Monday, 22 February 2021
Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020; Second Reading
As with so much of the Morrison government's legislation, the title of this bill, the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020, does not at all reflect the intent. The legislation neither supports Australian jobs nor helps with the economic recovery, and I'll talk a little more about that in just a moment.
Put simply, this legislation leaves people worse off. It cuts take-home pay and conditions, and it leaves workers with fewer rights and with less job security. And that's after the government has already removed the two-year suspension of the better off overall test. If the Morrison government had had its way, as was in the original bill, the better off overall test would have been suspended for two years, all under the guise of economic recovery after COVID-19. We know full well that in two years time it is unlikely—particularly if this government is still in office—that we would have reverted to anything other than what is now proposed in this bill. It would then have become part of the norm and continued to be the way business operated.
It's also interesting that for all the government's claims about how this legislation will make it easier for workers to get work, to get more work and to take home more pay, the Prime Minister still refuses to guarantee that no worker will be worse off. The Prime Minister refuses to make that guarantee because he knows he can't. He knows that this legislation will indeed make workers worse off, and that if they do take home more pay it's probably because they'll be working much longer hours in order to do so. It has nothing to do with this bill giving them more pay for the same work they're currently doing.
As we all know, the Liberal Party was literally formed from the business community, the landowners and the business people across this country, and that the Labor Party arose from the working people of this country. It is Liberal Party ideology, and always has been, to have what they refer to as 'trickle-down' economics. That means if business profits go up then there will be a flow-on effect down to the working people of this country. The reality is that it simply does not happen. The facts about wealth distribution, both here in Australia and around the world, are very, very clear: as they increase their wealth, fewer and fewer entities or people pass that on to others. We have seen the stats which show that much more of the wealth around the world today is owned by fewer people, and that will continue to be the case unless changes are made.
Over recent years, there have been numerous cases exposed here in Australia of worker exploitation, worker abuse and worker underpayment. Frequently, those who have offended are businesses which are household names here in Australia—businesses which are well-known to all of us. I accept that in some cases there might have been some genuine misunderstandings or errors made. But, in most cases, I believe that the underpayments were known and were very intentional. Even worse, I believe that what has been exposed is only the tip of the iceberg, and that there is exploitation still occurring each and every day right across the country.
Particularly over recent years, much of Australia's labour force has been made up of vulnerable new arrivals from relatively poor countries, or workers who come from overseas on, perhaps, temporary visas. Those include temporary work visas, where they apply to come here; student visas; or tourist visas, which are provided to backpackers and the like. It is very unlikely that any of those visa holders would even question an employer about their work conditions or payments. They wouldn't do so, either because they originate from a country or culture where workers' rights are simply non-existent or for fear of losing their visa, or perhaps because they are so desperate and need the money that they won't risk the few hours of work and the payment they are receiving. I'm well aware of people that fall into those categories. Perhaps they know that they are being underpaid, but they certainly won't risk whatever little income they've got by raising it with authorities.
It is also very much in the interests of employers to employ vulnerable workers, because it forces Australians competing for the same jobs, and who perhaps know what their entitlements are, to accept lower wages. It's a very direct way of bringing wages and conditions down, because you can say to employees or people that apply for the job: 'Well, if you want the job, these are the terms and conditions. If not, there is someone else that is prepared to work under those terms and conditions and take the job.' I have no doubt that that is also happening and is part of the strategy of employing workers that either are here on a temporary basis or have come in from overseas. It becomes a downward spiral of wages and conditions, and we are seeing that year after year. This legislation will go further in terms of doing exactly that.
We have seen wages stagnate under the Morrison government. Not content with that, the Morrison government now wants to drive down wages even more and make jobs more insecure. The foolishness of that ideology, however, is that when working people earn less they spend less, and when jobs are insecure or paying less people can't borrow money for their homes or for any other matter that they need to borrow money for, and so, in effect, there is less money circulating around the economy. When people have insecure work, it also raises issues of mental health problems and the like.
It actually makes sense to have workers on good incomes, because they spend their money and that in turn has a flow-on effect on the rest of the economy. Indeed, the whole purpose of JobKeeper and JobSeeker, introduced by the Morrison government, wasn't simply to support the workers; the government knew that by increasing the money that workers had in their hands it would prop up the businesses of this country that might otherwise have failed if working people didn't have money to spend. It wasn't just about helping them pay their wages; it was also about creating more money to circulate in the economy so that businesses could also profit from it and survive. Quite frankly, that is a realistic argument to put—and it worked during the COVID crisis. The same argument applies even when we don't have a crisis: if workers have more money in their hands, everybody benefits and profits from it. I really don't understand the logic of the government in continuously trying to push down wages.
A McKell Institute Queensland discussion paper on insecure work, released not long ago, highlights the shifting trend in recent years away from secure permanent work to less secure casual, part-time or contract work. In respect of contract work in particular, it too has been used frequently to circumvent conditions and entitlements of employees who sign those contracts and effectively trade away their rights that would otherwise exist. That's also a trend that is of concern, because with many of those contracts—I'm not just talking about the small contracts, where people become self-employed, as we might describe them, and then enter into a contract with an employer to provide services employees would have provided in the past; I'm also talking about those contracts that might go for three, four or five years, as many of the contracts in the service industry now go for. At the end of the four or five years there is no security for that person, and they hope they might have their contract renewed. But, even worse, within that four or five years they might also have to give away some of the terms and conditions that might have otherwise applied had they been permanent employees of the particular entity.
I understand that in today's workforce of around 12½ million people, less than half of all workers have permanent full-time paid jobs with all entitlements included—less than half. I also understand that 32 per cent of workers—this is according to that McKell Institute discussion paper—work less than 38 hours a week. It's interesting that in 1996, just over two decades ago, the figure was 11.3 per cent. In other words, in the last two decades the number of people who work less than 38 hours a week has trebled—and we'll see that figure rise much higher if this legislation goes through. Twenty-five per cent of workers are casuals.
I accept that for some people working casually or working part time suits their requirements and they are happy to do it. I don't have a problem with that, because I think in some cases it is appropriate. But frankly, for those people who would like to work more hours, and we know that there are about two million people who would, it is not always appropriate. For them, they only do it because they have no alternative. They are locked into an environment, a society at the moment where there is no other choice. There's an interesting correlation in all of this, and that is this: as trade union membership numbers have declined over the years, so too have the rights and entitlements of workers. A very similar trend: as trade union membership has fallen in Australia, so have workers' conditions and entitlements.
I will speak very briefly about the greenfields agreements. In the past, these contracts would have locked you in for four years. Other members have made the point that those agreements will be extended to eight years. Again, who is the loser in all of that? It will be the workers, because if you are locked into a contract for eight years, you are fixed to the terms and conditions applied at the time of signing. At least with four-year contracts you might be able to review them at the end of that contract. Then we have the provision whereby those greenfields contracts apply to entities or to contracts and projects of $500 million or more. We know that under this legislation the minister can intervene and declare a project of anywhere between $250 million and $500 million as a major project and have it included in a greenfields agreement. That declaration is not even disallowable; it doesn't have to come to this parliament! Again, this is a government that doesn't like scrutiny and doesn't like to be held to account in any way, shape or form.
Another matter I will briefly comment on is the issue of wage theft and the provisions in this legislation which actually weaken the protection for workers in Queensland and Victoria, because in Queensland and Victoria the governments have already introduced legislation to do exactly that. So we have legislation in two of the states that provides much better protection than what the federal government is proposing here. If you lower the bar for entities to be able to get away with wage theft, then it's very likely that more of them will still take the chance, and continue to do so.
The last issue I will talk about in the minute or so I have left is the issue of power imbalance. Again, speakers on this side in this debate have made it absolutely clear. Imagine a new arrival who perhaps barely knows the language, who certainly doesn't know all the laws in this country, or a young person or perhaps a person who's struggling with their mortgage repayments and needs whatever work they can get. How can we expect them to challenge their employer about the wages and conditions they get? They will never do that, and certainly they won't do it if they don't have the support of the unions, who have also been sidelined in all of this. So we know full well that whilst the government says people can take matters to the Fair Work Commission and the courts and the like, the reality is it doesn't happen already and it won't happen under this legislation. We know that most employers, and certainly the big employers, already have well-resourced HR departments who know how to manage the situation much better than the poor employees. These employees might be very good at the job that they are doing, but they are not HR managers or lawyers and, therefore, the power imbalance is totally unacceptable with respect to this legislation. We know this from past coalition governments. We've had the waterfront debacle, Work Choices and superannuation freezes. Now, under this coalition government, we see another attack on workers, and it is simply another way that this government and all coalition governments continually try to erode the rights of working people in this country.