House debates

Monday, 19 June 2017


Fair Work Amendment (Protecting Take Home Pay) Bill 2017; Second Reading

11:18 am

Photo of Matt ThistlethwaiteMatt Thistlethwaite (Kingsford Smith, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

Income inequality in Australia is increasing. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. When we look at income levels, this is the case. When we look at profit share of GDP, this is the case. In fact, recent Bureau of Statistics data show that labour's share of gross domestic product has fallen to 51.5 per cent, down from 54.2 per cent in the third quarter of last year. At the same time the profit share of GDP has gone from 24.5 per cent to a five-year high of 27.5 per cent. In respect of the recent mining boom, Australian households have not seen one cent of that additional income that came to Australia as a result of that; it has gone into the pockets of businesses. Decisions such as the decision of the Fair Work Commission in February of this year to cut weekend penalty rates for people working in hospitality, in retail, fast food, restaurant, clubs and pharmacy awards will further increase income inequality in Australia and will make life more difficult for a very vulnerable group of workers at a very difficult time.

In this respect, I applaud and support the leadership that has been shown by the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, in bringing this issue to the parliament. It is great to see that, finally, some on that side have awoken to what an issue this is—and the member for Dawson has moved a similar bill. Of course, the Leader of the Opposition said, when this case was handed down, that we would not stand by and allow vulnerable workers' penalty rates to be cut, that we would take action, despite the opposition of others and despite the opposition of the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull. The Leader of the Opposition moved the Fair Work Amendment (Protecting Take Home Pay) Bill 2017. This bill will ensure that no employees' or prospective employees' take-home pay is reduced as a result of a variation to a modern award. That is leadership. That is standing up for the rights of low-paid workers in this country and protecting penalty rates.

If you look at who is affected by the Fair Work Commission decision, analysis of recent ABS data and certain studies show that the characteristics of those workers who are affected by this decision and who work in the hospitality, retail and pharmacy industries are as follows: they are predominantly women; they are predominantly younger people; they tend to be students; and they tend to work on a casual and part-time basis. There is by no means any permanency to the work that they are doing. These are vulnerable workers. They tend to be on low incomes with no bargaining power whatsoever within their workplaces. It does not take much to push someone in a precarious position like that over the edge in terms of their income.

The effect of the Fair Work Commission decision will be to make life harder for those people in these industries, many of whom are already struggling to make ends meet. It is not an insignificant number of people. We are talking about 700,000 Australian workers who are potentially affected by the Fair Work Commission decision, and up to $70 per week is going to be taken away from them as a result of the decision to cut penalty rates. I have analysed one of those particular awards. A person who works just one regular Sunday shift per week in the hospitality industry is going to be $1,840 a year worse off. These are people who are already on low incomes—they are not multimillionaires—and the effect of this decision, which the Prime Minister stands by and supports and is allowing to happen, is that they are going to have their take-home pay cut by up to $2,000 a year.

It makes life harder for people in a difficult position already, who are struggling to make ends meet, and that is unfair. It certainly, in our view, does not represent object (b) in the Fair Work Act:

… ensuring a guaranteed safety net of fair, relevant and enforceable minimum terms and conditions through the National Employment Standards, modern awards and national minimum wage orders …

Labor will not stand by and allow this to occur. Labor is acting. Labor is standing up for low-paid workers. Labor is showing leadership on this issue of protecting penalty rates. Labor will always protect the take-home pay and penalty rates of Australian workers, and this bill represents that.

11:23 am

Photo of Andrew LamingAndrew Laming (Bowman, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am glad that the previous speaker has made these points and I hope he will stick around and learn that the last group that will enshrine penalty rates in this chamber are the Australian Labor Party. It is appropriate that we consider just how weak they have been in negotiating enterprise agreements in the past. This entire bill that detains the House today is essentially: negotiations over wage agreements were handed to an independent umpire, like an umpire in a cricket game, but, when the Labor Party are lbw, they want to change the rules and say there cannot be lbw anymore—preposterous.

In Queensland we have a perfect example: MP Don Brown, member for United Voice, in my electorate. As a current Labor MP, he has damaged clubs and their reputation and threatened staff. He has form, because, back in 2009, he was the lead union organiser who presided over the ripping away of penalty rates in an agreement with the Treasury Casino. But do not take it from me. The record is now with, who said:

Although delegates made up the negotiating team, in practice, it was the lead Casinos' union organiser, Don Brown, who had the authority.

Let us give voice to the workers who Mr Brown purported to represent. 'It was a disaster,' they said. The two main reasons the casino dispute went the boss's way were the laws and the union officials. The Treasury Casino deal under Mr Don Brown ripped away public holiday rates and left workers on Sundays worse off. Public holiday rates disappeared and remain completely gone. When the company rejected the union wage demands, it was people like Mr Don Brown who insisted that wage claims be lowered further in negotiations with management.

So what really got in the way of a successful strike in the end was Mr Don Brown, who when it came to the crunch actually stood next to management at these meetings. At every point when there was a choice to go forward or back—like a tank with five gears: four reverse and one forward just in case it was attacked from behind—Mr Brown basically stood shoulder to shoulder with management. In those final few days before the strike he dropped the wage demand from 5.5 per cent to 3.5 per cent. Of course this union backdown under Mr Don Brown encouraged the casino to offer even less.

Astonishingly, the union cancelled a second planned strike and agreed to go ahead with—wait for it—a company controlled ballot on the offer. You can imagine how disgusted workers were when their own union managed to crumble their efforts to at least have a strike that they voted 98 per cent in favour of. Mr Brown even had a PowerPoint presentation showing why casino workers should not strike, despite their vote. When the paperwork was submitted by the union's legal team, a technicality was found by Treasury's legal team, making it impossible for these workers to express their views in a strike.

Many union members simply did not vote after they saw Mr Brown standing next to the managing director trying to sell a 'rotten deal'. Workers felt betrayed by their union. The greatest present danger to penalty rates in this country are the literally dozens—over 100—enterprise agreements invented by unions in their negotiations with bosses. We are not talking about the umpire in this bill. Unions are the threat to penalty rates in this country. There were many union members who had given up. Two strikes had been cancelled after they had actually voted for them.

Then we have the libel and Don Brown circulating as a MP. He is no longer the member for Capalaba but now the 'member for United Voice'. I seek leave to table this libellous graph, which shows the completely fallacious wage agreement at Capalaba Sports Club, where Mr Don Brown could not even add up a penalty rate. One hundred people resigned from the LHMU as a result of this setback, but ultimately people like Don Brown and Mick de Brenni are examples of union bureaucracy. They see unionism as about being lawyers, this insidious and odious layer between management and workers trying to get what they want.

The deal at the Treasury Casino in 2009 is enshrined as an example of: if you put your trust in unions, you can say goodbye to penalty rates if it suits union organisers. They were paid to represent these people and did not. They were too worried about legal action to stand up and fight. Like you would dream would never happen in these negotiations, penalty rates disappeared because it suited the unions. (Time expired)

11:28 am

Photo of David FeeneyDavid Feeney (Batman, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Justice) Share this | | Hansard source

It is a pleasure to rise in support of the Fair Work Amendment (Protecting Take Home Pay) Bill 2017, which protects the take-home pay of some of our lowest paid workers. There are over 11,000 people in my community of Batman who work in the retail and hospitality industries. While the economic arguments for cutting penalty rates remain nonexistent, the case for their retention is clear. Penalty rates are essential for low-paid workers in Australia to keep the lights on and to keep food on the table. Penalty rates also recognise the sacrifice weekend workers make by giving up time with their families.

Today, however, I would like to speak on an aspect of this debate that I think deserves greater attention—the disproportionate impact that penalty rate cuts will have on women and what that means for gender equality in Australia. Acknowledging the gender aspect of this issue is important because it not only demonstrates the cruelty of these cuts but is also symptomatic of this government wilfully ignoring gender equality in its policy-making process.

Experts have warned that the Turnbull government's decision to allow penalty rate cuts to proceed will have a disproportionate and negative impact on women in our society. Marian Baird from the University of Sydney states that 54 per cent of employees in the hospitality and retail sectors—the sectors most affected by these cuts to penalty rates—are women. She notes that, for many women, working on weekends is their only option because conventional career work on weekdays is too inflexible for them and there is no child care. When we talk about the gender pay gap, we must recognise this refers not only to the difference in pay between men and women in the same positions but also to the fact that industries with disproportionately large female workforces are often the lowest paid. When you attack the lowest-paid workers in this country, you are disproportionately attacking women, and, in particular, young women. For example, Marie Coleman from the National Foundation for Australian Women notes that penalty rate cuts are a 'fair smash at younger women and female-headed families'. A policy that disproportionately and negatively impacts young women and female-headed households is, by its nature, contributing to gender inequality in Australia. For the Turnbull government to gleefully ignore this fact is shameful.

Marie Coleman has also raised an important point about the broader policy setting in which these cuts to penalty rates are taking place. These cuts are coming at a time when the Turnbull government's broader budget policy package is introducing measures that, when combined, hit women very hard indeed. A recent analysis by the National Foundation for Australian Women found that changes to the Medicare levy, the student loans repayments and the family tax benefit contained in the budget could lead to an effective marginal tax rate of 100 per cent, or even more for some women. Effective marginal tax rates measure the proportion of additional dollar earnings that are lost to both income tax and the reduction of means-tested government payments. Lower-paid graduates with a family will be the ones caught between these Turnbull government policies, to their severe detriment. Under these combined policies, a graduate earning $51,000—the majority of whom are likely to be women—will have less disposable income than someone on $32,000. So much for encouraging women to join our workforce!

When my colleague the member for Jagajaga asked the Prime Minister about this unfair policy setting, the Prime Minister not only sought to undermine the study, despite obviously having never read it, but proceeded to say that his policies were fair and equitable and that he was getting the balance right. This statement by the Prime Minister goes to the very heart of this issue. Just as the Prime Minister chose to brush aside the member for Jagajaga's question, this government has chosen to brush aside deeper issues of gender inequality in Australian society. When policy development occurs in a vacuum with little reference to the lives of real Australians, the cumulative impact can be disastrous. If we are serious about addressing gender inequality in Australia, policy development—in particular, those policies relating to the welfare of the workforce—needs to also be considered through a gender lens. Labor has for many years undertaken to prepare a women's budget statement to look specifically at the impact of the budget on women. The coalition has refused to follow Labor's lead. The bill before the House right now offers those opposite and crossbenchers an opportunity to protect our lowest-paid workers and to demonstrate our shared commitment to gender equality. I urge every member of this House to take this opportunity.

11:33 am

Photo of Rowan RamseyRowan Ramsey (Grey, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to focus particularly today on some propaganda that has been circulated in my electorate by the Australian Labor Party—by Senator Gallacher, in fact. Recently, people in the cities of the Spencer Gulf—Whyalla, Port Augusta and Port Pirie—received a DL in their mailboxes. There are a number of very ambitious claims in this DL around this issue of penalty rates. Firstly, there is an outright mistruth, in that it says that Rowan Ramsey has voted in favour of cuts to penalty rates. In fact, we have not had a motion in this House that has come to a vote. While I may support the decision by Fair Work Australia in principle, I have not voted on this issue. It is a lie. It is simply not true. But, probably more instructively—and it is always very interesting to look at how these claims on propaganda are phrased, how they are couched—there is a claim that up to, and I emphasise the words 'up to,' 10,818 people in the electorate of Grey are going to lose wages as a result of the penalty rate decision. Clearly that is not completely wrong. 'Up to' could mean anything from zero to 10,818. I had a look at the figure of 10,818. Remember that the independent organisation Fair Work Australia, staffed largely by people appointed by the previous regime, the Labor government—the five commissioners who sat on this decision were appointed by either Julia Gillard or the now Leader of the Opposition, Mr Shorten—came to this independent decision, but it only relates to the hospitality and retail sector. I think to myself, 'How on earth will I find 10,818 workers in hospitality and retail working on a Sunday or holiday Monday?' considering that those who work for McDonald's, KFC and other large national chains are not affected by this decision because the union has already cut a deal on their penalty rates and they work at a lower rate than those who are working for small business.

Grey is a regional country electorate. There is not much open on a Sunday and there is even less open on a holiday Monday. In the larger centres—those being the four small cities of Whyalla, Port Augusta, Port Pirie and Port Lincoln—stores like Woolworths and Coles are open, but, blow me down, they are unaffected by this decision as well. So, on Sundays and holiday Mondays, the largest employers are not actually affected by the decision. The small cafes—the family type cafes—are affected by the decision, but unfortunately they are largely already shut. I could drive from town to town and would find one outlet open—maybe a roadhouse or maybe a hotel. In the case of the small towns, the hotels and roadhouses have their families working on the weekends. I wonder why that is. Perhaps it has something to do with penalty rates. In fact, I was talking to a pizza shop owner in Port Augusta a couple of years ago. He told me that on a holiday Monday he had to pay his pizza delivery boy $48 an hour. What a preposterous arrangement that is. I wonder how many pizzas he would have to buy the ingredients for, make, sell and deliver just to pay his driver's wages. He too was using his family to staff his pizza shop on those Sundays and Mondays.

The decision by Fair Work Australia is fairly justified. It is a moderate reform and it must help to generate more jobs. Perhaps that pizza shop owner will take a Sunday or holiday Monday off, spend it with his kids and put some staff in the shop as a result of it. It is an opportunity for young Australians. The decision by the Labor Party to oppose the reforms of their Fair Work Australia is disgraceful.

11:38 am

Photo of Adam BandtAdam Bandt (Melbourne, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

The Fair Work Amendment (Protecting Take Home Pay) Bill 2017 shows why you need the Greens in parliament. The Greens and only the Greens went to the last election saying, 'Look, there's a chance that people's penalty rates could be cut by the Fair Work Commission,' and we went to the election saying, 'We will pass a law to make sure that the Fair Work Commission cannot cut people's penalty rates,' because the Greens understand that there are people working nights, weekends and public holidays—at a time when the rest of us get to rest, do our shopping or spend time with our families and friends—who rely on penalty rates to make ends meet. We said that, if the law allows the Fair Work Commission to cut people's rates of pay at a time when wages are actually going backwards in many parts of the country, the law needs to be fixed. Most people in this country would be horrified to think that the laws allow your wages to be cut when you are doing work at a time when many other people do not want to work and it comes at great inconvenience to you. When we took that position to the election, we expected the Liberals to say, 'No, we don't support you on that.' What we did not expect was the Labor Party was to oppose us, saying that they were quite happy if they won the election to allow people's rates of pay to be cut. But that is what they did, and the Leader of the Opposition said, 'There's no need for these kinds of laws because it's not going to happen. Aliens may come down from space! Don't worry about it. It's not going to happen.'

The Greens could see that there was a hole in the law that needed to be fixed. I am very pleased that, since the election, the opposition have changed their mind and Labor have now come in the behind the Greens' position and are willing to change the law so that the Fair Work Commission is not allowed to cut people's penalty rates. That is a good thing because we know that there are people who are working to get through university or TAFE and are working shifts in order to pay the rent—rent that is going through the roof in many capital cities; if you want to live near where you are studying, it is becoming increasingly difficult to do that—and people are reliant on working on weekends, working late at night at the bar, working in a cafe or working in some other form of hospitality or in the retail industry. Perhaps they are working around the clock so that we can go and do our shopping late at night. We know people are reliant on those penalty rates to make ends meet. So you should not be allowed in this country to change the law so that people's rates of pay can be cut, especially when we talking about some of the lowest paid workers in this country and we are talking predominantly about women.

By taking the stand that we did at the election—and, yes, we were the only ones doing it at the time and, yes, we were pilloried by Labor and the Liberals for doing it—we have changed the debate. I am very pleased that the opposition have now brought forward a bill to close the hole that we pointed out a number of times. It is now up to the government to support it and to support the passage of the bill before 1 July because that is when a lot of the cuts are going to take place. If the government as a whole will not support it, perhaps there are a couple of backbenchers who might cross the floor to support it. I have to say that, after last week, I have my doubts. All of these people talk very big about crossing the floor to protect penalty rates and to have a royal commission into the banks and then, when push comes to shove, they never do it. No surprise there. They take positions that they know people want to hear and then they fail to back them up when they come to the floor, but this might be a chance if we can bring it on for a vote and bring it on for a vote soon.

There is another area that we have to fix up—and some members have referred to this—and that is that many people who work in retail or fast food or hospitality are, in fact, not going to see their penalty rates cut because they have never been able to get their penalty rates in the first place. There are many workers in Coles, Woolworths, Hungry Jacks and KFC who have not been getting weekend penalty rates in the first place because of very bad agreements that have been done—agreements that should never have been approved by the Fair Work Commission. We need to fix them up as well, and the Greens have a bill in parliament to do that because we do not believe that an 18-year-old working in McDonald's over the weekend should be paid less than the award wage, but that is what is happening at the moment. That is what is happening right around this country. I have heard members of the government point that out and say, 'We've these bad agreements in place, so you're hypocrites,' and all the rest. Well, government: if you are actually concerned about it, then support the Greens' bill to fix it. Support the bill to fix it so that small businesses do not have to pay more than big business counterparts and people are not getting done over for working on weekends.

Photo of Ian GoodenoughIan Goodenough (Moore, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the amendment be agreed to.

11:43 am

Photo of Ed HusicEd Husic (Chifley, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Shadow Treasurer) Share this | | Hansard source

Through the eighties and nineties one of the big economic reforms, one of the big things that was done to improve the way in which our economy created and protected jobs, and also at a time when the economy was being opened up to competition with the rest of the world, was the move to enterprise bargaining. We moved from a centralised wage-fixing system to one that said we would look at the conditions that apply to companies within particular sectors within the economy and we would tailor wage agreements to satisfy those conditions. Bear in mind that, through the early eighties, we went through wages explosions. We used to have wage agreements that were double-digit in nature that reflected an economy that was in severe need of reform and change, and we saw through those two decades the opening up of the economy and the changes within that were setting us on the trajectory for 25-years-plus of economic growth. It was about enterprise bargaining and it was one of those things that, again, made sure we had that flexibility in place. So imagine my surprise today, listening to this debate, when we hear those opposite within the coalition pick individual agreements that then go to individual enterprises and try to make this claim that unions somehow had ripped off the workers as part of those agreements—all for this fallacious argument that is being played out here on the floor that is suggesting that penalty rates had been traded off was because of something that unions had done, not that the businesses that advocated for them, mind you, but that that unions had done and agreed to.

How convenient is it to suspend reality, fact and the real-life circumstances that apply in the setting of those agreements—for example, that there has to be a better-off overall test that conditions that are put to be given away or traded away in one instance will see the creation of some other benefit; that something else will be done to improve the way in which workers are remunerated within a particular enterprise and that that is in place there; that these things have to, secondly, be voted upon by employees; and that employees themselves, be they union members or not, have to support those agreements that are being put in this. These are not considered, but what is being considered by this government is, instead of the way in which you would have enterprises make these arrangements in a climate where wages growth is at its lowest and where underemployment is at its highest, they would, regardless of the enterprise, to take out one plank straightaway—that is, they would remove people's protection on penalty rates. They would not give people the decision within an enterprise bargaining context to work out what is right, what is wrong or what is acceptable to them. No, the conservative government will come in and remove that protection straightaway—$77 out of the hands of 700,000 people; no enterprise bargaining.

The only time when this mob opposite supports anything that comes to the centralisation of wage fixing is to take stuff away from workers, is to take away the ability of lowest-paid. You never hear those opposite championing a wage increase for the lowest-paid in this country; it is always, 'Oh no, it's too expensive' or, in this case, they will be arguing not for a lift in conditions, but again to take away penalty rates.

You have got here today people arguing against, on the one hand, enterprise bargaining and what that might throw up and, in effect, arguing against one of the big things that has helped make sure that Australian firms are way more competitive. On the other hand, they have this semi-move back to centralised wage fixing where they can determine whether or not they rip out people's wages and conditions at a time where wages are so flat that people feel like the next wage increase will not be a wage increase whatsoever. This is the galling hypocrisy that you see in this debate from those opposite who somehow shroud themselves as the friend of the worker while, in the very debate, they are going to detract from the ability of those workers to actually hold onto the wages they rightly deserve. There needs to be fair dinkum consideration of what people are earning, how they are earning it, the conditions and the protections that are there, but you will never get that from a conservative government—never, ever will you get that from a conservative government.

11:48 am

Photo of Keith PittKeith Pitt (Hinkler, National Party, Assistant Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment) Share this | | Hansard source

I move the debate be adjourned.

Question agreed to.

Debate adjourned.