If the Government and Patrick get away with sacking 2000 waterside workers then no Australian worker has any job security argues Jennie George, ACTU President.

I was originally asked to speak about “Women, Power and Politics” to which I have added – given the current power play that is occurring – “And The Waterfront Dispute”.


Because these topics are interlinked as I am sure you are all fully aware.


Briefly I would like to mention my wholehearted support for Emily’s List and the cause of getting more women into Parliament.


I understand that there are seven Emily’s List candidates standing in Queensland in the forthcoming election.


This follows the 1997 South Australian election at which six Emily’s List endorsed candidates were elected to State Parliament bringing the Labor Party close to victory in that election.


So Emily’s List is getting the runs on the board ~ or rather, women into seats where it matters.


I hope, and trust that here in Queensland you will actually get over the line and win Government with a record number of women MP’s.


However, having seen the current Federal Government elected already with such a record in terms of women MP’s, we all know the next issue is ~ for what purpose do we seek more women in power.


The answer that I am sure we all agree on is to ensure that Parliament is more responsive to the needs of women.


Sadly, we have not seen that with the current Federal Government.


Anne Summers gave a very powerful speech in June 1997 as part of the 1997 ACTU Whitlam Lecture Series in which she detailed the dismantling of many of the great policy and institutional breakthroughs Australian women achieved under previous Labor Governments – the Whitlam, Hawke and Keating Governments.


Her speech was pessimistically entitled “Back To The Future”.


She described how the women’s policy advice mechanisms which were initially introduced by the Whitlam Government and the women’s services which were initially funded under Whitlam, all of which were continued and expanded by subsequent governments have been systematically wound back under Howard.


Anne gave as examples of cut backs in women’s services under the Howard Government:



  • reduced in funding to family planning agencies;




  • banning of the “abortion drug” – RU-486;




  • amending the Sex Discrimination Act to give only married women access to fertility programmes;




  • slashing childcare subsidies;




  • reduced funding for OSW with staffing going from 50 to 21;




  • a greatly reduced programme of grants to women’s organisations;




  • OSW being prevented from attending all international meetings;




  • abolition of the Register of Women and Women’s Budget Papers;




  • changes to the powers of the Sex Discrimination Commissioner;




  • less stringent compliance requirements for Affirmative Action reports;




  • abolition of the Women’s Statistics Unit in the Australian Bureau of Statistics.



As Anne said, in a political environment where issues such as Wik are dominant:


“None of this is the stuff of headlines. Individually many of the changes might seem technical and even trivial. But the cumulative effect is likely to be devastating.”


She worried:


“that we will wake up one day in the not too distant future and find our rights rolled back, our programmes eviscerated and the policy watch dogs gone or muzzled.”


Even Liberal women such as Dame Beryl Beaurepaire are warning that:


“younger women have got to watch that the freedoms their mothers and grandmothers won for them don’t get lost.” (The Age, Good Weekend, 8 March 1998)


Jenny Macklin, the Shadow Minister for Social Security, the Aged and Family Services, has also drawn attention to the impact on women of other changes such as:-



  • cuts to legal aid;




  • nursing home charges and reduced quality of nursing care;




  • changes to the Higher Education Contribution Scheme;




  • different charging arrangements for different university courses;




  • changes to superannuation.



Jenny has also highlighted the impact on women of the changes the Howard Government has made to our industrial system and I will return to those changes in a moment.


Taken together, Jenny sees all of these policy decisions as having the following outcome.


“Many women will have no option but to return to their homes. Their working hours and conditions will be so uncertain and unsatisfactory, their levels of pay so low and the costs of working so high that they will have little choice. They will be unable to afford higher education and will be expected to increase their contribution to the care of old, frail or sick relatives. In the home they will be more vulnerable to poverty and domestic violence and have fewer opportunities to contribute to the wider society.”


It is of great concern to me as President of the ACTU that we are seeing effectively the dismantling of the social wage elements which were put in place as part of the Accords entered into between the ACTU and successive Labor Governments. This social wage was of immense importance for women.


I am proud that childcare was one of the key claims on a Labor Government by the ACTU and that as a result we saw both an expansion in places and increases in assistance to parents under Labor in government. It is a tragedy that this is now being wound back by the Howard Government.


As we all work to see the return of Labor Governments at both state and federal level, we must commit ourselves to ensuring that these issues are placed at the top of the political agenda and that we win back these entitlements.


It is only by making and winning these concrete claims that are of real benefit to women that we truly take our place in the portals of power. That is why winning parliamentary representation is important. We don’t want to be there and do nothing. Or worse ~ be there and participate in decisions that will have a detrimental impact on women.


Which brings me to the waterfront dispute and its relevance for women workers.


Let me be very clear about this – and I ask you to take this message out into your local communities and to your electorates – if the Government and Patrick get away with sacking the 2000 waterside workers in the way they have attempted ~ no Australian worker has any job security. And in particular women workers, already in a vulnerable position in the workforce will be in an even more vulnerable position.


The ACTU has had legal advice which states that if the business arrangements made by Patrick “were to become prevalent” they would “represent a fundamental threat to the job security of Australian workers generally.”


This is because of the secrecy involved in the Company’s manoeuvring which effectively prevented the union going to the IRC in advance and having an independent umpire assist the parties.


The Company also rearranged its internal structures.


The shonky business arrangements entered into by Patrick include:



  • turning the subsidiary companies employing the workers into labour hire companies;




  • with a contract which permitted the major company to cancel the labour hire agreement so as to in effect sack the workforce (this insulates the major company from claims such as unlawful dismissal or award breaches);




  • stripping the companies employing the workers of all assets (this means that these companies cannot meet redundancies and other obligations).



Our lawyers have said “In our opinion the existing legal protections are not adequate to provide proper redress for workers confronted with arrangements of the kind described.”


All fair-minded Australians were horrified at the manner in which the Patrick’s workforce was sacked.


The way the sackings were implemented was extraordinary and certainly a change from normal corporate behaviour.


We saw crane drivers being pulled out of their machines in mid shift and surrounded by savage dogs and security guards.


It was a shameful act and horrified most Australians.


Whilst many may think that this could not happen to them in this way endorsement of this type of behaviour gives a green light to a more intimidatory and less respectful working environment for all workers. It is also absolutely clear, as our lawyers have said, that many workers could be subject to the type of company reorganisation that had been undertaken by Patrick in September 1997. And which I have referred to. This ensured that its employees were employed by subsidiary companies that were at the time of the sackings insolvent.


This means that the workers, having been sacked in this extreme way, were also left without anywhere to go for their legal entitlements.


As women workers in the textile, clothing and footwear industries have seen, similar company arrangements can easily be entered into in a wide range of industries.


Women are already wearing the brunt of less secure employment in terms of part-time and casual work and short-term contracts. Privatisation of services and competitive tendering have seen women being forced to take lesser conditions to keep their jobs. In this increasingly uncertain world, allowing companies to change their structures to avoid paying legal entitlements will add another device which can be used to keep workers in line.


Nurses, sales assistants, secretaries ~ all women’s employment security is at risk if these arrangements are found to be both legal and moral.


Frank Costigan, QC, in the Melbourne Age on Thursday 23 April 1998 has compared Patrick’s behaviour to the bottom of the harbour schemes which he helped to expose in the 1980’s. He wrote:


“The behaviour of Patrick in relation to its reorganisation of its corporate structure deserves the strongest condemnation.


Whatever the courts may decide about the legality of such conduct it is, in my view, as unacceptable for a company to shift assets around between subsidiaries, and to strip assets from those particular subsidiaries which are likely to be faced with claims from employees and creditors, as it was for companies to bury their assets in the harbour to avoid the payment of tax.


It is a matter of great concern that the tools of financial and corporate reorganisation are used to put at risk the legitimate claims of creditors and employees.


It is almost beyond belief that such endeavours attracted the applause of the Government.”


I am hopeful that our Australian community will not accept this form of corporate thuggery.


The early signs are encouraging.


It is pleasing to see that the Federal Court has ordered the reinstatement of those workers.


It is also pleasing to see the attitude of the community as measured in the opinion polls which indicates a widespread concern about this sort of corporate behaviour and the Government’s involvement in it.


I think this community concern reflects a general concern about how workers are being treated under the Workplace Relations Act.


It is this Act which has reduced the role of the Industrial Relations Commission.


It is this Act which has seen the introduction of individual workplace contracts ~ AWA’s ~ which allow employers to force less favourable conditions on workers. Especially in relation to hours or work, rostering arrangements and penalty rates. All critical issues for women.


It is this Act under which this Government is seeking to have the award system wound back to be the most basic of safety nets. The award system which has, more than anything else, protected the position of women in the workforce.


According to Jenny Macklin speaking to the 8th National Women’s Conference in April 1997, the risks to women workers inherent in this changed industrial relations framework:


“do not seem to have been appreciated by the new Liberal women backbenchers. During debate on the Workplace Relations Bill they were fulsome in their praise, emphasising the value of the new flexible arrangements for women.”


That is one of the disheartening aspects of this legislation. On the other hand, it was thanks to a campaign by women’s organisations alongside trade unions that saw some of the worst elements of that Act ameliorated in the amendments ultimately passed in the Senate.


In conclusion, let me once again reiterate that we need more women in positions of power in our community especially in Parliament.


Emily’s List is to be congratulated on the assistance it is giving to women in that process.


But we need women in power to act on behalf of women and promote policy issues that are of real concern to women and of real benefit to women in the community.


I hope that all of you who are Parliamentary representative and candidates here tonight are able to effectively promote these causes over the years ahead.


Address By Jennie George, ACTU President. Emily’s List Dinner. 30 April 1998