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Workplace Relations & Women

Speeches in Parliament
Rachel Siewert 12 Nov 2008

I would like today to address the issues of what workers are saying they need from Forward with Fairness and the change to the industrial relations laws. I want to tell the stories of workers themselves who are currently finding life very difficult under Work Choices and wondering what their working lives will be like under Forward with Fairness. These stories will illustrate the potential gaps in the Forward with Fairness policy. I say ‘potential' because as yet we have not seen the legislation, but, on the basis of the Forward with Fairness implementation plan and the minister's public statements so far, I feel a great deal of concern that in fact the proposed changes will not be meeting the needs of many Australian workers.

A few weeks ago I met with a group of migrant women workers from Sydney. They were members of the Asian Women at Work group and they came to Canberra to let us politicians know what their working lives are like, how Work Choices has made their lives much more difficult and what they need the new changes in Forward with Fairness to deliver for them to provide them with better working lives.

Asian Women at Work have in fact produced a booklet entitled Cries from the Workplace: 20 women, 20 stories. In the introduction to the booklet the Asian Women at Work Action Group states:

We are Asian women workers. We are skilled and dedicated. We work very hard but we are never treated as we deserve. Our hard working efforts are not recognised. We are bullied and harassed. Often we are not paid even the minimum wage, or our other entitlement. We want our stories to be part of the discussions and debates on a new industrial relations system in Australia. We do not want to be forgotten.

I want to read some of these stories and tell these stories to the Senate and reflect on how they can assist us in evaluating the government's proposed Forward with Fairness legislation when we come to that debate. The names used in these stories are not the real names of the women.

This is May's story:

There are 40 to 50 people in the wholesale meat factory where I work. I am a salesperson to customers in the retail room. We have a lot of bad experiences with our Manager and supervisor. They don't know how to manage and organise the work in the workplace very well. Their treatment of their workers is extremely erratic. They often abuse and swear at people without any reason.

I am very unhappy with the work environment but I have a good relationship with my workmates. I don't receive any of my entitlement from work-no overtime pay, no sick pay, no holiday pay. I do receive award wages for this industry at an hourly rate.

There are a lot of heavy items we have to carry, move and work on. Some items are over 30 kgs. It is beyond my work duties and my capability to carry that much weight. My arms, hands and back are very sore.

Nothing has changed in our workplace since Work Choices was put into practice in March 2006. But our manager often threatens people by using the word "sacking" to push workers to work harder. We always wish that the Manager and Supervisors would change their working attitude.

The overwhelming feeling from my workplace is: my physical strength is consumed all the time, we have huge pressure on us from the workload, and my mind and body are constantly stressed and tight at work as I don't know when the supervisor will pick on me in front of many clients without any reason.

Mary says:

We have to wear gloves to do our work but the company does not even provide us with gloves. They want us to buy the gloves ourselves. We normally have to buy one pair a week, as they are normally damaged after a week. It is costing us lots of money.

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.

I wish we could receive lawful wages and conditions and the boss could treat us with respect and dignity. I also wish they wouldn't take advantage of those overseas students and illegal migrants anymore. We only get 30 minutes for lunch and no tea breaks and rest breaks. We should have tea breaks and rest time. We are not machines, we can't work like robots.

Lisa worked in a sewing factory:

I worked from 7am to 7pm with an extra two hours a day for travel. I had no time for my son because of this. I quit my job and friends told me that I could bring clothing from the factory home to sew so I could still work without leaving my son alone.

From then on I became an outworker. I rented a garage with two rooms, one room for sewing and the other for my son and I to sleep on. That room was for cooking and everything else. Every day I found the jobs more difficult to complete and the low wages and long hours put a great deal of pressure on me. The maximum pay was $4 an hour with no bonuses, sick leave or holidays. I worked most of the day to survive so I had no idea of the society around me.

The Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union and the Australian Services Union are also deeply concerned about the impact of the proposed industrial relations legislative changes on women workers. They have produced a booklet entitled Untold Damage: Why women need new IR laws. The stories in this booklet cover women working in the textile industry, in call centres and at airports as check-in staff and in valet parking companies. There are stories of women workers being made to meet union representatives in the toilet area, of women being held to ransom by employers refusing to negotiate with the union for a collective agreement, and of women threatened with dismissal for insisting on their rights.

What do these stories tell us? First they tell us that what must underpin our consideration of our workplace laws is the inherent right of employees to be treated with dignity. If our framework of laws and the enforcement of those laws do not respect the dignity of work then they cannot be considered fair. These stories also highlight what workers need from Forward with Fairness. They need decent and strong minimum standards that are actually enforced. Many of the women in these stories are on award wages and conditions. The award modernisation process, as it is unfolding, is looking like reducing important conditions for many award workers.

I raised these concerns, which I believe are very real concerns, about the award modernisation process at the time the Forward with Fairness transitional bill was debated in this place. Unfortunately, my fears have been realised-the safety net is being reduced as compared to pre-Work Choices and, importantly, the ability of the safety net to effectively respond to changing community standards is threatened. Of particular concern is the proposal to require awards and agreements to contain provisions allowing for individual agreements to be entered into. These individual agreements have the potential to undermine the safety net and disadvantage workers, particularly women, who hold a large number of the jobs that are most vulnerable to the circumstances I am talking about. Workers also need comprehensive unfair dismissal protection to be urgently reinstated. The stories in these booklets demonstrate how the threat of dismissal can be a powerful means of employers bullying and harassing workers, leading to exploitation. The Greens believe the government's proposals do not go far enough in providing appropriate protection.

The genuine rights of unions to enter workplaces to talk to workers must also be restored. It is an unacceptable breach of workers' right to freedom of association to allow employers to dictate where union meetings can take place. To make women meet in a toilet area is embarrassing, unacceptable and humiliating and is a direct attack on their dignity. Unions have a vital role to play in ensuring that workers are not exploited, that they are receiving their legal entitlements and in representing workers in bargaining, but also in the resolution of other workplace disputes. I expect an ALP government to acknowledge and support the role of unions in our democratic society.

Underpinning a fair industrial relations system must be an effective dispute resolution process. Under Work Choices, we are witnessing workers being bullied by employers refusing to bargain with unions. Whether it is the women I have been talking about who are represented in the booklets, whether it is Telstra workers or workers in the mining industry, employers should not have the ability to refuse to reach agreement with a union without any last resort to arbitration. There also needs to be effective dispute resolution for other workplace disputes.

Giving up on arbitration is not moving us forward. In fact, the government's apparent intention to remove arbitration tells us that rather than abolishing Work Choices it is keeping the fundamental changes Work Choices made. As we keep saying, ‘Work Choices Lite.'

In moving forward, we need to listen to the stories of women like May, Lisa, and Mary. As the Asian Women at Work say in the introduction to Cries from the Workplace:

We didn't believe exploitation could happen in Australia. We never expected this to be a part of our ‘new life' here until we experienced it ourselves. We feel like third class citizens. For a long time we have felt like we are not important and we are ignored.

I hope this place and the new legislation do not ignore the voices of these women and other women and other workers throughout Australia in the upcoming debate on workplace laws.

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