Senate debates

Thursday, 20 September 2018



6:13 pm

Photo of Anthony ChisholmAnthony Chisholm (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The issues I want to talk about today is actually a Western Australian issue. I know it's one that's very close to your heart, Senator Lines, because it is the Alcoa dispute that has been going on in Western Australia and that is now into its 43rd day. You might ask why a Queensland senator would want to talk about this, but this issue and what is occurring in Western Australia at the Alcoa site is something that is being replicated around Australia, and it is something that is of particular concern in Queensland as well.

At the heart of this dispute is basically the fact that the company wants to terminate their enterprise bargaining agreement. The devastating impact that that would have on the 1,600 striking workers in Western Australia is that it would basically reduce them back to the standard wage and would really have a massive impact on not only their families but also their ongoing employment. When we look at the way that this is being used, and we've seen examples of this in Queensland as well, it is understandable why workers are starting to stand up and unions are starting to stand up, and it's because they are seeing their conditions being eroded away.

When you look at what is happening at Alcoa in Western Australia, the workers aren't demanding massive pay increases. In fact, they've actually accepted a pay freeze. All the workers at Alcoa want is to keep their existing pay and conditions that they have fought for and won over many years, and, importantly, to protect their job security as well. This is something that we, on this side of the chamber, know all too well. So many of the industrial disputes that we are seeing actually go to job security. We know the impact that casualisation can have and the impact that labour hire is having on communities and on families and on their abilities to go about their normal business in the way that Australians are used to.

We also know that this isn't the case of a trade union playing hardball. The AWU and the Alcoa workers they represent want to talk. They want to reach an agreement. They want to return to work, but you cannot expect good-faith negotiations to occur while Alcoa are threatening the existing EBA. So they are in a really difficult position where they want to sit down with the company but the company is refusing to do so.

The dispute between the AWU and Alcoa highlights how our current industrial relations system falls well short of community expectations and is fundamentally broken—we can see what's happening in Western Australia and the impact that is having on those 1,600 people and their workers. What is interesting for me, observing this from a Queenslander point of view, is that we can see what is happening in Western Australia and we know that it has happened in Queensland as well, but we also know that, effectively, at the heart of this is a federal government that is allowing these sorts of things to occur and that doesn't see any reason that there needs to be a change in the rules of the industrial relations landscape.

Companies basically look to the federal system. They can see that they can exploit it, they can see that they can take advantage of it and they can see that they can use it to get further profits and also drive down the existing wages and conditions of current and future employees. This, I think, is something that is motivating the workers at Alcoa, but it's also motivating other workers across Australia, particularly in Queensland. They know they have to fight to protect what they've got, not necessarily to try and get ahead but to try and protect what they have.

The question is where this battle lies between now and the federal election. Effectively, workers across this country want to know that there is someone who is on their side. What is clear is that the current federal government are not on the side of workers. They're not on the side of the workers when it comes to this dispute in Alcoa. They're not on the side of the workers when it comes to the issue of penalty rates. They're not on the side of workers when it comes to the issue of labour hire and how that is being exploited to drive down wages and conditions. What the Australian community knows, and what Australian workers know as well, is that this side of the chamber is on their side.

I was pleased to see that federal Labor leader, Bill Shorten, has been to visit the workers at Alcoa. I know that other Labor members of parliament have been and visited as well. We've been doing that across the country. We've been doing it in Queensland. Our message is a very simple one: we understand that what you are going through and the impact that it's having on your family is not acceptable. We also understand that you want to know that there is a federal government in Canberra that is on your side. We know what you're going through. We know that you need legislation that will enable you to protect your conditions and protect your wages, but also build on that. Like us in this chamber, wanting to leave a better country behind, you want to leave a better workplace behind. You want to know that those workers who come after you are going to benefit from improved wages and improved conditions that you have built up over time. You can't afford to go backwards, whether it's on wages or whether it's on conditions, particularly for those that have been hard fought like they have at Alcoa and like they have at other companies around Australia through the work of employees and unions.

My message to the Alcoa workers is that the federal Labor Party is absolutely on your side. I'm very confident that, if a federal Labor government is to be elected, we will absolutely be on your side. We can absolutely be certain that we will deliver that message to workers across the country between now and the next election, because we understand the issues that you are going through and we understand that you need a federal Labor government that can deliver for you so that you and your family can enjoy a better standard of life.