Once again, we are in this place discussing changes to workplace relations laws and yet we haven’t seen an overarching narrative from the government about what their entire intent in the area of workplace relations is. Over 1½ years have passed since the Productivity Commission report into Australia’s workplace relations system was handed down, and, in what has come to be standard operating procedure for this dysfunctional government, there has been no government response to that Productivity Commission report.
The Australian public are completely in the dark about which Productivity Commission recommendations the government does or does not agree with. This coalition government does not have the courage to put a workplace relations policy to the people of Australia, because they know that the Australian people don’t want to see wages cut, they don’t want to see conditions cut and they don’t want to see their friends, families and neighbours exploited. We just get piecemeal pieces of legislation like the Fair Work Amendment (Repeal of 4 Yearly Reviews and Other Measures) Bill, without any explanation of where they are going. They want to keep things hidden, because we know that when the coalition come clean on their workplace relations policy we get things like Work Choices. The government saw how furious Australians got with such an unfair, anti-worker change to our nation, and they saw how millions of Australians fought back and defeated the Howard government at the 2007 election. That is why they keep sniping at the workplace relations system, piece by piece.
The general proposition behind this bill to abolish the four-yearly review was agreed to by employers and unions. This bill is only a partial response to recommendation 8.1 of the Productivity Commission’s report into workplace relations. Unfortunately, even though the proposition of removing four-yearly reviews was put to the government by employers and unions, it appears this bill differs from that which the employer associations and the ACTU put to the minister. The opposition notes that the changes contained in this bill are accurately described as amendments to the Fair Work Act, not reforms. But this Liberal government tries to trumpet abolishing four-yearly reviews as a reform, rather than what it is—removing a process of review from the legislation.
The opposition has been concerned to ensure that removing the four-yearly review in the manner proposed in this bill does not have unintended consequences. It is very important that modern awards can continue to be reviewed to ensure they meet the modern award objective, and that this can be done through a process where workers and employers have equal access and equal standing. This leads me to comment about the bill that is before us now. Coalition governments never really seem to care about getting workplace relations legislation right. They are just out to get the unions. I have always wondered about what drives those on the government benches to want to cut the pay and living conditions of the least well off in our society. Why do they think kicking those who have the least is the way to make society better? It is as though their reason for being is to make things harder for people already doing it tough.
To me, this is not only immoral; it is un-Australian. Australians know that penalty rates are important to them. They are important to individuals, to families and to the wider community. People can’t spend what they don’t have. Cuts to penalty rates that this government did nothing to fight against will impact on up to 700,000 of Australia’s lowest paid workers. We have heard that these cuts will reduce the take-home pay for some of the lowest paid and most vulnerable workers by up to $77 a week when they are fully implemented. I spoke recently to someone who had spent many years working casual jobs that had penalty rates. She told me that having or not having penalty rates is the difference between eating and not eating. She also told me that it was the difference between going to the doctor and getting medication and not going. If you are sick and you can’t afford the medication, you get worse. You can’t go to work and then you lose more money. It is the difference between being able to afford the necessities and going without.
I’ve said it before, but I honestly don’t think those on the government benches have any idea how vital penalty rates are. For hundreds of thousands of Australians, penalty rates are the glue that hold their financial situation together. We know that cuts to penalty rates will not stop with the hospitality and retail awards. Penalty rates are under immediate threat from ongoing Fair Work Commission proceedings in relation to clubs, hairdressing, beauticians and restaurants. Should the cuts go ahead, a further 323,000 workers are in immediate jeopardy of having their penalty rates cut. The factors considered by the commission are not specific to the hospitality, retail, fast-food and pharmacy awards. Nurses, aged-care workers, teachers, community disability workers, cleaners and construction employees are at risk of seeing their penalty rates cut. Those opposite believe that penalty rates are only going to affect young people who are maybe studying at university and probably living at home and that it doesn’t matter very much.
United Voice Tasmania made a submission to the recent Legislative Council’s select committee inquiry into growing Tasmania’s economy. In it, they argue for the vital importance of penalty rates. I think it’s important that we hear from those who are actually impacted by penalty rates, so I’m going to quote some of the evidence given in the United Voice submission in the short time that I’ve got tonight. David, who works in education, was quoted in the submission as saying:
I want my workplace to be a fair place for me to help provide for my young family. I … work … and study part time online at Uni. Life for me is … busy and that is not to mention my wife and kids that really need me out there working hard for them to keep them well fed, educated and entertained. I don’t want to lose my penalty rates, public holidays and good hours of work that work for my family.
Ann, who works in cleaning, said:
It’s damn hard working weekends when the rest of your family is off somewhere else without you. The money we earn is not much now, if we get lower wages how are we meant to survive? We all have bills to pay. It’s not right.
Similarly, John, who works in security, was quoted in the submission as saying:
More and more people are being made casual and working part-time. We need the penalty rates to make ends meet.
Darren, who works in the brewing industry, said:
The wages in Tasmania are so low, and the state government keeps increasing charges ‘to bring pricing in line with the rest of Australia’. Without our penalty rates we wouldn’t be able to reside and raise our families.
Josh was quoted as saying:
I have chosen to give up weekends, Christmas and every other major holiday with my family, work night shifts, work long hours and in possible dangerous conditions. I do this for an attractive salary that can help support my family, buy our first home and pay our way. Any change to this would dramatically change everything for my family and I in a negative way. So please, leave us to work hard and earn our wage. Don’t let us make sacrifices for time … for money just to have that taken away.
Wendy, who works in cleaning, said:
I will lose my house. I have a budget and it’s the wage I get now that I live on. I like to see you live on what I get.
Finally, Carol, who works in cleaning, outlined how penalty rates allow her to care for others. She said:
I work an average of 20 hours per week, for the minimum wage, half of those hours are on the weekend and attract penalty rates. I work this way instead of the 9 to 5 Monday to Friday employment I used to have (at a higher hourly rate) because I have a foster child with medical issues and a widowed mother with 97% hearing loss. If you would like me to send the foster child back and leave my mother to rely on social services while I work more hours to make up for the loss of penalty rates, go for it…
Those are just a few examples.
I don’t believe that we should make things more difficult for our lowest paid workers, but that’s what’s happened under this government. Once again, we’re dealing with legislation which hasn’t entirely been thought through. Labor will be putting forward amendments to this bill to get it right, but, at the end of the day, it’s clear that, through their words and deeds, the government do not care about working Australians at all; they just pretend to.