Monday, 22 February 2021
Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020; Second Reading
I rise to speak on the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020. At a time when Australians have experienced the highest levels of unemployment for many, many years; at a time when in many places—my home state of Victoria, for example—women's unemployment is still greater than eight per cent; at a time when our economy has suffered a recession, the largest shock in a generation; and at a time when we are seriously asking ourselves, 'Does the fractured and fissured labour market deliver for people as much as it delivers for businesses?' it is extraordinary that the government bowls up a piece of fair work legislation where its main intention is to allow employers to cut the wages of many of the same workers that we have lauded as the heroes of the pandemic. Problems in the industrial relations sphere in the labour market didn't start with the pandemic, but, boy, have they been highlighted.
We think about what happened in Victoria in our aged-care system and the tragedy of the lives that were lost during the COVID pandemic not only because of failures of this government to have any sort of plan in place for infection control but also because aged care is one of the labour markets where, bit by bit, employment has gone from secure—people work for one employer; they know where they're going to work and when they're going to work; they know what their hours are; they know the people they are going to care for; they know the people who are going to be their employer—to predominantly a model where aged-care workers are effectively, if not literally, independent contractors sent from workplace to workplace to workplace, not necessarily knowing where they're going to go, not necessarily knowing who they're going to care for and subjected to whatever standards are in place in that workplace with little capacity to change things that are wrong because they're not there long enough to have the sort of buy-in that many employees have in a workplace.
Successful workplaces are ones where the staff and the bosses—the owners of the business and the people doing the day-to-day work—are able to work with each other as well as deliver for the customers and are able to identify workplace problems, work them through and solve them, and where workers feel, either individually or through their representatives—their unions—that they're able to communicate with their bosses about their personal issues in their workplace or their systemic issues in their workplace. Contrast that with workplaces where there's no security of employment, where there's no relationship build-up between the worker and the boss, and where unions are often not allowed in and struggle to be able to represent the people they should be representing. We get workplaces where there's no one person who doesn't want it to work properly and there's no one aged-care facility that didn't have people in there who wanted to look after the residents but where there are systematic failures.
Dealing with these fractured and fissured workplaces and this fractured and fissured labour market that we saw in Australia even before the pandemic should be a top-shelf issue for this government, because it's bad for workers. On the face of it, some businesses think it's good for them because it costs them less money, but, actually, it's bad for businesses and it's bad for the economy. Jurisdictions and institutions around the world have been talking about this and working on how to fix it for years and years and years. The UK equivalent of our Reserve Bank have been talking about the fissured workplace and why zero-hour contracts and insecurity at work are serious social and economic problems to be dealt with. The OECD has put out report after report talking about problems in countries around the world where enterprise bargaining is dropping, which means people aren't getting paid properly and they're not getting good conditions, and productivity is suffering. It's a person problem and it's an economic problem, and we have a government that cannot get past its ideological bent about the free market when it comes to industrial relations in order to resolve it. It's a disservice to the workers and the businesses that members of the government say over and over again they're here to represent.
There are a lot of problems with this legislation, but one of the other issues that really needs to be addressed is the fact that this bill that we are now debating is what the government sees as a result of months and months of roundtable discussions last year between unions, business representatives and, apparently, government about where to go to deal with problems in our workplaces. If this bill represents this government's view of what you do after you've consulted with people, then I suspect every single stakeholder group in this country is wondering: what is the point of engaging in consultation with this government ever again? This is not consensus legislation.
Most people can recall this: remember when the Attorney-General and the Prime Minister announced all of these roundtables and working groups and had the temerity to compare themselves to the Hawke and Keating years and to suggest that they would come up with something that would resemble the Accord agreements? This is as far from an accord agreement as anyone could ever come up with. Is it any surprise that a government led by men who have displayed a 'don't ask, don't tell' attitude towards their responsibilities as employers, and who want to distance themselves from what happens in the workplaces they're responsible for, are also refusing to take responsibility for what's happening in Australian workplaces? When you have a Prime Minister who, from an answer he gave in question time last week, appears not to understand the difference between casual employment and the fake independent contracting employment that Uber drivers are subjected to, you should have real doubts about this government's ability to bring in any genuine reforms to the industrial relations legislation and our labour market.
I also want to raise two other points that occurred to me when I was listening to the answers of the Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations in question time. I refer to both the answers he gave today and those he gave last week. He has a bit of a riff: 'Oh, the Fair Work Act is Labor's legislation. Labor brought it in. It's Labor's fault. Labor did this. It's Labor's bill.' It seems to imply that, once one party brings in a piece of legislation, that is somehow then set in stone for that party and they can never say: 'You know what? When times change, some of those provision have to change.'
The Fair Work Act was brought in over a decade ago and, over that decade, we have seen an acceleration in the changes in the labour market that were only on the horizon at the time. We've seen an acceleration in artificial intelligence and in the use of information technology. We've seen an acceleration in fractured and fissured workplaces. We've seen an acceleration in the use of labour hire, subcontracting and independent contracting—ways of trying to set up the legal relationship between the employer or the business and the worker other than simply a straight engagement where the worker's pay is worked out either by an award or by negotiation through an enterprise agreement or, predominantly for higher-income workers, through an employment contract. We've seen the casualisation of the workplace through—for example, in the university and education sector—short-term rolling contracts over and over again. We've seen casualisation of the workplace through people being told that they have to have an ABN because they're a small business although, in every other aspect of their relationship with their employer—being told their hours of work, being told what they're going to be paid and being told how they must behave at the workplace—they are actually a direct employee. We've seen all of these things accelerate over the last 10 years.
So this argument that seems to be being run by the Attorney-General that the Labor opposition can't propose changes to the Fair Work Act to deal with the changing nature of the labour market, because we were in government when we introduced the Fair Work Act, is just patently ridiculous. If the position of this government is that you shouldn't be changing this legislation, what are they here for?
The other argument that seems to be being run—and it was mentioned today by the Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations—is: 'Well, this is traditionally the way that this has worked for the last 30 years. You know, this is the way it works with independent contractors. So why would you say you'd change it?' If that's the argument, I guess we should go back to the days when children were sent up chimneys to clean them or down mines to mine; when men lined up outside factories to find out whether or not they could get any work that day and, if they couldn't, they were sent home; and when women predominantly worked in sweathouses sewing and, again, they were lining up and waiting to see if they could get some work and, if they couldn't, they were sent home. That's traditionally the way it was done. Why would we change it?
We have to change it because the labour market today is not providing security, decent pay or decent conditions for people, from the first day they start employment right up until the end of their working life. Australians deserve better.
Studies from around the world make it abundantly clear that higher levels of enterprise bargaining across workplaces and industries lead to higher productivity, better economic outcomes for the countries, better wages for the workers and better profits for the businesses. If they benefit everyone then that's what needs to be done. The changes made to enterprise bargaining in this bill won't do that. They are based on recommendations from one side of the bargaining table only, and it's not the side that represents workers. The changes in this bill to deal with casual employment deserve to be viewed sceptically. Remember that this is the same government that said, when it put a regulation into the Senate to deal with casualisation and double dipping, that the regulation would solve everything. Now, apparently, we also need legislation.
This bill won't solve the problems that exist in industries such as disability services. Last week, I had a Zoom roundtable with disability service providers across my electorate. In addition to all of the other problems that currently exist with the NDIS—not the least of which is the minister trying to ram through terrible changes under the cover of COVID—what NDIS providers are struggling with is the 'Uberisation' of disability care, with internet platforms that are basically the Airbnb of disability care. On these platforms, people who aren't registered disability workers are able to go out and tender for the work that the registered and experienced disability providers, who are not-for-profits, would have delivered. People who have NDIS packages and their families are often tricked into thinking they're getting the same service for less money. They're not. The motive of these platforms is not to provide great care. The motive of these platforms is to take over a section of the industry so that in ten years time, when they list themselves on the stock exchange, their shares are worth a lot of money and they make a big profit. It doesn't matter if they undercut all the other providers over those ten years. In fact, that's what they're trying to do. These are the problems in the labour market that this government should be looking to fix—a Labor government would.