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. Despite the government's rhetoric, Labor had a simple test for this bill: Will it create secure jobs and decent pay? Will workers be better off? Whilst we welcome the government's decision to drop its changes to the better off overall test, this bill is still a bad bill. It will still leave many workers trapped in insecure work. It will in fact potentially put many workers who may currently have a full-time job in a casual job, and potentially make many workers who have a secure part-time job flexible part time/casuals.
The answer to the question Labor asked—will this bill create secure jobs and decent pay?—is no. It's not just us saying it; economists are saying it, academics are saying it, unions are saying it and workers are saying it. Overwhelmingly, most Australians engaged in this issue are saying that this bill will not only make workers worse off but that it will also make workplaces harder and more inflexible. Giving the boss too much power will create not a safety net but a race to the bottom, as if we could sink any further.
I sat here today, in question time, shocked at either the lack of understanding the industrial relations minister has about the gig economy and independent contractors or the fact that he just doesn't care. He doesn't care to know the circumstances that they're in. What he has suggested in this bill doesn't actually deliver. It's more rhetoric; it's more spin. This bill will make it easier for employers to casualise jobs that otherwise would have been permanent. In a year when job security is one of the No. 1 issues, after health, and in a year when we've seen so many people miss out on JobKeeper payments and end up on JobSeeker because their employment wasn't secure enough to lock in that payment, we have the government wanting to make more jobs casual—more jobs with less job security.
This bill makes bargaining harder. Yes, they've dropped the changes to the better off overall test, but it still makes it easier for greenfields agreements on big projects and it still makes it harder for workers to get a fair outcome when it comes to bargaining. This bill takes away the rights of blue-collar workers; it makes sure that things become harder for them when it comes to bargaining. It weakens wage theft punishments in jurisdictions where we already have deemed wage theft a criminal act—you don't hear the government being honest about that one. Not liking what's happened in Victoria, where the state government has moved to strengthen wage theft laws, and not liking what's happened in Queensland, where, again, the state government has moved to introduce tough penalties on serial offenders of wage theft, this government's provisions will weaken those state laws—and that is something we cannot stand for.
But the fact that the government tries to spin it as other is, I think, what most Australian workers are disappointed with. Be honest, for once, about your plans for IR. Be honest with Australian workers about what you're trying to do. Don't dress it up with language and spin. The devil with this government, and with IR, is always in the detail. Yes, I acknowledge that the Fair Work Act is not perfect and does need some reform. Labor has announced a plan to help ensure that we have a Fair Work Act that really does help to secure jobs and to increase pay. None of those provisions are in this bill. None of what we see before us today will help make jobs in this country more secure and help ensure that workers in Australia are better off.
Take what they're trying to do with awards. Some awards, for historical reasons, do have what we call 'flexible part time'. It was agreed—back in the old days of the Industrial Relations Commission—between unions and employers in industries like the cleaning industry in Victoria that they would introduce flexible part time. But there was a trade off: it was at a higher rate. It was something workers wanted: if there was an extra shift available or if somebody went on leave, they could put their hand up for it first. The point is that they were able, at the commission, to bargain for a better outcome, an agreeable situation. What the government is proposing to do in this bill is to take that agency away from workers, to get this parliament to decide that all workers who are part time will be flexible, that they'll all be casualised, that they won't have set hours above a certain point. It puts enormous pressure on these workers to accept extra hours, with little notice and no overtime. There's a reason why that provision doesn't exist in every award today. Some workers didn't want it. Some said, 'No, if we get called in at late notice, we want the overtime.' Industries like security still have overtime; if they get called in they get paid the overtime rate, not a flexible part-time rate.
This bill particularly disadvantages workers with responsibilities, who need predictable hours and secure hours. It targets the retail industry, an industry which is predominantly made up of women—older women, younger women. We talked to women working in retail and asked them why they chose retail. They often say it's because they have secure part-time jobs and they know when they're working. I know it to be the case for many of the workers in retail in my part of the world. Many of them have worked in retail for decades. Whilst they accept the industry may not be as highly paid as others, it's the regular roster that they care about. This bill takes away that job security. One of the target industries is retail. They haven't bargained, they haven't sought changes. This government will, through this bill, decide that those workers are now more flexible. That is what is so disappointing when the government turns around and tries to stand in this place and say that workers won't have their pay cut. Well, that is one example. There's no bargaining; it's just a straight pay cut. It's just like what they did to hospo workers when it came to penalty rates. There was no bargaining about trading off for this or that; it was a straight pay cut that Fair Work and this government failed to stand up to.
Another area where this bill is really disappointing is the fact that it tries to overturn an outcome of the courts in relation to casual workers. Workers took a case through the courts to determine that some workers who had worked, in this case, for WorkPac, in the mining industry, had been wrongly employed as casuals by their employer and not paid their correct entitlements. The government has ignored years of common law to overturn a recent Federal Court decision on what it means to be a casual. That's what they're trying to do in this bill. What's happening specifically in the Queensland mining industry is an outrage. It's a mining rort. For decades workers have bargained collectively and built up a good, solid foundation of wages and conditions, only to be undercut by a labour hire firm. This isn't the traditional version of labour hire, where a worker comes in as a surge workforce. This is a worker employed on the same contract, with the same hours, week in, week out, month in month out, continually. They even wear uniforms that have things like 'full-time equivalent' embroidered on their shirts. They do the work, they wear the same uniform and they have the same reporting structures, but their pay is being paid by someone else.
What the court found is that these workers were in fact permanent. They then said that the casual loading that they received would be offset against any of the permanent entitlements they erode. So there is no double-dipping, like the government is claiming. The mining companies and companies like WorkPac are so upset because the casual rate they were paying these workers was far lower than what they would have paid if they were permanent. So there is a cost to business. There is a cost to WorkPac and labour hire companies like this. The court is saying: 'These people weren't casuals and you must pay them their proper entitlements. We will take from that the casual loading, but you still must pay them the proper entitlements.' So what the government is trying to do in this bill is override that decision. It will affect not just a couple of WorkPac employees but every other worker who's been trapped in this situation. Nurses in private aged-care have been trapped in this situation. People who work in various industries are trapped in labour hire, wanting a job, turning up and wearing the same uniform but being paid less than the person who works next to them. That's why Labor's announced the 'same job, same pay' deal: you can't work for less than a person doing the same job as you.
We also want to make sure that job security becomes an object under the Fair Work Act and is considered as a focus of Fair Work Commission decisions. A lot has changed in our employment landscape since the creation of the Fair Work Act in 2009. We now know the full impact of the gig economy. We know not just the impact that it is having on food delivery drivers or on ride share drivers but the impact that it is having on other services that are being delivered: services in home care, whether it be disability or aged care; and services in your home or in a business or even at schools, such as with Airtasker. We've virtually gone back to the days when we were standing in a queue, putting our hand up and hoping to get picked for the jobs—those scenes where we used to have workers lining up at the docks hoping today would be the day they'd get picked for some hours of work. It doesn't happen physically now, with all of us standing together on the docks, but it is happening virtually. Through the gig economy and the development of these platforms, we've lost, almost overnight, the concept of what it means to be a worker and to have that secure contract with a fair day's pay for a fair day's work.
That is why Labor has put forward a series of proposals around job security and making sure that the Fair Work Commission can include employee-like forms of work when we're talking about better protections for people in this app based gig economy work. That is why we're talking about limiting consecutive fixed-term contracts so an employer must offer a job to a person after the person has been doing the same job for 24 months. This used to just be the way it was. This is what employers used to do: when they got a good worker who had done the contract and finished another contract, they said, 'Let's bring them on full time.' But somewhere along the way a group of employers in industry backed out of the compact and started to introduce these horrible rolling-over contracts, with terms like 'full-time equivalent', and labour hire—ways in which to cut wages, cut corners and cut conditions.
Labor's also said that in government we'll be a model employer. One of the things the government also won't tell you is that the federal government is one of the worst offenders when it comes to labour hire. Just under 50 per cent of the Department of Veterans' Affairs workforce is now labour hire. When you ring Services Australia, you could be talking to somebody who's labour hire and who doesn't have the same training, the same skills and the same pay as other employees. No wonder the government want to try and push this bill through. No wonder they want to make sure that every business can do what they do.
This is a bad bill and, whilst the government have dropped some parts of the bad bill in trying to win over crossbench support, they haven't dropped enough of the bad. They've got to drop their changes to the award and their changes to the casuals. It's not casual conversion if it's not a genuine option; it's just window-dressing and more spin from a government who really doesn't care about jobs or job security for Australian workers.