Monday, 22 February 2021
Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020; Second Reading
It's a real pleasure to follow the member for Bendigo, a fellow regional MP from the great state of Victoria and someone who knows firsthand what's been happening in the world of work for many people in regional communities over a long period of time. After a year that saw almost a million Australians out of work, queues outside Centrelink offices and our first recession in three decades, now more than ever the government needs to dedicate itself to creating good, secure jobs that drive the economy. One of the key phrases there is 'secure jobs'. If COVID-19 taught us anything—if there is any long-term lesson, as an economy and as a public health response, that we should have learnt from COVID-19—it is that security of work is not only important for the economy, for individuals, for families and for communities but also critical for public health. It was because of insecure work that we saw people having to work two jobs across quarantine—often across the gig economy—and that saw the spread of this virus. It was because of insecure work that we saw people having to make choices about whether to go to work unwell or whether to stay at home because they did not have the secure income to be able to make those decisions. If there is anything we should have learned from coronavirus it's that secure work is absolutely critical.
We have seen a couple of things in Australia over the course of the past decade that have really changed that nature of work in this country—it's happening globally as well. They have really changed the nature of work in this country, and it's been a race to the bottom. We have seen, increasingly, work that used to be permanent and which used to be part of a company being outsourced and casualised—sent to labour hire firms. We've also seen the tendering out of contracts for that work, which has seen more and more players enter the market. Yes, sure—great—that's competition, but it's also meant a race to the bottom for wages, conditions and security of work.
We're seeing that in industry after industry after industry. Aviation, which I have responsibility for as shadow, is absolutely seeing that at the moment. We're seeing it with the outsourcing of baggage handling and security. It's getting to the point where if you go to a workplace or industry then the jobs that used to be done by, say, Qantas, Virgin or Rex, to some extent, or by the airport, or in any industry you look at, they're no longer done by employees of that particular employer. They're not Qantas or Virgin employees. If you go to any of the major department stores then the staff aren't employed by Myer or David Jones or those iconic employers that many of our parents and grandparents worked for; they're employed by a labour hire company or a contracted company. Whilst they might work under the banner of that company, they're not employed by them.
That's the problem in what's been happening with the nature of work in this country. It's meant less security for workers, lower wages and lower conditions. And that has suited employers; it has suited the profits of large-scale companies. Unfortunately, that's the decision that this government has taken, that that's where its support is going to lie. That's the problem right at the heart of this bill: it doesn't address the problems of insecure work; it actually makes them worse. That's why Labor is defending this so fiercely. Of course the government's decision to create greater insecurity in work through attacking the better off overall test attests that the government had to be forced to put that in place. That was because after Work Choices it realised it had a massive political problem on its hands because it had completely and utterly wrecked this country's workplace-bargaining system. The fact that it has now backed away from that is not because it actually believes very firmly that it went a little bit too far or that it was a step too far. It's because it can't get it through the parliament, and that says everything about this government's agenda when it comes to industrial relations.
The test for Labor when it comes to this bill, as it should be for all of our industrial relations measures, is: does the bill create secure jobs with decent pay and with fair conditions for workers? That should be the test. The government, on the other hand, has decided that the test for any bill is: does it create any job—any job at all? It doesn't matter if the job is insecure and it doesn't matter if the job doesn't pay well. In fact, it doesn't matter if the job is dangerous because of its insecurity. It doesn't actually matter about that. The only test is that somehow or other businesses will get more money, more profits, and therefore that will all trickle down to employ more Australians. We know from the government's attempts to get rid of penalty rates that that is just not true. It simply doesn't work that way. It is old economics and not something we should be supporting in this place.
We know that with this bill the government is trying to create less secure work and to create better circumstances for businesses to be able to casualise more, to pay less and to have fewer conditions. We say no to this bill. We say no because it makes it easier for employers to casualise jobs that would otherwise be permanent. We say no to this bill because it makes bargaining for better pay and conditions even more difficult than it already is. We say no to this bill because it takes rights off workers on big infrastructure and construction projects. We say no to this bill that undermines wage theft punishments in states and territories, like my own, where it is already a criminal offence. This bill seeks to weaken those offences. We say no to this bill that allows wage cuts and will see workers face greater wage cuts.
This bill from the Morrison government could deliver the workers who got us through COVID—the heroes of the pandemic: the nurses, the aged-care workers, the cleaners and the delivery drivers—more insecure work and less pay. The government may have reluctantly removed their attack on the better off overall test, but this is still a bad bill that represents a huge attack on the working rights of Australians. It's bad for workers and bad for the economy. If it is passed, it could actively undermine our recovery from COVID. To recover we need workers to be confident in their future prospects, to feel confident to take a bit of money out of their bank accounts and to spend. If you have been casualised and are facing a pay cut or if your work is becoming even more insecure then you're not going to spend. Without spending, there is no recovery. With this bill, workers will only go backwards.
This bill will take workers backwards in a number of ways. The first is by further undermining enterprise bargaining. Under this bill, agreements can cut pay and employers are given significantly more bargaining power. Under the bill, workers will have a right to be represented only a month after bargaining starts, putting workers behind the eight ball from the start. These workers are then stripped of the right to a comprehensive explanation of an agreement that they are being asked to vote on. Workers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, young employees or workers who are not represented in bargaining will no longer be guaranteed an appropriate explanation of a proposed agreement. The Fair Work Commission will have less time and power to ensure an agreement is genuinely agreed to and that it leaves workers better off. Agreements that exclude or misrepresent the National Employment Standards can be approved.
These changes aren't making or creating more secure jobs; they're about making it easier for employees to be ripped off. At a time when workers need more rights, they are being taken away. At a time when workers need secure jobs, the Morrison government is cutting the pathway out of casual work. The casual conversion provisions of the bill are essentially meaningless. An employer is not bound to offer a regular casual a permanent job if they do not think it would be reasonable to do so, and the same employer can veto a worker's right to have the Fair Work Commission consider if the decision was fair. The bill allows employers to call a worker casual even if the job is not casual, stripping them retrospectively of entitlements such as sick leave. This bill strips misclassified casuals of their right to leave entitlements.
At the same time as cutting the road out of casual work, this bill will casualise part-time work. The bill will effectively turn part-time workers into casuals, putting enormous pressure on them to accept extra hours with little notice and no overtime. The bill will in particular disadvantage workers with family responsibilities who need predictable and secure hours. If you have got kids or if you have caring responsibilities for a parent, under this bill that is simply your bad luck. You're on your own. You either take more shifts at short notice or lose out. No part-time workers are safe. These cuts can be imposed on any part-time worker without any award by regulation.
For the next two years workers' rights will be even further reduced with the extension of the JobKeeper style flexible work directions for duties and locations of work without JobKeeper payments and without the key protections that came with JobKeeper, as were supported by the parliament in 2020. Unlike with JobKeeper, the employer will not need to satisfy a turnover test. Instead, they'll simply need to believe it's necessary to give a directive to assist in the revival of an enterprise. When this occurs workers will have no rights to act against unreasonable directions because the government has taken away the arbitration powers of the Fair Work Commission. Workers can see their job change without warning and with no right of appeal. It is nothing short of a disgrace. This bill isn't about helping regrow the economy; it's about attacking workers.
I'm proud to come from a state with strong wage theft laws introduced by a strong, progressive Labor government. These laws protect workers from unscrupulous bosses and from the theft of their wages. That is what it is—it is theft. Instead of applying similar laws nationwide, this bill will override those strong wage theft laws, taking rights and protections off workers in states like my own of Victoria. It does this by inserting a new definition into the law that, to be guilty of wage theft, an action must not only be dishonest but also be known by the defendant to be dishonest according to the standards of ordinary people. This is a very high bar to meet, and it's been deliberately made so by this government. It is hard to prove someone's intent. That is why that definition was not included in Victoria's wage theft laws, because a boss ripping off their employees isn't going to be making it obvious that they knew what they were doing was wrong. This is a deliberate decision to make it easier for wages to be stolen and harder for workers to find justice. So when we hear the Attorney-General up here trying to claim that he's doing this great thing on wage theft, it is simply not true. He is simply watering down the provisions in those states that have strong Labor governments that have enacted wage theft legislation. It undermines good laws in states to the detriment of Australian workers.
So far I've covered how this bill cuts pay and conditions for casuals, part-time workers and victims of wage theft and, indeed, undercuts the rights of every working Australian. But the bill goes even further than that. It attacks the rights of workers on major construction projects. It does this by doubling the nominal expiry date of greenfields agreements to eight years or specifying no minimum annual increase in the base rate of pay. A worker could spend eight years working on a project receiving a pay increase of 0.01 per cent each year. That's a pay cut. Depending on the rate of inflation over those eight years that could be a really big pay cut. The new provision will apply to projects with a construction cost of $500 million or more; however, if the responsible minister declares a project to be a major project and it has a construction value between $250 million and $500 million then it can be included under this provision. As the shadow minister for infrastructure, I'm well aware that $250 million is not a particularly large infrastructure project. A lot of workers will end up being locked into bad deals and locked into years and years of pay cuts.
This government is not about improving conditions for workers. It is not about improving the security of work in this country. As I said at the start of this contribution, a government that had really learnt the lessons of COVID, had learnt that for an economic and public health response you need secure work, would not be introducing this bill and the measure that it has introduced to increase casualisation and to make work less secure in this country.