SUBJECTS: Industrial dispute at ports; Secure Jobs, Better Pay legislation; flexible work and rostering, empowering the Fair Work Ombudsman.
BEN FORDHAM, HOST: Well, we’re being warned of chaos heading into Christmas – supply chains could be crippled by a brand new fight on our ports. Our biggest tugboat operator, Svitzer, has had enough with the unions. On Friday they’re threatening to lock out 600 workers at 17 ports. Svitzer says it has no other option following nearly 2,000 hours of industrial action in recent weeks. And the Maritime Union has been deliberately slowing operations in that time. They’ve also placed bans on maintenance and training. It’s caused supply problems at Port Botany, and it’s delaying our farmers sending their products overseas.
Joining us on the line, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Tony Burke. Mr Burke, good morning to you.
TONY BURKE, MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS: G’day, Ben. Good to talk to you again.
FORDHAM: I haven’t spoken to you since the election, so congratulations on the win and your job.
BURKE: Thank you. And can I say thank you for the promotion you’ve been giving to Bill Crews in my electorate. It’s just fantastic work he does there. So I’ve heard your interviews with him – it’s much appreciated.
FORDHAM: Well, good on you. Good on you for supporting him. We’ve got a few things to get through because you’ve got all of these workplace reforms happening as well. But let me ask you first of all about the ports. This is not what we need leading into Christmas. We know that the Labor Party is the political arm of the union movement, so I’m betting you’re not going to be critical of the Maritime Union?
BURKE: I’m devastated by the way the whole dispute has unfolded. I want a situation where the industrial umpire can come in and sort it out. And the laws to be able to do that are in front of the Parliament now and I’m wanting to get them through this year. But, you know, you think about these shutdowns, whether – you know, this one’s caused by the employer – but whether they’re caused by the employer or the union, it doesn’t just affect the people who work there; it affects the people at the ports, it then affects the truck drivers, it affects people at the warehouses and ultimately you end up shopping at Christmas time and what you need on the shelves isn’t there.
So we’ve got this ridiculous situation — it’s been there over both sides of politics over the years — where the only time the industrial umpire can come in and make a decision is when both sides say, “Could you please blow the whistle.” And that’s just ridiculous. Can you imagine —
FORDHAM: Do you endorse the idea of a union delegate being in the room when a boss is hiring a new staff member?
BURKE: Look, I don't know why the company had previously agreed to that. It's in the agreement because the company had agreed to that. So there must have been a reason. I don't understand it.
FORDHAM: It's crazy, though, right? I mean, if you were hiring someone in your office you wouldn’t allow a third party to sit there and to, you know, vet who’s being offered a job and to have some kind of veto over that job appointment.
BURKE: As I say, there’s a whole lot of things in agreements that are agreed in a negotiation. I don’t understand why that one’s there. But it is only there because the employer has previously agreed to it. So the company would know why they agreed to that.
FORDHAM: And that’s what they’re trying to do; they’re trying to get that removed from the agreement going forward, and that’s why the unions have now said, “Okay, 2,000 hours of industrial action in recent weeks.” So do you have any sympathy from the company’s point of view considering you can’t understand why a clause like that is in the agreement. They want to get it out of the agreement.
BURKE: Yeah, and this is why I want the umpire to be able to make a decision. I’ll tell you one thing about politicians — you may have a similar view on this — I don’t think we make great umpires. I think we tend to be straight to the argument on either side. I want the umpire to be able to make decisions on protracted disputes.
Look, this is not the only long-running dispute that’s been driving people spare, particularly across New South Wales over the last 12 months or so. And, you know, you’ll often get in a negotiation brief disputes that go back and forth, and that’s always been the case. Compared to other countries we don’t have a lot. But these long, protracted ones, you need to have a system where the umpire can just step in and be able to say, “Okay, we’re going to sort this out.” And I’m hopeful that we’re only two or three weeks away from that being law. You know, I wish the company could just pause and take breath and wait for those laws to be in place.
FORDHAM: Okay, let me go through some of your changes, and if you can keep your answers brief because I’ve got lots of questions. Just on the Industrial Relations Bill, I’m just keen on the multi-employer bargaining, can you confirm that under your plan that, say, someone could work at a restaurant in Parramatta and team up with a butcher across the road and a movie theatre nearby and despite being three different businesses with three different bosses these workers in theory could all come together and negotiate for a pay rise?
BURKE: No, that would never make it through the Commission. They wouldn’t have enough of a common interest.
FORDHAM: Okay, so the common interest test wouldn’t include geographical interests?
BURKE: Look, the word geography is there but that’s to actually stop you having a situation where you’re teaming someone with Perth up with someone in the same sort of business over in Sydney. Like, it’s to stop those sorts of things. But there’s no way —
FORDHAM: But when the Bill includes – I just want to clarify that. When you say the Bill includes that common interest test which can bind workplaces by geographical location, I’m giving you a geographical location of, say, Parramatta where you’ve got three very different businesses, three different bosses. They’re all in the same place, so they’re tied together that way.
BURKE: Geography is just one of the things that gets considered. But what you’ve described, there’s no way that would be enough of a common interest. Not in a million years.
FORDHAM: Okay. What about this: can I get in touch with other factory workers? If I work in factory from somewhere in Sydney, I get in touch with other factory workers from other parts of Sydney, we can join forces and demand higher wages from our bosses?
BURKE: If it’s the same sort, so, for example, sheet metal is probably a classic one where — and I’m pretty confident that there’d be negotiations on that fairly quickly if the legislation made it through — where you’ve got the same sort of industry. They’re all paid — the standard industry rate is well above the award. And then the companies there have been quite positive about wanting to be able to negotiate together because they’re happy to compete against each other on everything else, but they don’t want a race to the bottom on wages.
FORDHAM: But isn’t it a race to the top on wages? Isn’t that what the competition is all about? That if one boss is offering a better deal than another boss in this market where everyone is keen to hire, hire, hire because there are job shortages, that you go with the company and the boss that’s offering the best pay and the best conditions?
BURKE: None of this creates a ceiling. There’s not a syllable in the whole Act that puts a ceiling on wages. Anyone, even if they’re in a multi-employer agreement, who wants to pay more can do so. There’s —
FORDHAM: But you’ve got these businesses — all right, let me flip it then for a moment. We’ve spoken to businesses in Chris Bowen’s electorate — they wouldn’t be too far away from yours — this week. You know, Sorbent we spoke to yesterday: they’ve got a new gas bill. It’s almost triple what the last one was. So these businesses are dealing with a lot. Then all of a sudden they’re going to get a phone call and they’re told, “Oh, well, some other business somewhere else has negotiated a better deal, so you’ve got to pay more now.”
BURKE: I don’t see how that relates to the legislation I’ve got in front of the Parliament. I just don’t.
FORDHAM: But we’re just saying if you’ve got a business that is paying someone better in a factory in one part of Sydney then people working in the other factory in another part of Sydney can push for a better deal. Are these businesses really in a place to be granting these wishes at the moment when they’re dealing with all of those other price hikes?
BURKE: Look, if you’re talking about employer on employer, people can already push for a better deal with their employer at the moment on single enterprise bargaining. None of that changes. But let’s also remember when you talk about — it’s true businesses are facing, you know, inflation, they’re facing gas bills. So is every worker. And, you know, we’ve got a situation at the moment where the percentage that comes out for wages at the moment is 2.6 per cent. Inflation is projected to get to 8 per cent.
BURKE: So we do need to get wages moving.
FORDHAM: You’d be listening to the feedback, though, from Woolworths that employs 170,000 people. They say the new laws could have unintended consequences that put wage growth at risk. The Minerals Council of Australia, this Bill represents a sledgehammer approach. So you’re getting some pretty ruthless feedback there from small business, big business and every business in between.
BURKE: Yeah, look, you’ll always find different businesses coming out that they would prefer to not pay more for wages. Like that’s — and you’ll always get unions and others saying they want wages to get moving. Like, that’s — it’s been ever thus. That’s not going to change. But for a company like Woolies, for example, they have a history of having a single enterprise agreement. If they’ve got an enterprise agreement in place, in date, then the changes to multi-employer agreements are irrelevant to them. If you’re on a single enterprise agreement then none of those changes affect you.
FORDHAM: We’re talking to the Employment Minister, Tony Burke. I want to get through a few more before the news comes at 8.30. Flexible working, so this is another requirement. You’re going to allow employees to request the right to work from home. And by law a boss must negotiate, and if it can’t be resolved then it ends up going to the Fair Work Commission. So if a boss believes that this job must be done from the office, don’t they have a right to make that a condition of employment?
BURKE: Of course they do. Of course they do. People already have a right to request on this. That’s not changing. The difference is if there’s an unreasonable “no” that’s given — and the big issues here actually aren’t work from home. Like, the classic example where you find this sort of thing happens is you’ll get somebody who’s given a roster change and the roster change means there is now nobody to pick up their three-year-old from childcare at the end of the day. Now, you need to have a situation where — there’ll be times where that actually can’t be fixed. You might have a small business, there might be no one else that can work to change the roster with and, you know, somebody does have to make other arrangements. But there’s lots of occasions where you can get a sensible outcome on these things.
FORDHAM: But what you’re saying going forward is that if it can’t be resolved then it goes to the Fair Work Commission. So we’re going to have a lot of people going to the Fair Work Commission. The lawyers will be loving it.
BURKE: It actually works the other way. The fact that you can’t go to the Fair Work Commission at the moment means you get a whole lot of requests refused quite unreasonably. And this is often — it’s rarely in small business. Small business tend to know their staff really well. It’s much more common in bigger businesses where often they’ve got really good official policies, but you get a pretty junior level of management making the roster changes, often someone who’s never had family responsibilities themselves. They might have done some uni course that got them the job or something like that. And it’s to make sure that if they know that if they’re unreasonable then there’s a chance it ends up at the Commission, it actually never gets to the Commission; you just get more sensible decisions in the first place.
FORDHAM: All right. I’ve only got a minute and a half, so I want to ask you about scrapping the Building and Construction Commission. This Commission has been able to fine unions more than $19 million over the past six years. You have decided to get rid of the Commission. But some of the union officials who’ve done the wrong thing and been exposed by the Commission in the past have done things like describing female safety advisers as “F-ing dog c-s”, a boss who was told, “You’ll end up dead”, a CFMEU official who said, “I’ll grab my bat and start swinging it around.” Have you made it easier for these people to act like bullies?
BURKE: No, because everything that you’ve just described the Fair Work Ombudsman is given the power to deal with instead of the ABCC. The stuff that’s gone is effectively the silly disputes where the ABCC was prosecuting a couple of mates for having a cup of tea, where they were prosecuting people for having union logos on stickers on helmets or flags.
FORDHAM: So there’ll be no reduction in avenues for people to prosecute union bullies?
BURKE: Not at all. Not at all. That stays with the Fair Work Ombudsman, and we’ve given them a whole lot of extra money to be able to make sure that they can do that.
FORDHAM: We really appreciate your time and thank you for your comments about Reverend Bill Crews.
BURKE: Great to talk to you.
FORDHAM: Good on you. Tony Burke, who’s the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations