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. In 2020, the workers of this nation—cleaners, nurses, aged-care and disability workers, retail assistants, truck drivers—kept us going through the depths of the recession and the pandemic. Whilst praising these workers' efforts and sacrifices in speeches, government members have behind the scenes been developing laws that threaten their pay and their job security. The bill before the House represents a gross and bitter betrayal of the men and women who have done so much to keep Australia safe. We saw the unedifying spectacle in question time today of the industrial relations minister being asked whether he would support minimum wage for Uber drivers and what he calls independent contractors, and he wouldn't do it. He wouldn't do it. He would not support the concept of a minimum wage for people who literally put their lives on the line in order to deliver food. At the conclusion of the 2020 parliamentary year, I stood in this chamber and said that we needed to work harder to put Australians first. It is beyond disappointing to be confronted, eight weeks later, with a bill that does the exact opposite.
In a nutshell, this bill will make it easier to casualise jobs that would otherwise be permanent. It makes it harder to bargain for better pay and conditions. It allows for wages cuts. It strips basic rights from high-vis workers on big projects. It weakens wage theft punishments in jurisdictions where wage theft is already deemed a criminal act. This bill should not be considered in isolation of the Liberal Party's wider agenda. It is simply the latest salvo in a long-running war between the forces that drive the Liberal Party and the forces that drive the Labor Party. The Liberals have always sought to depress wages and conditions, and Labor has always sought to elevate them.
My mum was a hospital cleaner. When I was a boy she told me, 'Brian, it's Labor for the workers and the Liberals for the rich.' That was 40 years ago, and it's as true today as it was then. Those opposite are convinced and have always been convinced that keeping wages low and keeping workers powerless drives economic growth. They believe down to their guts that paying people less means employers will invest more and that this in turn will keep the economic wheels turning. It's not that they hate workers; it's just that they believe workers are a means to an end, a cost item, a line on a balance sheet. For the Liberals it's all about the employers and lowering employers' costs. If that means lower wages, so be it; workers should simply be grateful they've got a job in the first place, no matter how little it pays or how bad or unsafe the working conditions. Five dead delivery drivers, and the minister could not bring himself to back minimum wages for gig workers.
It is Labor that says there's a better way. That is why we support minimum wage laws and why we support mandatory safety conditions for the workplace, annual leave provisions, eight-hour days, the concept of a weekend and job security. All have at some stage been opposed by the Liberal Party and its antecedents. It is not that we do not understand that business must be efficient in order to compete and that businesses need to be profitable in order to continue to employ people and, hopefully, grow and employ more people; it is simply that we believe business must adhere to a set of standards that protects the people who generate the profits in the first place—that is, their workforce.
The model that those opposite are wedded to, the one where low pay and low corporate taxation supposedly lead to more investment and therefore greater opportunities for employment, has been tried and it has failed. It's a formula that has been rolled out in America since the 1980s, under Reagan, and it has been a dismal failure economically and socially. The practice has not matched the theory. Workers' wages and conditions and job security have plummeted in the US over the past 40 years. Many workers work two or even three low-paid jobs to survive. People are living in their cars. But the billionaires? Well, their wealth has absolutely skyrocketed. If it is the government's job to make rich people even richer then the Liberals' economic theories can be described as a stunning success. But if it is the government's job, to paraphrase Ben Chifley, to spread greater wealth amongst the mass of the people then the Liberals' policies and broader ideology can only be described as a failure, and this bill represents that failure.
It is a fact that over the past 40 years the once-great American middle class has been crushed. The time when a man working a low-skilled job in a factory, perhaps as a janitor, could provide for his family is gone. He might work full-time hours, but these days he's casualised or contracted out, and one job won't pay the bills. At the same time, public infrastructure in the US has crumbled. Railways, schools, roads and public health clinics are barely distinguishable from the Third World due to a lack of investment. Billionaires and millionaires have never had it better. Those wealthy enough to afford private schools and health care, who go home to gated and locked communities patrolled by armed private security, live in bubbles of affluence. But the vast majority of Americans, the ordinary workers—teachers, drivers, cleaners, shop assistants and streetsweepers—are doing it very hard. Yet this is the dystopian landscape the Liberals are importing into Australia—an Australia of low wages, less job protection, less equality, less social mobility and less fairness. They call it flexibility, but their flexibility only ever runs one way.
Labor did give the government plenty of flexibility at the height of the pandemic. Extraordinary times called for extraordinary measures, and we played our part. The workers of Australia played theirs, too. Australian workers were prepared to accept that employers did need more flexibility during the pandemic. But, now that the worst of the pandemic is behind us and with the government boasting that the economy is rocketing ahead, the government wants to keep those extraordinary measures permanently. It is a kick in the teeth. Australian workers offered goodwill and cooperation by temporarily suspending their hard-won rights, and the Liberals have cried, 'Come in spinner' and are now exploiting that generosity to make the changes permanent. In Tasmania, Jess Munday, the secretary of Unions Tasmania, told The Examiner:
For workers who have already experienced job losses, stand downs, and reduced work hours, this bill is exactly what they don't need right now.
Ms Munday says workers in casual jobs are 'crying out for more job security, but this bill will make jobs and incomes more precarious'.
For casuals, this bill provides little to no job security. It gives employers the right to deny workers a transfer to part-time or full-time employment regardless of their work pattern, and it costs workers money because, if a court determines that a casual worker is, in fact, a permanent worker, then any casual loading they had received would simply be offset against any permanent entitlements that they are owed. The government's own figures—as unreliable as they are—show that this will strip at least $18 billion in back pay that would otherwise be owed to workers. And let's not think that a casualised workforce is confined to fast food, bar work and young people. As the member for Blair said, 42 per cent of the workforce of the Department of Veterans' Affairs is casualised or contracted out. I know the former Department of Human Services, which is the Department of Social Services now—they've stripped 'human' out of it—does the same. They privatise their workforce.
Casual workers are trying to raise, and provide for, families in this country. They're not just kids. Fifty-one per cent of the University of Tasmania's workforce is casualised or on fixed-term contracts. With university workers locked out of JobKeeper and their employer suffering the loss of international students, you can imagine the distress that many university workers were in, only to be now confronted with a bill that strips their rights even further. Tasmania's 1,300 teacher aides receive 10 permanent hours a fortnight but often work more and regular hours. Under this bill, construction workers could be locked into pay and conditions for eight years without ever having agreed to the terms and without any access to arbitration. This is a government that has put into law compulsory arbitration for massive media companies when dealing with international companies like Facebook but says it's complicated or too hard to put into law protections for independent contractors so they can receive the minimum wage. It's clear whose side this government is on, and it's not on the side of workers.
Also in the government's sights are the rights of Australian workers to decent overtime pay. With the creation of 'simplified additional hours', many workers will be denied penalty rates when working more than their usual hours. There is a very real risk that that provision may normalise a standard 16 ordinary-time hours commitment, with simplified additional hours being used to top up on an as-needed basis. This reduces job security and, effectively, casualises part-time work. In Lyons, the casualisation rate is upwards of 36.8 per cent, and this is a common figure across many regional and rural areas. If we want to rebuild our regions, we need more job security, not less, and workers in regional areas need higher pay, not less. This bill is bad for workers and bad for our regions. It does not drive economic growth. It stifles it. If workers have less money in their pocket, they have less money to spend at the shops or at the car yard. If workers have less job security, they are less likely to make the big financial commitments and they are more likely to save for a rainy day, taking money out of the economy when it needs it most.
Labor is offering Australian workers a better deal. To improve job security, a Labor government will make job security an object of the Fair Work Act 2009 so it becomes a core focus for the Fair Work Commission's decisions. Labor will extend the powers of the Fair Work Commission to include employee-like forms of work, allowing it to better protect people in new forms of work, like act based gig work, from exploitation and dangerous working conditions. We are not going to give up, like this minister, and say, 'It's complicated.' We're going to deal with this. Labor will legislate a fair, objective test to determine when a worker can be classified as a casual, so people have a clearer pathway to permanent work. Labor will limit the number of consecutive fixed-term contracts that an employer can offer for the same role, with an overall cap of 24 months. Labor will ensure that we are a model government and a model employer by creating more secure employment in the Australian Public Service, where temporary forms of work are being used inappropriately and being overused. Labor will use government procurement powers to ensure that taxpayers' money is used to support secure employment. To deliver better pay, Labor will work with state and territory governments and with unions and industry to develop portable entitlement schemes for annual leave, sick leave and long service leave for Australians in insecure work. Labor will ensure that workers employed through labour hire companies receive no less than workers employed directly.
This bill, as I said at the beginning, is an absolute betrayal of the workers of this country, particularly those who have worked so hard over the past year to keep this country safe. It does nothing for job security. It does nothing to provide casuals a permanent pathway—because job security really is what it's all about. You can't get a mortgage, you can't get a loan for the things you need to provide for your family, if you don't have job security. Try going to a bank, if you're a casual, and saying, 'I need a substantial loan to provide for my family.' They'll laugh you out of the bank. It won't happen. This bill does nothing to provide workers the job security they need. It's not good enough to say that the economy is recovering. We need an economy that is recovering for the workers of this country, the people of this country. It's no good just looking at the broad economic figures, at GDP. You've got to look at how workers are better off and how families are better off. Families and workers are only better off if they have job security and better wages.