House debates

Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Matters of Public Importance

Workplace Relations

3:25 pm

Photo of Mr Tony BurkeMr Tony Burke (Watson, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for the Arts) Share this | Hansard source

We set a really simple test when the government said they were going to change industrial relations laws: it had to deliver secure jobs with decent pay. What they've come back with are changes that make work less secure and deliver a pay cut. They are trying to get away with this under cover of the pandemic. Under cover of the pandemic, when people are terrified for their health and terrified for their jobs, the government are not even willing to make the case for what they're doing; they're just pretending that what is in black and white in their own legislation, introduced here and now onto the floor of this parliament, doesn't exist. That is their response—their own laws don't exist. The Attorney-General was today presented with a letter of his about starting this work. Apparently that doesn't exist either.

I will tell you what does exist. What does exist is Australian workers having gone through eight years of flatlining wages. We support JobKeeper; we called for the government to introduce JobKeeper, when they didn't want to. But that does mean that during this time a whole lot of people have gone from what they would ordinarily earn down to the JobKeeper rate, even if they've held a job. Workers have had eight years of flatlining wages and 12 months of going back to just above the minimum wage. After 12 months of putting off bills, of negotiating with the bank to delay mortgage payments, as the economy starts to improve, they get told, 'Now is the time you get a pay cut.'

It's not a new idea; this has happened before. They told us that what John Howard did to wages was dead, buried and cremated. Those three things were always in an odd order, but dead, buried and created is what we were told was the view of those opposite. What John Howard did was get rid of the no-disadvantage test and what they're wanting to do is get rid of the better off overall test. The impact is the same. If you've got a test that's designed to make sure people don't go backwards in their wages and you get rid of it, what do you reckon is going to happen? If you've got a safety net and you get rid of it, what do you think will happen to people?

This government is deliberately designing something they have always wanted to do and have believed in for more than a decade, which is design a pathway for wages to be cut. We heard grand speeches about the heroes of the pandemic—the shop assistants, the cleaners, the health workers, the caring economy, the people in warehouses keeping goods moving, the transport workers and delivery drivers. All of those people who we were meant to be joining together on and treating as heroes of the pandemic now discover that it's this side that wants to make sure they get paid and that side that wants to deliver them a pay cut. That's the thankyou after the 12 months those workers have been through. When the government want to cut JobKeeper and JobSeeker, the reason they give us is that the economy's doing so well. Then we get told, in the next breath, 'But the economy's doing so badly, we need to cut wages.' You can't have it both ways. Let me give you some figures.

The better off overall test protects take-home pay. The government wants to make it so that the only thing that is protected is the ordinary hourly rate. So every penalty rate, every overtime rate and every shift allowance can go and the agreement can still get approved by the Fair Work Commission. What does that mean? Let's ignore the overtime part of it. Let's not count any overtime. Let's just take a few people on part-time hours where they work weekend or night shifts. What would that mean for a part-time aged-care worker? A pay cut of $12,000. What would that mean for a part-time parking attendant? A $12,000 a year pay cut. What would that mean for a disability home-care worker? A $14,000 pay cut. Even a hairdresser would have a $3,000 pay cut.

People are protected from these pay cuts right now because of the better off overall test, and that's what the government want to get rid of. They'll say that they're only getting rid of it for a couple of years. There are still to this day Work Choices agreements. To this day, more than a decade later, Work Choices agreements are still around. The decisions that are made in this parliament about the pay cut the government want to proceed with will determine people's pay for more than a decade into the future.

The government first denied it's in the legislation and then they denied it was in a letter, but now they'll say: 'But the Fair Work Commission will fix it. The Fair Work Commission would never let anything through.' I have faith in the Fair Work Commission as an institution, but I have no faith at all in the way the government make appointments to it. It used to be the case that you had an even-handed approach to appointments to the Fair Work Commission. There were those who had a background representing employees and those who had a background representing employers. In terms of appointments to the Fair Work Commission, there are now 12 with a history of employee representation and 28 with a history of employer representation and, of the presidential members and commissioners, six have a history of representing employees and 14 have a history of representing employers.

One of those is Commissioner Boyce. With the sorts of people they are now putting in to run the commission and decide if you're going to be okay it's a game of Russian roulette for workers. I do not lie. This guy was turning up to work in his office with a life-size cardboard cut-out of Donald Trump. This guy, who is meant to be an impartial observer, was using his social media posts to promote the government. Let's take two of his decisions that were overturned—the BHP one and the Hungry Jacks decision. Why were they overturned? Guess what he didn't consider? Penalty rates, overtime or allowances on the BHP decision. It was the same with the Hungry Jacks decision. Even now he is trying to find ways to not apply the better off overall test when it's in the legislation. Do you really think that we're not going to have a situation where if you get the wrong commissioner these pay cuts will go straight through?

Think of how it works. It starts with one labour hire company with very few employees. The company might have a relationship with the employees and it gets the agreement through. That company can then undercut all of its competitors and will grow and expand across the market. Then its competitors say, 'We're losing business,' and go to their workforce and say, 'Unless you agree to this you're all going to lose your jobs.' The race to the bottom happens quickly, but the starting gun gets fired here by this government.

Secure work determines what it's like for the worker, for the business and for the economy. You might not have a secure job and pay that's reliable, but your bills will be reliable and your mortgage or rent payments will be reliable. If you're a business, you don't have security of income as a business unless your customers have security of income to pay you. There has never been a time in our recent history—certainly in our postwar history—where Australia is more dependent on domestic demand. You have some people facing a pay cut and everybody else knowing that they're at risk of one. What do you think that's going to do to domestic demand?

I say to those opposite: if you believe this, defend it. The only thing they say about the pay cut that they are legislating for is, 'Oh, no, it's not there.' The only thing the Prime Minister says when confronted with real examples is, 'Oh, no, that's not true.' When the Attorney-General was challenged with the pay cuts that would apply if this legislation went through he said, 'They didn't happen last Christmas.' Well, the legislation wasn't through. He's meant to know something about the law. He's in charge of it for the nation. All of this comes down to one point: this government is punishing the people who did the right thing by us for the last 12 months. It's unfair to them, it's unfair to business and it's unfair to the Australian economy.


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