Speech to Parliament: Fair Entitlements Guarantee Bill

I am opposed to the passage of this bill quite simply because it is unfair. It impacts on vulnerable employees and it cuts community standards of entitlement in the case of redundancy payments, payments for unpaid annual leave, unpaid wages, unpaid superannuation in the case of a company or an employer going broke—becoming bankrupt or having a company liquidated. It unfairly impacts on the most vulnerable in our community. The bill should not pass in the form that it is in.

Some years ago I represented a greenkeeper who worked for a local bowling club. This particular greenkeeper had worked for this club diligently for 18 years. He had done his apprenticeship with the club. He had spent basically all his working life as a dedicated and loyal employee of the local bowling club. He found out that the club was in financial trouble and eventually the club was liquidated. Of course, then it was discovered that the club had some big debts—and, naturally, under Australian law, the principal creditors were the banks! So the banks took most of the money.

There was very little left for the employees. So here you had a greenkeeper that had worked for the particular local bowling club for most of his life—for 18 years of loyal service—he had a young family with kids and he got nothing. He got nothing, at the end of the day, after the company had been liquidated and paid its debts. This is a person who had accumulated pro rata long service leave. He was eligible for the 13 weeks of long service leave that accrues to a person on a pro rata basis, after 10 years of service, under New South Wales law.

Had he left or been dismissed under normal circumstances, or left because of illness or injury, he would have been paid that long service leave as a pro rata payment. It is an entitlement of that person. And let me tell you: it was a hell of a lot more than 16 weeks worth of pay. He had annual leave owing to him for the years he had worked for the bowling club.

Under normal circumstances he would have been entitled to a redundancy payment somewhere in the vicinity of at least two weeks per year of service at the time; the community standard was probably three weeks worth of service. His superannuation, he found out later on, had not been paid for months. He got close to nothing.

What is the maximum he would be awarded under the scheme this parliament is about to pass here, under a Liberal Abbott government? The maximum would be sixteen weeks payment instead of all those entitlements he would have got under normal circumstances. He worked there for 18 years. That is less than one week per year of service.

In my book that is simply not fair. I do not think it is fair in anyone's book. I dare anyone on that side of the parliament to get up and say what they are putting through here is fair for a person like that, who had worked loyally for a company for 18 years—particularly given that, if we lose our jobs here or are voted out, we get a hell of a lot more than 16 weeks as a minimum redundancy payment.

Why should we get something the average Australian is not entitled to under this legislative change we are making tonight? We are going to say to the people of Australia: 'Well, it's okay for us politicians. We'll get three months worth of pay.' I think the minimum entitlement is $30,000 if you are voted out and lose your seat at an election; but we are going to cut the entitlement for every other Australian back to a maximum entitlement of 16 weeks should the company go bust and be liquidated with nothing there for them. That is simply not fair.

I am not going to be part of that. I am not going to put my hand up and say, 'It's okay for us to continue to get our entitlements in the form of redundancy—up to $30,000—but we're going to cut the money back for other employees.' That is simply not fair and that is why Labor, when we were in government, introduced the Fair Entitlements Guarantee which replaced the GEER scheme. The GEER scheme was originally an initiative of the Howard government but, again, it was only a minimum entitlement and it did not cover community standards.

When Labor came to government we ensured that the scheme was amended to reflect community standards, and the community standard enshrined in the legislation was up to 13 weeks of unpaid wages; annual leave payments; long service leave accrued; payment in lieu of notice to a maximum of five weeks; and a redundancy payment of a maximum of four weeks per year of service. That is what the community standard is. That is what ordinary employees in most jobs, if they lose their job and the company is liquid, will get as a severance payment. It is a fair standard and it is what Labor enshrined in the legislation.

This scheme being introduced by the Abbott government cuts that community standard, that fair entitlement, back to a maximum of 16 weeks payment in total. That is unfair. It is below the community standard.

Going back to the greenkeeper—the example I mentioned earlier—a person who has given 18 years of service getting 16 weeks payment is simply unfair. What does this reform do? ...

It cuts the entitlement from the community standard of four weeks per year of service to a maximum of 16 weeks. This is consistent with the national employment standards. Those opposite do not understand that the national employment standards are a legislated minimum. You cannot go below it in Australia. It is what is considered enough to ensure people stay out of poverty in this country and it is enshrined in the Fair Work legislation. But the community standard is well above that and Labor, when in government, sought to cement that community standard.

Going back to the greenkeeper with 18 years service—he had served his apprenticeship—what would he receive under the coalition scheme? Sixteen weeks—less than one week for each year of service. That is what those opposite are voting for. That is what the Abbott government is implementing here—something that is well below the community standard. They are voting to cut a worker's entitlement to a fair payment in case of bankruptcy. It is generally the most vulnerable we are talking about here. It is generally those employees who are not unionised; they are not covered by a union enterprise agreement which sets a community standard.

They are the most vulnerable people when a company is liquidated or going bankrupt, and they need support. Generally, there are circumstances where they are not only owed accrued entitlements but also wages. They may not have been paid for the last month and certainly, in many circumstances I have uncovered, they have not been paid superannuation for some months. What support are they going to get from the government? Sixteen weeks payment as a maximum. That is simply unacceptable; it is unfair.

The galling thing about this is that, again, it was not mentioned before the election. There was no indication from the Abbott government prior to the election or during the election campaign—when industrial relations and workplace relations were quite topical issues—that they were going to make changes to workers' pay and conditions that affected the minimum entitlement of workers in the circumstances of bankruptcy or liquidation of the company. Again, as previous Labor speakers have mentioned, unfortunately this comes about as a result of the Commission of Audit and the recommendations of the Commission of Audit, which have been found to be grossly unfair and unfortunately form the basis of much of this government's very unpopular budget initiatives.

So that is where this comes from. It was not an election commitment. It was not disclosed to Australian employees, particularly to those vulnerable employees throughout the country, prior to the election campaign. That is why it must be opposed by this House. It is unfair in the way it works. It reduces what are fair entitlements to employees who are vulnerable in circumstances where companies go bankrupt, where companies are trading in circumstances where they are not liquid, where companies are trading in circumstances in breach of Corporations Law, and where the creditors—generally the banks—rank before employees.

In those circumstances many employees are left with nothing. They rely on government. They rely on us in this place to offer them a scheme that is fair and reasonable. That was the basis of Labor's reforms in 2012. Over $852,000 in unpaid entitlements to more than 70,000 employees around the country were made under this scheme. That was a fair scheme that was in accordance with community standards. It is now being cut by this government.

Again, I go back to the example that I made earlier: what right do we have to tell the workers of this country, employees in vulnerable situations—many of them women—that they should have their entitlement to fair payments in cases of bankruptcy and liquidation of companies cut back to a maximum of 16 weeks, when we are going to continue in this place to receive the entitlements that we get if we are made redundant, which by community standards are probably quite generous. I will not be part of that, nor should anyone in this place. That is why this bill should not pass.

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