Senate debates

Monday, 20 August 2018


Trade Unions

9:59 pm

Photo of Chris KetterChris Ketter (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise tonight to talk about the importance of the union movement in Australia. I want to start by declaring myself to be a proud supporter of the trade union movement. I've enjoyed a long association with the unions. Whilst the battles we are fighting today differ from those which I fought back in the 1980s, when I first became an industrial officer, there is a common theme through these battles. That is that we need unions to stand up for workers when it comes to attacks on their entitlements by businesses who take advantage of workers, employer groups that help them to do it and by those opposite who aid and abet the process. Tonight, I want to touch on these issues, with particular reference to superannuation, penalty rates and labour hire sham contracting, both in the context of our current daily battles on industrial relations matters and in reflecting on my work with the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees' Union.

Firstly, on the issue of superannuation we've seen the revelations of the royal commission about the abysmal conduct of AMP and the contempt that they have shown for their clients and for regulators. But I can tell you that AMP wasn't squeaky clean some decades ago either, and I've been fighting for this to be made known. Back in the 1980s when we were involved in getting superannuation as an award entitlement through the state award system—and I was arguing the case with the ACTU—AMP was right there with a lot of small employers using a legal loophole to trap workers in Queensland into poorer performing retail superfunds. This wasn't unique to AMP and it wasn't unique to the 1980s. I hold serious concerns over the way that retail super funds use enticements to convince businesses to sign up workers to poorer performing funds, duding them of, potentially, hundreds of thousands of dollars in retirement.

In my very first speech to this parliament, I pointed to our world-class occupational superannuation system as a crowning achievement of Labor's industrial and political wins. Australians deserve to retire with dignity and with financial security. Making sure our system of government protects and enhances this fundamental workers' right is one of my key drivers. It is unacceptable that this government uses workers' entitlements, like super, as bargaining chips with their big business mates. It is unacceptable that this government has thrown bucket loads of mud at industry super funds hoping that some of it will stick—though we now see the royal commission having put paid to most of the outrageous, unfounded accusations of board misconduct and member-funded misuse. It's unacceptable that this government uses superannuation bills to wage its ideological warfare on the union movement and workers—like we've seen in relation to the bills that have had to be withdrawn from debate in this term of parliament when Labor called out the hidden agendas involved.

It is absolutely unacceptable that this government is aiding and abetting the theft of worker entitlements through their so-called superannuation amnesty for business. This amnesty proposes that businesses that probably haven't paid superannuation for two and half decades be let off without penalty, providing they declare their misdeeds up-front. Worse, if they do pay the Liberal-National government is going to give them a tax break. Can you imagine the outrage that would follow if there were a proposal to excuse businesses that didn't pay wages to their workers? Unpaid super is no different. It simply moves the impact on the worker into the retirement years instead of the next payday. Businesses who break the law by not paying super should be held to account and punished. The government should take all steps necessary to recoup unpaid superannuation from these businesses. That's why I'm standing up in the Senate about superannuation for workers.

On the issue of penalty rates, I want to turn to the fact that during the winter break, on 1 July, penalty rates were cut again for some of our most disadvantaged workers across the country—workers in the retail and hospitality sectors, workers who I've fought for my entire career. Workers have been sold down the river by this coalition government. Let's have a look at the impact on workers under this coalition government. It's been estimated that pharmacy workers will lose $3,273.73 over the course of a year; other retail workers, $2,450.81; hospitality workers, $1,884.37; and fast food workers, $1,628.85. We're expecting even further cuts to Sunday penalty rates next July and the July after that.

Labor and the union movement have always worked closely together to ensure workers are fairly compensated for time spent away from their families for work. That's why penalty rates were introduced. Since the 1980s, the SDA has been fighting to protect penalty rates in awards. In fact, it's true that the rates of pay for retail employees in Australia are amongst the highest in the world. That hasn't happened by accident. That's happened because of the union's long-term advocacy in industrial tribunals around the country to protect the rates of pay and penalty rates of shop assistants.

The orderly fixation of rates of pay and penalty rates was disrupted back in March 1993 by the Kennett government, a Liberal government, which basically scrapped the award system. That led to the SDA branch in Victoria having to rope tens of thousands of businesses in Victoria into a federal award. That was an incredible amount of work and, once again, I pay tribute to the Victorian branch for basically restoring the rights of work of many retail employees in Victoria as a result. In 1993 we saw the Western Australian Court Liberal government basically scrap the award system by virtue of the introduction of Western Australian workplace agreements. The award was basically sidelined. There were a minimum number of conditions—five or six minimum conditions—and a rate of pay which could be set by the minister. In the case of the retail rate, the minimum rate was about $110 below what the award set.

In 1996, we saw the action in the federal system, where John Howard introduced Australian workplace agreements. These were the secret individual contracts. Probably the low point was in 2005, when we saw Prime Minister Howard introduce the removal of the no-disadvantage test. We saw incredible abuse of workers across the country. In fact, in the retail industry we saw retailers being amongst the first to dive into AWAs, which took away many conditions and most penalty rates for workers.

Then we moved to 2008, with the restoration of a Labor government, and we started to work through the award modernisation process, bringing all of the state awards together into a federal award system. That brought its challenges, because, as part of setting a national retail award for the first time, there was an argument about the appropriate penalty rate to apply for Sundays, and the union had to argue then for the double-time penalty rate to apply. We won that argument, but then we had to fight it again, when there was an interim review of the awards in 2012 and 2013, and we had to argue against cuts by the employer associations to the Sunday penalty rates. On that occasion, we were successful. We held out on the attacks to the Sunday penalty rates. But in 2014 we saw the commencement of the four-year review of penalty rates, where employers once again sought to reduce the penalties for weekend and public holiday rates. Unfortunately, on that occasion the employers were successful, and we saw the decision coming out from the Fair Work Commission last year, so we've seen the outcome of that.

This is just an example of the type of work that the union movement has been doing for decades behind the scenes. It doesn't get a lot of media attention. But I think it's important to remind those listening that unions—not only the SDA but others around the country—are appearing in industrial tribunals around the country every day arguing for the retention of workers' pay and penalty rates and arguing against the cuts that are being put forward by employers. This is something that I will continue to stand for. I will salute the union movement. It's why I'm in the Labor Party. That's why I'm here in the Senate.