05 Aug 2017
BRENDAN O’CONNOR, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS: Thanks very much for coming. I’ve just been speaking with the National Union of Workers who are represented here by Mark Whenan today, and also talking to Ram, who works at Perfection Fresh which is a company that is a very significant employer in Adelaide in the fresh fruit and vegetable area.
And indeed having spoken to Ram today I’m convinced that there are real concerns about the problems of the workforce in that company being able to bargain fairly for decent wages, secure employment, and a safe workplace.
Now, this dispute has been going on for a considerable amount of time, and I think it’s entirely appropriate now that the main investor in this company - Smorgons Pty Ltd - consider this issue as a matter of urgency, and have the matter resolved.
Federal Labor has been recently talking about the failure of the current arrangements to allow workers to bargain in this country. And this is a classic example, where you have a workforce of over 400 where fewer than 70 are permanent, and the remainder are casual employees - even though they work every day for years on end - without being given any security of employment.
They’ve had to fight just to be heard and just to get a seat at the table to bargain, and the company continues to resist genuine negotiations to resolve this matter through enterprise bargaining.
Now, our system of industrial relations laws must lends itself to the right of workers to bargain in their workplace. Wage growth in this country has fallen, and indeed is at its lowest in more than 20 years. We’re seeing people missing out on opportunities. Profits are rising in many sectors of our economy, and yet wages are going backwards in real terms.
This is a classic example where through game playing and technical resistance the company refuses to properly respect its own workforce, provide them the level of security they deserve - given that for all intents and purposes they are permanent workers - and yet they are still being determined to be casual.
I might ask Mark Whenan from the NUW to say a few words. I’m happy to take questions after that.
MARK WHENAN: So, what these workers have been fighting for is a secure job. This is the number one issue they have in their work place.
As Brendan touched on, only 70 workers of a workforce of over 400 have a permanent, secure job currently. This is something that the workforce feels very strongly on – it’s something they believe shows them some respect at work – by giving them the security that they feel they deserve.
They also want a fair wage increase. They want a safe workplace. They want the opportunity to visit their friends and family overseas. They want the opportunity to be able to go from work as a casual employee, without pay, and have the knowledge that they can return and do their job as they were performing it before they left.
These are the key matters that they are fighting for. We certainly hope that Coles and Woolworths as the end point of the supply chain understand that their customers expect them to play a role here, and make sure that the workers in the supply chain in the fresh food industry get the respect they deserve.
Certainly, we call on them to lend their support to these workers campaign, and make sure they see that these people get the respect that they deserve.
JOURNALIST: Just in terms of negotiating the small wins – what has the reaction been so far, because this has obviously been going on for some time. What has the response been?
WHENAN: So, we have been at the bargaining table for just over 6 months. The reality is that we have not really made any progress thus far on any of the substantial matters. The workers voices, essentially, have not been listened to.
O’CONNOR: Can I just add to that as there is a policy question in here - and that is in relation to the ability of the Fair Work Act to ensure that workers have rights, and that all parties have to bargain in good faith.
If the Act does not allow for genuine bargaining, or indeed if there are ways in which parties to a dispute can avoid bargaining - that is avoid sitting down and resolving matters - then the law must change to ensure that the Fair Work Commission has sufficient powers to compel parties after a significant period of negotiation to bargain in good faith. Otherwise, by just saying "No", they can stop all proceedings, and that seems to be what's happening here.
JOURNALIST: You've been talking about this quite a bit this week in terms of a commitment that the Labor Party has given going to the next election. If some of these strengthened powers were already in place, would that have changed what is happening in this situation?
O'CONNOR: It may well have, and indeed we are examining that. Our concern is this - that wage growth is falling as low as any time in twenty five years, the amount of money that workers in Australia are deriving from the GDP is at its lowest since 1964, profits rose remarkably last year, wages fell, productivity has been rising, and yet wages have not corresponded in a comparable way.
So there is something broken between productivity and profits, and wage outcomes. Part of the reason for that, in our view, is examples like this. Examples where workers are not being given sufficient capacity to bargain for decent outcomes, and employers in some instances - not the majority, but in some instances - can sit on their hands and do nothing.
Now we're calling on the Turnbull Government to work with Labor, if required, to change the laws to provide more capacity for workers to get a fair deal - just to get their fair share of the cake. That's all people are asking - a fair days pay for a fair days work, and the ability to negotiate genuinely with their employer.
JOURNALIST: I guess in a lot of these situations you are talking about a vulnerable group, like migrant workers. If they don't even understand that the Fair Work Act exists, how can they lean on that and try and negotiate?
O’CONNOR: Well, they do know it exists. This is more pronounced I think than many people realise. Many people are migrants to this country - as I am by the way. The point is, most of the workers on this site are permanent residents, they are not temporary workers.
JOURNALIST: Are they all Union members though?
O’CONNOR: They may well be a significant number. It shouldn’t matter, by the way, whether you’re a member of a Union or not, you should have the right to collectively bargain. It’s more likely that will happen more successfully as a member of the Union.
Look at the Players Association. Look at the women cricketers. Do you think they would have got the same results negotiating with Cricket Australia without bargaining collectively? That was a great example yesterday – that collectively bargaining matters, even for elite sports people. They got a great result for them and their members because they bargained together.
All we are saying is these workers deserve the same right as elite sports people and everybody else - and it’s not an isolated incident. This is happening across the labour market in many industries. It’s just a very bad example here. When I heard of it, and I was going to be in Adelaide, I wanted to talk to the Union, and to Ram, and other workers, and also really appeal to the Company.
These are remarkably productive workers. They deserve a fair share of the dividend. They should sit down and resolve this. The Parent Company, Smorgons, should be looking at this. As Mark said, the major economic decision makers in the supply chain - the huge companies, Coles and Woolworths - also have an ethical obligation, in my view, in the view of Federal Labor, to make sure these things don’t happen, where people are being exploited, undermined and not really provided decent wages and conditions.
Thanks very much