Wednesday, 23 November 2022
Statements by Senators
Sometimes I feel that we face two very different worlds of work. There's the world on the front page of the Australian, the world of employer organisations and old-time industrial relations club warriors fighting the workplace battles of last century, those who predict that any tweaking of workplace laws will mean massive industrial action and time travel, back to 30 years ago and 1980. They predict the end of the world as we know it. Today it's the Reserve Bank on the front page of the Australian. They're worrying about changes to the law making it harder to hire and fire.
Then there's the real world of work—out there—the world where people actually go to work and try to have a life, where a third of workers are insecurely employed. Only 13 per cent have a collective agreement. We've seen falls in real wages for a decade, and there's more to come. Union density sits not at 60 per cent but at less than 15 per cent. Half of our workers are now women. Full-time workers are donating six weeks of unpaid overtime to their workplaces every year. It's a world where there's not enough child care, where so many workers have no say over their rosters.
This is a tale of two worlds. The first is a world of mostly men in suits, a world of hired advocates and opponents of reform, singing from very old song sheets, paid to sow alarmism about the catastrophe of multi-enterprise bargaining and the imminent collapse of small businesses. Out there, in the real world of work, things are different. The issues are not strike action or too little flexibility in the hiring and firing of workers. The issues are: 'Who will look after my kids tomorrow while I go to work?' 'What hours have I got next week?' 'If I knock back this shift or try to swap it out will I get another one?' and 'How will I pay for petrol or child care if I don't get a pay rise?' I've been hearing a lot about this other world of work as we've taken our Select Committee on Work and Care around the country.
Last week I was in Perth and Albany, hearing from locals, people with lived experience of putting together a job with the rest of their life. In Perth we heard from a professor of economics at UWA, Alison Preston. She spoke about the high, indeed huge, penalty—more than half of lifetime earnings—that hits carers over their lifetime as they put together jobs with the care of others. This is labour that is essential to our economy. Across Western Australia, childcare centres have waiting lists of between 150 and 200, and when they get that long you don't bother putting your name down, so we know there are more people out there looking for child care. People make the decision, instead, to give up work. Businesses, across the state, can't find the workers they need.
If the roads that get us to work every day were functioning at 60 per cent of capacity, keeping people away from work like this, there'd be a national emergency declared. We would have a critical roads-to-work infrastructure fund of billions, fast. The failures in our work and care system are a failure of critical infrastructure. Yet our shouting, blokey, labour law debate—if we can dignify it with that name—is stuck on issues of industrial action, awash with horror stories about the possibility of workers bargaining together for a collective standard amongst like businesses.
Meanwhile, millions of employers and workers in small and larger businesses are just getting on with the job. They navigate a failed and inflexible infrastructure—our care system, our leave system, labour law built for blokes last century. Amidst this, some workers and employers have great relationships. But, where workers rely on their legal rights to get some say over decent pay and how their work is organised, they have too little backup in our workplace laws. Even then, when they do have workplace laws that back them up, the laws are not enforced. Today, for example, we've heard from the Australia Institute that Australian workers are on average working six weeks unpaid overtime a year, costing over $92 billion in unpaid wages across the economy.
Our workplace is increasingly in our phone in our back pocket, and it's competing with our kids for our time. This is wage theft, and we need to have labour law and labour arrangements that help us bargain around it and prevent wage theft. We need reform of our labour law, but it needs to leave the tired, old, overstated and alarmist myths of industrial action and business collapse behind and recognise the reality of men's, women's and children's lives now. We are not in 1980 anymore. We do not have a wife at home. We're in a world of low unionisation, job insecurity, more working carers, and wages suppressed through a lack of collective bargaining. Australian workers need improved workplace laws. (Time expired)
I'm very pleased to follow the good senator and her call for workplace reform. I rise today to talk about a recent incident with workers in my home town of Cairns. Last Friday I joined a rally of workers in Cairns, Far North Queensland. These workers were up against a multinational, multibillion dollar corporation, one they had been bargaining with for three years.
Svitzer operates tugboats to every major mainland port here in Australia. Workers at the company play an often unseen but critical role in our economy. In Cairns, Svitzer tugboat workers facilitate the safe passage of fuel, cruise ships and, critically, resources for residents of the cape and outer islands of the Torres Strait, in Far North Queensland. They ensure that Australians who live in remote Far North Queensland can continue to keep the lights on and put food on the table. They played a vital role for Australians throughout the pandemic and made record levels of profit for their employer while they were at it.
Svitzer, the company I'm talking about here, made a record $21 billion in profit last year alone. It is owned by a global overseas company, and its CEO receives millions of dollars each year. But on Friday 18 November this year Svitzer notified its local workforce, who are among 582 workers across the country, of its intention to take industrial action against them. Yes, this is the industrial action that those opposite don't want to talk about: companies in this country that seek to lock out their own workforce. Svitzer planned to lock the gates on workers who were willing to work, simply because they had yet to reach an agreement on the workers' future terms and conditions.
I showed up at the local rally in solidarity because these workers were willing and able to do their important job, because they play a critical role in maintaining the health and safety of my region and so many others in Australia, and because it's fundamentally bad for our economy and supply chains if this critical part of our transport infrastructure is halted, particularly just before Christmas. I showed up because I'm sick and tired of the way essential workers continue to be treated by those opposite and the interests they represent.
Our government didn't just show up for these workers. We expressed grave concerns to the Fair Work Commission that this corporate industrial action would impart significant economic impact on our economy. The Fair Work Commission listened and ordered the action to be suspended. Last week these workers were looking down the barrel of locked gates. They were willing and able to return to work, and so they did. But Svitzer went as far as docking the pay of workers in preparation for the lockout, which didn't even go ahead.
Now, because of their own solidarity and the support of the government, these workers are back at work, but this is evidence of a broken bargaining system. We have workers in our economy who are delivering essential services to people in our communities but are having to bargain with a global, multinational company for years and years to get a pay rise. This is what we are talking about when we talk about the bargaining system being broken. When a company seeks to lock out its own workforce, instead of sitting down at the bargaining table, we are talking about industrial action from a company against its own workers. This is a system we need to change. Workers have been trying to bargain for a pay rise, but they're not getting it. That is why we are delivering reform in this sector.