House debates

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Matters of Public Importance

Workplace Relations

4:14 pm

Photo of Brendan O'ConnorBrendan O'Connor (Gorton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to reflect on the failures of this government to deal with wage growth, to deal with job security and, really, to attend to the needs of working people in this nation. I am aware that there is a very short, abridged opportunity for us to discuss this matter today, but I do think it's a good opportunity when the government has sought to make the point that it has been a successful government. I think it's quite clear on the evidence, when you look at wage growth in this country over the last five years, that there's been a real problem for people in making ends meet. It's the lowest wage growth in a generation. In fact, you've seen wages in many sectors of our economy fall in real terms. You've seen a government resist the opposition's efforts to restore penalty rates for up to 700,000 hardworking retail and hospitality workers, compounding the stagnant wage growth in this country.

When you look at the national accounts that came out yesterday, you can see clearly that workers continue to receive less of the benefits of economic growth. Over the year to September, corporate profits grew by seven per cent, six times as fast as average compensation per employee, which only grew by 1.2 per cent. Yet, despite companies clearly getting relatively high profits, we've seen no effort by this government to attend to low wage growth. In fact, the government instead has relied upon the discredited theories of trickle-down economics—namely, to provide largesse to large companies on the basis that somehow that will be provided in the form of wage increases for millions of workers. Well, of course, that has not happened and, as a result, you're seeing the difficulties that households are having in meeting and attending to cost of living pressures. Without a doubt, if you look at national savings, they're down. Household savings are down and household debt is up, and that is in large part due to the failure of wages to be comparable to improvements in productivity in the economy and increases in profits. I think, for that reason, the government needs to do better.

It's clear the government like to suggest that they have done well in terms of unemployment, and it's true to say unemployment has fallen since 2013. But let's look at some of the underlying problems in the labour market. There are over 700,000 unemployed people and 1.1 million Australians that are underemployed. That means you have over one million Australians looking for more work and not being able to find it, and you have, of course, 700,000 unemployed. So, despite the efforts of the government to suggest that they've dealt with the employment issue, the fact is that the underutilisation rate—that is, the combination of unemployed and underemployed Australians—is very high, and that, of course, is a concern to Labor and it should be a concern to this government.

The fact is that we have yet to see any policies enunciated by the government to attend to this problem of wage growth, nor have we seen the government in any way seek to deal with problems in the labour market that go to exploitation of workers. We've seen great scandals that have occurred with significant underpayments. We've seen the misuse of independent contracting, where people are paid less than the minimum wage and deemed to be independent contractors when in fact they are, and should be deemed to be, employees. We've seen a failure to attend to the casualisation of the workforce.

The Federal Court recently reflected on a matter that came before it with respect to a worker who had a permanent roster and had been working for years indefinitely and yet was not considered to be permanent. There's been no effort by the minister or, indeed, this government to respond in this place to that Federal Court decision. That Federal Court decision is one that really points to the ongoing misuse and misapplication of what was once a tighter definition of 'casual'. In that instance, you could see that the larger company that was being provided with the labour by the labour hire employee wanted certainty when it came to the supply of labour and wanted a permanent supply of labour but did not want to see that worker defined as a permanent employee. That is not acceptable as far as Labor is concerned. That's why, if elected, a Shorten Labor government will provide an objective test for 'casual'. We'll have that defined within the statutes so that we can clearly delineate between a legitimate casual employee and a person who should be afforded permanent employment because of the nature of their work. We've seen nothing from the government on this in this place. If the government wants to respond to a common-law decision—that is, a Federal Court decision—the best place for the executive government to consider that is in this place, not in submissions made before any subsequent court matter, I would contend.

Whether it be dealing with casualisation or dealing with sham contracting—that's becoming an increased problem in the labour market, where you're seeing people selling their labour on platforms; and often the labour is conventional work, yet they are not being afforded even minimum entitlements that ordinary minimum award employees would receive—that should be cause for concern for the government, yet there has been no policy response by the government to these problems. As a result, you are seeing that workers are increasingly feeling more insecure at work and workers are feeling they're not getting their fair share of the dividend of economic growth. For that reason, workers are not able to deal with cost-of-living pressures.

When I go around my electorate—or, indeed, around this country—often the way in which that's perceived or the way in which that's understood by workers is the difficulty in them paying their bills. As for paying essential bills, whether it's paying the rent, paying the mortgage, paying for school uniforms, putting petrol in the car or paying for other essentials for household expenditure, they cannot afford it because of this issue. As I say, that has been put to me anecdotally many, many times over the past five years; but the national accounts yesterday did really point to a problem in the economy because there have been stagnant wages. That's leading to a slowdown in the economy. That should be attended to by this government, but they fail to do so.

One of the reason they fail to do so is that the government really are not sensitive to the needs of working people in this country. They're not sensitive to the concerns that working people have. They're not concerned that they have made a decision that has cut, in real terms, the wages of low-paid, hardworking retail and hospitality workers. The government do not see that as a problem, yet it's a very significant problem for those workers and there is no relief for those workers. If elected, a Shorten Labor government will ensure that we legislate to restore penalty rates back to as they were on 30 June last year. We will do that as a matter of priority because those workers do not deserve their wages being cut in real terms as a result of that decision, where there was no compensation provided and particularly as that was at a time where wage growth has been so low.

Wage growth has been low; as I say, people have been struggling. What has the government provided in the form of an answer? Unfortunately, the silence is deafening from the government benches. They have not responded to those concerns. It will take a Labor government to attend to it, it would appear. We're certainly happy to hold out that the government may start considering these matters. But, as recently as yesterday, we have had a government seeking to introduce a bill and not have a debate on the penalty rates matter. That's because the government does not share Labor's concerns about that.

The other concern I think we should note—given the nature, the role and the importance of the Fair Work Commission—is the appointments by this government in relation to the Fair Work Commission. Since 2013, what we have seen is 14 consecutive commissioners, or deputy presidents, appointed by this government who were all from one side of the bargaining table. There were 14 consecutive commissioners, but they were all from the employer side of the bargaining table. That is, in fact, a terrible decision that does not consider any balance. I dare say that the government should certainly not be thinking of further appointments that continue the bias that affects a very important institution like the Fair Work Commission. I hope the government doesn't choose to do that in the near future.

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