House of Representatives Speech- Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014

This bill will enable employers to undercut basic award entitlements—a move that even former Prime Minister John Howard admitted was a key mistake of Work Choices. And of course former Prime Minister John Howard subsequently reinstated the no-disadvantage test in 2007.

This bill will enable employers to undercut basic award entitlements—a move that even former Prime Minister John Howard admitted was a key mistake of Work Choices. And of course former Prime Minister John Howard subsequently reinstated the no-disadvantage test in 2007.

Let us not be in any way confused by the multiple speeches filled with talking points that we have heard from those on the government back bench in the course of the debate on this bill, the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014. This is part of a war that the Liberal Party is waging on weekend and night pay, and it is just the first step to an open slather on cutting the pay and allowances of Australian workers.

The bill goes much further than the coalition's pre-election policy which was published in May 2013. It goes much further than the fair work review panel's recommendations. Of course, this kind of legislation, now being introduced to the parliament, is what we have come to expect from this government—a government which said one thing to the Australian people before the election and has done another, in so many areas, after the election. Before the election we had a vague policy on industrial relations from the Liberal Party, designed to reassure Australians that they were not proposing to attack Australians' wages and conditions, and very much vague in order to ensure that their true intentions—a hard-right agenda that we see now being implemented by this government in so many areas—their real intentions, were to go much further than anything they had said before the election. It can only be said that what this Liberal Party said before the election was intended to deliberately mislead Australian voters.

Night and weekend pay is a core part of the budgets of millions of Australians. Some 4.5 million Australians work in sectors where night and weekend pay rates apply, and it has, for a very long time, been an expectation of Australians—a very large majority of Australians—that people who work nights and weekends should be paid more. That is something that has been confirmed by recent polling by Essential Research, who found that some 80 per cent of Australians believe that people who work at night and on weekends should be paid more.

What this bill does is to set up circumstances designed to cut Australians' pay. It is worth looking a little bit at the history of the industrial background to this by noting that—contrary to what has been said in multiple speeches by those opposite—under the Labor government, individual flexibility arrangements or IFAs were used to give employees genuine flexibility, not to cut wages.

The key safeguard that Labor introduced was, of course, the BOOT—the better off overall test. IFAs had to ensure that employees were better off overall. What this bill does is to make changes that will remove that key protection. It will allow night and weekend rates to be traded off for an unlimited variety of so-called non-monetary benefits. For non-monetary benefits to be taken into account under Labor's BOOT safeguards, they had to be relatively insignificant and genuinely agreed to. Under this bill, these safeguards will be removed. Labor's safeguards to limit the use of the non-monetary trade-offs are replaced by a short note providing for, apparently, any 'benefits other than an entitlement to the payment of money' to be used. The requirement that these be relatively insignificant and genuinely proportionate has gone, and it will open the door to weekend and night pay being traded away for all sorts of non-monetary items—perhaps even pizza.

Without these safeguards, overnight and weekend rates could be traded away just like they could be under John Howard's hated individual contracts. And I hear one of the government backbenchers saying, 'Let them have a choice.' 'Let them have a choice' is, of course, the illusion that those opposite would like to present, pretending that every worker in Australia has a real choice, when he should know—and I believe that those opposite do, in truth, know—that not every Australian worker has a real choice; that very often the pressures that are brought to bear on them by their employer, the pressures that are brought to bear on them when they do not have the protection of a union, the pressures that will be brought to bear on them when they do not have the protection of legislation, mean that there is no real choice. So 'Let them have a choice' is the illusion that those opposite put forward when John Howard introduced his hated Work Choices laws, and now we hear again the echoes of Work Choices: 'Let them have a choice.' Well, 'Let them have a choice' was firmly rejected by the Australian people at the 2007 election, and this government should be ashamed of itself for returning, in the sly way that it is seeking to return, to the Work Choices regime that was so resoundingly rejected by Australians in 2007 and will be rejected again at the next chance that the Australian people get at the ballot box.

I just wanted to give as an example one of my own constituents—Paul Toll, who is a paramedic from Aspendale. Paul Toll is in no doubt that if extra pay for night duty, for overtime and for weekends were stripped away most of Victoria's experienced ambulance staff could not afford to stay in the job. It would be a devastating loss of experience and commitment but no-one with a family could afford to do the job for its base rate of $56,000 a year. That is what Paul Toll tells me. Weekend and night pay takes an experienced ambulance paramedic's pay to $71,000—that is a 26.7 per cent increase on the base rate—as compensation for shifts of 14 hours and 10 hours, and working any time—because this, of course, is what paramedics and ambulance workers have to do—of the week, day and night, all with unpredictable overtime.

This is what Paul said, 'Without that 26 per cent you would find people have to get another job. I've done 10 years and I want to stick it out. It's incredibly rewarding in many ways, but it's tough on families. We are always juggling child care, relying on family and friends.' That is what Paul Toll said. Paul went on to say, 'Without that extra pay, Ambulance Victoria would lose their experienced people who provide that supervision for the young graduates coming in. Already a lot of us are looking around at other options. My wife works full-time and we are already struggling to pay bills and the mortgage.'

That is the kind of dedication that we have come to expect from ambulance workers and paramedics in Victoria and, indeed, throughout Australia, and it is those kinds of Australian workers—paramedics and ambulance workers—whose night and weekend pay rates are at risk. They are under threat if this bill is allowed to pass.

I would go on to say that it is not just this attack on weekend and night pay that we see in this bill. There is another aspect to this bill that I should mention in the remaining time available. It is a bill which says that some 1.5 million Australians on the award safety-net will need to show their employer that they invited a union to their workplace if they need information and support. This goes back to the interjection before from the government backbencher, to the effect of, 'Let them have a real choice.' I say it again: in the real world of Australian workplaces, vulnerable people, including perhaps by way of example, recent immigrants, will not get access to their union and to the information they need if the changes proposed in this bill go through.

In the real world, fear and insecurity and lack of knowledge mean that people do sign their rights away. In the real world it is a 'take it or leave it' situation, which is why we legislate in industrial relations to provide basic protections to Australian workers and why Labor will fight on every occasion to preserve those rights and protections for Australian workers, because what we will fight for is a decent workplace—one in which every Australian worker is respected.

Meanwhile, putting the provisions of this bill to one side, higher-paid Australians already on collective agreements have ongoing access to union information and support. All Australian workers deserve the same right of access to a union, regardless of where they work, regardless of how much they are paid and regardless if they have an enterprise agreement or not. Again, what we see is a coalition backflip. The Prime Minister promised that he would only implement changes from the Fair Work Review. But not one of these union information proposals arise from that process. Not one. In fact, the Fair Work Review Panel specifically rejected the idea that people on the award safety net should have lesser access to union information and support. The Fair Work Review Panel also rejected the idea of employee 'invitations'—so called—being issued before unions can provide that support.

Indeed, Australians on the award safety net absolutely need access to union information more than any other workers. These are workers who need help from unions to know their award rights. These are workers who need help to know when not to sign those rights away. And they need help to improve their rights by joining with others and winning the better living standards that come with collective bargaining.

This other part of the bill, these amendments, are a transparent attack on Australians' rights at work. They appear designed to keep people on the award safety net, or on IFAs that undercut that safety net. Regrettably, it is what we have come to expect from this government, which thinks that attacking the Labor movement, attacking the union movement and attacking unions is what they were elected to do. Of course, that is not what they said to the Australian people before the election. Nothing of it! They did not say to the Australian people before the election that they were going to embark on a wholesale attack on workers' rights and information being provided to Australian workers on the rights of unions to serve workers in every industry in Australia. Of course they did not because they wanted to create the false impression that they were not planning, as is now apparent, a return to Work Choices.

We are seeing here the first steps—the first small steps—of a return to the harsh industrial relations regime that Australians were forced to endure when the Howard government got control of the Senate and rushed legislation through both houses of parliament, introducing the hated Work Choices regime. We are seeing here in this bill again the first steps being made by what is, regrettably, a very hard-right Liberal government indeed. Again, this is not anything they liked to talk about before the election. We are seeing here from this government their first steps on the path of return to work choices.

The government deserves to be condemned for bringing this legislation into the House. Australians will see it for what it is, which is an attack on workers' rights, an attack on workers' rights to information and an attack on the entirely appropriate role that is played by unions in the Australian workplace.