House debates

Wednesday, 3 February 2021


Workplace Relations

7:36 pm

Photo of Graham PerrettGraham Perrett (Moreton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Education) Share this | | Hansard source

Last year was a very tough year for many Australians. I have seen and continue to see people in my community under pressure. Some businesses have been forced to close for periods due to the pandemic. Obviously travel has been restricted, disrupting many industries. Some frontline and essential workers have put themselves at risk just by showing up for work during the pandemic. Some still are to this day, and I thank them. Other workers have managed to get by with the help of JobKeeper, a wage subsidy that Labor called for very early during the pandemic. Sadly the JobKeeper subsidy was slashed on Monday this week by $100 for some and $200 for others and is set to cease altogether next month. Many workers relying on the JobSeeker subsidy are worried right now about how they will put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads. This is a premature withdrawal of support for businesses and workers, because many Moreton businesses are still doing it tough, especially those sectors where international travel is an essential component. Businesses who rely on international students are being hammered right now.

The Morrison government, rather than extending the JobKeeper subsidy for suffering businesses, has introduced legislation that will actually make workers worse off. It's hard to believe that in the middle of a pandemic, when workers are already struggling to make ends meet, the government would actually cut people's pay. Sadly, this is consistent with the Morrison government's approach to looking after workers in general. Eight years of flatlining wages growth is directly linked to eight years of coalition government. The legislation introduced by the Morrison government late last year will cut workers' pay. It will have a devastating impact on working families who are already doing it tough. In particular, the Attorney-General's legislation introduced in December will suspend the better off overall test for two years for any business that has been affected by COVID-19. The better off overall test is designed to protect workers' conditions. For example, if there is something in an agreement that cuts penalty rates at some point, the employer will need to increase the base rate of pay to compensate for that so the worker won't end up worse off, hence the name 'better off overall test' or BOOT.

The government is suspending the better off overall test for two years. So, for two years after the legislation is passed, any agreement that cuts penalty rates does not need to increase the hourly rate. This leaves workers worse off. It is effectively a pay cut. We've seen this play before. It happened under John Howard. At that time it was called the no-disadvantage test. That test was also suspended for a period. The problem is there are still agreements in place today, in 2021, in workplaces from that Howard era suspension. Even though there is a technical expiry date to the suspension, if the employer hasn't agreed to a new agreement, the current agreement, which leaves the worker worse off, persists. How is that for a Howard legacy?

The Morrison government's new version, the new legislation, will have a lasting impact on the pay that workers take home and on their working conditions. If penalty rates disappear but hourly rates stay the same, it will also impact on the working shifts that people need to cover. Obviously, if you abolish something called the better off overall test, guess what? Workers will be worse off. Pay cuts are bad for workers and bad for the economy right now. For Australia to recover from the COVID recession, we need people who have money and we need to give them the confidence to spend that money in local businesses. Instead, the Morrison government want to make work less secure and they want to cut the take-home pay of Australians. The government want to have their cake and eat it, too. They say the economy is doing well, so well that businesses no longer need JobKeeper, but then they say the economy is doing so badly they need to cut the pay of workers. They can't have it both ways.

2020 really was a tough year—a year to be grateful for the workers who kept everything going in the frightening early days, weeks and months of this pandemic, when we didn't understand everything. I particularly want to give a call-out to the supermarket workers. Who would have thought they would be essential workers? Obviously there are the cleaners, who, to this day, are making our workplaces safe. Truck drivers, nurses, pharmacists and so many others are making this new COVID world a liveable place. I would like to take this opportunity to thank those workers for their sacrifices, for putting their own health at risk and for keeping the country going. I will not forget. Labor won't forget. I will fight for your rights at work for fair conditions and for a fair day's wage for a fair day's work. That is something that Labor and unions will always fight for.

I know Australian workers can't trust a Liberal government when it comes to wages and conditions. It's in the DNA of coalition governments to change their conditions at work. Some things never change and, sadly, the attack on industrial relations under the Morrison government is another example of that.