I was very pleased to have the opportunity to participate in Labor’s Fair Work Taskforce hearings held in Launceston on 29 June—Senator Polley, who is in the chamber, also attended that hearing—and in Hobart on 30 June. I was invited to join the Fair Work Taskforce by the shadow minister for employment and workplace relations, Brendan O’Connor, and it has been a very worthwhile initiative.
Before the last federal election, the Liberals promised not to touch workers’ employment conditions. Mr Abbott stressed, ‘Workers’ pay and conditions are safe with us.’ As Leader of the Opposition, the now Prime Minister, Mr Abbott, said that Workchoices was ‘dead, buried and cremated’. But there is a massive gulf between the government’s rhetoric and their actions when it comes to the reintroduction of Workchoices.
Consider the Abbott government’s record to date on workplace relations. The Commission of Audit recommended radical changes to current entitlements, including cutting the minimum wage in real terms every year for a decade. The government has introduced a number of fundamentally unfair workplace relations bills, which seek to cut hard-won workplace entitlements and conditions. And the government’s Productivity Commission Review has put working conditions on the table, particularly penalty rates. We can see from the Productivity Commission’s draft report that they are being used as a proxy for the Abbott government’s assault on penalty rates.
And let us not forget the government’s attack on unions. After all, it is Australia’s trade unions that are the main obstacle to the government’s campaign to cut the pay and entitlements of working Australians, and they do not like it. I spoke last year on a bill that was designed to tie up registered organisations, especially trade unions, in so much red tape that they would not effectively be able do their job.
A similar bill was introduced into the Senate, which I spoke on earlier this year, and I am pleased neither of these bills have passed the Senate. However, we now see the third iteration of this bill on the Notice Paper this week. We have said again and again that these bills are not about transparency, which is the government’s line on this issue, but they are about silencing unions and that is exactly what the government intends to do, despite the fact that many hard-working union members have paid money for effective representation. I should also mention the government’s expensive political witch-hunt in the form of an $80-million royal commission into trade unions.
Senator Polley: What?
Senator BILYK: Yes, $80 million, Senator Polley. And that $80 million could have been used in so many other ways. It could have been used to support the child abuse royal commission or to improve Tasmanian schools or Tasmanian health services, for example.
Labor formed the Fair Work Taskforce so we could give people, particularly workers, an opportunity to talk about how the Abbott government’s attacks on jobs, wages and conditions will affect them. It has also been an opportunity for a conversation about what the government could be doing to create the high-skilled jobs of the future by investing in skills and training, infrastructure, innovation and entrepreneurship.
Over the two days of hearings in Tasmania, the Fair Work Taskforce heard from: workers in aged and disability care, retail and manufacturing and about the importance of penalty rates to them and their families; university academics about the impact of casualisation on their job security; a worker in the community services industry about how the way grants are administered is driving down wages and threating job security; workers in the Australian Public Service about how a freeze on recruitment in their agency has put extraordinary pressure on them to deliver outcomes; and workers in the maritime industry about the threat of foreign flagged and crewed vessels to their job security, and Australia’s marine safety and environment.
The conversations we had were very insightful, and I will outline some of these in detail. On the subject of penalty rates, we heard from workers across a variety of industries. For most of these workers, the penalty rates component comprised about 25 per cent of their pay, but they relied on that extra pay to get by. The retail workers spoke to us about how their penalty rates gave them enough pay to afford luxuries for their families. The luxuries they referred to were not a holiday, a house extension or a better car. They were actually talking about weekend sport for the kids or going to the cinema. To them, that is a luxury. One worker actually said that going to McDonald’s for dinner from time to time was a luxury for her family—
Government senators interjecting—
Senator BILYK: Mr Acting Deputy President, I would ask you if you could ask those on the other side to keep their voices down. This is a very important issue, and people out there in radio land are actually listening.
The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Edwards ): Thank you, Senator Bilyk, but I will administer the chamber.
Senator BILYK: I really wish you would.
The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: I have asked for order. Thank you.
Senator BILYK: Another worker said she struggled to get by so much that she once had to borrow money from her 11-year-old daughter to pay her family’s internet bill.
In addition to the financial consequences of cutting penalty rates we heard from those in the aged and disability care sector that cutting penalty rates would make it extremely difficult for them to attract skilled workers, particularly those who would cover night shifts and weekends. Also on the subject of penalty rates we have recently seen a draft Productivity Commission report put out which talks quite extensively about penalty rates. Labor will be carefully considering the draft report; however, we will not support a two-tiered penalty rate system that would leave millions of Australian workers worse off.
We say the government should allow the independent umpire to make decisions around penalty rates. The evidence the Fair Work Taskforce has heard during its hearings provides a substantial case for not cutting penalty rates for workers in hospitality and retail, and the Abbott government must immediately rule this out.
Yet another interesting story we heard was from a worker in the community services sector who told us about the uncertainty that was created by the government’s approach to contracting. Because many government contracts to the sector are awarded on a cost basis, many of the workers are accepting lower and lower salaries. The sector is now struggling to attract skilled workers, and some of those left in the sector have skills and experience such that they could attract about twice the pay in the public service. These are workers who are working with some of the most vulnerable people in the Australian community—the people on low incomes and those experiencing homelessness, mental health issues and family violence. Because of the short term and competitive nature of many of the contracts, often community sector organisations start to make progress with their clients, only to lose the contract and have to withdraw the service. There are services that are investing thousands of dollars and hours into preparing grant and tender submissions—time and money they could be spending on serving their clients.
The uncertainty of future funding is putting a lot of stress on staff, and this leads to absenteeism. There was one service in particular that, at the time of the hearing, had its contract due for renewal at the end of the financial year, and the workers had no idea whether they would still have a job in the next two days.
Another discussion I found very interesting was with the seafarers from the Maritime Union of Australia. One of the greatest threats to their industry and job security is from foreign-flagged and foreign-crewed vessels. One seafarer who used to conduct inspections of vessels for the International Labour Organization said that 80 per cent of foreign crews were being paid below ILO standards or not at all. One particular ship he inspected had a crew that had been at sea continuously for 18 months. They had no idea when they were going home, and the crew’s on-board food supplies were so inadequate they were fishing for food.
Flag-of-convenience vessels are not just a threat to the conditions and employment security of Australian seafarers. They also pose threats to our maritime safety, environment and security. For example, Australian seafarers need a security clearance in the form of an MSIC card to enter Australian ports, yet foreign crews can walk onto Australian ports with no security checks whatsoever. In 1996, Australia had 11 Australian-crewed fuel tankers operating around its coast. Now there are only two.
These were just a few of the many conversations we had over the course of a few days with several dozen workers. But we know that what the Liberal-National coalition will try to do is to cut these working conditions. We know that because it is in their DNA. Workers know that it takes a Labor government to stand up for their rights and conditions.
I would quickly like to thank the chair of the Fair Work Taskforce, the member for Bendigo, Lisa Chesters, for coming to Tasmania to chair the hearings; and the secretary, Senator Chris Ketter, for his participation. The shadow minister for workplace relations, Brendan O’Connor, also participated in the Launceston hearing, and I thank him for setting up the task force and for inviting me to be part of it. I thank my other colleagues who participated—including, the member for Franklin, Julie Collins; Senator Polley; and Labor’s candidate for Bass, Ross Hart.
The Fair Work Taskforce is continuing its hearings throughout Australia. So far it has also visited Melbourne, Geelong, Springvale, Alice Springs and Darwin. In addition to the hearings, the Fair Work Taskforce welcomes written submissions. Anyone can make a submission by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. I am looking forward to seeing the task force’s final report. If the stories I heard over the two days in Hobart and Launceston are anything to go by, I am sure it will be most insightful.