Tribute to CFMEU in NRE dispute

NRE_union_meeting.jpgMr STEPHEN JONES (Throsby) (16:34): Earlier today, we saw the Leader of the House use an industrial dispute of some vintage in Victoria to justify the reintroduction of harsh industrial relations laws into this parliament. We have become accustomed to listening to members of the Liberal Party, in particular, talking about unions—union members, union officers and union officials—in pejorative terms, in a negative fashion, demonising the work that they do. I do not believe I have ever heard government members talking about the hard work of the decent men and women who are unionists and who dedicate their lives to securing jobs, businesses and rights at work for Australian men and women.

I would like to use the opportunity of this adjournment debate to level and equalise the noise in this place. I would like to tell a story that the member for Cunningham and I are very familiar with. It is about the work of certain CFMEU officials on the south coast of New South Wales who have been directly responsible for dealing with a very difficult set of circumstances confronting two mines in the Illawarra.

I can say, with absolute certainty, had it not been for the hard work of one district vice-president, a man by the name of Bob Timbs, and the officials of the lodges representing the Russell Vale mine in the member for Cunningham's electorate and the Wongawilli mine in my electorate, the men and women who work at those mines would not have jobs today and, quite literally, the hundreds of creditors who are owed money by the former operators of that mine would not see their money.

What has gone on is this. On 25 September, the 500 workers of a company by the name of Gujarat NRE were told that they were not going to be getting their weekly wages. If you roll the clock forward another six weeks, they had still been attending work—each and every day, working for the company that employed them—without being paid. At the conclusion of around about six weeks, the average worker was owed about $13,500. We understand that several hundred creditors also were owed significant amounts by this business.

The work of Mr Timbs and the lodge officials occurred in the face of quite a bit of hostility and uncertainty within the workforce, who were understandably at pains to see how they could be turning up for work day in and day out while not being paid at the same time as their families were struggling to meet their bills, put food on the table, keep their kids at school and put petrol in the tank. But due to the work of the union in running a welfare fund and putting some minimum payments into the bank accounts of workers, they managed to keep the workers turning up to work each and every day to try to keep the business ticking over and both of the mines operating at a time when the workers were not being paid. It was in effect a reverse strike. It was the employer who was not paying these people and yet they were turning up for work every day.

Thankfully, a new investor has come in—a business by the name of Jindal Steel and Power, which is a foreign investor. We are often encouraged to demonise foreign investors, but I can say that if it were not for this foreign investor the mine would not be operating. They have injected around about $150 million into the business and there is probably more money to come. With my assistance and that of the member for Cunningham, they are currently talking to all levels of government, who are also creditors, and our state Labor members of parliament are talking to the government of New South Wales to work out arrangements to ensure that the mine can work through all the money that is owed to the creditors but continue to cut and export coal.

I go to some lengths to tell this story, because in this place we are often encouraged to demonise one union in particular, the CFMEU. In fact, a whole inquiry was set up to demonise that union in particular. Never do we hear the good stories of the work they do. Never do we hear of the work they do in ensuring the welfare of workers and securing the payments to them—and not just for their members. But I think they deserve some credit in this place on this day for the fact that this business will continue to operate.

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