Non-English speaking background workers the implications and consequences the coalition’s industrial, social and economic policies will have on their jobs, incomes, rights, working conditions and their families standard of living. Martin Ferguson, ACTU President
Ladies and gentlemen.
I appreciate the fact that you have come along today to hear from me, and my colleagues in the union movement, at this important time in Australian history.
The ethnic media plays a very important role in the lives of overseas born Australian workers.
Your community media, since the early 1840’s when the first community paper, a German-language paper, was established, has always played a very significant role in Australian society.
And the community media will play an important role in this election by providing the news and information your readers, your listeners, your viewers will need.
They will need you to make a crucial decision.
We have asked you along here today because one of the important decisions that will have to be made in this election is the future of our workplaces.
The union movement in this country is campaigning with a very clear and straightforward message.
We want to alert working people – and in this case particularly non-English speaking background workers-of the real implications and consequences of the coalition’s industrial, social and economic policies.
We want to warn them of the threat these policies have to their jobs, their incomes, their rights, their working conditions and their families standard of living.
Now Australian unions have played what i believe has been a particularly positive role in support of, and defence of, overseas born Australian workers.
We have a well developed and positive stance on immigration and the need to maintain the diversity of our multi-cultural society.
We have time and again proved our commitment to maintaining family reunion.
Some unions, such as FIMEE, have a remarkable reputation in this particular area of immigration.
And we have consistently argued with government for increased numbers of refugees.
Over the years we have protected overseas born workers from exploitation; from being channelled into low paid, low skilled or dangerous jobs.
Unions in this country, over the last decade, have worked hard:
- To protect the most vulnerable in our workforce, such as migrant women workers
- We have successfully fought to expand English language training on the job, without loss of pay
- We have made sure that workers are provided with a safe and healthy workplace
- And we have won maternity and parental leave, childcare places and superannuation rights for working people
Now these conditions have become an integral part of what is called our award system.
The award in Australia is a legally enforceable document guaranteeing certain standards in the workplace.
A modern award covers things like:
- Pay rates for different jobs
- The right to equal pay for men and women * maternity leave and parental leave
- Fair and flexible working hours * sick leave
- Hours of work * overtime rates
- Annual leave and leave loading
- Penalty rates for weekend work and shift work
- Breaks for meals
- Redundancy pay
This system of awards, or basic standards, means that for a newly arrived refugee, or migrant, or for the worker with limited English language skills, when they start a job in an office or factory they are protected by these legally enforceable standards.
Our award system has always provided a safety net for migrants, women, the young and part-time workers.
Awards are the safety net that ensures decent pay and working conditions for those at the bottom of the job ladder.
Members of your communities do not have to start work in this country by having to argue or re-argue, negotiate or re-negotiate all these rights and standards with their employer.
They receive what everyone else is getting in terms of wages, hours of work, maternity leave, penalty rates etc.
They receive equal treatment.
They receive this treatment because we have the award system acting as a safety net.
But that is now at risk.
If Dr Hewson were elected on march 13 nearly all of the entitlements that i listed as being in an award would be up for grabs.
The new-arrival to Australia would have to negotiate these rights for themselves.
Under a Hewson government the migrant worker, the worker with limited English language skills, would be expected to negotiate equal treatment.
Now you don’t have to be a professor of economics to figure out who will do worst under this system.
You don’t have to have Dr Hewson’s economic brains to figure out who will be exploited by this system.
Especially if the system is introduced at a time of world-wide economic recession.
Those at the bottom of the job ladder will suffer the most.
Your communities- especially the most recently arrived will suffer the brunt of the exploitation.
Along with female workers; the young and the part-time workforce.
We have already had a taste of all of this in Victoria where Jeff Kennett will abolish all awards as from next Monday.
Jeff Kennett has put an end to equal opportunity in the work place.
In Victoria people are being told – if you want a job or you want to keep your job – you’ll have to negotiate an employment contract.
And very, very few of those employment contracts can be said to be negotiated on equal terms.
More often than not it is a case of an employer telling an employee:
“you’ll sign this contract on my terms or you’ll have no job at all”.
If a worker dares suggest that they would like a union to help them out they can expect to lose their job right there and then.
Obviously not all employers will behave like that.
There are many who will behave decently and ethically.
But there are too many who will use the sad state of the international economy to behave indecently and unethically.
Just listen to the crass comments made by one of Jeff Kennett’s good friends – Peter Boyle.
He is the self-appointed spokesman for small business in Victoria.
He admitted on TV last year that he, for one, would use the Kennett legislation to cut pay and conditions.
He was asked if this was fair.
He said: ” beggars can’t be choosers”
Now i don’t believe that the majority of employers would want to put it that way.
But the facts remain.
Only this Monday, on four corners, Peter Boyle showed he was still gung-ho to take away as many of the working rights of his employees as he could possibly grab.
And if any of this employees try to insist on keeping their award standards com Monday – or whenever their current award expires – Peter Boyle will sack them.
Or to use the more genteel term Peter Boyle favoured on TV: “we’ll see a parting of the ways.”
Mr Boyle firmly told the four corners reporter that he did not believe any minimum standards should apply.
He didn’t want any minimum standards which are now legally guaranteed in awards as a safety net.
I’ll quote Peter Boyle exactly so that nobody here can be mistaken that what he wants – when the opportunity comes – is to cut away at the minimum standards.
Mr Boyle told four corners:
“nobody should be Guaranteed a minimum income, a safety net”
He said he thought the market should rule what pay and what conditions employees should be forced to accept.
Peter Boyle told the reporter: “fear is a great motivator”.
And Peter Boyle made it clear that he expects other employers to behave like him.
He expected other employers to take advantage of their employees based on the liberal’s laws.
After all, Peter Boyle boasted on four corners, he and his friends had infiltrated the liberal party to write the liberal’s hard right, aggressive industrial relations policies – both in Victoria and at a national level.
Until now Australia has prided itself on creating a socially just, decent and ethical society.
A society where other considerations ruled than just ‘who had the money power’.
That – if Dr Hewson gets elected on march 13 – will quickly disappear.
There can be no better proof of the federal liberal party’s true intentions to working people – and in this case migrant workers – than the selection of their party’s candidate for the federal seat of Melbourne ports.
On January 22, 1992, Mrs Helen Friedmann, the liberal candidate for Melbourne ports was placed on a good behaviour bond by a magistrate for underpayment of wages in respect of her employment of three migrant workers.
These workers were newly arrived in Australia – from Poland – and they spoke little english.
Three workers were newly arrived in Australia – from Poland – and they spoke little english.
Three migrant workers – Alicja Konikowski, Magdalene Wysoczawski and Irena Grazewska – outlined how they were not paid for their hours of work, not paid proper rates for overtime or their holiday pay.
Most of the issues are covered by our awards – making them legally enforceable.
Now I must point out that in the USA, the newly elected president, Bill Clinton, twice refused to appoint persons to high office because they contravened that country’s employment and tax laws when it came to migrants.
None of those people that he stood aside, as far as i am aware, had actually ever had a court case go against them.
But for the sake of decency, and in support of ethical behaviour, President Clinton told the tow candidates for the us attorney – general’s job to stand aside.
Here in Australia the liberal party is prepared to select as their candidate, for one of the most marginal seats in Victoria, a person who has been found guilty by a magistrate’s court of exploiting workers by not paying them their lawful entitlements for work performed.
In fairness Mrs Friedmann is currently appealing the magistrate’s court decision.
But the difference between president Clinton’s stance and the liberal party’s stance is stark.
When asked about this issue the liberal party president in Victoria, Michael Kroger, was reported in the Sunday Age (5/4/92) as saying that the case against Mrs Friedmann was a “minor one”.
The union movement does not believe that exploitation fo workers can ever be considered a minor issue.
Dr Hewson and his party should act just like President Clinton did.
They should tell Mrs Friedmann to stand aside as the liberal candidate for melbourne ports.
If he doen’t do the that now he is sending a signal to certain sections of the business community that it is alright to act indecently and unethically; that it is alright to break the law and exploit your workforce.
Now let me tell you just one other story about how these changes will affect your communities.
I could unfortunately tell you more.
But after my speech you might go around the room and talk to some of the other union people here who can all give you examples.
Take Sam Apap, born in Malta, he was a cleaner in one of our Victorian schools.
He had worked at that school for thirteen years.
School cleaners are at the bottom of the job ladder. They are not high income earners.
Last year Jeff Kennett told Sam – and 4000 other cleaners, many of whom are overseas born Australian workers – that if he wanted to keep his job he would, essentially, have to buy it back.
Jeff Kennett announced on Friday, November 20, last year, without any talks or negotiations he was sacking Sam and all his colleagues.
Jeff Kennett’s ministers refused to talk to Sam or his union – the LHMU.
They offered Sam, and his colleagues a choice – take it or leave it.
The cleaners, Kennett said, were to be privatised.
If they wanted to keep their job they would have to negotiate their own individual contract with their schools.
Oh, and by the way, if Sam wanted to use the cleaning equipment at the school then he would have to purchase it from the department of education.
He had committed no crime.
He wasn’t even on strike when the announcement came.
He was going about his normal job of providing a safe, health and clean place for kids to learn.
And then suddenly his job was taken – no – stolen from him.
The Kennett liberal government overnight wiped out all his award rights.
And said: ‘Sam go fend for your self’.
So the choice facing working people on march 13 is stark.
A system which provides protection, which ensures the minimum standards of wages and working hours, which provides entitlement to maternity leave, sick leave, penalty rates and superannuation.
A system which can only be characterised as dog-eat-dog where every worker has to negotiate all of their wages and working conditions.
Where essentially every worker is competing against their workmate – at the next desk, or at the next machine – just to keep a job.
Let me indicate just three other issues which i think will have a direct impact on your communities, and which further highlight the choices which confront voters in this election.
Firstly, Medicare .
Medicare is our popular universal health system. It is so good that new us administration is seriously thinking of copying it.
But he liberals want to slash away at our health system.
They would get rid of bulk-billing for almost every Australian.
They would force people to take out expensive private insurance and they would make people pay – on top of their current medicare levy – new doctor’s fees of between $10 to $22 a week.
I think this issue is so important that i have included special notes – some of them already translated into community languages – in your media kits.
The second issue i would like to highlight is – community languages.
In the past decade there has been an increasing recognition that it is to Australia’s advantage to promote and maintain the languages spoken by Australians.
The federal Government has committed over the past ear some $15 million to promoting languages other than English in Australian schools.
If the coalition were elected this commitment would be slashed to just $5 million.
And thirdly I would like to point out the GST effect on your communities.
The GST is an unfair tax burden on the poor but it will have, apart from all its other impacts, a further direct cost to the members of your communities which read and listen to your papers and radio programs.
All school books used in ethnic schools, and books used in community language courses will have the %15 GST tax applied.
Ethnic newspapers and magazines will go up – as the %15 GST tax will be charged on top of your cover price.
And membership fees to you local ethnic community clubs and organisations will cost more.
Well ladies and gentlemen thanks for giving me your time.
Thanks for giving me this opportunity to speak to you.
I have invited a number of other union officials along to help me answer any queries.
But of course i am happy to take your questions now.
Speech By Martin Ferguson, ACTU President. To Ethnic Community Media, Sydney. February 25, 1993 Embargo: 12.30pm Thursday, February 25, 1993