House debates

Wednesday, 17 February 2021


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

4:16 pm

Photo of Meryl SwansonMeryl Swanson (Paterson, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

Getting back to where we were earlier, under the cover of COVID this coalition government—that is, these Liberals and Nationals, aided and abetted by their friends One Nation—wants to cut your wages. That is as simple as it gets. That is what is happening here. Again, this government can't even sort out a reasonable award for its own staff. The members of parliament pay agreement is now a year overdue. That's right: this government that wants to overturn the IR system in this country wants to do over our own employees without whom this place wouldn't be able to run. The bill will cut bargaining rights and protections for workers whose pay and conditions are covered by agreements. So let's get it straight: this government can't even get the staffing agreements right here in Parliament House and yet it's saying: 'Nothing to see here; it will all be fine. Just trust us with your wages and conditions. Just trust us with the Fair Work Commission, the umpire. Everything's fine. There's nothing to see here. We don't want to cause any problems for you.' It is bunkum! It will undermine the critical function of the independent umpire, the Fair Work Commission, to ensure agreements are fair and leave workers better off. That is what we're talking about here. All this talk of a BOOT, it stands for the better off overall test. It means that, if people are earning wages in Australia, they shouldn't be cut. The bill retrospectively strips misclassified casuals of their right to leave entitlements as well. It is ridiculous that under this bill an employer can classify an employee as casual even if the job is not casual, stripping them of their entitlements, such as sick leave and maternity leave.

One of the most sinister intentions within this bill is to allow for unreasonable, flexible—and therein lies the difficulty—work directives. This bill would provide a two-year extension of JobKeeper-style flexible work directions. Remember, what I said about the cover of COVID, well, my goodness, this is right under the deep doona of corona. They want to continue to be able to give directives to people for duties and locations of work without JobKeeper payments and without the key protections that came with JobKeeper, which the parliament supported in 2020. They want you to still be able to do this work under these 'flexible' work directions. Be very wary of these flexible work directions. Unlike JobKeeper, the employer will not need to satisfy a turnover test; the employer simply needs to believe it's necessary to give a directive to assist in the revival of an enterprise. I think that that's called giving an inch and literally stretching it well and truly over the mile marker.

We on this side do understand that Australians deserve a government that's on their side, and we know businesses want a government that's on their side, but it needs to be fair. The workers of Australia deserve the backing of their government. It's core to the ideal of the Liberal government that a worker should be stripped of rights to stop employers issuing unreasonable directions. This bill works to strip the powers of the Fair Work Commission when it comes to arbitrating disputes, and therein lies the problem—again, ripping the whistle out of the umpire's mouth. Why is the government using its time in this place to declare war on workers, rather than putting its energy into issues that really affect them? For goodness sake! Why don't we see this government move legislation to stop wage theft or maybe pursue the multinational corporations that are offshoring profits for their fair share of tax? There are a couple of ideas for free, Treasurer! Get on with those things. These are the things that people in Australia really want to see you pursuing. They don't want you putting your hand in their pay packet; they can't afford it. Instead, this bill will work to override the strong wage theft laws of the Andrews government in Victoria and the Palaszczuk government in Queensland. The vested interests of this government clearly take issue with Labor states protecting workers against exploitation.

The government ended 2020 standing firm in its blatant denialism that this bill would hurt workers. Today, we again hear the Attorney-General flatly denying that it's going to harm workers when we know it will. It's not a trust issue. It's not: 'Just trust us.' We need only look into very recent history to Work Choices to know that trust is not there; they don't deserve our trust. Then suddenly, as if he has been scared into reality by whispers of backbench colleagues revolting, the Attorney-General removed the most extreme part of the bill. Good on him! It would seem that the good minister's vision has become clearer, thankfully. But, even with the removal of the better off overall test, this bill represents a fundamental attack on the rights of workers.

This is the Prime Minister's very own attempt at a Howard-style assault on workers. The bill will not generate jobs, it will not make them more secure and it will lead to more pay cuts. Business will already be on shaky ground if this government does not sort out tailored solutions for key industries before the end of JobKeeper. We will see insolvency rates absolutely skyrocket and continue to put more and more people out of work. This bill makes it easier for employers to casualise jobs that would have otherwise been permanent. It works to undermine the bargaining process at a time when better pay and conditions are more difficult than ever to negotiate. It weakens wage theft punishments in jurisdictions where wage theft was already deemed a criminal act. Overall, it wants to make our workforce less secure, and that is the take-home message. We need a good, secure workforce, people who feel secure in their job and who want to go and give of their best every day for a fair day's pay.

Together, Australians survived a pandemic, and our broad congratulations to the Australian people that that happened. The impact of that is still being felt. Why now, when people are trying to pick up the pieces of their lives and livelihoods, does this government wants to undermine them? Is it because the Australian people are vulnerable? Is it because they're distracted? What happened to Team Australia? In its briefing note, prepared following the introduction of the legislation, the ACTU said:

The Bill fails the Government's own test: workers will be worse off.

…   …   …

The Government's changes will make jobs less secure; they will make it easier for employers to casualise permanent jobs and allow employers to pay workers less than the award safety net. This is the opposite of what the country needs.

As indicated in these comments from the ACTU, it is clear that the bill does not represent a consensus outcome from the working group process. Many people may not fully understand the consequences of the BOOT and how it would affect them directly. So I want to clarify: the Morrison government confirmed it wants to cut workers' take-home pay. This has been made clear by the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General, who acknowledged they are only ditching their plan to scrap the better off overall test because they cannot get it through the parliament, not because they think it's unfair. They know that MPs in some of the Liberals' most marginal seats are concerned and have called for a retreat for the sake of political expediency. It remains clear that the frontbench of this government wants to cut workers' take-home pay—and if they get another chance they'll try it again. In his statement, the Attorney-General said he still believes the change, which would remove the safety net for workers and give employers vastly expanded powers to cut pay and entitlements, is 'sensible and proportionate'. Those are the words of the Attorney-General. You can take that to the bank, can't you! This government thinks aspirational workers across Australia should be cut down, hardworking families pushed aside. A typical worker in my region is paying 40 per cent of their weekly wage on rent. Land is expensive, and working families across my area are working tirelessly just to try and stay ahead. It isn't fair.

4:26 pm

Photo of Anthony AlbaneseAnthony Albanese (Grayndler, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

Yesterday we saw a very cynical ploy from a cynical government. They removed a key element of their own legislation prior to this debate commencing. Having spent days, weeks and months saying there was 'nothing to see here' when it came to getting rid of the better off overall test—nothing to see; they wouldn't make changes at all—they came in here and said, 'Well, actually, we were trying to cut wages through getting rid of the better off overall test.' But it's not the only element of this bill that's about cutting wages and conditions, it's not the only element of this bill that's about fairness, it's not the only element of this bill that's about contradicting the process this government established of having employer organisations and unions sit down in good faith. And then, all of a sudden, the legislation that appeared didn't reflect those good-faith discussions.

The fact is that the only reason they backed off on the issue of the better off overall test was pressure from the Labor Party and the trade union movement. That is the only reason they backed off. It was not because they changed their mind on not wanting workers to be better off overall. Today in question time I gave the Prime Minister multiple opportunities to guarantee that no worker would be worse off. His industrial relations minister for the moment didn't worry about the facts; he was happy to give any guarantee, to say anything. But the Prime Minister was more cautious because, in his DNA, he knows that what the Liberal Party has always been about is changing the ratio of money in our economy that goes to wages and to profits—changing the balance from workers to capital. That's what they do. That's what the Liberal Party are all about. That's their core value.

This bill can't be disguised by the spin that the chief marketing officer who sits in the Lodge is the expert at. We know that there's a range of permanent changes in this bill that will have a negative impact on workers. It still allows for wage cuts and makes it easier for employers to casualise jobs that would have otherwise been permanent. It makes it almost impossible for casual workers to be made permanent if the circumstances would justify that, because you can't arbitrate on those decisions. The Fair Work Commission doesn't haven't the power; an individual worker has to lawyer up and go to the Federal Court in order to change those circumstances. It makes bargaining for better pay and conditions far more difficult. It takes rights off blue-collar workers on big projects. It weakens wage theft punishments in jurisdictions where wage theft was already deemed a criminal act—something that they don't talk about. Put it all together and what is clear is that this bill fails the most crucial test: whether it leaves workers better off or worse off. The fact is that this bill makes work less secure.

I made some initial statements last week in a speech in Queensland about the principles that Labor brings to these issues: more secure work, higher pay and fairer conditions—three key principles that we have. I outlined eight different initiatives that would go towards that end, none of which have been picked up by the government. Instead what we saw was a desperate government that went out there and made up a policy, then made up a costing for it, and then produced a critique of it before the speech was given! It's not bad to have a costing before a speech is given and before a policy is released, but they managed to do that. Who said productivity growth was dead in this country under this government, hey? That's productivity for you!

The truth is that it didn't represent Labor's view. I've always had a view, as has the labour movement, that there are common interests between employers and employees. Good employers have an interest in their employees being properly remunerated for their work and an interest in good relationships between the employer and management and the workforce, because that's how you get more out of them. That's how you boost productivity: by sitting down and having a proper enterprise bargaining system. And workers have an interest in the business that they work for being profitable and being successful. That's what the enterprise bargaining model essentially is about. That's what the best of Labor, when it comes to industrial relations, is about. I sometimes have drawn not-unanimous support from my own labour movement for expressing those commonsense views, but they're ones that I've held consistently. They're ones that I say consistently. I don't say one thing here and then do what this mob do, which is to go to the employers and say: 'Don't you worry about that. We're setting up this process of negotiation with the unions, but in the end, when it comes to the legislation, when it comes, you know which side we're on.'

For the workers of Australia, at the next election, I will have a very clear message: we are on your side. We're also on the side of good employers. We're on the side of productivity growth. We're on the side of wages growth. We're on the side of economic growth. We're on the side of job creation. Those opposite don't have a plan. They didn't have a plan before the pandemic, and they don't have one now. What they have is an ideological obsession with driving down wages and conditions.

The changes that are provided for in this legislation, when you examine the detail, are another example of a Prime Minister who is all smirk and mirrors when it comes to the detail. The arrogance we see from him—getting questions about whether he will guarantee that workers will not be worse off, and he just talks about Labor and provides the usual rhetoric. When you look at the detail of this legislation, the weaknesses are there.

Take enterprise bargaining. Under this legislation, employers don't have to tell workers they have started bargaining for a month. It's pretty hard to work out how you bargain without telling people. It's a bit like what the current Prime Minister said to the bloke he replaced. He didn't tell him there was bargaining going on during that week and that someone was going to lose their job. Remember that? He just got all his mates, who are now sitting in the cabinet like the Minister for Government Services and others, to vote against Malcolm Turnbull. He didn't tell him there was bargaining going on during that month, so perhaps he's adopted that principle for enterprise bargaining. Under the legislation, employers will not have to give employees a comprehensive explanation of the agreement they will be voting on. Employers will no longer have to explain an agreement to employees who are young or unrepresented by unions or those from non-English-speaking backgrounds. Unions will not be allowed to assist the Fair Work Commission in assessing non-union agreements. Think about that. The Fair Work Commission will be under extreme, severe time pressure to tick and flick these agreements. This morning the ACTU president, Michele O'Neil, called out the government on the bill's greenfield agreements provision, delivering this warning to the tradies of Australia: 'You will have fewer rights than any other worker in Australia.' We know the issues that are there with casual conversion are quite extraordinary and that casual workers will have to lawyer up.

The bottom line of the provisions in this bill is that it shows a government that wants to cut workers' pay, did cut penalty rates, wants to cut conditions, wants to cut super, is cutting JobKeeper and is cutting JobSeeker. There are cuts to JobKeeper, cuts to JobSeeker, cuts to super and cuts to wages. Do you sense a theme from this government when it comes to its approach to wages and conditions? Just as those opposite did under John Howard's Work Choices, so rightly rejected by the Australian people, they want to squeeze workers, because for them that's easier than promoting fairness. At the same time, there's nothing in this bill about the creeping expansion of insecure work.

I spoke about the launch that we did in Queensland, with eight principles, and I invite the minister opposite, or the assistant minister, to say what's wrong with any of this. The first principle is explicitly inserting job security as an object into the Fair Work Act. One would have thought: if you support job security, why wouldn't you think that the Fair Work Commission should give consideration to that? The next principle is rights for gig economy workers through the Fair Work Commission. Those opposite talk about costs. How about costing this: five lives lost in three months at the end of last year for people riding under conditions with no minimum wage rates, with no sick leave, with no proper conditions, trying to get from A to B to deliver food or other products? They're under these circumstances because there are no minimum wage rates being paid. Employers say: 'Well, you need to go from A to B, which is 20 kilometres. It might take you 40 minutes if you're really quick, but I'll tell you what: we'll pay you for 30.' It's piecework. They say, 'If you won't do it, I've got someone else who will do it in 25 minutes.' Does that sound familiar? It is like Work Choices: individual contracts, treating people without respect and without dignity. That's what we have with the growth in gig work, with no response from this government.

As to consulting, all we've said is that we're going to consult and talk to industry, unions and state and territory governments about entitlements for workers in insecure industries. We know that portable entitlements exist for some workers in a range of jurisdictions, including here in the ACT, in Queensland and in Victoria for sick leave. We know that one of the issues during the pandemic was that people were working in multiple jobs because they had to and they didn't have any sick leave. They were continuing to go to work, and infection was spreading. We know that this is an issue. What's wrong with properly defining 'casual work' in law? It's not a radical proposition. What's wrong with a crackdown on cowboy labour hire firms to guarantee the same pay for the same job? Two people working next to each other, doing the same job with the same conditions and the same roster, should be paid the same. What's wrong with a cap on back-to-back short-term contracts for the same role, for people who are put on contracts and told, 'Here's another three months,' ad infinitum? They're not being treated with respect. What's wrong with using the public sector to show what should happen with more secure public-sector jobs by ending inappropriate temporary contracts? As for some of the contracts going to their mates in the private sector, the work could have been done for far less if they'd actually employed public servants to do their job, using that principle for government contracts to companies and organisations offering services. All of those are sensible provisions. None of them are radical. They're about treating people with respect, giving people dignity and helping our economy by increasing the circulation of money through the economy to create jobs. We'll offer working people a better deal, because we are on their side.

Debate adjourned.