The Union Movement has played a crucial role in shaping workplace change for all Australian workers says Jennie George, ACTU President.

Ladies and Gentlemen,


I am pleased to address the Productive Diversity Network and applaud the collaborative partnership of the respective organisations which have established and are part of the Network.


Workplace diversity is one of the major challenges that the Union Movement faces as we move into the next millennium.


The Australian workforce is a reflection of our culturally diverse community. As Australia becomes more integrated into the global market, we need to harness, now more than ever, – the diverse skills of our workforce.


It has often been said that if you have no history, you have no future. The history of the labour movement is based on working together and developing partnerships, to achieve fair and equitable working conditions for all Australians.


The union movement has an important role to play in promoting and embracing the skills of our Non English Speaking Background workers, as we face our future in an increasingly global market.


I want to focus this afternoon on how the Union Movement has played a crucial role in shaping workplace change for all Australian workers.


Particularly for those workers who have been disadvantaged, discriminated or marginalised because of differences. But it is these differences that have made Australia a unique society contributing enormously to the economy and our culture.


Unions have always had a key role in ensuring that workers are provided with appropriate wages and conditions, as set out in awards and enterprise agreements.


But much more than this, Unions have taken the initiative to make sure that workplaces are free from discrimination, sexual harassment and racism. There is still much that needs to be done.


I have been very encouraged this afternoon, to hear how Neville Roach and Carl Ginger have embraced the benefits that flow from utilising the skills that Non-English Speaking Background workers bring to their organisations.


There has been a major shift in the role of our migrant contribution to Australia’s economic, social and cultural well-being.


Gone is the era when Australia was only interested in migrants who could fill a shortage in manual labour – working for low wages in the jobs that nobody else wanted.


While not everyone has moved on from this narrow view of the role of migrant labour, the significance of today’s immigrants extends well beyond a source of cheap labour. Increasingly, Australia’s employers are embracing the skills that a diverse cultural perspective has to offer.


The value of our Non-English Speaking Background workers in being able to communicate with a culturally diverse domestic economy, and more importantly provide unique insights for growing our export economy, is only now becoming evident.


The role of the Union movement in promoting productive diversity has been highly significant. It was the Unions that prompted the previous Federal Government to embark on the process of award restructuring. It was out of this process that the value of diversity was realised.


Award restructuring is ultimately concerned with changing organisational culture. It achieved this through the introduction of skill based classifications, multi skilling, job redesign and removing impediments to more broadly defined tasks in the workplace.


The Union movement took this opportunity to highlight the need for training, especially in the area of literacy, language, and numeracy skills.


The major barrier for so many migrants in the past was the lack of effective English language communications skills. We insisted that awards adequately reflected the need for these skills to be developed.


The Union movement and the former Federal Government made a further contribution to embracing of productive diversity through the Enterprise Bargaining process.


Enterprise bargaining and award restructuring allowed the Union movement the scope to promote the use of workers skills, differences and insights to benefit both the employer and the employee.


Let me cite some examples:


The CFMEU and Aspect Packaging Agreement of 1995 states: “The improvement of English Language Literacy and Numeracy skills is directly related to the success of industry, workplace and training reforms … enabling all workers to fully participate in training and enabling workers to be fully involved in all workplace activities and consultative processes”.


Another example is the Australian Mint Agreement of 1995, which includes a specific recognition of “the diversity of cultures … with over 24 nationalities represented” and an agreement to commit to “diversity awareness training”.


The integrated and collaborative processes referred to in these agreements benefit workers from Non-English Speaking Backgrounds. It becomes easier to progress to higher grades and better wages improve communication and increase occupational health and safety standards. Improved job satisfaction, leads to higher productivity, greater efficiency and higher workforce retention rates.


While the Union movement has strongly pushed for English Language and Literacy training, it has also sought to utilise the native language resources of Non-English Speaking Background workers, through the development of Language Allowance Schemes.


These schemes have been developed in the public sector, banking, hospitality and tourism industries. Two examples of this initiative are the NSW Public Service’s Community Language Allowance Scheme and the Federal Municipal Employee’s Union Local Government Skills Based Award. Both these schemes pay an allowance to workers who use their language and linguistic skills to communicate more effectively with the community.


The NSW Community Language Allowance Scheme was developed in consultation with the Public Service Association and other associated unions. It states that “if the NSW public sector is to become more responsive to the needs of clients, it must realise the benefits of cultural diversity”.


We believe that these schemes are one of the most significant outcomes of productive diversity, and I hope to see Unions and employers work together to implement them in other industries in the near future.


An important aspect of harnessing diversity is the need to reflect a better cultural understanding in the workplace. Many of the problems workers from a Non-English speaking background have faced, stem from employers failing to recognise important religious and cultural events.


As part of the award restructuring process, many unions have sought to include provisions for Cultural and Ceremonial Leave in their agreements. One such agreement is the ASU/Community Enterprise Network Co-Operative Ltd. Agreement 1996. This agreement to their cultural and social needs”.


Such a collaborative approach promotes recognition and acceptance between parties. Further, it allows increased flexibility by allowing NESB workers to select the holidays appropriate to their needs, and working on other occasions, which have little significance to their cultural background.


Another issue that Unions have been working on for the past few years is that of the recognition of overseas qualifications and skills. This has proved to be a major hurdle in embracing diversity, and forced many NESB workers from professional and trade backgrounds to take jobs far below their skill level. This is a major loss to Australian industry, at a time when we need to compete effectively.


We have seen many people under-employed, losing self-confidence and job satisfaction, which results in a further loss of the benefits of their diverse perspectives.


I hope that through continued constructive engagement between government, business and the unions, this is a problem that can be resolved.


While the Union experience of workplace diversity has produced many benefits, there are a number of challenges that face us.


Arguably the key challenge is to ensure that workers from Non-English Speaking Backgrounds are adequately represented in Unions, and that their diversity is recognised and utilised within their Union.


The Union Movement is committed to the principles of fairness and equity. To this end, we believe that it is our responsibility to ensure that workers from a NESB are give the same opportunities for career development and job satisfaction. This can only be achieved if the Union movement can recruit, communicate with and deliver results for NESB workers.


To achieve this, we need to employ the very principles of productive diversity within the Union movement – by employing NESB organisers, electing NESB delegates, increasing cross-cultural training and by utilising multi-lingual communications.


One union that has done this is the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia, which has a membership made up of 87% women workers, of whom 70% are from an NESB. The TCFU has identified communication priorities and allocation union resources to these workers. Information about Unions services, workers rights, award provisions and restructuring is provided through bi-lingual organisers and materials translated into the appropriate languages. The Union also encourages the participation of these workers on Workplace Consultative Committees.


The Labor Council of NSW have been working in partnership with the NSW Department of Education and Training in developing and implementing innovative strategies to increase the awareness of workplace diversity, and improve the job opportunities of workers from NESB.


This project has identified major diversity issues and developed pro active strategies such as cultural awareness training, information courses, a Productive Diversity kit for unions and establishing joint partnerships.


The future for Australian workers and enterprises is bright if we can build workplaces that recognise, value and utilise the benefits that other languages, cultural insights and perspectives provide.


As I have outlined, this means that we must adopt a collaborative approach that includes employers, employees, government, unions and the community. The current Federal industrial relations regime does not promote collaboration. Rather individual bargaining and contracts of employment engender a culture of fear and insecurity.


Diversity is the essence of the modern workforce. Harnessing its benefits and recognising differences will provide Australian business and Australian workers with a major advantage in the new global economy.


Rejecting difference and remaining ignorant of its benefits can only signal continued discrimination, marginalisation and ultimately dispute in the workplace.


Therefore, I commend the partnership of all the organisations involved in this network and wish you well into the future.


Address by ACTU President Jennie George to the Productive Diversity Network, Wentworth Hotel, Sydney. Tuesday 7th April, 1998.