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Speech: Fair Work Amendment

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (12:55):

The Greens oppose the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014. This bill is another reminder of what a seamless change it is from the Abbott government to the Turnbull government. What this bill will attempt to do is deeply alarming-the degree to which it will drive down working conditions in this country. The ability to collectively organise and union rights are central to this legislation. This is a real reminder of why it should not go through. It will increase inequality in this country. Fairness will become a distant memory. I think it is very important that the Senate rejects this piece of legislation.

I understand that some crossbench senators are in talks with the Liberal-National government to get this legislation through. I think it is very important that we look thoroughly at this legislation because it would be an enormous setback. Even if the legislation passes not in full but in some modified form, that is not progress, that is not the solution here. The bill needs to be defeated in its entirety. There cannot be a compromise here. It is bad legislation. I would urge those crossbench senators to consider how they have often stopped similar legislation going through in the past. They have been a voice for working people-for the conditions of workers on the job and for the rights of unions. We must continue to work together to ensure that that continues.

One of the main concerns in this bill is what it seeks to do to greenfields agreements. I think we need to look very closely at it. I find it deeply alarming when I look at it because I understand and know how important the current arrangements have been to ensuring that workers going into new sites are able to start with decent conditions. And those conditions have worked for industry and business as well; they have given them certainty. The argument that it gives unions control and that businesses do not know what they do and they cannot get their projects off the ground is rubbish. It is just not the case. It is another means to try and increase the profits of companies by driving down working conditions-a very troubling aspect and a reminder why we need to pay close attention to this and ensure that it does not pass.

When we are talking about greenfield sites, we are largely talking about new mine sites, ports, LNG processing and also some large-scale construction. At the moment, there needs to be an agreement between the prospective employer and the unions-often there is more than one union representing the workers-to cover that site. I would like to share with you a very fine example of how the current system has worked so well. I imagine that many of you would imagine the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. It was a great success, it was hailed as the world's best Olympics and there was great credit given to how those Olympics were run. The starting point in any sporting endeavour is that you need the various venues. Who built the venues? Tens of thousands of workers. Why was it on time? Why was it world class? Why were there minimal health and safety conditions? It was firstly because of how the union, the state government and the companies involved worked together. It was effectively a greenfields agreement that allowed that project to be on time. There were venues all over the place and all sorts of huge projects being built. Yes, there were some accidents but they were minimal and it was delivered on time. Bob Carr-a former senator, a former foreign minister and a former premier of New South Wales-would regularly boast about the success of the Sydney Olympic Games. Why were they successful? Because the negotiations were done with the union, there were good working conditions and industrial issues were kept to a minimum because of all those agreements.

Here we have this Liberal-National government, now under the leadership of Prime Minister Turnbull, turning the clock back on working conditions and the ability of unions to organise. Let's remember that the conditions of the operation of current greenfields sites are something that have been won by struggle. Once upon a time these conditions were not there. Why were they put in place? It was to give some decent working conditions to protect workers in terms of health and safety conditions. That is what was established, and that is what would be removed.

Some of the arguments that have been put are that greenfields bargaining practices mean that the commencement of projects can be delayed or possibly abandoned. There are minimal examples of that, and often they are set-up examples where the company wants to be able to complain so that down the track that company and other companies can get a better deal. Again, why would you wind the clock back? These companies still make extensive profits. All the current greenfield site arrangements set out is for there to be an agreement, but if it is changed we have the extraordinary situation where a company could negotiate with itself. Seriously-that is how it would operate. That really does go too far-to water down working conditions to such an extent.

How that would work-if the changes were to be brought in-would be that a company could refuse to engage in discussions with the relevant union or unions about an enterprise agreement. It would just have to tough it out for three months. I understand that there could be an amendment to make that six months. Really, that time difference makes no difference. If they last out that time, then they can make the agreement. They are, effectively, negotiating with themselves, because then they are off to the Fair Work Commission-that is the next stage.

This legislation would take away the only thing that employees have the right to do in this situation, and that is their right to take industrial action. Remember, that is why unions came into being. At the end of the day, the only power that workers have if they have an employer or boss that is ruthless with regard to working conditions-where they deem that they have to take action-is to withdraw their labour. That is what we are talking about here, and that is what would be denied. What is put in place? These are very ugly laws resulting in fines and possibly jail both for the workers and the union officials who are trying to give them support. At every turn, this is legislation that the alarm bells should ring on. It needs to be looked at closely and, again, I want to emphasise that this is not legislation that we can just amend and improve on. There is a clear intent here, which is to remove unions from having a role in establishing what the working conditions should be on a large-scale construction project, a port or a mine-clearly, where a negotiation should be worked out so it is there for all involved. That is where the certainty can come from, but that is what would be denied here.

The Greens think that workers are entitled to a share in the resources boom which comes from many of these projects, and that is why the current arrangements should be allowed to continue. But this is legislation that is really about letting employers and companies earn exorbitant profits from these projects. We have not heard reports of projects not getting off the ground. I wanted to emphasise this point again, because that is being used as a justification for why this needs to change. But the case has not been established. Where there have been difficulties in negotiating under the current legislation has not been put out there. We need to remember that this is not an attempt to get more projects up. It is an attempt to get employers an even greater share of the profits coming from agreements by, effectively, shutting the door on negotiations. What does that mean? It means you shut out the unions, and you shut out the workers from negotiating their wages and conditions. This is coming from the Liberals and Nationals-parties that tell us constantly about the rights of the individual; the right to get out there and have your say. Here they are shutting the door-if this legislation goes through-and denying people the right to come together collectively, to have their say and to work for fair wages and conditions. This is very, very extreme legislation that would set Australia back enormously.

Where this legislation comes from-and sometimes I have heard this used as an excuse-is the review of the Fair Work Commission. This takes us back to 2012. There were a number of recommendations in that Fair Work Commission review, but what we see coming from this government is that they have picked the eyes out of those aspects that suit one section of Australian society. It is their constituency; the constituency of the former Abbott government and now the Turnbull government-the corporate world and corporate Australia. Again, this is a very divisive way to run politics and policy in this country. There were some good aspects to that review, but there were some very problematic aspects, as we are seeing with the greenfields arrangements. My colleague in the House of Representatives, the member for Melbourne, Adam Bandt, has done extensive work on this and I would recommend that members in this place should acquaint themselves with his work, because he gives a very balanced assessment of what that review came down with. We need to ensure that we have very fair industrial relations laws, not the biased ones that we have before us today.

The Greens are concerned about a number of the proposals in this review. There is a weakening of the 'better off overall test' limiting the bargaining on greenfield sites, as I said, and the possible removal of holiday penalty rates in some states and territories. We welcome some aspects. There was a recommendation on extending the right to request flexible arrangements. That should be backed up with an enforceable right. I want to inject that into our considerations today because this is where the legislation has come from: the review. The review is problematic in aspects, but it certainly should not be used as justification to the crossbenchers, or in any way at all, for what we are seeing being pushed through here today. The changes to the greenfield site are effectively about changing the minimum standard with regard to signing off on conditions for new large-scale projects. I find that often a favourite word of the coalition government is 'flexibility'-that we need flexibility for employers so they can get these projects going; that it will be good for the economy and it would be good for jobs. I am sure we will hear that speech again. We have heard it many times before. But this does not give flexibility. It is actually the opposite. It is rigid and it is, in fact, classic neoliberal dogma, where your lock out unions and you lock out the ability of working people to be organised. At the end of the day, there is one group deciding how the project will operate, down to the very details of wages and conditions, and that is the employers.

I want to go over this point again because it is very telling about how wrong this legislation is. When you hear the word 'agreement', you would think that there would be at least two parties involved, but what do we have here? Again, it is really important to emphasise this: an employer is now going to be able to agree with themselves about the legislation and the minimum conditions that will apply in their workplace. How wrong is that? That is so deeply unfair. There are bad employers out there. They are not all bad employers. All employers have to make a profit, so they are looking for a good deal for themselves, but there are some who are really unfair. How many times have we seen that lately in Australia, with rorts going on, the 7-Eleven stores and a number of exposes around-

Senator Canavan interjecting-

Senator RHIANNON: I am happy to take the interjection. It is very clear where the Nationals line up. On this bill they certainly are not a voice for rural workers. They have totally forgotten about that constituency. They try to make out that they are friends of rural communities, but the way they try to walk both sides of the road-

Senator Canavan interjecting-

Senator RHIANNON: I am happy to acknowledge your interjections, Senator. They walk both sides of the road, but it is being exposed more and more and those interjections show them up even more. It is very important that we understand how this will work. As I said before, if an employer just toughs it out for three months-it does not matter how many months; even if an amendment comes through in about six months-that is so meaningless in making this legislation fair. That is not possible. I was making the point about how many employers, sadly, have been exposed in recent times of being very discriminatory against their workforce. When I was in the New South Wales parliament, I did a lot with the Textile Workers Union. I went to the homes of people-mainly women from non-English-speaking backgrounds-who were often working in their own backyard. There were effectively sweatshop conditions for such minimal pay and the big fashion houses were taking advantage of them. We see examples in many areas; it is not just in greenfield areas. I give the example of piece workers as a reminder of how important unions are. Workers have a right to be represented by a union. They have a right to come together with their fellow workers and speak up and negotiate for better conditions. That is something so fundamental to a fair and democratic society, but we are seeing that effectively denied. That is the intent of the various pieces of legislation that the government wishes to bring forward.

I must admit that when I saw this on the agenda today and following some of the conversations this week since we had a change of leadership with the new Prime Minister, it brought to my mind some of the Sydney Morning Herald cartoons that we have seen over the years of Mr Turnbull. The 'toffee person in the top hat' is how one person described it to me this week. Why does it remind me of that? Because this bill benefits those with money, those with wealth and those with privilege. This is a very serious move that must be put to bed with a clear no vote. I urge the crossbenchers who have brought a very principled voice, a very strong voice, into the Senate for working people and for unions to continue the work that they have done. There cannot be amendments that improve this bill; there cannot be a compromise. This is very dangerous legislation that needs to be exposed and it needs to be voted against. Let's remember that, when we are talking about greenfield sites, we are talking about very large scale projects. There will continue to be more of these projects across Australia, even though the resources boom may be on the wane. There will still be many such projects in the resources area and the construction area, and those workers have rights. That is why the Greens are taking such a very clear stand here. This is about a fair system for all: for workers, for unions-who have a right to represent those workers-for industry and for business. That is the way to give certainty, not the scam that the Turnbull government is now running.

 

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