Joanne Ryan MP
Federal Member for Lalor
Joanne Ryan MP

Fair Entitlements Guarantee Amendment Bill 2014

I too rise to oppose the Fair Entitlements Guarantee Amendment Bill 2014. I oppose the measures in this bill as they are further examples of cruel Abbott government cuts.

As is the case with so much of this 44th parliament, you should not look to what this government says but to what they do. Prior to the election last year commitments were made to the hardworking Australian public that much of the status quo would remain. There would be no cuts to education. There would be no cuts to health, no cuts to the ABC, no changes to pensions. The list goes on, as does the attack on the vulnerable that we are witnessing every day. We were told that Work Choices was created, and yet attacks on workers are rife from this government.

The introduction of this legislation today is another example of a coalition government's complete lack of understanding of the pressures faced by workers in this climate of rising unemployment and transitioning of our economy. In July last year, as the member for Richmond mentioned, Senator Eric Abetz, now the Minister for Employment, assured hardworking Australians, 'You can be satisfied that there is no risk to entitlements,' and yet I have been twice on my feet in this House to oppose bills that prove that Work Choices has survived the fire. To use an analogy from popular culture—one that perhaps will date me!—Work Choices is slowly coming back to life. Like the Terminator, it is re-forming and continuing its pursuit of Sarah Connor.

Before the election and even when the fair work amendment bill was introduced the government promised the proposed amendments would go no further than their pre-election promises and would only go to those recommendations from the 2012 fair work review. And yet this bill made changes to individual flexibility arrangements, greenfields agreements and right-of-entry provisions. Similarly, before the election the Abbott government made a commitment to regulate registered organisations in the same way as corporations, but the fair work registered organisations bill did not implement the coalition's election promise. It went much further than that in its attack on unions and, through them, workers.

So what does this bill aim to achieve? It aims to cut worker entitlements. The fair entitlement guarantee is a safety net to cover unpaid employee entitlements when workers lose their jobs through liquidation or bankruptcy of their employer. Workers who through no fault of their own lose their job are guaranteed a strong safety net for their entitlements. Many may remember this previously being referred to as the GEERS scheme, which Labor in government strengthened by giving a legislative basis. The scheme currently allows for up to 13 weeks of unpaid wages, annual and long service leave owing, if required a five week payment in lieu of notice and redundancy pay of four weeks for every year of service.

I know many on this side of the chamber have direct experience of people they know and community members in their electorates being devastated by a job loss. Given the Treasurer's exhortations today to judge people by what they do, I can assert that I am not sure many of those opposite have empathy with people like automotive workers who lose their jobs. That judgement, of course, comes after witnessing the Treasurer goading GMH to wind up their Australian operations.

This entitlement guarantee goes some way to assist when a devastating job loss occurs. This bill cuts the entitlement to a maximum of 16 weeks pay regardless of how long you have been in the workplace. That is the equivalent of four years service entitlements. Workers who have given long, loyal service for 10, 20 and in some cases 30-plus years will suffer considerable loss in their payouts. If this bill gets passed into law, this cut will have a devastating impact on workers, particularly those in the west of Melbourne who are still absorbing the various automotive and shipbuilding cuts and closures—not to mention those employed in the small industries that are part of the supply chain that will potentially close due to bankruptcy as work dries up in those industries. How many of my local hardworking manufacturing workers will be impacted by this cruel change?

This government made no mention of these changes prior to the election. In my mind and in the minds of so many voters the government has no mandate to make this change. Indeed, in this climate of rising unemployment, particularly in the area I represent, the government should be strengthening and expanding support for newly unemployed people. This change, however, does fit a pattern—a pattern where support for employment is being eroded by this government.

Whereas the proposed changes to Newstart for those aged under 30 have been widely discussed, the changes in this bill impact more severely on older workers who have been loyal employees in one company, some for their entire working career. I understand the difficulties that many older workers experience when attempting to gain employment. Despite best efforts, there is age discrimination when it comes to employment. Older workers often have limited formal qualifications and due to family commitments do not have the flexibility to move interstate to chase jobs. This fair entitlements guarantee went some way to support such workers when impacted by a job loss. It was support to give time to find new employment whilst at the same time being able to make house payments, pay the bills and school fees and keep food on the table. We need to remember that this payment is not an extra payment. It is paying these workers their entitlements. Annual and long service leave, pay in lieu of notice, redundancy payments—these payments provide an opportunity for a worker to make a new start, find new employment and stay out of the Newstart system. In some ways this cut is in fact another example of a false economy from this government so concerned about the economy.

As I alluded to earlier, those workers in the automotive industry will be significantly impacted by these changes. We know this industry is declining and that this government has withdrawn support previously promised. Before the election now junior minister Jamie Briggs said, 'The coalition has committed to ongoing support for the auto industry and has agreed to continue funding the Automotive Transformation Scheme.' Now this government that Jamie Briggs is so proud to be part of has overseen the death of the automotive industry, and there are dire consequences for the rest of the supply chain.

And where are many of the supply chain employees located? In the area I represent. It is estimated that there are 50,000 workers in the automotive industry, with a further 100,000 in the supply chain—workers who are facing uncertainty in their working futures. Anecdotally, we are hearing that some employers are even considering closing their doors earlier so their workers can be covered by the existing scheme.

This Abbott government has provided no support. Indeed, it has withdrawn or cut many employment support programs and projects across Australia. These cuts are affecting people and families in Lalor, an area where the unemployment rate is more than two per cent above the national average.

Whilst the government have not supported the automotive industry, they have, along with the Victorian state government, provided some support to some areas affected by job losses through the Innovation and Investment Fund. This fund is to be utilised to create new jobs—new jobs sorely needed in the light of the automotive manufacturing cuts. These new jobs are needed locally in the area I represent.

But has the government extended that support to Melbourne's west? The short answer is: no. A report in my local paper, the Wyndham Leader today has a headline, 'West left in the lurch'. In it it quotes Melbourne's West Economic Response Taskforce that includes LeadWest and six local government areas in Melbourne's west. The article says:

The taskforce, which includes LeadWest—

et cetera—

has requested fair and equitable treatment given the state and federal response to the exit of Ford from Geelong and Broadmeadows.

Businesses in Melbourne's north and Geelong each have access to $24.5 million for projects that create growth and job opportunities.

Craig Rowley, head of LeadWest, called for further assistance for the west as investments in infrastructure projects alone were insufficient responses. He is quoted in the article:

"When Toyota exited, we thought it would only be fair if Melbourne's west had a similar job stimulating funding pool, but our worst fears have been realised as there is no appetite from this government for doing that," he said. Businesses would be drawn by incentives to the north not the west …

This is incredibly disappointing and it just adds another layer of pressure—a layer of a lack of support coming from this government while we stand here and debate reducing workers' entitlements when they face job losses.

Sadly, no new investment is forthcoming. This government is delivering cuts to entitlements and no support for job creation. We on this side of the House will join those six local governments, LeadWest and the people of Geelong and we will continue to make the case for innovation and investment. We will raise projects like the Bay West development, and ask that it be reviewed to ensure that there are new opportunities in the west and Geelong.

Labor has shown that it understands the unique nature of our expanding and changing cities by establishing our caucus committee on cities, and by appointing Anthony Albanese to focus on cities policy. This is in stark contrast to those opposite.

In conclusion, I know that some of those opposite must also recognise the need for job creation and support for workers. They must see their local hardworking Australians struggle when unemployment rises in their areas. They must see the despair in the faces of the unemployed. But together as a government somehow they have found a way not to speak up. And they are not speaking up in this chamber today. They are not defending this bill; nor are they opposing this bill. It is left to this side of the House to argue these points.

In my area we need support for jobs, and our workers need support to access their entitlements. But this government is ripping away this provision at a time when workers need it most. It is a cruel and heartless decision for struggling families and is piled on top of real job losses, potential job losses and the anxiety that comes with that.

Like so much that this government has done in its first 12 months, the devil is in the detail of this legislation. When you unpick the changes being proposed the legislation seems to benefit the government in savings but not the people of Australia the government is meant to serve. The government continues to take its advice from big business through the Business Council of Australia and the heavily weighted Commission of Audit. The Abbott government shows that it has no understanding of the impact of taking away well-earned support for average workers.

Labor, in government, wanted to ensure workers received the strongest protections for worker entitlements. That is why we need to embed these entitlements in legislation. As the member for Richmond said before me, we are grateful that we did that, and that we are on our feet today making a point about these changes. If we had not legislated, these measures would easily have been dismantled by instructions to the relevant department.

I am thankful that these legislative changes were put in place, as it gave me a chance today to expose these cruel measures.


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