House debates

Monday, 11 September 2023


Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Closing Loopholes) Bill 2023; Second Reading

6:44 pm

Photo of Michelle Ananda-RajahMichelle Ananda-Rajah (Higgins, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

Lucy is a 63-year-old aged care educator in my electorate who owns a lovely single-fronted terrace with a nice garden, located in Malvern. She walks her dog around the neighbourhood and lives a simple life within her means. In closer discussion she frets, though, about meeting her mortgage repayments, because she has been employed on a casual basis for the past 10 years on recurrent rolling contracts. Without regular work she is at risk of losing her home, something she came close to during the early days of the pandemic when her work dried up. At her age it is not easy to find another job. This is her reward for working her whole life and paying her taxes. If Lucy could go into permanent work she would, but that pathway has evaporated for her. As a result she dips into her super to pay her mortgage when she can't make ends meet, robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Under our workplace reforms if you are working regular and predictable hours like Lucy and you want to be permanent, you will be able to do so. It will be voluntary, initiated by the worker. No-one will be forced to convert to permanent and lose their casual loading. Employees in medium and large businesses will be able to access permanent work after six months, while those working in small businesses will after 12 months. The worker gains financial security and feels valued, while the business retains an experienced worker. Our society gains by living its values of the fair go while dialling down the vulnerability too many Australians face. This measure will benefit around 850,000 casual workers. Bills aren't casual; they are a certainty, so why shouldn't people working regular hours have the same certainty about their next pay cheque?

While Lucy is at the end of her working life, she keeps company with younger people who are part of that growing army of 2.7 million casuals and 320,000 labour hire workers across Australia. These are the truckies who move our goods around from farm to table, those who stack our shelves, the workers who keep residential aged care homes functioning, those who work in childcare centres and those who send us overseas and then bring us back again. We complain bitterly when services are not up to scratch, flights are delayed, bags are late or lost and wait times at call centres blow out, but we do not probe as to why, despite booming profits, customer service is so poor.

Australians can accept bumper profits even during tough economic periods, provided that customer service standards are not just upheld but in fact exceeded. When service delivery tanks in the face of bloated corporate profits, Australians see red. The exceptional service Australians rightfully expect is delivered not by robots but by people, and those people have not been treated fairly for some time. It is not uncommon for stewards on the same flight to have different wages or for baggage handlers to be outsourced to labour hire firms who undercut EBAs. It may explain why the customer experience is so variable in Australian airports. Every permutation of flights on time, delayed or cancelled has become the norm rather than the exception. What has emerged in Australia is that large companies have exploited the labour hire loophole to undercut EBAs they've already signed up to. Labour hire workers are brought in at lower pay to perform the same work. It makes a mockery of the EBA process.

This amendment will give the Fair Work Commission the powers to require labour hire employees be paid at least the wages of the EBA. Some exemptions will apply for small businesses. The explosion of gig workers, some of whom have died in the course of their work, like food delivery workers, is the focus of our minimum standards. Gig workers enjoy their flexibility, but they also want to work free from exploitation and in a safe environment so they can go home rather than to hospital or worse. Low pay drives shortcuts in safety, which can lead to life-limiting choices and consequences. This needs to change. I don't want to live in a society with a growing underclass of working poor; neither do my constituents. I've seen it overseas, where tips pay the bills. It does not align with our values. The mentality of the disposable worker needs to stop.

The amendment will allow the Fair Work Commission to set minimum standards for gig workers. These minimum standards may cover payment terms, deductions, insurance and cost recovery but not rostering or work health and safety, which falls under other legislation. One of my favourite elements of this bill is around criminalising wage theft. Wage theft is rampant, and those opposite were complicit in allowing it to take root like a toxic weed. They even cultivated it by taking years to acknowledge the problem and then introducing legislation only to vote down their own legislation in the Senate. They effectively switched on a green flashing light for wage theft.

Wage theft is criminalised in Victoria and Queensland because they got sick of waiting for the previous government to act. However, we need national consistency on this issue to close this loophole. Heftier penalties will apply, with jail time of up to 10 years and financial penalties calculated in the multiples. The deterrent effect of criminalising wage theft will be profound. It sends a message to employers to tighten up their processes. A class action against a Victorian health network was found in favour of 1,500 junior doctors who had been chronically underpaid their overtime between 2015 and 2021. It was the norm when I went through my early training. We just took it on the chin and took it in our hip pocket, but not this generation. If it's happening to our brightest, then it's happening to many others, and it shouldn't take court action to rectify. We will be criminalising wage theft with a stroke of our pen.

I have previously written about work health and safety in health care in the context of breaches during the early days of the pandemic. My research paper called Hearing the voices of Australian healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic had testimony from Australian healthcare workers noting that a few of them actually died from exposure to COVID in the course of their work. These were nurses. Industrial manslaughter is a crime in Victoria, and it is long overdue that it become nationally consistent, again to act as a powerful lever to lift work health and safety standards. Penalties will be $18 million for a body corporate and 25 years for an individual. One hundred and sixty people died at work in 2022. That's 160 too many.

It will be unlawful to discriminate against a worker who has disclosed that they have been subject to family and domestic violence, complementing the 10 days of paid family and domestic violence leave that we have already legislated. This acknowledges that domestic violence affects people's cognition—their ability to think, to perform and to be productive. It destabilises them, but it should not result in termination of employment at a time when people need support. When workers are not happy, especially in the service industries, it follows that the customer experience will suffer. The same applies to health care. Doctors and nurses who do not feel valued or respected do not give their best. It is difficult to quantify, but the end result is the same: service delivery suffers. Aged care is no different, and, when a heavily casualised workforce moved between aged-care centres to make ends meet, infection control became the casualty, leading to aged-care outbreaks that were deadly, and these in turn spilt into the community, prolonging lockdowns.

The health and economic impact of precarious work is real. The chronic erosion of pay and conditions is contributing to inequality, which not only denies workers social mobility but presents a growing threat to societal stability. It is not about having a competitive business sector versus fair work and fair pay for people. You can have both. Indeed Germany has examples of industries where this applies. It is not a zero-sum game. For too long, workers have been seen as a problem to be managed rather than the asset that they are. There are a raft of changes in this bill, but the overall intent is clear: we seek to breathe life and put teeth into our election promise of secure work and better pay. I commend this bill to the House.


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