Joanne Ryan MP
Federal Member for Lalor
Joanne Ryan MP

Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014

I, like the member for Scullin, rise to speak again on the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014. Like the member for Scullin, I spoke in December. As then, tonight I will speak for a few moments and return to the speech at another time.

I oppose this bill, just like I oppose the Treasurer's so-called fair budget, with its so-called fair changes to pensions, fair cuts to education, fair GP tax, fair changes to Newstart eligibility and fair changes to higher education, training and apprenticeships. I rise to oppose the ludicrous, the ridiculous situation whereby this government would retain the word 'fair' while making amendments that are not fair.

When I was working in schools in the western suburbs of Melbourne I saw the impact on local families of the then Minister Abbott's WorkChoices legislation. I saw students exploited by individual contracts. I heard direct from these kids about being paid in pizzas. I heard time and time again about kids who did not get a job when they asked about the conditions and overtime arrangements. I saw parents under pressure, too—

Debate interrupted.

I have deep concerns about the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014. I saw the negative impact of Work Choices and celebrated the introduction of the Fair Work legislation by Labor. Since September last year, this government has broken many promises, election commitments have been tossed aside, and taxes and cost-cutting measures that were never dreamed of have been introduced. Here we are again. Before the election, the Abbott government made a commitment to regulate registered organisations in the same way as corporations. This bill does not implement the coalition's election promise. This bill makes provision for higher penalties on corporations and registered organisations will have a more onerous regime to deal with.

There are new criminal provisions which, if enacted, mean that registered organisations, employer bodies and unions will have difficulty in persuading people—often in a voluntary capacity—to take on official responsibilities. It is not just Labor saying that. The AIG states:

If the proposed criminal penalties and proposed massive financial penalties for breaches of duties are included in the RO Act, this would operate as a major disincentive to existing voluntary officers of registered organisations continuing in their roles, and would deter other people from holding office.
These are genuine concerns that have not been addressed by the government. Unions have also raised quite legitimate concerns about the impacts of the proposed laws. Usually, when you have industry bodies and unions lining up on a unity ticket against a proposition, there is something very wrong. This is apparent here.

I have seen workplaces disrupted by employees making a point on legitimate concerns. As a former teacher, there have been disputes over conditions and funding. Very rarely have I seen frivolous claims. With three young adult sons, I hear about workplace conditions in the building, transport and warehouse industries. I know there are some workers and indeed some bosses that could behave better, take workplace safety more seriously and ensure that correct rates of pay, especially overtime, are adhered to. As I move around my community, people discuss unfair dismissal and other workplace matters. Safety and dignity at work are paramount in the electorate of Lalor. Union membership is valued.

Many make the point that they would prefer to be in a unionised workplace, as their rights and their safety are protected. As a mother and someone who has worked with young adults, I can speak firsthand to the peace of mind it brings. I do, however, read the paper and watch the news. I know that not everybody acts with integrity in the workplace. That is why the Labor Party has no tolerance for corruption by union officials or officers in employer bodies. We support tough penalties for those who break the law and we support appropriate regulation for registered organisations, including a properly empowered regulator and consequences for those who do not follow the rules.

Labor is committed to ensuring financial accountability by unions and employer organisations. That is why in 2012 the now Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, as Minister for Workplace Relations, toughened the laws to improve financial transparency and disclosure by registered organisations to their members. As a result, the regulation of trade unions in Australia has never been stronger, accountability has never been higher and the powers of the Fair Work Commission to investigate and prosecute for breaches have never been broader and, with a tripling of penalties, they have never been tougher.

What we are not hearing from those opposite about this legislation is that the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act already prohibits members' money from being used to favour particular candidates in internal elections or campaigns. It already allows for criminal proceedings to be initiated where funds are stolen or obtained by fraud. It already ensures that the Fair Work Commission can share information with the police as appropriate, and it already provides for statutory civil penalties—

Debate interrupted.

I rise for the third time in an attempt to complete this speech on the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014, which only goes to show my commitment. I begin where I finished by saying that the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act already provides for statutory civil penalties where a party knowingly or recklessly contravenes an order or direction made by the federal court or the Fair Work Commission under the registered organisations act or the Fair Work Act.

Under the Fair Work Act, officers of registered organisations already have fiduciary duties akin to those of directors under the Corporations Law. The registered organisations act already requires officers to disclose their personal interests. It already requires officers to disclose when payments are made to related parties. It already requires officers to exercise care and diligence, act with good faith and not improperly use their position for political advantage. It is, therefore, not surprising that we should question the motives of this government and the reasons for the introduction of these proposed reforms.

The government promised to regulate registered organisations in the same way as corporations. However, they have broken that promise. This bill places higher penalties and a more onerous regime on officers of registered organisations than those that are imposed on company directors. There are still recommendations to come from the various inquiries this government has established. Wouldn't it make more sense to wait for those outcomes and recommendations? This bill is pre-emptive and ill-conceived and it is also a broken promise.

Why is this government rushing to impose this onerous regime and penalties that exceed those in the Corporations Act? As always, we need to question the motivation of the government. Is this just a political attack on unions. I will remind members of the impact on workers when Work Choices was introduced in 2006, to help them think about and determine whether this legislation is just an attack on unions. Three workers at a cabinet installation company in the west of Melbourne were sacked on the day Work Choices came into effect and then offered casual positions at a lower rate of pay. Seventy Optus workers received letters from the company directing them to a seminar to teach them how to set themselves up as contractors. As contractors they would be up to $300 a week worse off and would have to pay $12,000 for their own van, as well as workers compensation, superannuation and other overheads. A woman employee of 15 years was sacked while she was on sick leave, just days after the Work Choices laws came into effect. A clerical employee was dismissed via email for requesting her pay, which was six weeks in arrears. A university student was working in a medium sized business which dismissed all permanent employees on the day the new legislation came into effect. They were offered AWAs with lower levels of pay and worse conditions. A young worker lost her job in a cafe after refusing to sign an AWA which included a hefty pay cut. A hairdressing apprentice was offered a contract which included an unpaid trial as a condition of employment and no overtime or penalty rates.

Workplace laws are about balance between the workers and the employers. They are about balance between unions and big business. They are about balance between law breaking and good governance. Is this legislation about balance or is it just an ideological attack? We have reason not to trust the coalition when it comes to workplace relations. They have form. In 2004, they did not tell the Australian people about their plans to introduce Work Choices and AWAs. In 2005, they told the Australian people their pay and conditions were protected by law, when they were not. In 2008, Tony Abbott said Work Choices was:

… good for wages, it was good for jobs and it was good for workers. And let’s never forget that.
In his book Battlelines, Tony Abbott said, 'Work Choices wasn't all bad.' Labor will not support a politically motivated witch-hunt designed to kill off unions just because the government seeks to reward its friends in big business.

 


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