Tuesday 5 September
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (13:15): The Fair Work Amendment (Repeal of 4 Yearly Reviews and Other Measures) Bill 2017 is supposedly about consolidating minimum safety nets. That sounds promising, because there is so much work to be done as workers' wages and conditions have been run down over many years. You would expect the bill to be about minimum safety standards and that it would have some teeth, but the teeth are certainly missing here. You'd expect it to have teeth on issues of job security, reducing casualisation and establishing minimum wages and conditions for all workers. And there is also the very important issue of the right of workers to strike, which is recognised internationally as a human right. I will come back to that.
Industrial relations in this country are out of kilter to the point that it's not just damaging wages of workers and their conditions at work but actually damaging the economy. That is shown in the low wages growth. We have the Governor of the Reserve Bank talking about the very fact of low wages growth. He's talking about it in the context of the economy.
That surely should be a wake-up call to this government, but, as we know, this government introduced these industrial relations laws to beat down unions. It's not even about a fair balance. I think a fair balance would be about looking at the redistribution of wealth that's needed in this country, considering the millions and often billions of dollars in profit these companies make when there are so many workers—increasing numbers of workers—who are casualised, meaning they don't get any conditions. They don't have holiday pay. They're deprived of so many other conditions. There's all this evidence that's coming forward about penalty rates. Many of them don't get paid their penalty rates. Even when they try to get them—and I heard Senator Marshall not in his speech today but yesterday or a couple of days ago, and he made the remark and really spelt it out clearly. It is about when workers become aware the penalty rates are owed. The very business model of these companies is based on this. They know some workers will apply for their penalty rates and most of the workers won't get it, because they will give up because the whole system is so complicated. It shouldn't be like that. Companies should be obliged to follow the conditions that are set out.
So we come to this deeply minimalist bill. To repeat: industrial relations are so out of kilter in this country. It's deeply loaded against workers. There are so many hoops that they have to jump through when it comes to the negotiations. Effectively, the companies hold all the cards. Do they negotiate at all? If they do, under what circumstances? This is what we need to face here: the Fair Work Act is about curtailing workers' ability to organise.
So now we start to unravel the sorts of issues that should be dealt with if the government were sincere about bringing forward some real safety nets in terms of wages and conditions. Central to the problem are these extreme limits on the right to strike. In a country like Australia, where the right to strike has been so obliterated by how workers are able to conduct themselves, it's again worth remembering what the international situation is and why it has been so wound back in Australia.
The right to strike is recognised by the United Nations body the International Labour Organization. That same body has given many warnings to Australia about how, and to what degree, our industrial relations laws are out of step with international standards. And why does this international body recognise the right to strike as a human right? Because they recognise the imbalance in relationships here. If you are a CEO working for a corporation, if you have some level of management there, if you've got a big fancy office in a big building at the top end of town, you have all the power. The Turnbull government and successive Liberal-National governments over the years, at a state and federal level, have brought in industrial relations laws that make it much easier for these companies to get away with ripping off workers. And we're at a point now where it's disastrous for the individual who doesn't get paid a fair wage. The company is not obliged to follow the laws. And it's disastrous for the economy. So that's why we need to inject this issue of the right to strike back into how industrial relations is conducted in this country.
Over the years we've seen incredible hysteria from the media and from politicians saying that this is absolutely irresponsible and will destroy the economy. It doesn't destroy the economy. If a company knows that it has to give a fair wage to the workers, time and again you will see that these negotiations can proceed, the economy works and the workers get a fair wage. But under the current system the companies get away with it. The right to strike is just about obliterated from laws in Australia, and inequality in this country is growing.
It would probably surprise a number of members in this place that, believe it or not, in the United States and Britain the right to strike has more prominence than it has in this country. It's much easier for workers to collectively organise. That's what we're talking about here. How did the right to strike come about? At the end of the day the only power workers had was to collectively organise and periodically remove their work from their employer. All they could do was withdraw what they give to the boss—that is, their work. Why did that do that? So they could get a living wage and decent conditions.
We can see that the laws have gone too far in this country. We need to repeat time and time again how amazing it is that the Governor of the Reserve Bank has taken up this issue of wage stagnation in this country. 'Wage stagnation' is a nice economic term that we read about in the business pages of the papers. But it's also talking about wage theft. That has to come into this. Wage theft is extreme in this country. I've had the opportunity to sit in on some Senate inquiries and it is extraordinary to hear about the degree of robbery, the loss of wages, from some of the most disadvantaged workers in this country, who have little ability to organise. It's inspiring to hear of their experiences on the job: under very difficult conditions they've come together, they've organised and they're fighting back.
Let's remember that this bill is about addressing minimum safety standards. Yes, there is a real urgency there. I think it's worth reminding ourselves of the sorts of measures that should be taken up if we want to talk about the minimum safety net. My colleague the Greens industrial relations spokesperson in the House of Representatives, Adam Bandt, summed this up well when he spoke on this bill in the House. He said:
There is a suite of amendments that could be made to the Fair Work Act to actually improve job security, minimum wages and conditions and the right to organise and to bargain for the people of this country, and the government is turning a blind eye to that.
That sums up what's before us now. There are some measures in this bill that you wouldn't argue against, but it's absolutely minimalist in terms of the incredibly serious situation we now find ourselves in.
I will just deal with some of the issues in the bill. With respect to the bill's narrow approach to a minimum safety net of terms and conditions, yes, we need a simple, plain English modern award system that works to reduce the unnecessary overlap of modern awards. We're not disputing that. Four-yearly reviews have been one of the mechanisms to achieve this. I can see the argument for a minimalist approach, and the government has put the case, but one of our worries is: does removing the four-yearly reviews lead to unintended consequences? That's a real issue here. Are we losing one of the few mechanisms that there are to handle this?
I want to go back to the big picture I've been covering in this speech to the Senate today, about the imbalance between workers and corporate Australia. Again, remember the profits that these companies have and the power that they have, with the backup of the law and the state. It is extreme. It makes it so hard. That's why we need to put back on the agenda the right to strike. Australia is in a shameful position of having ignored that human right for so long and ignored the warnings from the ILO, the International Labour Organization. Why do we have record profits and low wage growth? How have we arrived at that situation? It's because there is a deeply flawed industrial relations system in this country. That's why I want to pull those issues together and bring them into focus with regard to this bill.
The government make out that they're doing something. How many IR bills have we had in recent weeks in this chamber? They come up with their fancy titles for bills about protecting vulnerable workers. It's all a sham. They are continuing to work for their constituency, corporate Australia, to make it even tougher for workers in this country. It will change. I'm always an optimist. The people will organise and fight back, but in the meantime people are doing it tough. They're suffering, and it sits at the feet of this government.