Speech - International Labour Conference, Geneva

  • Parliamentary Secretary for School Education and Workplace Relations

Mr ChairmanIt is my great honour to address the International Labour Conference at this, its historic 100th session. The last time I attended the ILC was as a member of the Australian delegation to the 81st session in 1994. That ILC was also significant in that it marked the 75thth anniversary of the establishment of the ILO and the 50th Anniversary of the Declaration of Philadelphia which widened the mandate of the ILO to cover matters such as unemployment and poverty alleviation.

Over the course of its history, the ILO has seen many changes in the international social and political landscape which have fundamentally shaped the world of work. For nearly 100 years, this forum has brought together governments, employers and workers to discuss the issues critical to the lives of working people.

At the 1994 Conference, I recall the historic and moving resolution rescinding the ILO Declaration Concerning Action against Apartheid as the Conference welcomed South Africa back to the ILO after a 30 year absence. This year, it isnorthAfrica that has been undergoing historic political changes and again, the ILO has a role to play in assisting the people of north Africa to obtain the employment, dignity and rights that they have demanded.

Work Choices and the ILOAs a founding member, Australia has had a long and productive relationship with the ILO. But this relationship was tested throughout the term of the previous Australian Government whose ‘Work Choices’ system was the subject of repeated criticism from the ILO’s supervisory bodies. Work Choices represented the combination of a decade of efforts by a conservative Government to introduce an ideologically inspired and extreme framework for regulating Australia’s workplaces.

I recall attending a hearing of the Committee of Freedom of Association in 1999 where the Committee noted serious concerns in relation to Australia’s workplace relations system. In particular, those raised by the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations (CEACR) in relation to Australia's obligations under Convention No 98 (the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining) stating that the workplace relations legislation gave primacy to individual over collective relations. As a strong advocate for Australian workers’ rights to join a union and bargain collectively, it was indeed a disconcerting and disappointing time.

The situation for Australian workers became worse when, in 2005, the conservative Government took control of both houses of Parliament, using its new powers to introduce what became known as the“Work Choices”package. The ILO’s Committee of Experts continued to highlight its concerns in relation to Convention No 98 and Convention No 87 (Freedom of Association). As I am sure you are aware, at the following 2007 election, Australians overwhelmingly rejectedWork Choicesand the erosion of their rights and protections as workers, and elected a Labor government that promised to reintroduce fairness into Australia’s workplace relations system.

The Fair Work ActMr Chairman, it gives me great pleasure to represent a Labor Government that, two years ago, implemented the Fair Work Act. This historic reform, which was developed in full consultation with our social partners, ushered in a new era of cooperative industrial relations in Australia and re-established a fair and balanced workplace relations system that should give us cause for celebration.

The Government has been encouraged that the introduction of the new Fair Work system has been received favourably by the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations. It is pleasing to note that for the first time since 2001, the Committee has not expressed concern about Australia’s compliance with Conventions 87 and 98. I share the Committee’s satisfaction that collective bargaining at the enterprise level is now at the heart of our new workplace relations system; and that statutory individual agreements, as well as employer greenfields agreements - which were agreements that employers could make unilaterally and without bargaining with their workforce or a union - can no longer be made.

It was especially heartening to reflect on the observation made in the Director-General’s Social Justice report - released for this Conference - that it is countries such as Austria and Australia, which have recently reinforced their labour market institutions, that have also weathered the global crisis so much better than other advanced economies.

We have certainly been through a turbulent period but we are proud to have put our system back on track. This is a significant achievement, not just for our Government but for Australian workers and their families who voted s overwhelmingly at the 2007 election to restore vital protections for workers, and in doing so uphold the fundamental conventions of the ILO.

International StandardsIt is my hope that through my representation as a member of Australia’s Government Executive here today, and with concrete progress towards the implementation of international labour standards, Australia’s standing as a strong and active member of the ILO will be further reinstated.

Australia will ratify four ILO Conventions this year. Among these is the Part-time work Convention which sets minimum standards of treatment for part-time workers. This is particularly satisfying from my perspective as assisting people to balance their work and home responsibilities has long been a particular passion of mine and it was when I last attended the ILC in 1994 that this convention was actually adopted by the Conference.

I am also pleased to confirm that Australia will ratify the Maritime Labour Convention this year. As one of the most comprehensive instruments ever adopted by the ILO, ratification of the MLC will be a particularly momentous achievement for Australia.

We are also close to ratification of the Abestos Convention of 1986 and the Optional Protocol of 2002 to the Occupational Health and Safety Convention. The progress made towards ratification of these four Conventions is a significant achievement for our country and will further enshrine decent, safe and fair conditions for workers while also improving Australia’s productive capacity.

New Partnership with the ILO in the Asia-Pacific regionMr Chairman, as well as historic changes in Australia’s workplace relations framework and progress towards ratifying international labour standards, the current Australian government is also looking to enhance our engagement with the ILO in other ways, particularly through the signing of the historic Australia-ILO Partnership Agreement which funds a range of ILO projects in our Asia-Pacific region.

Through this agreement Australia is working cooperatively with the ILO and our Asia-Pacific neighbours on projects relating to the Better Work program, green jobs, labour governance and youth employment. I am proud that Australia is now the largest donor of the Better Work Program with funding of $7.5 million over two years. This highly successful program sees international labour standards applied at the enterprise level leading to improved working conditions, better pay and increased productivity and competitiveness.

The Australia-ILO Partnership Agreement is being implemented at a critical time in the face of widespread unemployment in the Asia-Pacific region resulting from the global recession. The opportunity to make decent work a reality for people in the Asia-Pacific is very important to the Australian Government.

Ongoing relevance and importance of the ILOMr Chairman, the program of this ILC demonstrates the continuing relevance and importance of this forum’s work. The Australian Government hopes that the important work of the Domestic Workers Committee over the past two weeks will result in the adoption of a new global standard that will provide basic protections to a significant group of vulnerable workers who deserve coverage under international law. This vulnerable and marginalised group, most of whom are women, deserve the dignity of being afforded the same rights and freedoms as other workers and I commend the work of the Committee to formally recognise their rights.

The recurrent discussion on social security and the general discussion on labour administration and inspection have given constituents here the opportunity both to review the global trends in these important policy areas and to set priorities for the practical work of the office and constituents going forward.

Mr Chairman, as governments around the world continue to grapple with the effects of the global recession and its aftermath, several international forums such as the G20 are highlighting the importance of creating jobs and addressing social inequality for a sustainable recovery. The ILO has a unique place in this global dialogue. It is the only forum where governments and social partners co-operate on the international stage to ensure that decent work is a reality for everyone. Australia looks forward to continuing its partnership with the ILO and working together towards this goal.

Thank you

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