Standing up for Canberra

Speech on Fair Work Amendment (Protecting Vulnerable Workers) Bill

I commend the member for Whitlam on that speech highlighting the exploitation that has been happening to workers in his electorate. There are scores and scores of examples of people being underpaid and exploited. Who would have thought that we would still be telling these tales in 2017? We are still hearing stories right across the nation of workers being exploited by unscrupulous employers. What has the government been doing about it? Very, very little.

Before I start on my discussion of the Fair Work Amendment (Protecting Vulnerable Workers) Bill 2017, I want to remind Canberrans and those across Australia that on 2 July this year more than 13,000 Canberrans will face a pay cut as a result of the government's changes to penalty rates. There are 13,000 Canberrans facing pay cuts. They are relying on that money, they are paying their mortgages with that money, they are paying their rent with that money, they are paying their car loans with that money, they are putting food on the table with that money and they are paying for their children's school shoes and school books with that money. More than 13,000 Canberrans, as of 2 July, will face a pay cut thanks to this government.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on this bill, because Labor has fairness and workers' rights at the core of its mission. That is the Labor way. That is part of our social fabric. That is part of Labor's DNA. This bill goes some way to dealing with some of the exploitation issues that the member for Whitlam mentioned that are occurring right across the country. They are not just in his electorate; they are right across the country. They just highlight the fact that there still needs to be a lot more work done on eliminating exploitation of workers in Australia.

We are talking about 2017. The fact that these stories still exist is absolutely outrageous, particularly given the fights that have been fought by Labor for more than 100 years to get decent wages, to get decent conditions, to get an eight-hour day. Labor and the labour movement fought to get an eight-hour working day. Fights have been fought to get decent work and pay conditions for the workers throughout Australia by successive Labor governments and by the labour movement. The fact that we are having this debate on this bill and the fact that exploitation is still happening in this country are just an outrage. We as a nation should hang our heads in shame about the fact that our fellow country men and women are being exploited. That is the only word you can use when people are being asked to pay their wage back, as we heard from the member for Whitlam.

I have heard, just when going around and speaking in my electorate, about the impact of the penalty rate cuts on the community. I have been talking to people in the electorate, and they have told me not just that they are concerned about the cut in the penalty rates but also that we have people in Canberra who are being paid in cash, below the award rate, of course—being paid in cash. This seems to be a common phenomenon right across Canberra, and I am sure it is not confined to Canberra, Deputy Speaker. I am sure it is happening in your electorate. I am sure it is happening in every electorate right across the country: under-award wages being paid in cash. This seems to be a significant issue too, and I wonder what the government is going to do about that.

In the time I have, I will address a small portion of the problems as I see them—the problems and the holes—in this bill, because there are many of them, but we do not have time to cover them all. The bill does not include protections for workers against sham contracts. It does not include protections against phoenixing to avoid wage liabilities. It does not do anything to make it easier for workers to recover unclaimed wages from responsible companies, and that is a significant issue. I know that one of my constituents spoke to me about this. He ended up resigning from the company because it was all just getting too hard. He was in a daily battle, a hand-to-hand combat each day, with his employer to try to get his pay rectified, to be paid properly and to be paid back. It was just completely ignored, so he ended up resigning. What choice did he have? Also there is the question of penalty rates, which I raised at the beginning of my speech.

For years Labor has campaigned strongly to protect workers against exploitation. As I said, it goes right back to the beginning of the Labor Party. The labour movement has been working with us all these years, more than 100 years, fighting the good fight for workers, for decent wages, for decent conditions, for decent work and for safe work. As I have said many times, workers' rights did not fall from the sky. Workers' rights, the conditions, the pay and the work that we enjoy today and the safe work environments that we enjoy today are all thanks to hard-fought fights by thousands and thousands and thousands of men and women over more than 100 years. These rights did not fall from the sky. Each gain has been made through a hard-fought fight, and there are still plenty more fights that we need to undertake. The member for Whitlam highlighted the many fights that we still need to undertake as a result of the exploitation of Australian workers that is happening each and every day right throughout the country.

In 2016, Labor introduced its Rights at Work campaign, which committed to a suite of reforms to protect workers by cracking down on unscrupulous employers who exploit their staff. This bill is the government's comparative policy, but the title is where any similarity ends. The rights of vulnerable workers are not always anywhere near close to the top of the agenda for the Turnbull government in this bill. When I think about vulnerable workers and those who are really doing it tough, I think about the cleaners in this building.

I come from a working class matriarchy: three generations of cleaners. My great-grandmother was a domestic in the Western District. She cleaned the houses of the very wealthy in the Western District. Not only did she clean houses but she also did their washing, Mr Deputy Speaker. You can imagine what the washing was like in those days: it was the copper, it was boiling water. It was the stinking hot summer in the Western District, pushing all that linen down into that stinking hot water, then wringing it through, putting it on the line, pulling it off the line and then ironing it within an inch of its life and with a ton of starch. That was my great-grandmother's life. At the same time she was not only toiling in that fashion but also bringing up 13 children on her own.

Then there was my grandmother, who was also a cleaner. My grandmother left school at the age of 11 or 12 and with very limited opportunities. She cleaned three places in Melbourne: a hospital, a theatre and also a factory. Basically, she would work around the clock. She had very little time off because basically she had to put food on the table. She was a single mother, again, bringing up seven children on her own in a housing commission house in Preston.

Unfortunately, I did not meet my grandmother. She died when I was six months old, of an undiagnosed heart condition. In the fifties and sixties we did not have universal health care. Decent health care was reserved for the wealthy and she was certainly not a wealthy woman. So she had an undiagnosed heart condition and died at the very young age of 54 and had had a very hard life before that: three cleaning jobs, working around the clock to keep food on the table for her seven children.

And then there is my mother. My dad walked out on us when I was 11 and he left us with $30 in the bank—'us' being my two sisters, me and my mum. We did it very tough in my teens. In the latter part of her life, my mum went back to cleaning. She cleaned houses until she retired, again, to make ends meet and to put food on the table.

So, as I said, I have some experience in cleaning, and it is a tough job. It is a physically tough job and it does take its toll on the body. I was a cleaner when I was going to university. I cleaned the houses of the very wealthy around Canberra, in Forrest. That is what put me through university. But that was nothing like my great-grandmother had to do, toiling every day on that linen in the copper, and it was nothing like my grandmother, who did three cleaning jobs, had to do. Imagine: a factory, a theatre and a hospital!

So I really felt for those cleaners who were so shabbily treated by this government. These are the people who clean the offices of the Prime Minister and of the ministers—of all of us here who serve the people of Australia. They were treated so shabbily by this government. I met some of the women, who came in to have a chat about what the wage cuts actually meant. They were going to have a huge hit on their lives. With the cost of living going up, their wage inequality meant that every week they were having to make critical choices and decisions about how they were going to make ends meet: 'Okay, this week do I have a meal every night?' Being the daughter of a single mother I know that my mum, particularly when dad first left us with so little money in the bank, would often—every second night—go without a meal so that my sisters and I could actually have a meal. On the other nights we ate out at friends' and family's. These are the decisions in the last five years that the cleaners in this building, in this seat of democracy in the nation's capital, are still making every day as a result of the government's outrageous cuts to their pay.

I just find it absolutely gobsmacking that the government could not care about the cleaners that actually look after them and make the environment here at Parliament House a pleasant one. It just goes to show this government is completely out of touch with what the reality is for most Australians, particularly those vulnerable workers, particularly those who are doing it tough.

My colleague the member for Whitlam highlighted a number of cases that underscore the exploitation that is still taking place in Australia. We have seen many high-profile cases. We have seen media reports on it. The Illawarra Mercury did a feature. It sounds like it was an excellent feature. I do commend the Mercury for doing that piece. We have got so many examples. We have 7-Eleven stores, which were operating a business model based on methodical and systematic exploitation of vulnerable foreign workers. This model included appalling undercutting of wages and doctoring of records designed to conceal unlawful conduct. Can you believe that? They were doctoring the pay records in a deliberate, methodical, systematic attempt to exploit workers. How these people sleep at night is anyone's guess. It is absolutely appalling. And these were foreign workers. Not only were these vulnerable foreign workers methodically and systematically exploited but they were also threatened with deportation and physically intimidated if they spoke out. Can you imagine what their lives were like? Can you imagine the fear that they lived in? Not only were they trying to live on the appalling wages, trying to make ends meet in a foreign country, but they were also being intimidated and bullied by these employers. It is just appalling. Shame on those employers and shame on the government that allows these sorts of things to happen.

We have heard about 7-Eleven. We have heard about ACT school cleaners, the majority of whom were refugees from Thailand and Burma who were grossly underpaid and forced to sign contracts they did not understand. The reports are endless. There are scores and scores of stories about foreign workers being exploited, about women being exploited, about young people being exploited. This is absolutely appalling. It is a national shame that this is happening in Australia in 2017. This bill goes some way towards addressing some of these real issues but there is still plenty that needs to be addressed. We have to maintain attention on this issue. We have to maintain the rage on this issue because it is unacceptable that workers are being exploited in Australia in 2017.

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