Bill's Transcripts

ABC 702 with Deborah Cameron

ABC 702 Sydney, Interview with Deborah Cameron
5 July 2012
TIME 09:33

SUBJECTS:  Future of work, work/life balance, foreign guest workers

 DEBORAH CAMERON:  The Federal Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations Bill Shorten was in town last night to speak to some of the nation's leading business leaders about a number of things, including the future of work and the idea of more flexible workplaces.  And rather than just complain about this, we thought we should try to get some answers, and Bill Shorten joins us in the studio.  Good morning. 

 BILL SHORTEN:  Good morning.

DEBORAH CAMERON: Well, you met with the CEOs such as Westpac, Telstra, PricewaterhouseCoopers, to talk about the issue, the future of work.  Give us an idea that came out of that meeting that might inspire workers who are listening this morning?

BILL SHORTEN: Well, before we started the meeting - and the meeting was about having a conversation beyond the usual way workplace relations gets analysed.  At the moment in politics workplace relations gets analysed in the sort of - if you just deregulated the labour market, took away all the safety net, then we'd have this new nirvana of productivity, and I think that's just nonsense.  But a lot of what happens in the workplace isn't clashes between or debates between unions and employers; that doesn't describe eighty to ninety per cent of what goes on. 

 So I was talking to some CEOs and other people, academics and unions, well, how do we describe what's happening in the other eighty-five per cent of workplaces, and before we started the meeting I got a tour by Pip Marlow who's the CEO of Microsoft about how they've reengineered their workplace, and it was interesting, and I saw new ideas there. 

 DEBORAH CAMERON: What sort of things are they doing?

 BILL SHORTEN: Well, first of all they managed to reduce the amount of space they use by moving to open plan.  All the senior managers moved to open plan first. 

 DEBORAH CAMERON: Because that's against the norm.  Often it's the workers who are open plan. 

 BILL SHORTEN: Yeah, that's right.  It's the old sort of nineteenth century factory model where the worker would - where the manager sits in the glassed in enclosure watching the workers within eyesight to make sure they do their work.  But the way Microsoft was laid out and I probably won't do the description credit - but they have areas where people can be noisy, areas - no one has a set workstation, which is obviously very confronting to some people. 

 The senior managers work open plan, they hot desk, that means that no one has a particular space. There are rooms for meetings if they need to have meetings.  They also encourage people working from home, they encourage - which of course if you're driving an hour to and from work gives you back ten hours a week if you did it every day or at least a few hours if you do it some days.  What it was about was the focus was on the activity not the number of hours you spend at work but the activity and the completion of the activity. 

 DEBORAH CAMERON: And are they seeing any concrete difference in the productivity as a result of those changes?

 BILL SHORTEN: Microsoft say they are; in the last year through the money they've expended and the new layouts, and it's an approach, it's not just a physical thing, they say that employee engagement is going upwards now for the first time in a while, quite significantly, they feel that the parts of their business who've gone to activity-based work as opposed to having their own offices and doing the more hierarchical structures which previously existed. 

 Certainly the CEO recorded an improvement both in performance in the company and individual engagement.  I think the key in life in any job is to have a good job where you feel that your efforts are appreciated and wanted and recognised, you don't feel you're wasting your time, you don't feel you're taking orders from someone who's just an information hoarder, but it's you feel engaged. 

 DEBORAH CAMERON: Well, it's common sense really, but we have had a lot of calls on this, and many of the callers yesterday told us that they were overworked and that their managers are unsympathetic.  Here's a taste of one. 

 CALLER GREG: Having told my boss I was quite sick with the flu, his comment to me was well, I'm pretty sick too and I'm just battling on.  So in other words you should as well.  So it's just everyone's stressed, worried about their jobs, and there doesn't seem to be a culture where people can rest and get well. 

 DEBORAH CAMERON: This is not an isolated issue, obviously; that was Greg who called in yesterday.  Do we need legislative change to prevent this type of - I mean, obviously bosses can't do that in the first place, but what can be done to try and prevent bosses who are flouting the rules?

 BILL SHORTEN: Regulation goes some of the way but I think - oh, well I believe actually, based on twenty years work in workplaces as a union rep and now more recently as the Minister, I believe that we need to have better quality middle management leadership and before people go to switch off the dial and so oh, the Labor guy would say that and the union person would say that, there's a million people in Australia who manage other people. 

 Management's like anything else, it's a skill.  Just because you're good at a technical task in a business quite often you'll get promoted to a point where you're in charge of other people, but being in charge of other people is a skill, it requires skills.  I think a lot of people in Australia are capable of leadership, there's leaders at every level of organisations who constantly get overlooked, which is quite often one of the reasons why people change jobs and get frustrated and get annoyed and get angry. 

 But if there's a million people in Australia who are managing other Australians then I think it's incumbent to have a debate about how do we have better leadership, and leadership starts at the top, how do we have better management, how do we get better people skills.  You can always train someone to be better at the way they treat other people. 

 DEBORAH CAMERON: You were talking as well about the need for a better gender balance, that perhaps getting - as well as in senior management roles, better skilled people, getting more women. 

 BILL SHORTEN: Oh, clearly the - I'm catching up with the ASX today and one of the questions I'll be discussing with the ASX is why is it that ninety per cent of the boards of ASX top 200 companies are comprised of men?  I just don't believe ninety per cent of all financial wisdom rests in half the population and if you look at the historic underperformance of the Australian markets that would tend to support my conclusion.  Perhaps we should have more women running companies. 

 But it doesn't just stop at gender.  The census has just been completed.  I was the Minister when we started the census; I find statistics interesting.  In 2001, about five in every hundred Australians was born in Asia.  In 2001 about twenty-four in every hundred Australians was born overseas. 

 In the census conducted last year now about eight in every hundred Australians record an Asian country as their country of origin and thirty-three in every hundred Australians were born overseas.  So we are a diversified immigrant society with all of the values and benefits that brings, but why is that we have insufficient ethnic diversity in a lot of our structures of leadership in Australia?

 DEBORAH CAMERON: Yeah.  Well, it's something that I suppose we all strive for, but how do you achieve it?

 BILL SHORTEN: Well, you've got to start calling it for what it is.  We should have - I'm the Minister for superannuation, I think we should have in the next ten years forty per cent of the directors of super funds should be women.  Having had people point this point about ethnic diversity out to me more and more - and I'm lucky to represent a very multicultural seat in Melbourne - I do think it requires national discussion, that we need more of our public figures to come from diverse ethnic backgrounds.

 And before some of the far right say oh, this guy's just talking about quotas, I'm just saying there's nothing wrong with diversity.  It actually strengthens our society.  So when we go back to work life balance, quality of management is a big issue, I think diversity enhances it, I think getting people from different backgrounds, including perhaps people with disabilities, older people, just the groups you don't traditionally get to be the people in charge, I think we need to change that approach completely. 

 DEBORAH CAMERON: Okay, we're speaking with Bill Shorten, the Federal Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations.  I'd love to get your views on this as well, 1300 222 702.  You can SMS 0467 922 702.  Steve, what's your view?

 CALLER STEVE: Well, good morning folks.  Something I've just perceived over the last probably 15 or 20 years was a change in the way employees were cared for within the work environment.  They seemed to go from a commodity which was desired and nurtured and developed and trained to just another consumable. 

You use somebody, if they burn out oh well, bad luck, we'll just put you to the side and go and pick another one off the production line to replace you, and that's ideological shift in the way the relationship exists between the employer and the employee.  And if we think about it, what's become the vogue now is that everybody is either casual or acting in jobs anymore - or these days.  Nobody gets a permanent job anymore, everyone's acting. 

DEBORAH CAMERON: Well, we'll put that point Steve, thank you for making it, to Bill Shorten.  It is an issue, isn't it, the casualisation of the workforce?

 BILL SHORTEN: It is.  Some part time and flexible work's good and some isn't.  Where it's - where someone wants to work full time and they can't it's a bad thing.  Where it's perhaps a mother returning to work part time and still wanting to balance family responsibilities it's a good thing.  So not all casual work is bad but people do need to have rights to be able to help secure their jobs. 

 That is why I agree with Steve's initial point, that too often it seems that the management text books say that what matters is the annual profit - you know, you've got to downsize labour, constantly downsize, downsize, downsize.  Then one day we wake up and realise the core of the business is gone and then what happens is the people who made those downsizing decisions have generally moved on to the next company. 

 I’ve seen businesses make mistakes, cut too deep, get rid of too many people and then what happens is the actual - they need to either rehire people more expensively or they’ve lost track of what were the skills of their business and when thing start getting good again they don’t have the reservoir of skills and talent available.

I think the other point about treating people properly is the worm may be turning, it isn’t turning in terms of some sectors and some industries where you’ve got old fashioned attitudes towards people - that we can always hire someone else. But increasingly as we have labour shortages and skills shortages, employers need to be engaged in a competition to the top where they are the employers of choice.     

We’re not competing between a factory in one suburb and a factory in another suburb in the same city, we compete with Asia, we compete with Europe we compete with America. After the mining boom’s over, what Australia really has to rely upon is a skilled motivated workforce. So people are the thing which will keep Australia strong in the 21st century. So if you treat people like rubbish, you’re actually betraying the future of this country as well as your own business.

DEBORAH CAMERON: I want to ask you about the issue of foreign guest workers filling jobs in the mining industry specifically. There were union protests yesterday, we saw the plumber’s union, the CFMEU, Builders and Maritime Union in Melbourne and in Perth yesterday. It’s got a bit of a xenophobic ring about it, doesn’t it?

 BILL SHORTEN: Yes. Yes and no. Let’s put the debate - which is as I understand it from… 

DEBORAH CAMERON: Well we’ve seen in the crowds they had Aussie flags and they were yelling yes, yes, get out of this country, Aussie Aussie Aussie. 

BILL SHORTEN: Yes well that stuff’s unacceptable because it doesn’t reflect Australia. 33 in every 100 Australians was born in another country.

DEBORAH CAMERON: Well you’re calling for more ethnic diversity and yet on the other hand we’ve got this from the union movement.

BILL SHORTEN: Well, but to be fair to the union movement, I don’t think most sensible serious union leaders - no one objects to permanent migration - come here become a permanent citizen, that’s welcome. I think the issue is - there’s a debate within the union movement and other parts of the Australia society who say are Australians getting first crack at these jobs.

 Now Australia’s always used temporary workers. We’ve used them since 1788 onwards. So - and all economies use them. I think though the point which is being made by some in the union movement is if they’ve got unemployed - if we have unemployed Australians who given skills and training could capture some of these jobs in the mining industry, that should be the first priority and it is. 

DEBORAH CAMERON: But what do you do though when you’ve got unions like the MUA, the maritime workers, saying that they can’t get jobs when they’ve got the skills the mining industry wants and they’re not prepared to move to Perth or WA to take these jobs?

 BILL SHORTEN: There’s two parts to what you just said Deb. If there’s people in the Kwinana Strip who would like to work offshore in the hydrocarbons and the Gorgon Project and elsewhere, I can understand that. They’re good jobs, this is natural wealth which Australia has some interest in and it’s not just a financial interest, it’s a jobs interest. So I can understand the frustration of seafarers or construction workers used to working in the offshore, who feel they’re getting overlooked for people from other countries.

 By the same token, I know - they’re mainly men - I know a lot of the men who do this work. They’d also be the first to acknowledge that there are,from time to time, the need to bring in skills from other parts of the world. So whilst I understand the angst, the Government is very clear. We are putting - we are spending more money on skills and training than any government ever has before. We’ve got a commitment to make sure that every Australian up to the age of 65 has got the equivalent of a year 12 or Certificate III in training and skills.

 The best job security is training. So we’re doing that. There is some scepticism in some quarters that mining companies are actively seeking out people from other countries rather than employing Australians. The mining industry has told us that isn’t the case, but I do hear anecdotal stories that when there’s a job advertised it’s - metaphorically - the view out in the workplace is the phone gets taken off the hook so it can never be answered so the worker who wants the job in Australia can’t even get through to apply for the job.

 Now whether or not that’s folk lore, or whether or not that’s true, I certainly hear that so I’m not about to dismiss it. But we’ve created a jobs board. We want Indigenous Australians to be employed, we want Australians with disabilities to be employed. It is fair to say - and the mining companies make this point - they say but some Australians on the East don’t want to go and work in the Pilbara. Well that is true. So that’s true.

 But I just think that mining companies should be able to demonstrate that they’ve given Australians first chance. We’ll work this issue through, this is not an unsolvable issue. We don’t want to see the projects go offshore because we haven’t got a sufficient number of people to do the work. But the first plan is to train up Australians. But we all understand that if you need a massive number of people at a particular surge, and there aren’t enough Australians, well then we also get we’re not going to lose the job for want of a few people.

 DEBORAH CAMERON: Alright Bill Shorten, big issues to tackle and we thank you for coming into the studio this morning.

 BILL SHORTEN: Thank you.


 Mr Shorten’s Media Contacts: Sam Casey 0421 697 660