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. If ever there were an Orwellian name for a bill, this would be it. It seems that many members of the government are living in an alternate universe.
This bill, as we know, was introduced into the House of Representatives on 9 December, the penultimate sitting day for 2020. As we've heard from the member for Scullin and other speakers on this side of the chamber—the long list of Labor members of parliament raising concerns on behalf of their constituents—if, after months and months of consultations with employer groups, businesses and unions through their so-called working group process, this is the best IR reform package the Morrison government could come up with, they really need to go back to the drawing board and actually start listening to what the impacts of this bill will be.
I've gone through the bill and I've read some of the submissions, which I'll focus on tonight in my remarks to the chamber. From the outset, I want to make it clear on behalf of the residents I've consulted with and the businesses and unions I've been hearing from that this bill makes work less secure, cuts pay and goes against the government's own pledge to rebuild the Australian economy. It's without measures to create secure jobs with the prospect of wage rises, and this means that, ultimately, workers will have less capacity to spend and less confidence to spend. That has a huge impact in terms of local economies not just in my electorate of Oxley, which I proudly represent in this chamber—the south-west suburbs of Brisbane and parts of Ipswich; this has a huge impact on many regional and local economies.
From the beginning, our IR team, led by the member for Watson and the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, have said that if this bill left workers worse off we would not support it. The working group process identified five areas to reform: casual and fixed-term employees; award simplification; enterprise agreement-making; compliance and enforcement; and greenfields agreements for new enterprises. The bill attacks job security and, I believe, attacks our economy as we try to recover from COVID-19. Each of those areas of priority, each of those areas identified for reform, I believe, will be worse off under the bill. I want to spend a little bit of time explaining each of those, and I want to ask members of the government and the minister why this bill seems to look out more for big business and those bosses not wanting to do the right thing than it does for regular workers.
I want to focus a little bit on casual workers, and, in particular, what this bill means for my electorate of Oxley and for some of the casual employees who I have been in contact with and who the bill will have a major impact on if it proceeds. The government's efforts to define casual work in the bill are disturbing, underhanded and detrimental. It's ignored the law and has overturned the recent Federal Court decisions on what it actually means to be a casual. Under the government's laws, if a worker agrees to be employed casually at the start of their employment they remain a casual, regardless of their work pattern:
… the employer makes no firm advance commitment to continuing and indefinite work according to an agreed pattern of work …
If an employee wants to challenge that, the only way they can do it is in the Federal Court. If they did this, they'd lose their job—not to mention the fact that most people in insecure work simply wouldn't have the resources to go through this process. This is before we get into the issue of workers from non-English-speaking backgrounds who may have limited access to information. Should the government get its way, if a court does find that a casual worker is in fact permanent any casual loading they receive will be offset against any permanent entitlements they are owed. What does this mean? This means the potential to rip away between $18 billion and $39 billion owed to casuals across Australia and put it right back into the pockets of the employers.
The week before last, I was able to visit Cairns with the Leader of the Opposition to launch Labor's post-recovery jobs industry taskforce. The Leader of the Opposition was able to meet with a number of industry leaders and I was privileged to be briefed by the marine manufacturing industry in Cairns, which is an important industry for the local community. Being on the ground and listening to workers and management alongside Senator Nita Green, the duty senator for the seat of Leichardt and secretary of the task force, we learned that Cairns, in my home state of Queensland, is the postcode with more people on JobKeeper than any other electorate in Queensland. It has the highest number of casual workers in Queensland. More than a quarter of the town's entire workforce is made up of casual workers.
They were the first ones to be hard-hit by the pandemic. The government, as we know, failed to come to their aid when they were vulnerable then, and I believe they're now failing them again. Cairns is an important part of the local economy in Far North Queensland. It has been devastatingly hit by the international border closures—70 per cent of tourism dollars come from international tourists. The same day that I was in Cairns with the Labor leader, the minister for tourism was in town and, of course, came with absolutely nothing to offer the people of Cairns.
Once again, I say to the government, it's bad enough that the economy is crippled in tourism centres like Cairns; they need some certainty and they particularly need to know what the future around JobKeeper will mean for some of those industries. When we were in the city, we heard from a number of operators that would normally have tourist boats out on the water and only a handful were operating in Cairns. The businesses are struggling and the government's only response is to say that it's somehow the Premier of Queensland's fault or Gladys Berejiklian's fault because of state borders. That has nothing to do with the local economy when you're relying on international tourism.
You've got the double whammy in regional centres like Cairns, which was hard-hit by the tourism downturn and which has the complicated issue around the casualisation of the workforce, and this bill will make it worse. Already the most vulnerable members of the workforce are in those centres and towns like Cairns, where the economy is already crippled. We'll see a lack of support for regional businesses when JobKeeper comes to an end in a matter of weeks. Quite frankly, regional businesses are going to be decimated by these laws.
This is another hit for a number of regional centres. In my own electorate of Oxley—where casualisation is a huge issue—for more than 20,000 people working work part-time, the only choice they have is a choice between getting overtime and losing the hours they need to make ends meet. This bill allows an employer and part-time employee to agree to an employee working additional hours at their ordinary rate without paying overtime. This applies to part-time employees working a minimum of 16 hours a week. Under this bill, the financial stability of more than 20,000 people in the electorate of Oxley alone will be under threat, thanks to the normalising of a standard 16-hour commitment with 'simplified additional hours' being used to top up work on an as-needed basis. This does the opposite of what the government claims the bill is all about. It casualises part-time work, reducing job security. If there were ever a time in Australia where we need more job security, it is off the back of the pandemic, when the economy is in freefall and we are seeing alarming figures almost on a daily basis about what is happening in our economy.
As I said in my remarks, I want to talk about some of the feedback and submissions that we've seen regarding the Fair Work Amendment Bill. I refer to Catholic Religious Australia:
Catholic Religious Australia (CRA) has urged the government to consider revisions to the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020 (the Bill) in a submission pointing out elements of the proposed Bill which leave certain workers vulnerable, compromising workers' rights and the common good of the Australian society.
In the submission, CRA calls upon the government to work collaboratively with business, not-for-profit organisations such as CRA, unions and the broad Australian community to ensure that the nation's industrial relations system supports the full employment of Australians, while rewarding employers who provide secure employment.
CRA recognises that the global COVID-19 pandemic has posed an immense national economic and societal challenge, and it has exposed and exacerbated pre-existing weaknesses in the Australian economy. One such weakness is the increasing casualisation of the workforce, which will only further escalate if the proposed changes remain in the Bill, leaving many Australians in an unstable financial position, resulting in greater vulnerability to exploitation, and violating human rights.
CRA President, Peter Carroll FMS said "The increasing vulnerability, instability and stress caused by the casualisation of workers impacts on individuals but also on society as a whole. It's detrimental to the quality of family life and impacts mental health. It reduces consumer confidence, spending and borrowing because of the lack of security in work and income, which in turn affects the economy."
… … …
Anne Walker, CRA National Executive Director said, "Safe, secure, and fulfilling work is a right to which each person is entitled, allowing them to earn a reasonable living, support family, contribute to and participate in Australian society, forge relationships, express their skills and talents and securely enjoy leisure time."
"Legislation should never reduce the function of work to a simple economic contract between employer and employee, or have the sole purpose of increasing capital," she added.
"Any initiatives to rebuild the Australian economy following the global pandemic, any future economic shock and more generally, should always respect and enhance the human rights and the dignity of all Australians, allowing for their full participation in our society".
I wholeheartedly agree with those sentiments. I thank Catholic Religious Australia for their submission, and I thank the countless others who have raised their voices and raised the alarm around this bill.
We saw last week the government try to pull the wool over our eyes about fixing the problems with the bill by removing the better off overall test for two years, but that's only one problem. There are permanent changes that hurt workers. Employers will no longer have to explain an agreement to employees. Think about that for a second: employers will no longer have to explain an agreement to employees. Employers will not have to give an employee a copy of the whole agreement. Employers don't have to tell workers they have started bargaining for a month. The Fair Work Commission is stripped of powers to ensure workers are better off. Unions will not be allowed to assist the Fair Work Commission assessing non-union agreements, and the Fair Work Commission will be forced to tick and flick, with time limits and limitations. This essentially means a reduction in power structures in the workplace. This essentially means fewer rights for those people who need more rights.
The government has yet to explain the benefits of this bill. The Minister for Industrial Relations continually avoids and ducks and weaves on these critical, key agreements. I'm hopeful that the crossbench, members of the Senate and we here in this chamber are clear on what the government is intending to do. We on this side of the chamber have a positive plan. I was delighted to see the Labor leaders' announcements on industrial relations, the key plank in Labor's industrial relations platforms: extending the powers of the Fair Work Commission; ensuring a limited number of consecutive fixed-term contracts an employer can offer for the same role, with an overall cap of 24 months; and legislating a fair, objective test to determine when a worker can be classified as casual so people have a clearer pathway to permanent work.
As we have seen time and again, when it comes to industrial relations and when it comes to the protection of workers, this government simply cannot be trusted. We saw it with Work Choices, the issue the Howard lost the election on. The government got drunk on power in terms of what they tried to do the workforce in Australia and they paid the ultimate consequences at the ballot boxes. Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, now is not the time for the Morrison government to water down provisions and to further casualise the workforce in this nation.