Fair Work Bill 2008: Second Reading

The Fair Work Bill restores fairness and balance to the workplace. It provides a safety net of 10 minimum employment standards that cannot be stripped away. It provides all employees with protection from unfair dismissal. It protects low-paid workers. It restores the right to good faith collective bargaining and it sets up an independent umpire to settle disputes. It has already achieved what some thought was impossible: the idea of winning the support of employers and employees. For this, Julia Gillard, the Deputy Prime Minister, deserves a lot of credit. The bill is the result of 12 months of hard work, of consultation and of negotiation. For me, it demonstrates what real leadership is all about-bringing people together, not tearing them apart.

The idea of a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work has been the cornerstone of our industrial relations system ever since Higgins’s judgement in 1907-that is, until Work Choices. Work Choices was one of the worst pieces of legislation that this parliament has ever introduced. It was bad law in good times and it is bad law in difficult economic times. That is why we have to get rid of it. For people in my electorate it meant that they were stripped of their wages and working conditions. I know this because that is what they told me on the streets of my electorate-in shopping centres, at railway stations and at street stalls all around my electorate during the election campaign. People told me horror stories of shift loading, leave loading, rest breaks and penalty rates all being ripped away. They told me of their fears for their children and their grandchildren. Their fears were well placed.

Work Choices and AWAs made a potent cocktail: 89 per cent of AWAs removed at least one protected award condition; 83 per cent excluded two or more; 52 per cent-that is every second AWA-excluded six or more protected award conditions; 45 per cent of AWAs provided between $1 and $29 per week below the required rate of pay for protected award conditions and 50 per cent provided for $50 to $199 a week less. That was the real effect of the Howard government’s industrial relations system, and all workers were affected.

But some were affected more than others-it hurt female workers in retail jobs really hard. People from a non-English-speaking background-and there are many of those in my electorate-suffered in particular. In my electorate of Blaxland they make up 14 per cent of the workforce-more than one in 10 workers speaks little or no English. It makes it pretty hard to negotiate with the boss. These workers were the worst affected by Work Choices.

There is an organisation in my electorate called Asian Women at Work, and they represent these workers. This year they released a book called Cries from the Workplace, which tells stories of women who were affected by Work Choices. I think their voices deserve to be heard in this debate. Here is just one: the story of a woman named Mary, a Chinese lady in her 40s who packages food for a living:

My pay and conditions are very low. I only get $11 an hour even though I start working at 3am in the morning. They are not paying the correct amount of tax for me. I don’t get sick pay or sick leave and I don’t get 4 weeks annual leave. I do get 9% superannuation. We don’t get overtime penalty rates when we do overtime.

Since Work Choices, our pay and conditions have gone to rock bottom. We used to get paid $16 an hour before Work Choices but after Work Choices we only get paid $11 an hour and without proper conditions or entitlements.

That is the human face of Work Choices. That is Mary’s story and that is why the Rudd Labor government is getting rid of Work Choices. What chance has someone like Mary got to negotiate with her boss to ensure that she gets a fair deal? People like Mary deserve a fair deal in the workplace. Every worker deserves a fair deal in the workplace. The people who are in this gallery today listening to this debate, and those hearing the broadcast on the radio, all deserve a fair deal in the workplace, and that is why this government is getting rid of Work Choices. That is why the people of Australia threw the Howard government out. I am sure the people in the gallery today will agree with me that it was the reason a lot of people around Australia changed their vote at the last election. People that had previously supported the Howard government changed their minds and voted for the Rudd Labor government because they were sick of these harsh, extreme and unfair industrial relations laws. These were laws that did things to people like Mary and to their grandchildren.

I know that the opposition are having a pretty hard time coming to terms with this bill. They know Work Choices was unpopular. They know what it did to the Australian people, but they just cannot let it go. In the last few months the Prime Minister has told us not to listen to what they say, but to look at what they do. Fair enough, but in this debate I think we have to turn it on its head-do not look at what they do, but at what they say, because in every single speech we have seen a salute to Work Choices and a criticism of this bill.

As usual, the member for Warringah came out punching and backed Work Choices. He said that industrial relations should involve ‘a certain amount of rough-and-tumble’ that may lead to ‘a bit of hurt and bruises’. This is from the man who said earlier this year that the Howard government would be remembered as the ‘golden age of compassion’.

The member for Mackellar suggested that the Fair Work Bill was ‘downright draconian’. Speech after speech said the same thing, quoting from the same articles and reading from the same song sheet: ‘Work Choices was good,’ they said, ‘This bill is bad.’ And then they told us they were going to vote for the bill anyway. But on Monday night came the bombshell: the member for Hume told us that he was going to vote against this bill. At last, a man with the courage of his convictions; someone prepared to match their words with their actions. I say: good on him. At least he stands up for what he believes in-not cowering behind the cloak of party room debate, not voting for the bill just to get it off the front pages of the newspapers and not a wolf in sheep’s clothing. No, he revealed himself for the wolf that he truly is-for the wolves that they all are: people who believe in Work Choices. They believe in extreme industrial relations laws, writ large, because it is in their DNA. It is what the coalition believe in. If you have any doubt about what I say, let me point you to this statement:

You have to free the market to do its work and the cost of setting the clearing price-be it for labour, shares, home units or loaves of bread-be as low as possible…

This was not just any speaker in this parliament. It was not a member of the backbench, or a speech from the HR Nicholls Society, or a quote from Milton Friedman-it probably could have been-but it was the Leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Turnbull. That is what they think-they equate workers, working people like the people in the gallery today, to loaves of bread. You have got to keep the cost of workers as low as possible. This explains the genesis of the legislation we are abolishing today. It explains the genesis of Work Choices because that is what they believe in.

We know they hate this legislation. That is why they fled the chamber as soon as the Deputy Prime Minister introduced this bill. It is why, if there is a question about it in question time today, you will see everyone on the front bench bury their heads in books, ashamed to even utter the words ‘Work Choices’. This is not a debate; it is a wake-it is a lament to times past, to a fallen hero. It is like burying a member of the family. As we bury Work Choices today, rest assured that those opposite are marking the spot. If given a chance they will be right back here to dig Work Choices up and give it the Frankenstein treatment.

I will end with this, a bit of free advice for the opposition: beware of the ghost of Harvester, beware of the ghost that claimed Stanley Bruce in 1929 and beware of the ghost that claimed John Howard last year. We are a fair country, we believe in fair laws and we believe in a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Anyone who forgets that will incur the wrath of the Australian people. That is why I support the Fair Work Bill, and so do all my colleagues here, who will be voting for it today. I commend the bill to the House.