An open letter to Rudd & Gillard

August 31, 2007

The following open letter to federal ALP leader Kevin Rudd and ALP industrial relations spokesperson Julia Gillard was issue on August 29 by Michele O'Neil, national assistant secretary of the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia (TCFUA).

Dear Kevin and Julia, don't you get it?

I represent some of the lowest paid workers in the country. They sweat in backyard garages, shopfronts, and factories to make the clothes on your back. Some of our members have now faced three years without a pay increase. If they are still getting the minimum rates, and many are not, they take home about $460 each week. If they work at home as outworkers they likely get $3 to $5 an hour.

Yesterday one of the union's officials described how after a call from a worker, she went to a factory and the employer made her sit for two hours in a small room. The boss said that if any worker wanted to see her they were welcome. He didn't tell the workers the union was on site. He wouldn't let the union notice advising workers that the union was coming, go up on the notice board. And he sat a supervisor at the door of the room. No worker came to the room.

A worker rang the union describing payment of $4 an hour. For us to inspect the time and wage book in the factory I have to name the worker, something she doesn't want me to do as she says she'll be bullied and sacked. She's scared and asks me, "why can't you fix this without the boss knowing that I rang the union?" Under the right of entry laws you've promised to keep, I cannot.

Earlier this year, one of my members was badly injured when the company under those same right of entry laws, forced him to walk outside in the dark during a nightshift to a room 10 minutes away from where he worked to speak to his union. He fell and broke both his hands and doesn't have good prospects of returning to work.

Last week we received two calls from women workers in tears because they were being forced to give up their rights by signing an AWA in order to keep their job. They signed the AWA because they were threatened. The same AWAs which you will now leave in place for five years. Under those right of entry laws, because all the workers are on AWAs, we have no right to enter that workplace or visit our members.

You know that television ad from the Business Action coalition with three thuggish blokes turning off the power in a clothing factory? Did you believe it? Would you like to meet the women who work for this union trying to get into workplaces that exploit textile, clothing and footwear workers? You could listen to our stories about what really happens when we try to use "right of entry".

My experience of violence and thuggery is of a company boss pulling a large chopping knife out of his draw and placing it on the desk between us as he explained that he didn't employ any outworkers and that I should leave his factory now.

We like other unions, have spent our hard earned union members' money on the ACTU's campaign which has increased your chances of being elected. How do I keep explaining to them what a vote for you will mean? They can't wait until 2010 for justice and fairness or rights — that's like asking them to wait for another election. They need them and deserve them right now. Stand up for the members of my union or don't expect us to stand up for you.

I invite you both to take a day to spend on the road with an official of my union visiting factories and sweatshops, so you can understand and reconsider today's announcement.

In unity,

s/Michele O'Neil

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