I rise to oppose the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014, 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, ridiculous situation where this government would retain the word 'fair' while making amendments that are clearly not fair.
When I was working in schools in the western suburbs of Melbourne, I saw the impact on local families of then Minister Abbott's Work Choices legislation. I saw students exploited by individual contracts. I heard directly from these students about being paid in pizzas. I heard time and time again about kids who did not get a job when they asked about conditions and overtime arrangements. I saw parents put under pressure in their employment too. I saw people being made casual after many years of permanent employment. I saw people lose penalty rates. I heard about people being sacked without warning. I remember one mother being sacked who, when she asked why, was told it was due to a personality clash. In my community, Work Choices is a dirty word. No-one wants to return to the Work Choices regime.
We have all learnt the hard way that the government made a lot of promises before the election that it appears they had no intention of keeping. This legislation is yet another example of broken promises. Before the election, and even when this 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. They promised a workplace review that we are still waiting for, and the clock will tick over to one year of this government in a little over two weeks. So, nearly 12 months on, here we are and those opposite are doing exactly the opposite to what they said they would do. They are moving amendments that have the potential to hurt workers, and they are deceptively doing this while still calling it a Fair Work bill. Let's be honest: this is being done to fly under the radar while the public are learning every day about another unfair measure in their unfair budget.
But we on this side of the House know that Work Choices is in this Prime Minister's blood. We know it from this quote from 2002, when he said:
If we're honest, most of us would accept that a bad boss is a little bit like a bad father or a bad husband. Not withstanding all his … faults, you find that he tends to do more good than harm. He might be a bad boss but at least he's employing someone …
I will speak not to the inherent patriarchal gender bias in this statement, which equates bosses to fathers rather than parents, but to the attitude that the government brings to this amendment bill and that is inherent in the now Prime Minister's statement. Let me translate it for you: better a bad parent than no parent. Better a bad boss than no boss. Better a bad job than no job. Fair work indeed! No, this is the road to nowhere like fair work; this is the road back to Work Choices.
This bill makes changes to individual flexibility arrangements, greenfield agreements and right-of-entry provisions, as we have been hearing for most of the afternoon and into the evening. I know what this will mean for the constituents of Lalor: workers will suffer. I agree that, in some circumstances, flexibility in workplace agreements can be beneficial, but only if applied appropriately. We know that, under Work Choices, 65 per cent of workers lost penalty rates and hundreds of thousands of workers were pushed into individual contracts. These contracts then meant that 70 per cent of those workers lost shift loadings, 68 per cent lost annual leave loadings, 49 per cent lost overtime loadings and 25 per cent no longer had public holidays. We also know that 3.5 million workers lost protection-from-unfair-dismissal provisions. Those were the former students and parents that I remember being adversely affected during this time. This bill must not allow arrangements that can be used to rip away penalty rates and other working conditions.
The current fair work system as introduced by Labor is acknowledged to be a fair and equitable system for both employees and employers. I remember the strong mandate Labor had when it won the 2007 election—a strong mandate that was delivered through Labor's Fair Work Act. The Australian people sent a strong message to the Howard government and to IR minister Abbott that Work Choices had gone too far. In response, like in so many areas, the LNP made all sorts of assurances in the lead-up to both the 2010 and 2013 elections. The current Prime Minister promised there would be no return to Work Choices and that the recommendations of the 2012 review of the Fair Work Act would be delivered without change. However, like so many promises, this one will not be delivered. What this government wants to do is make small but significant changes.
Let's look first at the individual flexibility arrangements. There is a current provision for workers to negotiate and trade a monetary benefit for a non-monetary benefit. It is important to note the monetary benefit forgone must be relatively insignificant and the value of the non-monetary benefit must be in proportion. For example, if a worker wants to negotiate swapping a scheduled RDO for a day the kids have off school, this can be negotiated at the local level. Employers can negotiate for extra hours to be worked to meet an urgent deadline in exchange for extra annual leave. As a school principal I managed arrangements like these on a daily basis and found no difficulty doing so.
But, by taking away the 'relatively insignificant' and 'proportional' provisions, we can see what the government's true intention is. This small omission has the potential to allow employers to strip away workplace provisions. The bill's own explanatory memorandum outlines the ability to forgo penalty rates in exchange for flexible hours. I am not sure anyone thinks penalty rates could be considered relatively insignificant; and, with the debate about penalty rates going on in the public now, I think everyone on both sides of this chamber understands that.
We saw in the past many employers go down this path. There was the famous Spotlight case where an employee received a 2c-per-hour increase in exchange for the loss of penalty rates. This is not the workplace regime we want to return to. This is changing penalty rates by stealth—without debate, without conversation, without the fight those opposite know the community is prepared to have to protect this provision and all done under the cover of a community coming to grips every day with new facets of how this cruel budget will impact on them and the community.
Let's look at the greenfield agreements. Greenfield agreements currently play an important role in the Fair Work Act. It can be a useful exercise to negotiate a greenfield agreement before workers have been employed. This ability to establish an agreement with the relevant unions and the prospective employer is beneficial, establishing the provisions and allowing for a timely and smooth transition at the project's commencement. The 2012 review identified that, unlike other forms of agreement making in the Fair Work Act, this section made no provision for good-faith bargaining and had no notified negotiation period. So what has this government included in the amendment bill to address this? Not what the review recommended. The amendments do not, as recommended in the review, require employers to take all reasonable steps to notify all unions with eligibility to represent relevant employees of the intention to negotiate an agreement. This means employers can pick and choose the unions they may wish to negotiate with—if there are any.
The review recommended a three-month termination period for bargaining under greenfield agreements, but this bill allows for employers to essentially walk away from negotiations and simply wait for the three-month period to expire, then—as only the employer can do this—taking the proposed agreements to the Fair Work Commission for assessment and approval. The proposed amendments give employers the absolute advantage in these negotiations, and therefore this fails the fairness test.
The third area of the amendment I would like to discuss is the right of entry. Just last month I had a constituent come see me about some issues in the workplace. She had been asked to meet with management to discuss concerns. When she asked for a union representative to sit in on the meeting, she was told that that would not be allowed. That is a concern under the current arrangements, so imagine a world where a union entry provision is being further eroded. That is what this bill has the potential to do.
The principal thrust of the Work Choices act when it was introduced by the Howard government in 2006 was to individualise employment relations. It was an attempt to marginalise both trade unions and industrial tribunals. The Australian public gave a very strong message at the election of 2007 that Work Choices went too far. I want to remind the House of some of the examples of the impact on workers back in 2006.
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 that 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 that included a hefty pay cut. A hairdressing apprentice was offered a contract, which included unpaid trial work as a condition of employment and no overtime and no penalty rates. These are not things we want to return to.
This bill has, to date, not received much commentary in the press or more broadly, so our debate in this chamber is critical. I can only assume that the lack of coverage is because the Australian public have resigned themselves to the idea that undermining employees is what this coalition government does, that possibly people have been distracted by the appalling and embarrassing performance of government frontbenchers across the last five weeks. I can only assume they are distracted by the terribly unfair budget that has a negative impact on so many in our communities. And I can only assume they are distracted as they ponder how to work harder to meet the cost-of-living pressures, how to earn more to pay for child care, how to raise funds to support the programs at their local schools, and how to start saving now to pay for a possible $100,000 degree for each child or to support a teenage apprentice and avoid a loan.
Those opposite need to remember that when the public go to the polls in two years' time and they focus on who to vote for, they will see unfair workplaces heavily reliant on individual workplace agreements that have stripped away conditions and pay and that were made possible if these amendments go through. Labor opposes these amendments and will always stand up for workers and employers to ensure that there is a balance. We will not allow this government to continue its race to the bottom on labour standards—a race to create an unfair Australia.