Speeches

"Ensuring Integrity" - Speech to Parliament

August 03, 2019

I rise today to speak to the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill 2019. It's not the first time I've had to point out a completely Orwellian misnomer in the title of a bill. Last week, I spoke to the Migration Amendment (Repairing Medical Transfers) Bill. That is a complete misnomer, because repairs are absolutely not needed. The name of that bill, like this one, is totally misleading. This bill is about ensuring 'integrity'. This government does not know the meaning of that word. This is nothing but a union-bashing bill that will not improve the lives of workers who desperately need their unions.

I take personal umbrage and offence at the title of this bill—let alone the content. For all my working life, I was a union member. The day I started nursing, I joined the Australian Nursing Federation. I was part of the legendary 50-day strike in Victoria that resulted in massive improvements for nurses: career structures, with pay rises; recognition of qualifications, with remuneration; and access to paid leave for education to upskill, which also led to better pay. That industrial action change the lives of nurses for the better. But if this legislation had been in place the government of the day might have deemed that action irresponsible, or outright unacceptable, and applied to have the union deregistered.

I was president of the Victorian branch when we fought in Victoria for nurse-patient ratios. We took industrial action, some of which was unprotected. Yes, we broke the law. Nurses in Victoria were prepared to go to any lengths to fix a health system that had been decimated by Jeff Kennett and his government. We had to deal with ridiculous workloads due to the shortage of nurses, which of course resulted in a drop in the quality of care. We simply could not deliver the care our patients required and needed. We won that battle, and nurse-to-patient ratios were implemented. My goodness, the impact of the ratios on the working lives of nurses and the quality of care is immeasurable. Those ratios are now law in Victoria.

Some would say our actions were reckless. Some of those in positions of power might not have understood the power of good that the unions' actions did. Some, like this government, might have deemed those actions worthy of punishment and, with the powers this legislation gives the minister and others, it could have led to the ANMF being deregistered. The Attorney-General denies this, but it is true. In fact, to think of it: perhaps the Attorney-General doth protest too much. With none of these important gains we made for nurses and the broader community, where would we be now? This law would have made those outcomes almost impossible to achieve and we would all be so much worse off. Unions do a power of good.

I was elected as an assistant federal secretary of the ANMF and then federal secretary, a position I was so proud to hold. At a national level, we fought to save Medicare and we saw the creation of nurse practitioners, a valuable addition to the healthcare workforce. We worked on health reform with the excellent Nicola Roxon, when she was health minister. We oversaw the establishment of AHPRA. We produced competency standards for nurses and worked really hard to make sure our health system was the best it could be and to ensure our members who elected me had a voice in every part of the health system and the health reform process.

But do you know what? Not everybody was happy with the outcomes. The AMA argued vehemently against nurse practitioners getting prescribing rights, but we campaigned and lobbied heavily for them. Imagine if the AMA could make a case to have the nurses union deregistered because they had a vested interest in prescribing rights for themselves. A sympathetic minister or judge might just agree. That's what could happen under this dreadful bill.

The nurses union is the largest in Australia, with 250,000 members. They elect their leaders and demand outcomes and representation. If they don't deliver, the members turf them out at the next election. That is democratically their right. Like freedom of the press, the freedom of workers to associate and form unions to bargain collectively is enshrined in international law. It must be done without the state interfering. This legislation inserts the state into that process, destroying that freedom. As Senator Ayres said in his excellent first speech last night, everyday people must be able to engage in our democracy. Undermining unions undermines our democracy.

In fact as I mentioned in my previous examples, this goes further. This bill allows interested parties to make an application for deregistration. In an article by Ewin Hannan of The Australian just last week we heard of an employer, Gerry Hanssen, fined $62,000 after a court found his blind hatred of the CFMMEU resulted in unlawful behaviour towards union officials. Under this law and this government, with their hatred of unions, someone like Mr Hanssen could be able to make applications to have the union deregistered. If someone like George Calombaris had discovered the union was investigating underpayment of his employees, he too could have applied to have the union deregistered before they did their work. This legislation is dreadful. It is far more extensive and extreme in the regulation of unions than what exists for businesses or even politicians.

We've recently asked serious questions about the ethical behaviour of ex-politicians Christopher Pyne and Julie Bishop. We think the Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction has some serious questions to answer. Maybe the PM should be ensuring the integrity of his own side before launching into bashing hardworking union members. We are still yet to see legislation presented to this parliament with respect to the egregious behaviour of banks—talk about needing to ensure integrity! Where is the effort to ensure the integrity of banks in the wake of the most damning royal commission in recent times? My own family fell victim to one of the most outrageous banking rorts. It has come to light in the last month or so that a financial institution continued to charge my father-in-law for financial advice after he had died. If the government want to ensure integrity then how about some legislation to fix the banking sector's lack of it?

Right now, there are thousands of workers being ripped off by their bosses, having their wages stolen. It is impossible to know how many. It is impossible to know the dollar amount of that theft. I know many employers do the right thing, and they are being unfairly disadvantaged by the dodgy ones. We owe it to the workers and to the good employers to ensure integrity in the workplace. Where is the legislation or government action to crack down on wage theft? There's none. They do not care about the workers—not one iota. These laws will mean that unethical employers get a free kick. In fact, the only people who would benefit from these laws are the Morrison government and unethical employers. If these laws applied equally to corporations, we would see banks, multinational pizza chains and restaurants of celebrity chefs all close down for repeatedly breaking workplace laws and their top executives sacked. Outrageous, you might say. Well, if that's outrageous for employers and multinationals, then it is equally outrageous for unions.

If this government cared about ensuring integrity in the workplace, how about tackling the issue of worker exploitation, which is rampant, especially among our migrant workforce, who are so very vulnerable. Recently, the National Union of Workers drew together a report on the exploitation of workers in the agricultural sector. The results are alarming. Farms are a big part of Australian life. We know that they are struggling at the moment, and this parliament has resolved to help. But what of the workers that pick, pack and protect farmers' produce? They deserve our help too. If we are serious about ensuring integrity for workers in this country we must help those exploited workers.

The vast majority of people who work on Australian farms are migrant workers from south-east Asian and Pacific nations. They are not bronzed Aussie kids or European backpackers. They live and work on a patchwork of precarious and unequal visas that separate workers by race and ethnicity. Many of them are undocumented. Those workers often face appalling working conditions that few, if any, other Australian workers are expected to face. They make as little as $4.80 per hour cash in hand with no tax or super. They are employed day to day with no job security by dodgy, unlicensed subcontractors. The NUW report found that they live in appalling, crowded conditions; work in extremes of weather; are subject to dangerous working conditions; often have no access to breaks, toilets, shade or even drinking water; and women are sometimes sexually harassed or isolated. It sounds like the slave based industries of the southern US before the Civil War but it is here in Australia right now.

The NUW surveyed 655 farmworkers and here is what they found. They found that $14.80 per hour before tax is the average wage of farm workers, $9 below the minimum wage. As I said, some earned as little as $4.80 per hour. They also found that 68 per cent of workers surveyed worked for a cash contractor or subcontractor; 33 per cent of workers reported holding a valid visa; and 57 per cent of workers work at a farm that supplies Coles and Woolworths. That's as far from ensuring integrity as one can get. It is the union that is bringing this to our notice, raising the workers' voices. They don't ask for much; ensuring integrity in the agricultural sector is not hard. They want fair wages. Every farm worker needs at least $24.36 an hour, with no more piece rates. They need visa justice with a fair visa system that gives migrant farm workers, dignity, security and safety. They want secure jobs, with no more cash contracting—direct, reliable, on-the-books jobs—and freedom of association. Migrant workers need union rights like any other worker. None of those things are on this government's agenda. They are on the unions' agenda and they are on the workers' agenda. Freedom of association might be on the government's agenda but only to totally put it at risk.

What of the biggest threat to our economy right now—stagnant wages? The RBA governor has been desperate to get wages rising again. At least he stopped telling workers to just ask for a pay rise. Who can just walk up and ask for one? The gig economy worker, who will definitely find herself without a gig? The casual worker, who knows anytime she puts her head up she'll lose shifts? The short-term contractor, who is desperate to get that next six-month contract? The cleaner, who has no bargaining power because of the fragmented nature of her industry? I could go on and on; none of them have the power to just roll up and ask for a pay rise.

We all know that the best bet for getting a pay rise is to join a union. That is why this government hates unions. They don't want workers to get pay rises. We saw in The Guardian this week an excellent missive on why they want to keep wages low. The Minister for Finance himself has said on national television that it was a deliberate strategy of the government to keep wages depressed. Of course they want unions out of the picture; they always have.

Enter this bill, and many others they keep putting up to bash unions about and to get rid of them. Who is the government to assert that they and big business should have a say in union amalgamations? It is the members who decide the structure of their unions. No union amalgamation can be against the public interest. It's a nonsense! How could ensuring the economic viability and increasing the bargaining power of the union be against the public interest? Union members are the public; they have a right to determine their own union's future. Again, this is the government trying to hold back the rights of workers to improve conditions. Why? To protect the profits of their mates in big business.

We just have to look at the creation of the Registered Organisations Commission. If it weren't so heinous I reckon it would be a joke—the very so-called independent body that implemented a dodgy strategy for the government against the AWU, orchestrating a media circus around completely unnecessary and unwarranted raids on the union offices, all in the name of trying to make the then minister for IR look good. Well, she sure as goodness did not look good! It was a complete farce, and this bill gives that organisation, the ROC, even more power.

Talk about integrity! How about this government putting integrity into its IR system and getting rid of the ROC? Workers in this country deserve to be protected. They deserve the right to join their unions and they deserve the right for their unions to act under their own democratic structures.

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