Wednesday, 17 February 2021
Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020; Second Reading
We set a really simple test for this legislation: it had to deliver secure jobs with decent pay. This bill, the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020, fails in its current form. The government have said that they will amend the bill. After the amendment, it will still fail that test.
Secure jobs with decent pay is not an unreasonable test, and there was a process which would have delivered this. We had a process that the government set up, with all the talk about the PM being the new Bob Hawke, where they would get unions and industry to sit down at the table. When Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and Bill Kelty established the Accord, they did get people to the table, but the government brought something to the table: they brought the social wage to the table, they brought Medicare to the table and they brought superannuation to the table. They brought something to the table to help broker the agreement. This government brought the table, and that was it. They just said, 'Oh, you lot sort it out,' and that was it. It's no surprise that not a lot was agreed at those working groups. I repeatedly made it clear that, if those working groups delivered a consensus, you could reasonably presume it would find its way easily through both houses of the parliament, but they didn't, and that is not the fault of the participants; it's the fault of the government in bringing nothing to the table to help broker an outcome.
What then happened was that effectively the minister had to make his own calls on what he would put in this bill and what he wouldn't. What he did, by all accounts when you look at this, was that he picked some legislation on wage theft that was already drafted and then added a whole lot of things that employers had sought—some things that unions had sought, but not many; employers got the better half of the deal. Then, either deliberately as a bit of ambit to then drop—as they did yesterday—or because he actually intended to make changes to the better off overall test, he threw that one in as well.
I would remind every member of this House that the government didn't take the invitation that we offered to them at the end of last year, when we made it clear that the legislation in its current form is a pay cut that covers every single award in Australia and we said they should withdraw it. They didn't. There will be an amendment that we're told the government's going to move later on. But, at the second reading, everyone in this House is going to have to vote for or against the bill in its current form, and you'll be voting on the bill with the pay cut in it.
But that pay cut wasn't the only reason that this bill fails the test that we set. It does not deliver secure jobs and it does not deliver decent pay. In some cases, it directly delivers pay cuts, and across the board it takes away a whole lot of the bargaining rules and other protections that are there for workers. In turn, when you take away the power to negotiate and drive change and to drive better enterprise agreements, you end up with a situation, by definition, where workers earn less.
I want to go through each provision because, even though we have said the whole way through that the suspension of the better off overall test was the most egregious part of this legislation but it wasn't the only problem, the government have now said: 'Oh, we've got rid of that one, so why aren't you on team? Why aren't you backing the whole thing?' Well, I'll tell you why: because we're not going to see workers worse off. We're not going to be in a situation where people lose job security.
Let's go through each section of the bill and see, aside from the government's spin, why this was never a Bob Hawke moment and why what's happening right now, for what is in front of us, is a bad outcome for job security. If it's a bad outcome for job security it's a bad outcome for wages, and it doesn't take much to work out that's a bad outcome for the economy. Right now, the economy's not going to have a whole lot of overseas tourists coming in spending money. We need local consumer demand, and if people don't think their income's secure they don't spend. This is the opposite of what the economy needs. After the sacrifices that workers have made over the last 12 months, it's the opposite of what they deserve. There is a level of respect that should have been shown to the Australian workforce and has not been.
Let me get down to the detail of what's in front of us here. First of all is the provisions on casuals. This has been written up and promoted by the government as though it's a big win for casuals. Let me go through what this section of the bill actually does. This has come from a minister who told us at the beginning of the pandemic that casuals would be okay, if they had to isolate with no income for two weeks, because they get a loading and, therefore, they've been saving for the pandemic and they'll all be fine. That's the level of understanding of insecure work by the person responsible for this bill, who might not realise—take a Griffith University study. Half of Australia's casuals receive no loading. In many industries, you have situations where the permanent workforce are on above-award rates and casuals working side by side with them are earning less. That is common; that is how it works. But what we have here is something that entrenches casualisation.
I know why they've done it. They've done it because they've been desperately fighting a case through the courts, a principle that's known as the Rossato and Skene cases. Let me give the example of casualisation from that case. Here we have somebody who was employed by a labour hire company and the labour hire company told them they were a casual. But the labour hire company was paying less than what the legal rate was at that site. So even with the casual loading, this worker was earning less than the permanent workforce he was working beside. And the labour hire company gave him a 12-month roster in advance.
Does anyone seriously believe that's casual work? You get paid less and you've got a fixed 12-month roster. That is a rort. That is appalling behaviour. It is simply endorsing the casualisation and insecurity of the workforce. There's someone with a 12-month permanent roster being paid less than those they're working beside, and we've said, 'Oh, that's casual.' It's a complete rort, and what this bill does is entrench that rort. The courts so far have said, 'No, that is not casual employment; that is permanent employment and a worker in that situation should be entitled to the leave payments, because this was appalling behaviour by that particular employer.'
What's in front of us now is a unilateral decision to cancel the rights of workers in that situation. This legislation says, where a completely outrageous rort has been committed by an employer—there are very few employers that do it on this sort of scale—'We're going to cancel all the money that worker was owed and put it back in the bank account of the company.' That's what's in front of us. The rort of a business being able to pay a casual less than the people they're working beside, having them on a permanent 12-month roster, getting all the benefits of a permanent workforce, but not having to take on any of the responsibility that goes with permanent work—that's the behaviour we're endorsing if we support this bill.
I don't believe for one minute the figures that come from the Minister for Industrial Relations. He's made up figures about me and he's made up figures about the courts. He's made up—which is a pretty extraordinary claim—an interesting costing. I reckon if your costing says, 'Somewhere between $18 billion and $39 billion', that's not a costing. If you want to give up that you're just inventing figures, give a range from 18 to 39. It's pretty clear there's no science to what the government is doing here.
Whatever the figure is, what they're doing is just transferring it from the worker to the employer in situations where casual employment's been rorted. That is an appalling act of entitlement from those opposite. They take the most vulnerable members of the workforce and, in situations where their employment has been rorted, they say: 'Oh, that would be terrible, that would be double dipping. We can't let that happen. Let's take their legal entitlements and transfer it back to the employer.' That's what this does.
But they do this in the name of giving casuals the right to be permanent. Let's look at how they've done that. What they've done with the transferring of casual to permanent employment is they've said, 'Well, however the employer defines you on day one, that's what you are for the rest of the year.' So if the employer signs you off as a casual on day one and says, 'Yes, there's no firm advance commitment,' but on day two gives you a roster for the rest of the year, that rort survives the full 12 months and there's nothing the worker can do about it.
But then the government says, 'Oh, but after 12 months the employer has to offer the worker permanent employment if that's what is happening.' No, not quite. That's not what the bill says. The employer can refuse to provide security by saying there are reasonable grounds and the worker doesn't get compulsory arbitration. If the worker wants to complain about it, their only answer is to lawyer up and go to the Federal Court of Australia. I don't know what understanding of casual workers those opposite have, but I can give you a hint: there are not a lot of casual workers who are in a position to say to their employer, 'If you won't make me permanent—I know I'm a casual—I'm going to take you to the Federal Court of Australia, and I'll pay for the lawyers, and that'll teach you.' Those casuals know what happens if they put pressure back, they know how quickly their shifts start to change, they know how quickly they stop getting the hours, they know how vulnerable their circumstances are.
In terms of arbitration, this week we're debating the media code and the big media companies, including the multinational companies, get compulsory arbitration if they have to deal with an online platform. Why? Because the power imbalance between a big media company and the platforms is viewed as needing to have compulsory arbitration because otherwise the platforms might not participate. But, somehow, a casual worker is not vulnerable? The big media companies need compulsory arbitration, but a casual can just go off to the Federal Court?
This bill is an attack on job security. It takes rights that casuals have now and it unilaterally obliterates them. It takes wages that a limited number of casuals would be owed right now and obliterates their right to that pay. It then makes changes to awards. It makes changes to a number of awards. On some awards it doesn't have a demonstrable impact, but in some where part timers are currently paid overtime, it removes their right to overtime payments. The minister will say, 'No, no, no, it's only if they agree to it,' but if they don't agree to taking their extra hours at the ordinary time rate, those hours will just go to someone else who does agree. So a part timer in the real world is faced with either giving up their overtime payment or giving up the hours in full. How is that doing the right thing by the heroes who carried us through the pandemic?
The other one they've got on the award changes is the flexibility extension. Can I just say something briefly about the extent to which this government has used the pandemic as cover to attack workers' rights? When JobKeeper was established, we were told we needed to provide an extra layer of flexibility for directions by employers, otherwise JobKeeper wouldn't work. It was a concession, but we said: 'Yes, we'll be constructive. We will do that with you to make sure JobKeeper works.' Then we were back here a few months later, as JobKeeper was ending for companies, and they said, 'As companies come off JobKeeper, if they used to be on it, we want to keep those flexible work directions for them as well.' Now they're saying, 'Let's now apply those flexible work directions to every company, even those who never qualified for JobKeeper.' They have had cooperation from workers, workers' representatives and those on this side of the House, but now we see how they want to get rid of protections that workers have, piece by piece.
The enterprise bargaining changes are extraordinary. It's just extraordinary what the government's got in store there. The changes to the better off overall test, that has been so much a part of the debate in this House, were only going to last two years, but the changes to enterprise bargaining that are still in the act are permanent. They're permanent cuts to rights. All of them seem to go the same way. Employers can now be going through the bargaining process for a full 28 days without telling their workers that the bargaining has commenced and that they've got a right to representation. Employers used to have to take all reasonable steps to make workers fully aware of what the agreement was. 'All reasonable steps' now becomes 'reasonable steps'. The concept about a fair and reasonable opportunity to decide whether or not to approve an enterprise agreement is there, which is weaker than the guarantees that used to be there for a proper explanation.
Unions can no longer assist the Fair Work Commission in scrutinising non-union agreements if they fall short of the standards. There are limits on what the Fair Work Commission can consider in order to inform themselves, in order to assess whether workers are better off or not. There are time limits on the commission having to approve agreements now in 21 days. In making their decision, even though the workforce has lost the opportunity for there to be an obligation that they fully knew what they were voting on, including whether they get a full copy of the proposed agreement, we now have a situation where, if workers didn't fully know what they were voting on, the fact that they voted for it—even if they didn't realise the full consequences of what they were voting for—the primacy of the vote has to win out. We know how this will be used. We know what this is there to drive.
With the enterprise bargaining changes, there's a particular change to the National Employment Standards. At the moment, agreements have to reflect them, but there's a change now that you have a standard clause in every agreement that just says, 'We're complying with the National Employment Standards.' If you have other clauses of the agreement that do not apply, they only get set aside if a worker realises that their agreement doesn't comply with the act and starts legal action to get it fixed. It means an agreement could contain a clause, for example, that says 'workers can cash out their full annual leave'. That clause would be unlawful and unenforceable, but it's going to be allowed to be in the agreement. An illegal clause will be in the agreement. When workers ask what their rights are, an employer will be able to present them with a document that would not stand up in court but will have been registered because of the changes in front of us now. And people don't think that will be an attack on wages? With part-timers losing their overtime, people don't think that will be an attack on wages?
It's pretty simple. If your take-home pay is cut, that's an attack on your wages. If your take-home pay is cut, that's an attack on your capacity to pay your bills. Please don't pretend that casuals are being given rights, if the only way they can ever assert them is to lawyer up and go to the Federal Court of Australia.
There are also greenfield agreement provisions here which don't allow for any minimum pay rise. Under this, an agreement can be locked in for eight years for projects worth as little as $250 million. In real life that's a huge amount of money, but, in terms of the dollars involved when you're driving infrastructure projects, $250 million is not a massive infrastructure project. So we've ended up with a situation where someone can work more than seven years at a workplace and receive pay increases over that period that end up way out of kilter with what other workers are receiving, and they have no recourse. There could be a wage rise of $1 a year, and that would be enough. The greenfield agreement would be locked in, and there would be nothing workers could do about their rights.
This is real, particularly for projects that involve a fly-in fly-out workforce. Some of those opposite will be familiar with some of these projects. We've had projects where aspects of an agreement have been problematic and there have been significant rates of suicide at some of these workplaces, over a period of time, because of clauses that had not been well enough thought out and aspects that hadn't been fully foreseen. I'm not going to name the project. I'm not going to target them. But this is real, and this is one of the things that gets fixed when you have a process and a window to be able to reopen negotiations. If you shut that off for eight years, the impacts are real. The impacts on wages are real, the impacts on conditions are real and the impacts on the workforce are real. It takes away the capacity to fix these issues.
On a number of occasions now, the government have wanted to talk about the wage theft provisions in this bill, saying that what they put in front of us, in its current form, is something that we would automatically support, based on everything that we've said. That depends on where in the country you are. If you're a Victorian member of parliament or a Queensland member of parliament, the protections against wage theft are actually weakened by what's in front of us now. When we've been calling for tough action on wage theft, it never occurred to us that the government would produce a bill that covered the field and weakened protection, making it easier for those committing wage theft in some parts of the country. The evidentiary threshold for the offence is high. I don't know how many prosecutions would actually be successful as it is anyway. But, for example, both Victoria and Queensland currently have a 10-year maximum sentence. That would be reduced to four years under this bill.
We've had lot of occasions where we've passed legislation to change sentencing times. This might not be right; I haven't done the full check, so I will give that caveat, but I don't remember any instance where it's been a debate about lowering sentences. I don't recall any instance of this government coming in here and saying they were going to lower the sentences for people who had broken the law. It's interesting that they've chosen to do so with wage theft. If this goes through in its current form, it will be easier for people to commit wage theft in Victoria and Queensland. If that's what the government's intending to do, be upfront about it, but don't pretend that it's such a shock that Labor isn't fully embracing that section of the bill.
It also completely gets rid of one of the crimes in Queensland, which concerns the fraudulent falsification of records. If an employer is fraudulently lying about its wage records, that should be a standalone crime, but this bill, according to the Queensland submission, would knock that out. It's a longstanding offence in the Queensland Criminal Code and, if it's going to be overridden, there should be a matching offence in the Fair Work Act. None of this would be a surprise to the government. They know what the state codes do, they know what the state laws are, and they have deliberately come in here and said, 'Oh, well, if we have to do something that looks tough on the bosses, at least in Victoria and Queensland we can make the penalties less severe and get rid of one of the offences.' Don't be surprised that we're opposed to the light touch. This is the first time I can remember that sentences are being lowered, and it just happens to be about wage theft.
Effectively, what we have here is legislation that fails the test that we put in every way. Secure jobs, decent pay—it's not complicated. But if you say to a casual, 'You used to have rights and now you don't,' that's an attack on job security. If you say to a casual, 'Whatever the employer does on day one is all we're going to look at for the first 12 months,' that's an attack on job security. If you say to a casual, 'The media companies get compulsory arbitration and a whole lot of people get compulsory arbitration, but you as a casual don't,' that's an attack on job security. If you say to a casual, 'The only way to get this fixed if your employer says, "Oh, it would be unreasonable to make you permanent," is to get lawyers and go to the Federal Court of Australia,' that's an attack on job security. If you say to every industrial organisation throughout the country, 'We're going to weaken the protections that your members have when you negotiate on their behalf for enterprise bargaining,' that's an attack on wages. If you say, 'Across awards, if you're earning overtime as a part-timer at the moment, we're going to change that overtime to ordinary pay,' that's an attack on wages. If there are parts of the bill that, as you work through them, are either an attack on job security or an attack on wages, is it any surprise that it fails the test that we put that it had to deliver secure work with decent pay?
I move the second reading amendment that's been circulated in my name:
That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:
"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House:
(1) notes that for this legislation to pass it should meet the test of providing secure jobs and better pay; and
(2) further notes that the bill will make jobs less secure and result in pay cuts."
In doing that, I say there are ways of acting in favour of job security. We can get an objective definition of a casual which reflects in legislative terms the common-law definition. If we do that, we will then have a situation where it is clear whether someone is a casual or they're not. If an employer is rorting that, we shouldn't have the 'get out of jail free' card that this bill is, saying, 'We'll just forgive the rorts of the past and legitimise them into the future.' That's what this bill does.
We have a huge problem with insecure work and, if people didn't believe that, the pandemic should have shown them, because the people with insecure work were the first people with nothing. The people with insecure work were the people who, even if they kept their job, had to lose their pay if they had to isolate for two weeks. They weren't using their loading to save for the pandemic, as the Minister for Industrial Relations seems to think. These are vulnerable Australians. They're not industrially strong. But, by and large, they're the people who carried us through the pandemic. They're the people who turned up to work when a whole lot of us were safely doing Zoom calls and working from home. Right at the beginning of the pandemic, they were facing the public, doing their work and dealing with incredibly distressed people. We've made speeches in this place calling them heroes. It's not much of a thank you—to attack their security and attack their pay. No-one should be surprised that Labor are opposed to this bill and, if a bill has measure after measure that weakens workers, attacks job security and attacks pay, no-one should be surprised when Labor say, 'We're voting against it'—and we are.
By breaking down the barriers to job growth we can help get businesses the confidence and tools to work with employees in order to create the best possible post-COVID outcome for Australia and safeguard workplaces for future generations. The reforms in the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020 are designed to support business and protect workers. All Australians should embrace this sensible, pragmatic set of reforms which will get the balance right for workplaces and to make sure that we have enough jobs for our future and that people are supported.
For a long time we have been led to believe that industrial relations is a zero-sum game, but this pandemic has taught us that we can achieve far more if we work together. This bill is centred around five pillars: casual employees, award flexibilities, enterprise bargaining, greenfields agreements, and compliance and enforcement. With regard, firstly, to casual employees, casual work is integral to our industrial relations system, making Labor's failure to define 'casual employee' when they first passed the Fair Work Act even more mystifying. As part of this package, a statutory definition of 'casual employee' that draws on common law principles in key court cases will be legislated. This will provide certainty about when a person is a casual employee and about both parties' rights and obligations. The government is also introducing a new statutory obligation for employers to offer regular casual employees the right to convert to full- or part-time employment unless there are reasonable grounds not to do so after 12 months of employment. These are the strongest casual conversion rights Australian workers have ever seen and significantly strengthen the unsatisfactory framework the former Labor government introduced.
Further, this bill seeks to address the unfairness of some employees' ability to double dip on entitlements through being paid both a casual loading and having a court award compensation for leave entitlements, a quirk that significantly undermines employers' confidence to employ others. This package will fix the double-dipping issue and prevent unfair outcomes in situations where employers could have had to effectively pay an employee twice for the same entitlement, which is estimated to be up to a $39 billion liability for employers across the economy. That is a significant amount of money. Overall, these reforms will provide greater certainty to employers to invest through employment and stronger rights for employees to convert to permanent employment if they wish to do so.
The key difference between us and Labor is we believe in giving workers choice. Labor and the union movement want to decide for workers. They don't want workers to choose whether to stay casual and hold onto the 25 per cent loading or to go permanent. I know many constituents in my seat of Higgins like the choice that casual work provides, if it has 25 per cent loading. What does Labor want instead? Under Labor's plan, regarding sick leave, annual leave and long service leave, the ACTU has confirmed that casual workers would face a massive upfront pay cut. In fact, Sally McManus told ABC TV's Insiders that casual workers would lose their 25 per cent casual loading in return for portable sick, annual and long service leave. That's going to be a direct hit to a casual employee's take-home pay. In fact, for an average casual worker, that would be $153 per week or $7,953 per year. That doesn't sound much like a way to support this part of the workforce.
Secondly, with regard to award flexibility: in our hardest-hit industries, the journey to grow jobs will be most difficult, and the inflexibility in the award system remains a barrier to getting Australians back to work. Rigid and complex rules disadvantage small businesses, in particular; they often lack the time and in fact the resources to work through in detail how all these myriad awards operate and how to navigate them. I've heard, over and over again, particularly from small businesses in my seat of Higgins, about how complex this award system is and how difficult it is to make sure they can do the right thing. And that's what employers, for the most part, want to do—they want to look after their workers; they want to make sure they have workers who have a good environment to work in, because happy workers make for productive workers, and every employer I've met in Higgins is doing their very best to make sure that that happens.
This has never been seen more than during the COVID-19 pandemic. The government has successfully introduced flexibilities to keep businesses afloat and employees in a job. It's that balance that we need to make sure that the ship of Australia is going forward in the right direction with the wind in our sails. Businesses in Higgins have told me that these changes have helped keep them in business.
This reform package will adapt the existing JobKeeper flexibilities in the Fair Work Act for two years so they're available for employers and employees across 12 modern awards in the retail and hospitality sectors. These new flexibilities will mean employers can offer additional hours of work to part-time employees at ordinary rates of pay, subject to important safeguards. This is a welcome development for businesses and employees alike.
Currently, ad hoc arrangements to work additional hours at overtime rates operate as a disincentive for employers to add additional work to part-time employees and contribute to underemployment. This is particularly if the employee themselves want to do this extra work. When businesses are on their knees, they are risk averse and not willing to take on more staff or provide more hours. The change proposed in this bill removes barriers to part-time work for recovering businesses, facilitates additional hours of work for employees who want them and increases the attractiveness of permanent secure roles with benefits.
By opposing these changes, Labor has decided it is against greater opportunity for more hours of work for the almost 30 per cent of part-time employees in the retail sector and around 40 per cent of part-time employees in the accommodation and food services industry. We want these people to have work available for them with more hours, but currently they're not getting them. Labor often decries the number of Australians who are underemployed. Well, here is the chance to help them.
Thirdly, on enterprise bargaining: the enterprise bargaining system has strayed a long way from its original purpose—enhancing productivity and sharing the benefits at the enterprise level—because of red tape and significant costs. Ultimately, this results in employers and employees losing faith in the bargaining framework that is meant to work for them. It also means employees miss out on the significant benefits of enterprise bargaining, including around 40 per cent higher levels of pay compared with the relevant award. Back in May last year, the opposition industrial relations spokesman, the member for Watson, said:
Bargaining is much harder at the moment and taking much longer than it should. Policies that get bargaining moving again are going to be really important …
It is not just the member for Watson who recognises this. This is something that is recognised across Australia. Well, now it's Labor saying: 'Let's block everything and change nothing.'
We have an opportunity to make modest, sensible, reasonable and practical changes to our industrial relations, to have reforms that work for people. Our reforms aim to reduce the level of prescription imposed by the Fair Work Act by building in flexibility and tailoring to account for the workplace challenges revealed by the pandemic and requiring timely approval by the Fair Work Commission within 21 working days. This will be welcomed by workers and businesses alike. Additionally, the enterprise bargaining reforms in the bill will seek to end zombie agreements made prior to the commencement of the modern award, putting an end to employees receiving lower rates than the modern award on these outdated agreements. Importantly, the government is investing $4.6 million to enable the Fair Work Commission to implement an online guidance and application tool for parties involved in bargaining. This online tool will provide more tailored support, educational material and guidance to parties navigating what can be a complex process. This helps equip everyone with the knowledge to negotiate fairly and it reduces the room for error. In total, this group of changes will speed up the approval process so that employees receive pay rises faster. It will reduce complexity and focus on cooperation between the parties.
Fourthly, greenfield agreements: the construction of major projects, particularly in the resources and mining sector, has the capacity to generate thousands of high-paying jobs over the life of the projects, in some cases lasting almost a decade. However, these projects can be susceptible to Australia's combative industrial relations framework, which drives international investment from our shores and jobs from our economy. The risk of greenfield agreements nominally expiring during the construction of a major project creates uncertainty for investors. This has a negative impact on the economic viability of a project, and it is something that needs to be built in when any investor looks to a project here in Australia. It works against growth and opportunity at a time when we need to embrace growth and opportunity for Australia.
Currently, the maximum nominal expiry date for greenfield agreements is four years. That is in the context of large projects that can last five to 10 years—projects that are likely to be nation building and projects that are likely to lead to strength in our post-COVID economy in recovery. In addition, there is currently no requirement for greenfield agreements to provide annual pay increases to employees. We plan to ensure that these are built into reforms, guaranteeing an annual pay increase and allowing agreements for major projects over $500 million to go for eight years—not four years, as they do currently—to ensure that there are built-in guaranteed annual pay increases. I repeat: any longer-term greenfield agreement must be able to guarantee annual pay increases for the life of the agreement. This is a very important safeguard for those workers who are receptive to these greenfield agreements.
Fifthly, compliance and enforcement: as a government, we understand that navigating Australia's industrial relations system can be complicated and confronting, especially for new and small businesses. As we continue to deal with the uncertain operating environment resulting from COVID-19 and the associated intermittent lockdowns that are occurring state by state, we need to work to recover from the economic downturn. It's vital we give employers the opportunity to grow and create jobs. We need to ensure non-compliant businesses do not gain any unfair competitive advantage or undermine confidence. This bill will require the Fair Work Ombudsman and the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner to disclose any litigation proceedings. Confidence that doing the right thing is the norm in Australian workplaces and that improper behaviour will be detected and dealt with quickly is a key pillar of Australia's industrial relations system. It's important for the workers. It's important for business.
The government will invest an additional $47.3 million over four years in new funding for the Fair Work Ombudsman: $11.3 million to improve awareness through education; $12.9 million to establish an advisory service for free advice to small businesses; and $22.3 million to establish a team to identify and respond to noncompliance by large corporations. This investment will help businesses comply with their workplace obligations by ensuring employee entitlements and the role of the Fair Work Ombudsman are better understood. Importantly, the reforms will introduce stronger protections for employee entitlements by instituting a suite of tougher penalties: new criminal offences for dishonest and systemic underpayments, with automatic direct disqualification for five years or a $1.1 million fine; increased civil penalties for underpayments, sham contracting and failure to comply; a new benefit-obtained maximum penalty for medium and large businesses, where the maximum penalty would be two to three times the benefit obtained through underpayment; and, finally, a $13.2 million investment to support the enforcement role of the Fair Work Commission and the Federal Circuit Court.
The pandemic has exposed many challenges facing the industrial relations system in our modern economy and uncertain climate, but it also presents the perfect opportunity to press the reset button and position our country for recovery, growth and the future. This bill provides a reasonable, sensible and practical set of reforms that will help employers build their businesses and will help improve the rights of workers. I commend this bill to the House.
We debate the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020 at an important crossroads in Australia's history. We are coming out of Australia's first recession in almost three decades. Preceding that recession, Australia had experienced a period of seven years in which wages growth was at its most anaemic in Australia's recorded history. Of course, during the last year, we have seen many Australians bear the brunt of this COVID pandemic. Many Australians in our lowest-paid jobs, many Australians in our most insecure jobs, were at the front line. They got us through the COVID pandemic.
It is at this juncture in Australia's history that Australians look to this parliament to see what is the vision for the future. This bill represents this government's vision for how we should emerge from the COVID pandemic and the recession that we have just endured, and it is a bleak, ideological and backward-looking vision. It is a vision in which the burden on those least able to bear it is increased.
What we argue is that we should have a positive vision, a vision that deals with the long-term economic and social challenges that our country faces, a vision in which wages growth is boosted, a vision in which the changing nature of our labour force is reflected by more appropriate and fair regulation of insecure work.
So this bill fails. It fails because it is going to result in workplaces in which there is less secure work. It is going to result in lower wages growth. It is going to result, for many of our least secure and many of our most vulnerable, in worse pay and worse conditions.
It is also important to point out this bill is not a consensus-driven approach to this complex set of issues. The government entered into this process claiming that it was going to seek consensus. It set up a process that looked as though it was going to try to deal in good faith with stakeholders from across varying perspectives, but that is not where we have ended up. It is absolutely critical that that be established right from the start.
In its response to the introduction of this 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.
Nothing could be clearer: what we have here is very, very far from a consensus approach, when that is precisely what we need in this policy area. Labor has stated right from the start that it would have supported a set of policies that reflected a consensus outcome. We cannot support this bill, because this bill does not reflect a consensus and because this bill contains any number of measures that are going to make our most vulnerable worse off.
I want to briefly set out, before looking at some of the specific provisions of the bill, the labour market context in which we are examining this bill. Firstly, even before COVID, this economy had experienced an extended period of extremely low wages growth. Indeed, the first seven years of this government was the worst period of wages growth on record. I can quote Mathias Cormann, who was the Minister for Finance during much of this period, that this was in fact 'a deliberate design feature' of much of their economic policy architecture.
In April 2019 the RBA held a major conference, which was titled 'Low Wages Growth'. It really says it all—that the RBA sees that as one of the major policy conundrums society has to face at the moment. And, as I'll lay out, this bill makes that persistent problem worse. It's not just that wages growth has been low; there's been a decoupling between wages growth and productivity. There has been productivity growth over the seven years of this government but it hasn't been shared with most workers. This decoupling, this wedge, between productivity growth and wages growth is something the government should be concerned about. It is one of the core economic policy challenges that our nation faces. But this government is silent on that issue. In fact, it is moving in the reverse direction: it is actually reducing the bargaining power of the most vulnerable. It is going to set up an architecture, a regulatory structure, that will make their outcomes worse. So whatever we've seen over the last seven years in terms of an unfair distribution of the productivity growth that our economy has produced is going to become worse should this bill pass.
At the same time, many workers can't get enough work to get by. Underemployment has gotten worse over the last seven years. Underemployment has increased by over a percentage point—and that was before COVID. Many of the areas where underemployment has gotten the worst over that seven-year period are in regional Australia. The burden of low wages growth is falling on what might be described as non-standard types of employment. I quote from that RBA conference: 'The share of non-standard employees in total employment is markedly higher today than at the start of the millennium, and all this increase occurred since the GFC. Further, we have established that both casual and permanent part-time employment are associated with significant lower rates of growth in real hourly wages.' This is what the government faces—an economy where wages growth is the worst ever and it's our most vulnerable workers, in non-standard employment, who are experiencing the worst wages growth—yet they have introduced to this parliament a bill which reduces their bargaining power.
Finally, I want to say that this issue of non-standard employment, of people in casual and part-time employment, is becoming even more urgent than it has been over the last seven years. Over the last year, as we have come out of this recession, so much of the employment growth has been in casual employment. Between May and November 2020, casual employment grew by 400,000, by far the biggest expansion of casual employment in Australia's history. What is this government's response? Their first response—fortunately it was short lived—was to weaken the better off overall test. This government has already gone through a humiliating backdown on that, but you could not have a clearer indication of a regulatory test which is designed to worsen the conditions of workers and in practice would have been a change that would have most directly impacted on our most vulnerable.
It is crystal clear that weakening the better off overall test would have made some people worse-off overall. That is the whole purpose of it. In question time and in other forums, we put to the government, time and time again, very specific case studies of people who would have been made worse off were that protection weakened. But we never got specific rebuttals, we never got anything in detail. All we got was hollow, blanket responses saying, 'Don't worry. Trust us, that won't happen.' Fortunately, it looks like the government has backed down on that. But, at the very least, their attempts to weaken the better off overall test is a clear indication of where they're coming from ideologically and their intentions in the future.
Let's look at casuals and casual conversion. As the shadow minister pointed out in detail, and so clearly, in his contribution earlier, casual conversion is a clear instance of where those opposite are trying to enshrine in legislation provisions that will put incredible burdens, unrealistic burdens, on those least able to protect themselves in our workplaces—for example, the burden of having to take an employer to the Federal Court in order to take advantage of the ability to convert to full-time work. It is utterly ridiculous and, clearly, doesn't reflect any kind of understanding of people's resources or capacity to take advantage of provisions in this bill. It is absolutely clear that that legal provision is something that will not be able to be taken advantage of in reality. So this provision that provides for casual conversion is, like so many other things in this bill, a hollow provision. It's a hollow provision that doesn't reflect the power imbalances in the real workplace.
There are also a range of provisions around retrospective application of workplace conditions which, under the government's own figures, would involve cancelling an estimated $18-plus billion in entitlements. These provisions, as the minister outlined, obliterate rights that are currently in common law arrangements and are an entirely imbalanced approach to the conditions of many vulnerable people in the workplace.
Award simplification and the negotiation of awards is a set of conditions that reduces the bargaining power of unions and workers. Part-time employees might agree to situations in which there is a potential risk of this provision normalising a standard 16 hours commitment, with simplified additional hours being used to top up on an as-needed basis. This would, potentially, reduce job security and casualise part-time work.
There will also be a significant extension of flexible work directions, both in time and in who those flexible work directions apply to. The flexible work directions might apply to a considerably broader set of employees, and, as is so often the case in these arrangements, we know precisely what 'increased flexibility' means. Increased flexibility so often means that those least able to bear it will have to work under conditions where they have to take on demand-side risk of the firm, where they have less security when it comes to the number of hours they work or when they work. So when it comes to award simplification and the reduction in union bargaining power, when it comes to the extension of flexible work directions, we clearly see that there will be a change in bargaining power relativities and that many of our most vulnerable will be at risk of their conditions being worse off.
In relation to greenfield sites, we will see a significant extension of conditions that lock in arrangements, potentially to the detriment of workers. Labor has indicated that it is not necessarily opposed to arrangements for greenfield sites. Firstly, what we see in this bill is a significant extension in duration of those arrangements to eight years; secondly, we see a significant expansion of the projects to which they apply, to many smaller projects than originally envisaged. So we see that many workers may be locked into conditions for far longer than was originally envisaged—in many situations, potentially, to their detriment.
Time and again, when we look at the provisions of this bill, we see that the balance of bargaining power is changing. It is the workers who are being expected to bear the burden of less security or lower wages. This flows from the fact that those opposite fundamentally believe that an economic recovery has to rely upon lower wages or worse conditions in order to be sustained. That is a fundamental economic policy prescription that we do not agree with. What we are faced with here is that we are coming out of a period during which we have had our first major recession for 30 years. Even before that recession we had a decade of absolutely anaemic wages growth, and during that period of anaemic wages growth we had productivity growth which wasn't being shared with workers.
This government's response is to weaken bargaining power to reduce workers' rights so as to boost the economy through reducing their pay and reducing their conditions. We see that not as the economy of the future but as harking back to the worst of the past. After this year of so much sacrifice, we believe that what workers need is a fairer deal in which they get a better share of the productivity that this economy generates.
Casual mineworkers in my electorate in North Queensland would already have the ability to convert to full-time work after 12 months of employment were it not for those on the other side. The Labor Party refused to support a bill that the government was going to bring to the parliament in 2019, and subsequently that bill never saw the light of day. So here we are again with a unique chance to fix the problem of casualisation by ensuring that people have the right to convert. Once again, the Labor Party are not supporting it.
I begin today by saying: back the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020—back the bill for all those people who are in casual employment who want the right and the ability to convert to permanent work. Let me be clear about my stance on this issue. If a casual worker is doing the same work as a permanent worker for a period of time greater than 12 months, they are not casual; they are permanent and they should have the option to formally convert to a permanent role. That is an issue that I've campaigned on for many years.
What am I campaigning against? This is a very interesting situation. I get galoots like Labor's Murray Watt, the bloke from the Gold Coast who apparently is a spokesperson for northern Australia.
Senator Watt, I'll say—Watt by name, 'who' by nature, because no-one knows him up in North Queensland. He breezes in and out like a puff of wind from a certain part of the body and leaves about as much stench as well and just spreads misinformation wherever he goes. He is always raising this issue.
But you know who caused the problem? The Labor Party caused the problem because its Labor's fair work laws that have led to this situation of all these casuals being employed in sectors like the mining industry who are effectively doing de facto permanent work. This is happening not because of the Liberal-National coalition; this is happening because Labor's fair work laws were deficient in sorting that problem out. They cannot deny that whatsoever. It was the Labor Party that brought in the fair work laws, the industrial relations system, we are now operating under that have allowed this situation to go on. I've spoken to blokes who've been working on these mine sites for seven years or so in casual employment who want to go to permanent employment. It's taken persistence from people like me, the member for Capricornia, the member for Flynn, Senator Canavan and others, particularly in the National Party, to get this issue on the agenda and to the point where today we're debating it in a government bill. That's been no small achievement, I can tell you.
As I said before, in 2019, at my insistence and that of and many others, particularly in the Nationals, we had these draft laws that were going to be put to parliament. Sadly, they didn't get through parliament because, as I said, Labor opposed the draft law that would allow casual miners the right to convert to permanent work. It essentially meant that the law was going to be blocked in the Senate, so it was abandoned. It's not the first time we've had the Labor Party letting down miners. I look at significant projects such as the Carmichael mine, up near my part of the world; and the New Acland mine. There's also ongoing opposition to new coal-fired power generation in the North Queensland region emanating from the Labor Party and their mates in the Greens. It's a bit bizarre that we can dig it up—they're all happy with that; well, some of them aren't. We've got disputes going on between Labor's energy spokesman, Labor's climate change spokesman and people like the member for Hunter—and more power to the member for Hunter in that internal fight! We can apparently dig it up, we can ship it overseas and it can be burnt in coal-fired power stations that are being built at a rapid rate of knots in places like India, China and even Germany, but guess what? We can't do it ourselves. Apparently, if Australia does it, Australia is bad. But, if we send it overseas, that's good; it's okay for the other countries. I do not understand that; for the life of me I don't know how the logic works on the other side around that issue.
Further to this, we've got Queensland Labor—and federal Labor was in on this as well before the last election—pursuing and funding what can only be described as an extreme green policy called Just Transition, aimed at shutting down the coal industry and implementing pooled redundancies across the coal sector. That means mass sackings overseen by governments—overseen by Labor governments. It seems that Labor love the Greens more than they do coalminers.
I want to talk about the history on this issue about the right to convert from casual to permanent work. I've mentioned the member for Capricornia, the member for Flynn and Senator Canavan: we've been talking about this for ages, dealing with ministers that have come, with ministers that have gone and with ministers that are here today. I've got to say thanks to the Attorney-General, through you, Madam Deputy Speaker Owens, for bringing this issue on. Back in 2016, the member for Capricornia and I actually wrote to the Fair Work Ombudsman requesting an investigation into a number of claims in relation to unfair work practices in the mining sector and the mining services sector. Both of us had been contacted by many workers in relation to these workplace practices in relation to job losses, and that included job losses at the Hay Point Terminal on tugboats.
As far as I can tell, from an ethical point of view, an employer should not have de facto employees engaged as contractors. They shouldn't be able to simply dismiss workers using a downturn as an excuse and then have another worker come in and fill their position. That is illegal under the framework that we've got. Yet, there are loopholes that exist in that fair work law that allow those practices to go on. I think it's just plain wrong that we right now have full-time mining company employees working side by side casual labour employees doing the same work, the same hours, the same rosters. One is permanent and one is casual: that is wrong. Some of the labour hire company employees on mine sites have been working there, as I said, for seven years—I've spoken to blokes—and they're still considered a casual. So we went off to the Fair Work Ombudsman asking for an investigation into claims around the erosion of certain rights for workers out there.
In 2016, the member for Capricornia went out to Moranbah, in her electorate, to meet with workers and hear their concerns directly. I actually attempted to hold several meetings with the CFMEU on this, because I had great sympathies for these arguments at a point in time when my own party and the coalition probably did not. I tried on four separate occasions, and each time right at the death knell the union cancelled the meeting. I don't know what that was about. They're happy to play the blame game out in the public arena, but, when it comes to a government member wanting to sit down with the union and actually have a constructive behind-the-scenes conversation about solutions, they've been absent. The truth is that casualisation of the mining sector has been going on for years under the fair work laws that were introduced under the Rudd government and which the Gillard government oversaw. This is how the problem has occurred. This, right in front of us today, is the fix to the problem.
I could talk at length about the history that I have had in this fight that has led to these particular provisions in this legislation today, but what I will say is that I am very glad the government has acknowledged the situation where people are continuing on for years in employment that is de facto permanent. They have rostered hours and they're working alongside other permanent workers doing the same job, the same shifts and the same hours and yet they're on casual rates and casual employment, without the security that permanent employment actually brings. It's wrong. It's unethical. And so, before even the government brought this bill to a head, we had BHP moving from their model, which was increasingly to more casualisation, to set up BHP operational services and put these people on permanent work. Hooray! I give them a lot of bricks back, actually. People might think that I don't, but, I'll tell you what, I give BHP a few swipes and a big tick for putting people onto permanent employment.
I have also given a few swipes to WorkPac in the past. There are a lot of employees in my electorate with WorkPac. A lot of them like working for WorkPac. They, without being forced, change their enterprise agreement to say that workers, after six months of continuous work, have the right to convert to permanent work inside WorkPac. Again, I applaud the industry for doing this—for correcting what, quite frankly, is a bit of an injustice that's been done to these workers by keeping them on casual employment when they didn't want to be. A lot of people want the security of having sick leave and of being able to attend the funeral of a loved one and not lose pay for it—of being able to enjoy all of the benefits that comes with secure employment. That's why I think that this legislation is very, very important. The actions that have happened in the industry, thankfully, happened before this has been put in place. This will ensure that it is an absolute right for those workers.
I've heard all these stories that come up. They say, 'It's not going to be workable. It's unenforceable.' That's nonsense, nonsense and more nonsense. The situation is, if this law is passed and workers get that right to convert from casual work to permanent work after 12 months of employment, the boss will have to write to the worker and say: 'It's been 12 months. Do you want to convert to permanent?' The worker will say, 'Yes, I do', if they decide to do that, and it will happen. If the boss says, 'We can't actually let you go to permanent work, because of issue X', issue X needs to be validated or you will have the union movement in there, I hope—if they're doing their job—breathing down the neck of the bosses saying, 'This is incorrect.' And you will also have the backing of the Fair Work Commission, which oversee employment standards in this country. If a dodgy reason is given, a dodgy reason will be exposed and that boss will have to offer permanent employment to that person. This puts the onus on businesses to do the right thing. It puts all of the benefits onto the worker who, as some said, might want the choice of continuing on in casual work because of the extra loadings that they get. At least it's going to be the worker's right to decide. I think that is fair enough. That's why I say let's back the bill. Let's back this bill that gives workers the right to convert from casual to permanent employment. This is a problem that has gone on far, far too long, under Labor's fair work laws, in the Bowen Basin and elsewhere, perhaps in the member for Hunter's electorate, too. I gave him a bit of a plaudit before for his ongoing fight within the Labor Party for common sense. More power to you, Member for Hunter.
I hope that we can support this bill in this place and in the other place because, without it, we are going to be stuck with this injustice continuing to occur and people remaining in these casual roles when they're actually doing permanent work. I want to see it fixed. The government now wants to see it fixed. Maybe the Labor party want to see it fixed. Can you at least support us on this measure? That would be good. Back the bill.
[by video link] It's interesting to follow the member for Dawson and his magical mystery tour of the mining sector and industrial relations. It appears the member for Dawson likes to have it three ways. He backs the workers, he backs the industry, he backs everyone. What he fails to understand, quite literally, is that this legislation would still allow you, as an employee—if, on day one, you were employed as a casual—to remain a casual for 12 months. Then, to assert your right to become permanent, if the employer wasn't willing, you'd have to lawyer up and go to the Federal Court. I think the miners that the member for Dawson has been talking to, if they are still casual, may find this a bit of an impediment on a journey to permanent work.
I don't question the member for Dawson when he talks about having spoken to workers who've been impacted by the scourge of casualisation in this country over the last eight years; I don't for a moment underestimate his sincerity in that. I do question his understanding of the legislation that's before him now—the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020. I, too, speak as someone who speaks to workers in my electorate. In the outer suburbs, it has been clear over the last eight years that the scourge of casualisation and underemployment has overtaken many people's aspirations. I've spoken many times in the House about the many young workers in my community who have worked in the labour hire space for years. They have left school and got themselves a job through labour hire and have stayed in that system for years. I understand perfectly what that means for those young people. But I often wonder if members in the House understand—if they understand what it's like to spend every day of your life waiting for a text message that might come through at six o'clock, at dinnertime, when you've just got home from a shift, or might come through at 11 o'clock at night, or at one o'clock in the morning to tell you where and when you're required for work tomorrow. That goes on for years for young people in my electorate.
This was a chance for this government to do the right thing by those young workers and set them on a course for permanent employment—set them on a course where they could bank on an income and where their hard work was appreciated; a course where they could live the life that most of us lived decades ago, where a day's pay came with the permanency of the role and the capacity to plan around when you're going to be working and how much you're going to be paid. I don't think members of the House, particularly those opposite, quite understand how this all translates on the ground in the outer suburbs.
So I'm pleased to speak on this legislation and on the amendments presented by the member for Watson because, as I said, this is critically important to my community, and this is critically important across the nation. This is a once-in-a-hundred-years moment, brought on by the pandemic that has helpfully—it hasn't been helpful in many ways—shone a light on exactly these issues of casualisation and of underemployment. It has shown us that, as a community, we know now what is essential. It is clear that people in the caring industries, in the retail industries and in transport and logistics are absolutely essential to the rest of us being able to live our lives the way we like to, and it has shown that, in those sectors, this scourge runs rampant. We've seen aged-care workers and healthcare workers working across more than one site under different contracts. They have more than one job to get themselves what's equivalent to full-time work, with more than one employer, possibly in the same industry. This is an opportunity for this government to put forward legislation that would see these things change and that would see an industrial relations system that supports workers across this country and supports employers across this country. But, no, they've baulked. They've put before us the old ideology again and again. Yes, there are some clean-up things in here where members opposite can stand up and say, 'This bill addresses all of these issues.' The words may be in the bill, but the issues are far from addressed. I don't think we can afford to miss this opportunity to swing the pendulum back in our workplaces so that young people, people who are changing jobs, and people who have perhaps become unemployed and are now returning to the workforce go into the workforce under better conditions and, certainly, with the prospect of permanent jobs.
I want to go to what was a really important point that I heard the member for Fraser mention around the number of people who are currently coming into the workforce. On the one hand, the government claims that, in economic terms, the pandemic is over. The government claims that everything is back on track. We can cut JobKeeper; it won't matter to anyone. It will all be fine because the economy has recovered. Yet, when we look at the actual rate of people being employed, we find more people employed part time and more people employed casually since May 2020 than ever before in Australia's history. So it isn't creating a better future; it's actually locking in what was already happening. This legislation fails dreadfully to reduce that scenario. In fact, the figures tell us it's doing exactly the opposite. This legislation won't abate that. This legislation, although paying lip-service by using terms that seem familiar, doesn't cut it in terms of making sure that this changes. I think that's the crux of the matter for people in my community.
I've heard members opposite talk about small business. I have a lot of small-business owners in my electorate. Most of them begin small businesses to create something to support themselves and to create an income for their families. They create a business that they hope to employ others in, and most small-business owners do that in good faith. So attempts to make things simpler for small-business owners is something that Labor would always support, as employers in our communities and in communities that we represent. But, again, the government talks about that as a piece in this legislation, when the overall parts of this legislation that Labor disagrees with are clear. They are being twisted and obfuscated by members opposite. On several occasions, we've seen the Attorney-General claim in the House that Labor is not supporting penalties for wage theft, when this legislation—as the member for Watson has pointed out and as the member for Fraser has pointed out today—undermines the Victorian and Queensland state legislation in this space. So, yes, you can go out and say that this legislation brings in federal laws to punish people who are caught for wage theft, but it undermines the current Victorian and Queensland legislation that already applies. So, in two states, it undermines current legislation and, as the member for Watson so clearly pointed out, it actually reduces the penalties for wage theft.
Across the last eight years in this House, we have all seen the wage theft cases that have been highlighted in our national papers. We've seen committed journalists go out and find these stories. We were relying on the press to highlight something that should have been obvious to everyone, that should have been part of a system where it couldn't have happened in the first place but if it did happen there was a system that saw it undone as soon as possible. But, instead, we were relying on journalists to bring us that information. That in itself is an industrial relations system that has major flaws.
To put that in perspective, the Fair Work Ombudsman has been quoted time and time again saying that they don't have the workforce, they don't have the resources, to pursue these cases. This legislation doesn't change that structure fundamentally. It doesn't make it easier for prosecutions. It doesn't create a system where those things can get addressed. I have said this before in the House as well. Generally, Australians see the name 'Fair Work Commission' and assume that this body was set up to support workers, that it's there to ensure that there's an umpire and that the laws are being applied appropriately and equally. This legislation doesn't give me confidence that it will live up to that title under this legislation. In fact, workers may find themselves having to go to go to the Federal Court. So the legislation doesn't meet what Labor set out in the first place and said that we would support. It won't create secure jobs and decent pay.
The answer in December from Labor, when the legislation was first introduced, was no. The government thinks that will change because it adjusted one measure. Yes, it was the worst measure: the change to the BOOT. But it still doesn't meet the standards of creating secure jobs with decent pay in this country. This is an opportunity this government has missed. One could argue it's deliberately missed it because, when you go through the detail of the legislation, it seems to make it harder for workers, not easier for workers. It makes it harder for workers to seek to be part of negotiations. It makes it harder for workers to get representation in negotiations with business. Workers, according to the legislation, will be notified bargaining has started and they have a right to be represented a month after bargaining starts, putting workers behind the eight ball from the very, very beginning. They're stripped of the right to a comprehensive explanation of an agreement they are asked to vote on. The list goes on and on in the ways this legislation lets down workers.
It comes to the simplest of things. During COVID, what we saw from the Australian workforce was quite amazing. What we saw in terms of cooperation and flexibility was absolutely astounding. I think Australian workers in their absolute commitment to making sure that we all got through COVID deserve better than this legislation. I think the Australian workforce deserve some acknowledgement about what they understand flexibility to mean. They're prepared to be flexible when circumstances demand it. This legislation uses the notion of flexibility, but it's a one-way street. It doesn't create more flexibility for the workforce. It doesn't create more flexibility for casual workers. It doesn't create more flexibility for part-time workers. The government's spin on this legislation really is a slap in the face to all of the people that we've been calling heroes throughout this pandemic, to the people in communities like mine across this country who have shown up for work and put themselves and their families at risk to keep the rest of us safe. That's the bottom line for me here. This is an opportunity for this government to put forward legislation in good faith; to listen and to understand what's happening in the suburbs across our nation and the regions across our nation; and to understand that when it comes to industrial relations in its current form, the pendulum has swung too far away from workers and too far towards large corporations, and to fix that. Instead what we have before us is more of the same. Instead what we have before us is an attempt to quell concerns about casualisation and insecure work. It is an attempt to suggest that these things will be fixed in this legislation when, in fact, on paper they may be, but you'll need a lawyer to defend yourself. You'll need a lawyer to ensure that your rights are met.
So I stand with my Labor colleagues, opposed to this legislation until this government sees its way to being honest with the Australian public, to being honest with businesses and workers about what this legislation entails and what it suggests and what it seeks to make law today. I want to thank all of those people in my community who have spoken to me about their situations in casual work and part-time work. I say to them that Labor will continue to oppose this legislation until the government sees reason.
I rise to speak in support of the Morrison government's Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020. This bill will provide greater flexibility for employers seeking to retain and bring on new staff during COVID-19. It will mean businesses, especially small and medium-sized businesses, can keep their doors open and give opportunities for existing employees to take on more hours. This bill will also provide greater certainty to employees by clearly defining what a casual employee is. It will also introduce a statutory pathway through which casual employees can become permanent part-time or full-time employees, giving them the opportunity to make their relationship with their employer permanent.
I'm supporting this bill for the opportunities and the jobs these reforms will open up for young people in my electorate of Robertson. I'm also supporting this bill because of its potential to increase productivity and to grow business on the Central Coast, especially for those small- and medium-sized businesses who have had to change the way they operate during COVID-19. By contrast, Labor is seeking to delay the introduction of these balanced and pragmatic reforms which are the result of the industrial relations reform working groups put together by the Attorney-General. These working groups included representatives from business groups and workers unions and more than 120 hours of formal discussions to seek to bring about changes to industrial relations that will help support Australia's economic recovery, improve job growth and improve workers' rights.
This bill contains five schedules covering five different subject matters dealt with by the industrial relations working groups. I'll be discussing three of these matters, including the definition of a casual employee in the Fair Work Act, the continuity of workplace flexibility measures for specific awards for a further two years, and new measures to improve compliance and enforcement of industrial relations policy.
The Morrison government recognises the need for greater certainty for businesses and stronger protections for casual employees, which is why we are introducing a definition of 'casual employees' in the Fair Work Act. This definition will make it clear from the outset whether a new employee is a casual or an ongoing employee of the business. It will also mean that employees will not have to depend on intermittent assessments of the relationship over time to know their rights and obligations. This definition of 'casual employment' will provide greater certainty for the more than 32,000 casual employees on the Central Coast and the more than 2.3 million casuals across Australia.
The bill will also provide eligible casual employees with a statutory mechanism to become permanent full-time or part-time employees if they wish. Employers will be required to offer to convert an employee from casual to permanent employment if they've worked casually for the employer for 12 months and have worked a regular pattern of hours on an ongoing basis for at least the last six months of that period. This will allow employees to be classified according to the work they perform and be paid related entitlements.
The bill will also look to address additional challenges and costs incurred by small businesses, including in my electorate of Robertson. There was a cafe in Avoca that I used to walk by every morning—a fantastic cafe with wonderful coffee and great food—and one morning last year, I received a text message from a constituent who was a regular at that cafe, and he informed me that the owner had let him know that she was going to have to close. De, a local business owner, operated this popular cafe called Sul Rondo in Avoca Beach. She said to me she was devastated when she had to close her cafe in September last year because she couldn't retain or attract staff to keep her business going. While De began the pandemic with 14 staff, she only had six employees working for her when she had to shut the cafe permanently. De's experience highlights just one of the many challenges that small business owners have faced and are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic. The government has introduced this bill to help support businesses, especially in the retail and the hospitality sectors.
Another issue addressed by this bill is the inflexible and complex employment award system. The system can be particularly challenging for small businesses to navigate. During the pandemic, the current system hasn't allowed for the flexibility that businesses and employees need to continue to operate. Part of the challenge faced by small business is the amount of time required to understand this award system. This is time that small-business owners could spend growing their business and creating new jobs, two things which I think all of us in this chamber should agree are key priorities for Australia's economic recovery. The Morrison government wants to support businesses and employees covered by awards with greater temporary flexibility to help them recover from COVID-19. Importantly, this flexibility will be given to industries hardest hit by the pandemic, such as the retail and the hospitality sectors. These flexibilities will allow employers covered by 12 industry awards to ask employees to undertake in-demand tasks or work from different locations. It will also mean that part-time employees in these industries can agree to work additional hours if they wish which helps to support those that are currently underemployed. This reform will provide greater opportunities for around 30 per cent of part-time employees in the retail industry and roughly 40 per cent of part-time employees in the accommodation and food services industry who wish to work more hours.
However, despite the industrial relations reform working groups holding 33 meetings, Labor refuses to support these temporary measures. By not supporting this bill, Labor is saying to people on the Central Coast that they don't support flexible working conditions for businesses and employees in distressed industries. The Morrison government is also improving compliance and enforcement of the Fair Work Act, protecting employees from wage theft and deterring non-compliant conduct from employers. These reforms include a new criminal offence for dishonest and systematic underpayments of one or more employees. We're also increasing the value and scope of civil penalties for non-complying employers. These measures provide significant and stronger protections for workers across Australia and allow employees to recover unpaid wages sooner. Unlike those opposite, the Morrison government also recognises the challenges that businesses face in complying with their obligations under the Fair Work Act. This is why, in addition to this bill, we are committing $12.9 million to establish an employer advisory service within the Fair Work Ombudsman. This service will assist employers in understanding their obligations by providing written advice specific to their situation. In speaking with local businesses in my electorate of Robertson, I know the introduction of this service will actually be quite welcomed and help provide them with greater clarity in understanding their obligations.
In closing, I'm really proud to be part of a government who is improving Australia's industrial relations framework for employees and employers alike. For around 16½ small and medium-sized businesses in my electorate of Robertson on the Central Coast, these measures will support them through Australia's economic recovery and help them to continue operating as the pandemic progresses. These reforms are important yet modest and address known issues within the Fair Work Act which are impeding job creation and wage growth. I commend the bill to the House.
A few months ago I met with a group of aged-care workers who worked in aged-care facilities across the country. Their story was a common one. These are a group of workers who told me that they were overworked and underpaid. Despite doing shiftwork and working on weekends, they still struggled to make ends meet and earn enough money to feed and clothe their families. As a result, many of them had a second part-time or casual job just to pay the bills. These are the hardworking Australians who our nation relied upon during the difficult period of the pandemic to get us through and to care for some of the most vulnerable Australians. I take my hat off to all of those working in our emergency services and care occupations, like aged care, nursing, teaching and child care, who helped us get through the pandemic. Most of these workers are working for award wages only. When I asked this group of workers why more of their colleagues don't join the union in their workplace, and why they don't get together and bargain collectively so that they can improve their wages and conditions, the response was common. Many of them felt scared that, if they did join the union, they might be dismissed by their boss and have to find another job. That's the reality of many workplaces throughout this country: low-paid, vulnerable workers are scared to join a union and are unable to make ends meet.
I want to read to you an email that I received last week from an IT worker that lives in the community that I represent. Helen wrote to me: 'I'm an IT worker stuck in an endless series of three- to 12-month contracts that don't provide the income security brokers want to see when shopping for home loans and have me constantly worrying. My current contract carries immediate notice terms, meaning I could earn zero dollars next week if the employer decides to terminate me that Friday. If that happens, I won't be able to make the rent and other bills, let alone save anything towards a home.' That is the reality for many workers in Australia at the moment—those without bargaining power, working in these vulnerable industries. They're in low-paid jobs. They're struggling to get by, living off award wages, with little or no job security, and they're unable to save for a deposit, much less get a home loan and begin to own their home.
I have to laugh at the campaign that's being run by the member for Goldstein and others opposite, saying, 'Home first, super second.' Australian workers should not have to raid their superannuation accounts to be able to afford to save for a home. We should have liveable wages in this country so that Australian workers have the necessary income to buy and live in their own home. It's not unreasonable! They shouldn't have to raid their superannuation. Yet, because wages growth has been so low under this government and because the government has cut penalty rates and is attempting to reduce workers' pay even further by reforms such as this one, you've got people like the member for Goldstein running around with campaigns saying, 'Just raid your superannuation.' Not only do these workers live in poverty during their working life, but the member for Goldstein and others opposite want them to live in poverty in their retirement as well. That is what this government is about: cutting wages and working conditions for Australian workers and making sure they don't have adequate incomes to enjoy their retirement after all of their hard work. That is why Labor is opposing this reform. It allows employers to cut the wages and working conditions of Australian workers, particularly those in jobs where they've served others and helped us get through this pandemic.
Currently there are two million Australians—that's not an insignificant number—who are unemployed or underemployed in this country. They're the hardworking Australians that we should have in mind when we debate this sort of reform in our parliament. We should be asking ourselves: 'Are we helping these workers with this reform? Are we providing more job security? Are we providing a liveable wage so that they can save for their own home and pay their bills?
Are we treating them fairly?' That's at the heart of it. Are we treating Australian workers fairly if this reform is implemented? On any objective analysis of this bill, the answer to that is no. We are not treating Australian workers fairly. We will not be providing them with more job security. We will not be providing them with the means to earn a living wage and therefore save for a home and the like.
This bill allows employers to cut wages and conditions, to ensure that vulnerable workers become more vulnerable and susceptible to losing hours in their workplace and therefore reducing their incomes. That is not on. Everything that this government has done when it comes to workplace relations makes it more difficult for Australian workers to get by. We saw that they supported cuts to penalty rates, so that now means that low-paid workers on award wages, who don't have any bargaining power, can't go to the boss and say, 'I want a wage rise this week.' For the lowest paid workers in the country, it means that their incomes have been cut and they take home less to their families each week. How is that a good thing? How is that fair?
Recently we've had Qantas, which received $880 billion worth of subsidies from this government in the form of JobKeeper and other subsidies relating to the airline industry, sack 2,500 of their workers and, in the ultimate insult to those workers, many of whom had worked loyally for that company for 20 or 30 years, they bring in a foreign corporation to take their jobs and employ people on lower wages and conditions. And what does this government say? 'Good on you, Qantas. Well done. That's the sort of thing that we want to see in a Morrison-government Australian workplace: cutting workers, causing them to lose their jobs, bringing in a foreign corporation and paying them lower wages and conditions.'
That's the reality of Australian workplaces under the Morrison government, even for people working in our mining industry. Those opposite like to pretend that they support people working in the mining industry. They prattle around in coalmines in Queensland, in high-vis vests, telling them how good they all are and how they support their workers. But if you have two coalminers working in the same jobs, in the exact same shift pattern, yet one is employed permanently full time by the company and the other is working on a casual basis, employed by a labour hire mob, then that's okay. How is that supporting coalminers or standing up for coalminers? When the union, on behalf of those coal workers, challenges a work arrangement like that in the courts, where do those opposite go? Are they up there, standing up for those coal workers? Of course not. They slink back to their electorates and hide and say nothing about supporting those workers in a case that's before the High Court.
This bill that we're debating here today will make things even worse and bring about further insecurity and lower wages, and that's why I'm voting against it. It brings in a change to the better off overall test for workplace agreement-making in this country and introduces a two-year suspension of that very important test. Now, for those that aren't au fait with this test, it's there to ensure—as the name suggests—that, when an enterprise agreement is made between an employer and a group of workers, the workers aren't worse off compared to the award and the National Employment Standards. This is the safety net below which no-one can fall in this country, and it's provided, and ensured that we have, livable wages and conditions in workplaces.
Well, this government want to suspend that test for the next two years. You can bet your life—you can't put enough money on it; it's odds on—on this: if they did get away it, after two years, guess what the employers would say? 'Oh, gee, Prime Minister, that test works so well. We think you should extend it.' You can bet your life that we'll be debating this again in two years time because the government wants to make it permanent. That's what this government does. It's never temporary when you're reducing wages and conditions for workers; it becomes permanent all the time under a Liberal government.
They want to suspend that test for enterprise agreements so that the parties no longer have to demonstrate that workers won't be worse off compared to the National Employment Standards and the award. They want to make workers worse off. They want to allow employers to cut wages and conditions for workers and make them worse off compared to the award. How is that fair? You'd have to have rocks in your head to think the Labor Party would support something like that. Of course we're going to oppose that! We're the party founded on the basis of defending and advancing the rights of workers. We're not going to support a reform that allows employers to cut wages and conditions of working Australians and make it legal.
And what does that say about this government's approach to, and credit for, those who helped us get through the difficult period of the pandemic? Many aged-care workers, nurses, childcare workers, public transport workers and teachers will be worse off if this reform goes through the parliament. What's the thanks they get from this government for working through this difficult period of time? I'll tell you what the thanks they get is—this fair work amendment law which allows those workers to be worse off in their employment. That's the thanks they get from this government. They sacrifice so much. They risked their own health and safety during the pandemic. And the thanks they get from the Morrison government? A cut to their wages and working conditions. Well, that's not on. Labor will not support that. We will not allow employers to use their power to cut wages and working conditions and leave workers worse off, all sponsored by the Morrison government. All Labor members stand for supporting Australian workers and will not support a reform that leaves some of our most vulnerable worse off.
Leading labour law experts have said this is a bad reform. They've said it will tear a hole in the safety net, increase casualisation and worsen wages growth at a time when pay rises are necessary for an economic recovery. It's a bad reform for our economy because it delays the recovery by ensuring that the lowest paid—a majority of workers in this country, unfortunately—receive less and have less spending power and capacity in our economy.
There are other elements of this bill that I want to mention, including the definition of 'casual'. If a worker agrees to be employed as a casual at the start of their job, they remain a casual despite their work pattern. They could be working full-time hours on a work pattern the same as a full-time worker, yet not getting the same entitlements as a full-time worker because they're classified as a casual and they agreed to that at the beginning of their employment contract. When you come into an employment contract, when you start a job, you have no bargaining power at all, particularly if you're a casual. You can't afford to say to the boss, 'I'll agree to be a casual now but, if the work pattern changes later on, I want to become permanent.' It doesn't work that way. But this government wants to ensure that, if you agree at the start, then that's it: you're a casual for the rest of your employment pattern.
And then there is casual conversion. On its face, it looks good: you can convert to permanent after 12 months. But, under this law, the employer can say no; if they have reasonable grounds not to agree to permanent conversion, they won't have to. The permanent addition of flexible work directions is proof that, under this government's changes to the Fair Work Act, they're never temporary. They want to make those changes about flexible work directions permanent. It goes to what I said earlier about the two-year change to the better off overall test. Of course it won't be two years. That's permanent. If this is passed by the parliament, that's permanent and workers are permanently worse off. That's why we won't agree to it.
In conclusion, I'm opposed to this reform because the thanks that this group of vulnerable Australian workers, many of whom worked hard in the pandemic, get from this government is a law that leaves them worse off and that allows employers to cut their wages and working conditions. I and my Labor colleagues will not stand for that. Labor stands for protecting Australian workers and their jobs and bettering them in the workplace. We announced last week a secure employment package. We should be supporting workers to ensure they have more job security and have better incomes and can spend in our economy. I and my Labor colleague will also oppose a reform such as this to the hilt.
I rise to speak in favour of the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020. This is one of the most important bills before this parliament. Reform of our industrial relations system is really long overdue, and there are so many common sense provisions in this bill that I'm surprised people on the other side are objecting to it across the board. They say that they're protecting workers' rights, but we have just been through, and are starting to recover from, the worst economic recession, brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, and it accentuates the importance of us reforming things that have really clogged up the works in terms of employing Australians.
Before I came into this parliament, as many of you know, I was a medical practitioner, but I was also a major employer in my region in the health space. Because of the lack of development in certain areas of the medical spectrum, we actually built from scratch and ran for 13 years a day hospital. We treated over 20,000 people in that time. It ended up being taken over by a major healthcare organisation. But I learnt the hard way how complicated our industrial relations system is. It is absolutely bamboozling, and you need full-time consultants if you're a small employer to guide you through the maze of the Fair Work Act. It's all good in intention, but, if you're living the life of being an employer, you need a lot of specialist support.
Fortunately, there are employer organisations that can help you, but when I read the explanatory memorandum for this I thought: 'Yes! Finally, common sense is coming into the equation.' Any time any reform is made in the industrial relations space, it's like clockwork: the members of the opposition go off on their robotic-like objection to everything, twisting it to make out that it's the worst thing ever and that these evil people like entrepreneurs and employers, who create opportunities for employment, are the big bad bogeymen or big bad bogeywomen. It's an absolute disappointment to hear members of the other side object to common sense reforms.
This bill is all the more important because we have to make our economy as efficient as possible, make it as easy as possible for people to get back to paid employment and allow small and large businesses to flourish. We want to give casual employees, any employees, a fair go under systems that mean they get a fair deal and the employer gets a fair deal. I know, in my time, many of my colleagues in the business chamber and around town were afraid to put people on because they were worried about all the consequences if full-time or part-time permanent employees didn't work out. You're all probably familiar with the sayings 'go away money' and 'unfair dismissal claims'. It was a nightmare for people. While that's not specifically addressed in this bill, this bill addresses quite a few very sensible things, and I'll just go through some of them.
First of all, the public interest exception, which is temporarily in place because of COVID-19, which allows for exceptions to section 189 of the Fair Work Act, would become permanent. It also, as I mentioned, addresses a lot of the concerns about casual employees and their status. These include whether there will be a long-term hindrance on employment from the current system and the judgements that indicate that long-term casual employees, even though they've been paid extra loadings on an hourly rate because they don't get holiday pay and all those other entitlements, would then be entitled to double-dip once they become permanent employees.
Flexibility is also a very important principle. We need to make it simpler. We need to get flexibility within our Fair Work Act, and we're addressing that and also the timing related to making agreements. A lot has been said about the better off overall test. Sure, that is a good principle, but how can you define that if someone hasn't got a job but you can get them into a job with an enterprise agreement with a lot more flexibility and much more productivity? On average, most enterprise agreements, in my experience and in the data I've read, are far better than award wages. We want to make it so that employees get a better deal, with a defined pathway to go from long-term casual into either permanent part-time or full-time employment.
Some of the stories I've heard from employers about the so-called double dipping provisions that were enabled by arbitration decisions put a shiver up the spine of many employers in my area. A lot of people who are long-term casuals prefer that, funnily enough. Many of them would prefer to have permanent part-time or full-time employment because it's a lot easier to get a loan or a mortgage on a house. When you go to a bank or other financial institution and they ask about your employment and it's regarded as casual, it does make borrowing a lot harder. As I said, we're not trying to harm employees; we're trying to give them a pathway whereby they can get a better deal so that, if they're in a permanent casual situation and they want to change, that will be possible.
There is another really good initiative I can see in this legislation. Many people are casual or part time, and, if you give them more work, you end up having to pay them overtime rather than paying them the same rate that they're already on for their part-time work. Sure, if you're doing more than a full day's work, you should get overtime. But, if you're only doing, say, 12 hours a week and the business gets busy and there is a requirement for another day's work or another half shift, all of a sudden this person is getting penalty rates when it's really less than 37½ hours work a week or less than seven or eight hours a day. So that's a brake on employing that person, and this bill is going to make it possible for those conversations to be had. It is such common sense.
The other thing is that these changes are based on the genuine principles of sending a letter of offer to a potential employee, outlining what they will get and having them accept the offer. So it would all be transparent, but it means there would be a pathway so that long-term casuals could, through the system, be put onto a more permanent basis, either permanent part time or full time.
The other thing about these enterprise agreements that has slowed down the growth of employment is, as I said, the complexity and the length of time it takes to get an enterprise agreement or changes to conditions through the Fair Work Commission. When a business wants to grow and wants to give an offer of employment and it knows that it might be looking at three months before it can put the person on, often the opportunity for the business to grow is held up because of that. People have to have a fair and reasonable appreciation of what it's like on the other side.
Employers, particularly small businesses, put their house up as collateral for their business, in many cases. They are the last person to get paid. They sometimes have to take second mortgages on businesses to make sure, in downturns of cash flows in a business, their employees get paid on time. If you make it too hard for them, many employers think: 'I'm out of here. We'll shut the business down and go find an employee position somewhere.' That's really disappointing, because small businesses are great businesses. Small businesses are adept. They usually know their product better than big businesses. We want Australian small businesses and big businesses to flourish.
One of the things I've observed in the last couple of years is huge organisations, with all sorts of human resources people and specialist lawyers with all the requisite skills to make sure that people are paid the right amount—big employers like these and the supermarket chains—are being found, under the Fair Work Act, to have underpaid people. So what chance does a small business have to cope with all the complexity and time it takes to get an enterprise agreement or even just the right pay and conditions? The Fair Work Commission, in this transition of people from casual to part-time work, will be able to assess the better off overall test. Even though it may not be what the person thought, if it's better off as a general principle and if you take into regard all the non-monetary benefits for it and whether the other option of not going forward with the new arrangement is that the position vanishes, that is definitely better off overall. These businesses that have lost their income stream and customers because of the COVID-19 situation are really keen to get up and going, but they need that flexibility. They need a bit of leeway. It will mean that these decisions have to be reached within 21 days, and people will get some certainty. They'll know if they can take that person on, and that person will know what they will get.
I was reading some of the data; most enterprise agreements are better off by about 46 per cent. So what's the reluctance to have more enterprise agreements? It's all well and good to have an award as a baseline, but, if a business can make it work for both the employee and the business and there are huge productivity gains as a result, why not? I'm really encouraged by this.
The other thing we have learnt from the current situation is that our supply chains, for so many parts of the Australian economy, rely on overseas manufacturing and supply lines. Greenfield sites are sometimes a feeding frenzy for our members' masters in the union movement. They see a big greenfield project coming down the line and they try to ramp up the terms and conditions to get a short-term agreement and then they come back in the middle of construction down the track. This is a great impediment to taking on big projects. I'll tell you what, I see the pressure that our oil refineries are under. If we don't get some investment in a new megarefinery that is really hyperefficient, on the scale that we need to make and refine petroleum products—because our economy still runs on it—we will be in a very sad position.
With changes to the approval process for greenfield agreements, to specify a nominal expiry date to give them some certainty for up to eight years, a lot of these big companies will take on these megaprojects and there'll be employment for so many more people in Australia. Like I said, this is a really good bill. There are a lot of commonsense provisions in it. It's nothing evil or sinister. We just want our economy to grow. We want casual workers to have a pathway to permanent part-time or full-time work, if they want it. It means big business will be able to do great stuff for the country. (Time expired)
The Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020 comes down to this: under the cover of COVID, this government wants to bring back Work Choices. You can dress it up or knock it down as much as you like—that is the bottom line for this government.
We know that the government aspire to be the party of workers, because they've realised that it's the working families of Australia that will determine the next election. The reality is that the Prime Minister has worked out that if he says the word 'workers' enough he will appear to appeal to them. The reality is the Liberal Party and the coalition don't really care for workers. I think we've heard that from the member for Lyne as he wandered and meandered through industrial relations for the last 15 minutes. The PM's strategy is to mention the word 'workers' as many time he can, but is not putting anything behind that. It is a facade. This party, these Liberals, doesn't change. It is Work Choices, and we need to tell the Australian people that it is alive and well.
We know that the government's proposed changes to Australia's industrial relations laws will leave working people worse off. That is the bottom line. If you are a worker, you are going to be worse off under this government. We know that. Even with the government's removal of the proposed two-year suspension of the better off overall test—they've backflipped on that a bit—this bill still well and truly fails the pub test. Under this government, as a worker, you will be worse off.
For most workers, an enterprise bargaining agreement is a David versus Goliath battle. People know at work that you don't wander into the boss's office and sit down and have a coffee or a cup of tea and they'll say: 'Look, how are you going with it all? Would you like a bit more money?' It doesn't happen like that. People who are working absolutely know that that is not how enterprise bargaining happens. This legislation will make it even harder for employees—regular people who just want to work, earn their money, pay their mortgage and send their kids to good schools. They don't want the hassle of having to go in and try to bargain for an extra dollar an hour when they know that they're more than likely not going to get it. Employers have significantly more bargaining power. This government can't even sort out a reasonable award for its own staff. That's right—the pay agreement for members of parliament staff is a year overdue. This government can't even negotiate an enterprise bargain with the people who run Parliament House, so how do we trust them with the rest of Australia? This government wants to do over its own employees without whom this place wouldn't run.
The bill will cut bargaining rights and protection for workers whose pay and conditions are covered by agreements. It is as simple as that. It will undermine the critical function of the independent umpire, the Fair Work Commission. In Australia, we may not always agree with the umpire's decision, but, by golly, we respect it, and we know the umpire is important. The Fair Work Commission is the workers' umpire, and this government want to pull the whistle out of the mouth of the umpire for Australian workers. They need to be protected too.
The bill allows for the making of agreements that are below the safety net, cutting wages and creating unfair competition. In my electorate of Paterson, hospitality and retail are sizeable industries. We have over 2,000 people working as casual employees in grocery stores and 1,800 or thereabouts working as casuals in the fast food industry. The bill will result in fewer permanent jobs with rights, increasing the casualisation of the workforce and adding to those numbers. The casual conversion provisions of the bill are essentially meaningless as employers are not bound to offer a regular casual more work or a permanent job if they do not think it would be reasonable to do so. The same employer can veto a worker's right to have the Fair Work Commission—the umpire—consider if the decision was fair. It is totally unfair, and this bill is not good for Australian workers.