House debates

Monday, 22 February 2021


Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020; Second Reading

6:55 pm

Photo of Stephen JonesStephen Jones (Whitlam, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Treasurer) Share this | Hansard source

The government has introduced a bill, the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020, which permits employers to cut wages and reduce rights. Of course, the Prime Minister is not the first prime minister to do that. The last Liberal prime minister that introduced a bill to enable employers to cut wages and reduce workers' rights was John Howard, and, as a direct consequence of that bill, the Work Choices bill, he lost not only government but his seat. John Howard wasn't the first Liberal prime minister who would lose his seat and his government by introducing a law which enabled employers to cut wages and reduce rights. There was another gentleman, by the name of Stanley Melbourne Bruce, who lost his seat and his government in exactly the same circumstances. We firmly predict that if this Prime Minister continues on this course then he will be the third Liberal prime minister who loses his government because he has introduced a bill, in the midst of an economic crisis, which enables employers and the government to reduce wages and conditions.

The government has introduced a bill on industrial relations in the midst of an economic crisis. This is an opportunity for the government to make a statement about the future, to set out its vision for the future of Australian workplaces and for good, secure jobs. It's an opportunity to make a statement about what workplaces will look once the crisis has receded. The government has not taken this opportunity. There is not a word about what a workplace will look like in the future. In fact, if you look at this legislation, it's a pretty bleak vision of the future indeed. This bill does none of it. It's an opportunity to take the big economic challenge head on and do something to fix it. It is not in the nature of this Prime Minister to take responsibility for a challenge that the country is confronted with on his watch. It is in the nature of this Prime Minister to do the opposite: 'It's not my responsibility. I don't hold a hose. I wasn't there. I saw nothing. There's nothing to see here.' If this government wants to be taken seriously then it has to confront the biggest challenges that workers and our economy will be dealing with over the next decade: high unemployment, low wages growth, low worker participation, high underemployment and high casualisation.

I want to address the big challenges. Let me deal first with low wages. If we were to go back through every budget paper since this mob formed government in 2013, we would see heroic assumptions about how wages were going to grow. They have not hit a single target. They are not alone; the Reserve Bank has been in exactly the same position. They have not hit a single wage prediction. What we have seen over the last decade is stagnating wages. We have seen wages go backwards. The government predicts they're going to go up, but they don't. The government hopes they're going to go up, but they don't. The government makes statements about more jobs and better pay, but we see neither. We are seeing wages stagnating and we are seeing the workers' share of national income declining year on year on year. How are we going to fix it? This is the biggest elephant in the smallest room. It's not like we haven't confronted this problem in the past.

We invented something called unions—workers getting together, bargaining collectively and increasing their wages and conditions. If the government were truly committed to ensuring that workers wages increase then they would have introduced a bill into this parliament which would have included provisions to enable workers to bargain collectively and to do it more effectively to increase their wages and conditions. Instead of introducing laws which enhance workers' abilities to join a union, to bargain collectively and to have more power in the workplace to increase their wages and conditions, every single instinct of this government is to do exactly the opposite—to water down a union's ability to represent their members and to make it harder for union members to participate in their union. And yet they come in here, year after year and budget after budget, saying: 'What can we do? Wages just won't grow.'

Wages don't grow magically! They grow because workers have the capacity to bargain collectively. The evidence is in: it is absolutely clear. If you look at the difference for workers who have increases based on collective agreement-making the figures are very, very clear. The government's own figures show that between 2016 and 2019 wage agreements subject to collective-bargaining won wage rises of 2.7 per cent as opposed to 1.9 per cent for the rest of the workforce. It's clear: collective bargaining works. So if the government want to do anything about seeing wages increase they will enhance the capacity of workers to bargain collectively. That, and only that, is going to see wages moving in our economy.

It's in the interests of every workplace and every business and in the economy as a whole to see wages growing. Before the recession the Reserve Bank governor said that he wanted to see wage agreements with a three in front of them, and yet a few weeks ago he conceded that we weren't going to see any wage growth at all in the next 12 months. We know the fuel that is going to get economic growth going again is more money in workers' pockets so that they can spend more money in their local economy and get the economy moving again. So if the government wanted to do something about the biggest problem confronting the workforce they would introduce bills which do the very opposite of what this legislation does. They would introduce legislation which enhances workers' ability to join their union, to bargain collectively and to get, effectively, a better slice of the national income.

The government would use their rhetorical power too. We would see the Prime Minister standing at the dispatch box and saying the words that we will never hear a Liberal Prime Minister utter: 'I think unions are good. I think unions play an important role in our workplace. I think unions play an important role in our economy. I think the solution to low wages growth is allowing unions to bargain effectively.' What an impact that would have on legislation, with the Prime Minister using the authority of his position to say, 'We've got to do this differently.' It is the biggest elephant in the smallest room: to get unions working in the national interest and moving workers' wages up, not down. This bill does the very opposite.

I'll say something about casualisation, or, more accurately, let's call it insecure work—casualisation and insecure work. Whether you're an employee or somebody working in employment-like circumstances, at least one in four Australian workers today are in insecure work. For the worker, it means they don't know from one day to the next what their pay packet is going to look like—whether they'll have a few hours work, a whole day's work or no work at all. They can't plan their week, let alone their lives. They can't get access to credit, at least not at an affordable rate, so a big bill can be an economic catastrophe for their household. They certainly cannot hope to get a home loan; no bank would loan to them, because they don't have the income or work history.

One in four Australian workers are facing this situation. Members of the government are claiming that we have a crisis in home ownership in this country, yet on their very watch we see casualisation going up, and the solutions to casualisation are nowhere to be seen. We used to see that this was just a problem for the individual—insecure work, the inability to plan their lives. But throughout the pandemic we've realised that it was not only a problem for the individual worker but also a problem for society at large. Insecure work means that a worker has to work one, two, three and sometimes even four jobs, presenting a health risk to everyone. It's not their fault, but it has a societal impact.

We all have a stake in ensuring that we do more to reduce the rate of casualisation and insecure work. I know that some on the other side say: 'Well, this is the new world. Get excited about it. We've got new app-based work.' A kid on a bike delivering a pizza at the beck and call of an app on his or her phone is not a future to get excited about. Surely Australia can do better than that. Surely Australians who have suffered so much through this pandemic can look forward to much more than that at the other end of it.

I want to say something about older workers, because this is something that this government has completely and utterly ignored. If somebody were to stand here and say that the 13 per cent youth unemployment rate in this country is a national crisis and that we must all lean into it and do something about it, they'd get stern nods from every member in this House, saying: 'Yes, 13 per cent youth unemployment is a tragedy. We must fix it.' If I were to tell you that the jobless rate for workers over the age of 65 is 20 per cent, you wouldn't believe me. But that is the fact. One in five Australians over the age of 55 and under the age of 65 is jobless. Nobody's talking about it. It's a silent crisis.

This mob over here went to the last election saying they were going to stick up for older Australians. They dropped them like a hot mouldy potato as soon as the election was in. That is one in five Australian workers discriminated against in the workplace. They take twice as long to find a job, if they're able to get an interview. If you listen to the stories of older workers, they will tell you: 'I apply for 10, 15, 20 jobs each and every week and don't even get a reply back. They see my age and they assume that my time in the workforce is done—too inflexible, too old, got no skills, not suitable.' Well, I say you're wrong. I say older workers have skills and capacity that we will be relying on, that we absolutely need.


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