Western Australia: Griffin Coal Senators Statements

11 November 2016

Today I rise to speak about an issue of significant importance not only to my home state of Western Australia but to workers right across our nation who rely on a strong and fair industrial relations systems and, indeed, their unions to protect them from being exploited. However, I am sad to say that the system is letting workers down. Maintenance workers in the mining town of Collie have been subjected to savage cuts to their wages and working conditions after, in January this year, Griffin Coal, owned by the multinational company Lanco, applied to have the Griffin Coal maintenance enterprise agreement terminated under very rarely used section 225 of the Fair Work Act.

In June this year, the Fair Work Commission ruled in favour of Lanco and terminated the agreement. Very sadly, this decision was upheld on appeal. I am here today to raise my objection to this decision and to say there is nothing fair about it. To call it a decision of the so-called Fair Work Commission in this case is an appalling reflection. This decision will see workers revert to award rates, which in this case means wage cuts of up to 43 per cent for local families. Many workers will see their wages drop to just above $40,000. This is an unfathomable cut that will have a huge impact, not only on the workers and their families but on the whole Collie community.

Workers under this new arrangement are expected to work extra hours and more weekends and to do it for 43 per cent less money. Over the last 18 months, these ordinary hardworking men and women of Collie have themselves offered pay cuts of nearly 20 per cent for an even-time roster, but it is not just about the money. They have traded a host of favourable conditions in an attempt to support Griffin Coal's focus on flexibility and improving their bottom line. Yet Griffin Coal have been absolutely uncompromising in their demands to cut wages and force workers to work longer hours.

Griffin Coal's attitude towards their workers and the families of Collie has been extraordinarily disappointing. Griffin Coal is owned by an international company and in this case the company has shown absolutely no concern for the needs of the workers or, indeed, the whole town. If you think about it, these workers make a significant contribution to the community fabric in their time off and that time off has been substantially reduced. It is outrageous to think that all of this comes at a cost: not only the loss to the town of the community fabric but the loss of almost half of the workers' pay.

The dispute going on in the town of Collie is about protecting a community. That means the local sports club having coaches on weekends; the local fire brigade; and, indeed, the time that families can spend together. Collie is a very typical Australian country town. These are the things that our community should value. Far from being a dominantly FIFO mining community, here is a mining community where people are able to spend their spare time in the community around them. It is terrible to see this destroyed. Over the years, coalminers have invested many thousands of dollars of their own wages for the betterment of the community of Collie, so the prospect of such a large group of workers in the town having their pay slashed puts the Collie community under severe economic pressure. It is estimated that this decision will suck more than $13 million annually out of local businesses. The local economy is already suffering. House prices have dropped. If you think about it, in a town that is dominated by a single industry, if you slash wages and conditions, people will owe more on the houses than they are able to pay with their slashed wages and conditions, but they are not going to be able to sell those houses because of the drop in the market price. It is an appalling situation to put those families in. Businesses are closing and locals are struggling to secure financial credit due to the instability and uncertainty in the town.

Workers and the community should not have to suffer due to the financial mismanagement of large, foreign owned companies, as is happening in this case. Griffin Coal must consider the Collie community and support the town that has supported them for such a long time. A pay cut and significant changes to their roster, with fewer weekends at home, is simply not good enough. It is never good enough. While this decision is absolutely unprecedented, we are seeing trends across the country that suggest more and more large companies are seeking to undermine the hard-fought wages and conditions of Australian workers. Ruthless companies have put workers and communities at significant economic risk in the form of insecure employment. Their actions create work environments where injury and illness cause downtime and lost production. As they place unfair stress onto workers, they risk the mental health of the very people who have worked hard to deliver products and services for their business.

Workers at Griffin, supported by the AMWU, simply want to be able to negotiate a fair agreement with their employer. Employers should absolutely not be able to walk away from their responsibilities under an enterprise agreement and their obligation to bargain in good faith. Workers have the right in our industrial relations system to bargain collectively for an enterprise agreement. This right has been absolutely abused in this case. This is a fundamental right that underpins how our nation works and our democracy, and these decisions are sucking the life out of not only workers but also their communities. Australia should have bargaining practices that allow companies to compete on innovation, productivity and smart investment in people and equipment. We do not want to see a system that creates a race to the bottom in wages.

While all of this has been happening, where has Premier Barnett and the state Liberal coalition government been? They have been an absolute no-show in support for the Collie community. The WA government has deserted these workers and allowed a multinational coalmining company to destroy this community. This government has no transition plan for towns like Collie and the local coalmining industry. It leaves families in the lurch and workers feeling very uncertain about their future in the town.

Unemployment in WA is now at 6.3 per cent, and the number of full-time jobs in WA is continuing to decline. The WA government, after eight years, has no jobs plan for Western Australia post the mining boom—and being post the mining boom was always an inevitability.

I want to pay tribute to Collie local member Mick Murray, who is a former coalminer himself, who has been fighting tirelessly for these workers in parliament and across the sector for the past 15 years. I want to acknowledge the hard work of the WA branch of the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union and of all unions standing up for their members and workers around the country. Thank you for your continuing support in standing up for WA workers.

My heart today goes out to the maintenance workers at Griffin Coal, their families, their children and the whole Collie community. In this community we have multigenerational workers within one family who have been affected by this decision. It is indeed devastating. I want to pledge today that I will continue to fight for the rights of unions to collectively bargain and to fight for their members' rights.

Is enabling foreign, multinational companies to use the Fair Work Commission in this way to rip off hardworking Australians what the Turnbull government really meant when it said it was opening the country up for business? We need a government that will stand up for the everyday workers across this country—a government that will fight for workers and their families to live a decent life with fair pay, safe work and fair conditions.