard. These workers would require a 28 per cent pay increase just to reach that standard and restore the real wages they were earning a decade ago. Yet Dorevitch is refusing to offer them any increase at all.
One might ask why these workers have decided not to go elsewhere for work if the pay comparison is so poor. A lot of them live in regional Victoria. Today, of course, we heard the Minister for Regional Development trying to distract us from her current woes by talking about regional Australia. This does seem to be an area that she has overlooked. Last month, Dorevitch's outrageous behaviour and, indeed, their unlawful behaviour, finally provoked the Dorevitch workers to strike. The action taken by the Dorevitch workers was protected industrial action under the Fair Work Act, which recognises the right of workers to withdraw their labour when employers refuse to negotiate in good faith. The strike was preceded by a ballot in which 90 per cent of the workers voted to take industrial action. While it is sometimes a little disturbing to listen to the Minister for Employment speak on industrial matters, because it is unclear whether she is deliberately obtuse or simply ignorant, make no mistake and have no outrage that this was a legal strike. It was also a limited strike from 7 to 15 August. It was limited because these workers are responsible people and know what it means to their community to have pathology services available.
What was Dorevitch's response to this industrial action? Was it to act reasonably and start, belatedly, after 10 years, to act in good faith? Was it to return to the negotiating table with a bona fide wage offer? No. As might be expected from a company with Dorevitch's contemptuous attitude towards its employees, it wasn't. Their response was to lock out 89 of its workers, who were singled out because they are active unionists. These are the same employees who were involved in calling the strike and attending the rally outside Dorevitch's headquarters in Heidelberg on 7 August. This is unlawful under the Fair Work Act. This is the same employer who, after the rally, advertised on seek.com for people to replace this longstanding workforce. Why did they do this unlawful act? They did it because their CEO—these are the CEO's own words—believed that these employees could be replaced by 'trained monkeys' or that they could be replaced by Indians on $10 an hour. This is the same employer who had managers taking notes on who was participating in a rally—taking names and taking photos of them. That is absolutely disgraceful and intimidatory behaviour.
If you were to meet these pathology collectors, these phlebotomists, you would not think of them as hardened industrial activists. These are middle-aged women or single mums working part time who know and love their patients and who love what they do. All of them thought long and hard about taking industrial action, because they had never done so before. These are the people whose lives this desperate, hanging-by-a-thread government would have you believe it is seeking to protect by its changes to workplace legislation. But these workers had had enough. Should an employer be able to take advantage of their workforce constantly for over 10 years? Should they be able to exploit that workforce? The CEO of Dorevitch, in the midst of this, decided to leave the company. The company wouldn't explain why he'd left but said simply that he had left after the rally and after the strike. The former CEO's name is Neville Moller—or, as his long-suffering employees refer to him, 'N Evil'.
On 22 August, the Victorian industrial relations minister intervened in the dispute, as she's entitled to do under the Fair Work Act, by making an urgent application to the Fair Work Commission for both parties to terminate industrial action and be given 42 days to reach agreement under Fair Work supervision. That was because the company had, for 10 years, obviated and avoided its responsibilities to negotiate. Remember that, in all the time this dispute had been running, the past 10 years, Dorevitch's owner, Primary Health Care, posted a $1.2 billion profit, and it posted a $92 million profit for the past financial year. What has it offered its employees? It has offered them a zero per cent wage increase and a lockout. Its profits come from suppressing wages. Dorevitch has the Commonwealth contract for national bowel cancer screening kits, one of its most lucrative contracts. This contract is currently up for review. The government ought to know how the company treats its workforce. I hope that Dorevitch backs down from its intransigent position and makes a fair offer to its employees. If that doesn't happen, I hope that Fair Work does what it's designed to do and delivers a fair outcome to these workers.
I want to conclude by expressing my support for the Dorevitch workers, who have shown great discipline, courage and determination in pursuing a very just claim for fair treatment by a particularly greedy and unscrupulous employer. We on this side of the Senate will always be found to be on the side of workers when they use lawful means to pursue just claims for better pay and conditions.