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Workplace Relations

Senator SIEWERT (Western Australia—Australian Greens Whip) (14:17):  My question is to Senator Evans, the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations. I refer to the fact that Fair Work Australia has recently accepted that community sector workers are underpaid on the basis of gender. The tribunal called for submissions from the parties before making a final decision and has encouraged parties to negotiate. I would like to ask: what is the government doing now to engage in a genuine, meaningful way with this process?

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Western Australia—Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:18):  I thank Senator Siewert for the question. She is right to point to the fact that the full bench of Fair Work Australia handed down a decision on the equal remuneration case for social and community services workers in May this year. It is an important milestone in the implementation of the Fair Work Act. The government has acknowledged that SACS workers are undervalued, and this has been borne out by the findings of the full bench.

The decision is the first since the government removed the historical barriers to pay equity claims in the federal jurisdictions that required an application to prove discrimination as a prerequisite to an equal pay claim. As part of that decision, Fair Work Australia have provided parties with the opportunity to provide further submissions to assist them in formulating a remedy. The government is working with key stakeholders to provide further information to Fair Work Australia to assist in determining appropriate wage rates. We have established the Community Sector Wages Group, which will see employers, unions and the federal, state and territory governments working together to assess the implications of this case. It had its first meeting on 6 June. It is chaired by my parliamentary secretary, Senator Collins, who has been very active in trying to progress these matters. We will work with community service stakeholders to ensure a sustainable and effective community services sector.

We take pride in the fact that the changes we made to the Fair Work Act have opened up this opportunity for the Australian Services Union to pursue this equal pay case. We support equal pay. That is why we made the changes to the act and that is why we provided this opportunity. We will continue to engage in the case before Fair Work Australia in a constructive and positive way to get a good outcome for community services workers.

Senator SIEWERT (Western Australia—Australian Greens Whip) (14:20):  Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister, but I will try to get a bit more detail with this question. The tribunal found that the comparable rates to be that of local government and the Public Service. These are 10 per cent to 15 per cent higher than the original claim made by the union based on the Queensland rates. Considering if ordered to pay the higher amount it could cost the government up to $2.5 billion more over four years, is the government now prepared to negotiate an acceptance of the union claim?

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Western Australia—Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:20):  I think, Senator Siewert, that Mr Bandt asked a similar question in the House of Representatives yesterday. I think the proposition is that by agreeing to the union claim we will save money as compared to the decision we will get from Fair Work Australia. That seems a very odd proposition to me. It almost implies that the union has undervalued its claim—and I do not think that is right. I think it is seeking an appropriate response to the pay inequality that exists between that sector and other like sectors based on the fact that this has been driven by the large number of women employed in the sector—where there is a predominance of women—and that their work has been undervalued. So I do not accept the premise of the question.
The government remains actively engaged in the process. We are appearing at a conciliation hearing tomorrow, where we will provide further information, and we will be making a submission, as requested by Fair Work Australia, in the next few weeks. (Time expired)

Senator SIEWERT (Western Australia—Australian Greens Whip) (14:22):  Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Minister, the reason I asked that question in this chamber was that the Prime Minister did not answer it in the other place when Mr Bandt asked it, and I still did not get a satisfactory answer. You did not tell me what you are doing to negotiate. While the community service providers of course want to pay their workers much more, they are worried about what increased wage rates will mean to the impact of the delivery of their services. How does the government intend to ensure that delivery of these vital services will continue? Does the government— (Time expired)

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Western Australia—Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:22):  Regarding the second supplementary, the answer was in my primary response. Senator Collins is chairing a group of community service providers and state governments to work through all of those issues because we understand that we do not want to have a pay rise awarded which then cuts into the service provision available in the community. We do not want that to result in fewer jobs and fewer services. So we do have to work through those issues to make sure that pay equity for SACS workers does not undermine the capacity of the sector to deliver services.
In terms of the claim that we are not negotiating, let me put this on the record. The first supplementary of yours just did not make sense. I gave you the best answer I could. But, in terms of the suggestion we are not negotiating, firstly, I met with the union last night and I met with a lot of members of the Labor Party in the last few days; secondly, we are attending the  conciliation hearing tomorrow before Fair Work Australia; and, thirdly, we are lodging the submission that was requested by Fair Work Australia in the next couple of weeks. Those processes are underway. (Time expired)

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