Monday, 22 February 2021
Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020; Second Reading
The original question was that this bill now be read a second time. To this the honourable member for Watson has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The question now is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.
I am in continuation. I was speaking before question time today about this industrial relations legislation, the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020, and I wanted to tell the House, of course, that Labor agrees that there are significant issues with our industrial relations environment, significant problems that need fixing and significant wrongs that need righting. But the problem is not that working people have too much power, that wages are too high, that wages are growing too quickly or that work is too secure. In fact, the exact opposite is the case. We see wage stagnation, wage theft and widespread job insecurity. Our Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, spoke about this last week in Brisbane.
Even before this bill was announced, our system was riddled with insecurities and injustices, such as two people who could be doing the same job in the same workplace, perhaps in the same mine, with one paid 20 per cent less than the person they're working right next to because they're employed by a labour hire firm. It's not right in modern Australia that such inequity should exist, or that a person being hit by a car door while they're on their delivery bike should then have to go back to work before they're fully healed, while they're still injured, because they don't have any sick leave, or that a worker who's injured while doing delivery riding work and then returns to work because they have to, because they have no sick leave, should then be sacked because they're not able to deliver food quickly enough. These things happen every day, and they're legal under the arrangements as they exist at the moment.
Wage theft is, of course, illegal but is so widespread. We have heard example after example of millions of dollars being taken from working people—sometimes perhaps inadvertently, with poor calculations or poor record keeping, but in some cases absolutely blatantly where workers are paid a wage, it goes into their bank account and then they're told to go and withdraw the cash and give it back to the boss if they want to keep their jobs.
If the Prime Minister were really serious about reforming the industrial relations system, if he really cared about job security and wage growth, he would start with a very different set of questions to the ones that are driving the industrial relations laws that are before us at the moment—simple questions like: Should two people doing the same job get the same pay?
Should every Australian worker receive at least the minimum wage? Should people be paid penalty rates when they are giving up time with their families to work on the weekend? Should they receive penalty rates for that or for public holidays? As I said, these questions reflect some really fundamental differences between how we approach this and how the government is approaching this.
We choose to build an economy that provides security and decent wages for all Australians. Former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard talked about Australians being relaxed and comfortable. Despite the fact that I agree with former Prime Minister Howard on very little in the industrial relations world, this idea of Australians—after the horror year they experienced with the pandemic, after all the sacrifices they made—having the right to be perhaps not relaxed and comfortable but relaxed and confident is something worth fighting for. People should be confident that if they work hard and do the right thing at work they'll have a job next week, next month and next year. They should be confident that if they work hard they will get paid at least the minimum wage. They should be confident that if they work hard and their company is doing well they will see some of that benefit in terms of higher wages. They should be confident that there will be a job, a skilled job, a secure job, for their kids and their grandkids. They should be confident that Australia will continue to pay a decent day's pay for a decent day's work.
We have led the world in so many ways over the years. We can lead the world in the recovery from the pandemic as well by making sure that all Australians are confident that if they work hard their job is safe and they will receive decent pay. They should be confident, too, that we can withstand the next shock and that if they fall on hard times they will be helped back onto their feet.
Australians have sacrificed so much this year. These sacrifices were necessary but very painful, and they should mean something in terms of a better future. They should produce something worthwhile and good. Australians deserve a government with a genuine commitment to full employment, where job security is within the reach of everyone. They deserve a government that recognises that decent pay and job security create the confidence and demand that keeps more Australians in work. The last thing they deserve is a pay cut.
I rise to speak on the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020. At a time when Australians have experienced the highest levels of unemployment for many, many years; at a time when in many places—my home state of Victoria, for example—women's unemployment is still greater than eight per cent; at a time when our economy has suffered a recession, the largest shock in a generation; and at a time when we are seriously asking ourselves, 'Does the fractured and fissured labour market deliver for people as much as it delivers for businesses?' it is extraordinary that the government bowls up a piece of fair work legislation where its main intention is to allow employers to cut the wages of many of the same workers that we have lauded as the heroes of the pandemic. Problems in the industrial relations sphere in the labour market didn't start with the pandemic, but, boy, have they been highlighted.
We think about what happened in Victoria in our aged-care system and the tragedy of the lives that were lost during the COVID pandemic not only because of failures of this government to have any sort of plan in place for infection control but also because aged care is one of the labour markets where, bit by bit, employment has gone from secure—people work for one employer; they know where they're going to work and when they're going to work; they know what their hours are; they know the people they are going to care for; they know the people who are going to be their employer—to predominantly a model where aged-care workers are effectively, if not literally, independent contractors sent from workplace to workplace to workplace, not necessarily knowing where they're going to go, not necessarily knowing who they're going to care for and subjected to whatever standards are in place in that workplace with little capacity to change things that are wrong because they're not there long enough to have the sort of buy-in that many employees have in a workplace.
Successful workplaces are ones where the staff and the bosses—the owners of the business and the people doing the day-to-day work—are able to work with each other as well as deliver for the customers and are able to identify workplace problems, work them through and solve them, and where workers feel, either individually or through their representatives—their unions—that they're able to communicate with their bosses about their personal issues in their workplace or their systemic issues in their workplace. Contrast that with workplaces where there's no security of employment, where there's no relationship build-up between the worker and the boss, and where unions are often not allowed in and struggle to be able to represent the people they should be representing. We get workplaces where there's no one person who doesn't want it to work properly and there's no one aged-care facility that didn't have people in there who wanted to look after the residents but where there are systematic failures.
Dealing with these fractured and fissured workplaces and this fractured and fissured labour market that we saw in Australia even before the pandemic should be a top-shelf issue for this government, because it's bad for workers. On the face of it, some businesses think it's good for them because it costs them less money, but, actually, it's bad for businesses and it's bad for the economy. Jurisdictions and institutions around the world have been talking about this and working on how to fix it for years and years and years. The UK equivalent of our Reserve Bank have been talking about the fissured workplace and why zero-hour contracts and insecurity at work are serious social and economic problems to be dealt with. The OECD has put out report after report talking about problems in countries around the world where enterprise bargaining is dropping, which means people aren't getting paid properly and they're not getting good conditions, and productivity is suffering. It's a person problem and it's an economic problem, and we have a government that cannot get past its ideological bent about the free market when it comes to industrial relations in order to resolve it. It's a disservice to the workers and the businesses that members of the government say over and over again they're here to represent.
There are a lot of problems with this legislation, but one of the other issues that really needs to be addressed is the fact that this bill that we are now debating is what the government sees as a result of months and months of roundtable discussions last year between unions, business representatives and, apparently, government about where to go to deal with problems in our workplaces. If this bill represents this government's view of what you do after you've consulted with people, then I suspect every single stakeholder group in this country is wondering: what is the point of engaging in consultation with this government ever again? This is not consensus legislation.
Most people can recall this: remember when the Attorney-General and the Prime Minister announced all of these roundtables and working groups and had the temerity to compare themselves to the Hawke and Keating years and to suggest that they would come up with something that would resemble the Accord agreements? This is as far from an accord agreement as anyone could ever come up with. Is it any surprise that a government led by men who have displayed a 'don't ask, don't tell' attitude towards their responsibilities as employers, and who want to distance themselves from what happens in the workplaces they're responsible for, are also refusing to take responsibility for what's happening in Australian workplaces? When you have a Prime Minister who, from an answer he gave in question time last week, appears not to understand the difference between casual employment and the fake independent contracting employment that Uber drivers are subjected to, you should have real doubts about this government's ability to bring in any genuine reforms to the industrial relations legislation and our labour market.
I also want to raise two other points that occurred to me when I was listening to the answers of the Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations in question time. I refer to both the answers he gave today and those he gave last week. He has a bit of a riff: 'Oh, the Fair Work Act is Labor's legislation. Labor brought it in. It's Labor's fault. Labor did this. It's Labor's bill.' It seems to imply that, once one party brings in a piece of legislation, that is somehow then set in stone for that party and they can never say: 'You know what? When times change, some of those provision have to change.'
The Fair Work Act was brought in over a decade ago and, over that decade, we have seen an acceleration in the changes in the labour market that were only on the horizon at the time. We've seen an acceleration in artificial intelligence and in the use of information technology. We've seen an acceleration in fractured and fissured workplaces. We've seen an acceleration in the use of labour hire, subcontracting and independent contracting—ways of trying to set up the legal relationship between the employer or the business and the worker other than simply a straight engagement where the worker's pay is worked out either by an award or by negotiation through an enterprise agreement or, predominantly for higher-income workers, through an employment contract. We've seen the casualisation of the workplace through—for example, in the university and education sector—short-term rolling contracts over and over again. We've seen casualisation of the workplace through people being told that they have to have an ABN because they're a small business although, in every other aspect of their relationship with their employer—being told their hours of work, being told what they're going to be paid and being told how they must behave at the workplace—they are actually a direct employee. We've seen all of these things accelerate over the last 10 years.
So this argument that seems to be being run by the Attorney-General that the Labor opposition can't propose changes to the Fair Work Act to deal with the changing nature of the labour market, because we were in government when we introduced the Fair Work Act, is just patently ridiculous. If the position of this government is that you shouldn't be changing this legislation, what are they here for?
The other argument that seems to be being run—and it was mentioned today by the Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations—is: 'Well, this is traditionally the way that this has worked for the last 30 years. You know, this is the way it works with independent contractors. So why would you say you'd change it?' If that's the argument, I guess we should go back to the days when children were sent up chimneys to clean them or down mines to mine; when men lined up outside factories to find out whether or not they could get any work that day and, if they couldn't, they were sent home; and when women predominantly worked in sweathouses sewing and, again, they were lining up and waiting to see if they could get some work and, if they couldn't, they were sent home. That's traditionally the way it was done. Why would we change it?
We have to change it because the labour market today is not providing security, decent pay or decent conditions for people, from the first day they start employment right up until the end of their working life. Australians deserve better.
Studies from around the world make it abundantly clear that higher levels of enterprise bargaining across workplaces and industries lead to higher productivity, better economic outcomes for the countries, better wages for the workers and better profits for the businesses. If they benefit everyone then that's what needs to be done. The changes made to enterprise bargaining in this bill won't do that. They are based on recommendations from one side of the bargaining table only, and it's not the side that represents workers. The changes in this bill to deal with casual employment deserve to be viewed sceptically. Remember that this is the same government that said, when it put a regulation into the Senate to deal with casualisation and double dipping, that the regulation would solve everything. Now, apparently, we also need legislation.
This bill won't solve the problems that exist in industries such as disability services. Last week, I had a Zoom roundtable with disability service providers across my electorate. In addition to all of the other problems that currently exist with the NDIS—not the least of which is the minister trying to ram through terrible changes under the cover of COVID—what NDIS providers are struggling with is the 'Uberisation' of disability care, with internet platforms that are basically the Airbnb of disability care. On these platforms, people who aren't registered disability workers are able to go out and tender for the work that the registered and experienced disability providers, who are not-for-profits, would have delivered. People who have NDIS packages and their families are often tricked into thinking they're getting the same service for less money. They're not. The motive of these platforms is not to provide great care. The motive of these platforms is to take over a section of the industry so that in ten years time, when they list themselves on the stock exchange, their shares are worth a lot of money and they make a big profit. It doesn't matter if they undercut all the other providers over those ten years. In fact, that's what they're trying to do. These are the problems in the labour market that this government should be looking to fix—a Labor government would.
This is a bill for less secure jobs and cuts to pay. It's a shocker. It's no exaggeration to say that this bill, the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020, will leave working people worse off. If ever there was any doubt, this government is for pay cuts and Labor is for secure jobs. If passed—if it gets through the Senate—this bill will lead to cuts to take-home pay and conditions. The bill allows agreements to be made below the safety net. It allows agreements to be made that cut wages from where they are now, and it introduces unfair competition between workers and their employers.
Under this bill, employers get more bargaining power when wages are being negotiated. The biggest losers of all will be the many Australians, the millions of Australians, who no longer belong to a union, because unions are increasingly being locked out of the bargaining process. It's not well known in Australia, but even the workers who don't pay up and join the union benefit from their work. It's the unions that sit there, day in, day out, arguing at the commission, policing the awards, looking at the agreements and doing the hard work to make sure that people's pay is not cut and that the laws are applied. This bill strips away more of their role and more of their responsibilities and rights.
But it's also fundamentally dishonest. In bringing this bill to the House, the government is hiding behind COVID: 'Oh, it's a crisis, it's a crisis.' It's disgraceful. Remember we had that pretend love-in with the Prime Minister at the height of the economic crisis? It was a good thing to do, and we backed it. It was a good thing that the Prime Minister got employers and working representatives—unions and industry bodies—to sit down together in all these working groups and try and come up with some consensus recommendations. We said: 'We'll back what they come up with. If everyone signs off on it and they bring laws in, we will back it.' Well, they've reverted to type. This stuff was not agreed to by workers, by unions or by working representatives.
We get to choose the kind of society we want. We don't have to choose this kind of legislation. We don't have to choose to cut workers' pay. We don't have to choose to cut people's job security. That's a choice that the government is making. That's the choice that the Morrison government make when they bring legislation like this into the House. It's their choice.
It also shows that the Liberals have learnt nothing from COVID. That's the dishonesty in bringing this bill forward. They say it's all about COVID and responding to COVID. It's not. It's the same kind of industrial relations deregulation agenda that they were pushing before COVID. It's the same kind of stuff they'd introduced. They've just dressed it up differently. They have learnt nothing from COVID, because the Liberals' bill means that more jobs will be casualised. If there's one thing in industrial relations that this country should have learnt from COVID, it's that casualisation has gone too far. We saw, as the pandemic and the recession took hold, millions of Australians turfed out of work literally overnight because they had no job security. We had millions of Australians who had no sick leave revealed. Who knew? Sick leave in this country has a purpose. The pandemic hit, and the weaknesses in our society were revealed. Job security is important. People need predictable hours to survive. The government's response, though, is to hide behind COVID and make it easier for employers to casualise jobs that should otherwise be permanent. The minister knows the casual conversion provisions in this bill are meaningless. They're just window-dressing. They're full of loopholes. There's no obligation on employers to make anyone permanent. If you go and ask under this bill, if it is passed, there are a million reasons they can give for why they're not going to make someone permanent. This bill, if passed, would allow employers to call a worker casual even if their job is not casual. It strips workers of sick leave.
I really wonder: does the government have any idea what it's actually like to exist with no job security? I represent the most socioeconomically disadvantaged part of the city of Melbourne, a city of over five million people. The city of Greater Dandenong is, on the indications, the most disadvantaged area of Melbourne. Tens of thousands of people in my electorate don't have secure work. They exist from shift to shift, roster to roster, week to week, wondering if the boss will give them a few more hours. Even if they've been there for years and years doing the same job and working the same number of hours, they're casuals in the Morrison government's world. They can't get a home loan. Even if they earn decent money, they can't go to the bank, because they have no job security. They can't get a home loan. They can't plan for their families. Then overnight a crisis happens, someone gets sick and they're turfed out of their job with no sick leave and no rights. The government says, 'Oh, well, some people like working casually.' Sure, some people like working casually, but there are millions of Australians who want permanent, secure jobs. They don't want to be stuck in the casual workforce when they're doing the same job year after year after year. Quite simply, the pendulum in this country has swung way too far towards casualisation.
We hear these words. The minister bandies them around: 'deregulation' and 'simplification'. 'These are simplified awards. These are modern awards.' When you hear these words coming from Liberals, you should be suspicious. If you are a casual worker, you should be afraid, because what this means is age-old. The Greens political party love to get their meme every week to try and pretend that the two major parties are the same. The Labor and Liberal parties are not the same. The age-old truth still underlies these debates. There's labour with a u, people who work and small businesses—that's the overwhelming majority of people in this country—and there's capital and big business, the people who already have wealth. The Liberal Party's core purpose is always to protect the people who have wealth. In every industrial relations debate, as surely as night follows day, they will be trying to push the pendulum up to advantage employers and big business and the people who have wealth. Every time they bring a jobs or industrial relations bill into this place, that's what happens. That's because the Liberal Party exist to protect people who have wealth. That's who funds them. That's who donates to them. We have a choice, as I said. The government says we can't afford decent working conditions. Well, we can. We choose what kind of society we want to be.
The minister's been playing games with this bill. He put an extreme provision in there to abolish the better off overall test—an extreme pay cut mechanism. He backed down on it last week, in the face of community outrage, media outrage, outrage from workers and an indication that even the most right-wing of senators were not going to vote for this nonsense. He was gaslighting workers. He was like the schoolyard bully, running around for the past couple of months saying, 'I'm going to take your lunch, I'm going to take your lunch, you're going to starve, I'll take your lunch,' and then in the end he says, 'No, I'm only going to take your sandwich, your Big M, the Saladas, the Vegemite and the Kit-Kat, and I'll let you have the limp celery sticks.'
The government confirmed, though—we need to be clear on this—that it still wants to cut pay. The bill will still do this; it will just do it more sneakily. They're only ditching their plan to scrap the BOOT because they can't get it through the parliament, not because they admitted it was wrong. They didn't stand up there last week and say, 'Okay, we've listened; that was wrong, that was unfair.' They still believe that their proposal to remove the safety net to give employers these extreme powers is 'sensible and proportionate'. I'd hate to see what they think is unfair or, God forbid, extreme. They've only backed down for political reasons right now. But people should be very clear: that's still what they want to do. That's still where they want to push the pendulum and advantage employers over workers. They still want to do this, and if they win the next election that's exactly what they'll try, yet again.
I just want to make a few remarks on what they put under the heading 'award simplification'. There are a whole lot of provisions there that in substance mean they're going to casualise part-time work. These provisions allow an employer and a part-time employee to agree that the employee will work extra hours at ordinary hourly rates with no overtime. Many awards already have these provisions. They apply to part-time employees who work a minimum of 16 hours a week. Many of the awards that this bill covers already have these provisions, and there's some of the agreements; I think Woolworths is an example of one that has this provision. Fair enough, if that's been negotiated. It sounds neat. But the risk is that if you roll this out widely in the way the government proposes then the practical impact—not the minister's spin, but the practical impact—may be to normalise a 16-hour commitment, with extra hours when needed.
So, if you're someone who for years has worked three or four days a week, as many working mums choose to do, for 10 or 15 years or more, then under this bill, as things roll on, it's highly likely that you'll be pushed down to 16 hours a week. That's all you can bank on. The rest will be at the whim, at the gift, of your employer, with no overtime, no security. This is exactly the same situation that faces large swathes of the aged-care workforce. Late last year I met with workers from the aged-care sector whom the United Workers Unions brought to meet with us, on Zoom. Their stories were tragic. These are people who are committed to aged care. They're passionate about aged care. They come in every age—people in their 20s who want to make a career in aged care through to people who've been working in it for decades. One of the common threads in their experience was that they get only 16 hours of work guaranteed a week because of the way these awards are structured, and the rest is up to their employer. Usually they get more, but they can't bank on it. They can't get a home loan based on it. They can't plan to pick their kids up from school and have a normal family life with it. And they're forced to work between two and sometimes three aged-care homes because of these kinds of awards.
That's the kind of world the government wants to roll out to the rest of Australian society, all in the name of flexibility, choice, deregulation and modernisation—all these buzzwords. But what they really mean, when you strip their language back, is that employers can choose whatever they want and the workers have to cop it. Well, we do have a choice as to what kind of society we want to be. We don't have to chase the American path, where workers live off tips, if they're lucky, and have no job security. We can choose another direction.
The bill does another bunch of obnoxious, unreasonable things. It entrenches unreasonable flexible work directions. Now, these were emergency measures—surprise, surprise! They were emergency measures, negotiated for employees who were in receipt of JobKeeper, whereby for a limited period of time, given the recession and the pandemic, employers had extra powers to direct workers where they had to work and the kind of work they had to do. In those circumstances, that was a reasonable thing. The government of course then couldn't help itself. It extended it to employers who are no longer in receipt of JobKeeper but used to be in receipt of JobKeeper. So they're kind of widening it. Now they want to extend it to all of these awards, to millions of workers. They don't have any protections, though, like the JobKeeper rules had—the turnover test—and they're stripping the Fair Work Commission of the power to arbitrate. It just continues to give employers more power.
Workers are not slaves. If you say, 'You're going to work for an employer, you've got a job description, that's the job you apply for and it's going to be done at this site,' employers have never had unfettered power just to order you on no notice, saying: 'You no longer work in Geelong. You're now working in Melbourne. You're going to turn up at 6 am and you're doing a completely different job.' That's the kind of power that this government thinks is reasonable to give to more and more employers. How can anyone plan a family life?
The other thing the bill does is cut bargaining rights and protections for workers whose pay and conditions are covered by agreements. This has nothing to do with COVID. This is just the same old right-wing industrial relations deregulation agenda. 'We'll just roll out a bit more of it and we'll dress it up as COVID.' Enterprise agreements are supposed to be a way for workers to share productivity, to invest with the boss, with the employer, in how we can get more out of the business, how we can contribute more, how we can create more wealth and give a bit back to the workers for that by increasing wages. It's supposed to be a deal, a bargain. Instead, this government wants to pervert the system so EBAs become a way for employers to escape the safety net and reduce employment rights, pay and entitlement. Workers, if this law passes, won't be able to trust the EBA process. There are fewer obligations. You don't have to tell people you've started bargaining for at least a month. They're fiddling the voting rules and changing the process. There will be less scrutiny by unions, reduction in unions' capacity even to scrutinise agreements and intervene when they're cutting wages below the safety net and restrictions on the Fair Work Commission when considering amendments. And they would strip workers of the right—this affects numerous people in my electorate—simply to receive a proper explanation of the agreement they're being asked to vote on. That particularly impacts people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds who might not have great written English. They're no longer entitled to a proper, simple, plain English explanation. For young people, non-unionised workers, there's no guarantee of an explanation.
And there's a particular impact in my home state of Victoria. The bill will override the strong wage theft laws in Victoria and Queensland—laws that the Andrews government introduced, and they should be so proud of their work there. They're taking rights and protections off these workers in these states. The bill would make it harder for unions and individuals to take employers who underpay their workers to court by removing an important avenue to recover the costs involved. If this bill passes, in conciliation talks the Fair Work Commission would be prevented from making a recommendation that could guide people to a fast and effective outcome.
In summary, Labor opposes this bill and we're right to oppose it. It would mean less secure work and more casualisation of work across the economy at the very time we should be looking for more secure work, as Labor proposes, in a lesson from the pandemic. We want more secure work, not more casualisation. It will casualise part-time work. It will allow cuts to pay and weaken protections against wage theft, but fundamentally it's dishonest. It has nothing to do with COVID. It's the same old, same old, tired, right-wing industrial relations agenda that workers have rightly had enough of.
Once again the conservative parties in this country reveal the ideological rift between those on this side and those on that side. It's always been thus from the days of the fusion with the Protectionists and the Free Traders back in the early 20th century, when conservative forces and liberal forces combined. One thing united them. One thing united those two disparate groups, and that was to oppose Labor and the trade union movement, which represented the workers of this country. Ever since that fusion, the conservative and liberal forces in this country have, if given the opportunity, passed legislation to make work more insecure and to cut wages. It has always been thus.
What I really can't understand about the National Party here is that they represent some of the poorest parts of this country: places like Rockhampton, Gladstone, Wide Bay and other places like that. They do it tough. If you look at the facts, you see that only my electorate in Queensland rivals those electorates of Wide Bay, Capricornia and Flynn in terms of poverty and disadvantage. Yet National Party people come into this place and vote for this legislation. It's almost like the right-wing ideologues in the Liberal Party, the IPA types, have got some sort of political stranglehold over the National Party such that they will put aside their constituents and the best interests of their constituents and vote for this type of legislation. I can never understand it. I've represented areas where there have been state MPs in Queensland who are National Party people. It's not like they're not decent and honourable people, but they vote for this type of legislation. Given an opportunity like John Howard had in 2004 to bring in Work Choices, they'll take it. The National Party will toggle along, just following the Liberals along to pass this type of legislation against the interests of their constituents. I can't understand it. It's not about security of employment. It's not about better pay and conditions and a decent IR system in this country. It's about the opposite. They link funding organisations, for example, in the higher education sector to the industrial relations schemes that they think up all the time.
Our position has always been that Labor are on the side of security of employment and decent pay and conditions. But this government has used COVID as a cover. They've used COVID as a cover to take an opportunity to bring in their ideological obsessions and their reactionary, conservative obsessions on industrial relations. This bill even fails the government's own test. It leaves workers worse off.
Let's have a look at what the bill is proposing. It is going to make it easier for employers to casualise jobs that otherwise would have been permanent and allow employers to pay workers less than the award safety net. Think about the aged-care sector. Think about that. In the next few decades, we'll need to treble its workforce in this country. Why? Because we will go up from 15 or 16 per cent population being over the age of 65 to about 25 per cent or more. At the moment, in residential aged care, about one in two people are living with dementia. We need more workers in the sector. At a time when migration, which has fuelled the provision of workforce in the sector, has been cut because of what's happening with the coronavirus in international situations and the transport and migration of people, what is this government doing? In the very sector where we've seen the most deaths in this country this government is making it easier for employers—for-profits and not-for-profit organisations—to sack people, cut their wages and casualise their employment.
I can remember when I was a boy my grandmother was the matron of Colthup home in Ipswich. There were people there as I was growing up who were in employment in the workforce in Colthup home and elsewhere across Ipswich in aged-care facilities who were as proud of their jobs as people are today but had security of employment. I used to always tell people when I was a younger fellow—and I often tell people this even now—that, with the age of our population, we were going to need more and more people in the workforce. Whether it's architects, accountants, personal carers, nurses, physiotherapists, OTs or people who work in clerical capacities, we are going to need them. How are we going to encourage them to take up employment if we're going to undertake legislation brought into this chamber that's going to casualise their employment, cut their wages, reduce their bargaining capacities and reduce their safety net? How will that entice people to get into the aged care-workforce?
So it's dumb politics. If you're in favour of employers, as the conservative side of politics always is, how is it that you think that it is good for employers in this sector if they can't get the kind of workforce they need? It makes no sense. Senator Cormann belled the cat when he said that it was a deliberate design feature of this government's industrial relations policies to keep wage growth low. This legislation isn't about wages growth at all; this is about cuts to wages.
One of the reasons that we haven't seen pension rises or growth in employment and one of the reasons that we haven't seen the expenditure that we need in terms of economic vitality in this country is that wages have been too low. Even the Reserve Bank governor has said that wages growth is holding us back in our economic recovery. But what does this government do? It puts aside the advice of the Reserve Bank governor. It puts aside common sense and economic rationality and decides: 'We're going to cut wages. We're going to casualise employment. We're going to make it harder to fill the workforce that we need in the sectors which really need it. We're going to ignore the demographic challenges we have in this country. We're going to do that.' It's all because they've got this ideological affliction which prevents them from thinking logically and rationally when it comes to economics. And they claim they're the party of economic rationalism! The Liberal Party are not.
They're taking security from blue-collar workers, for example, on greenfield sites and big projects. They want economic development; they want to talk about the mining sector and economic development, but they're going to make it more insecure for workers to work there. They're going to make it harder for workers to bargain for better pay and conditions. It's already challenging; we already know how challenging enterprise bargaining is in this country.
In my state of Queensland and in Victoria as well, this legislation will weaken—not strengthen, weaken, believe it or not—wage theft punishments. Those are already deemed a criminal act in my home state of Queensland and also in Victoria, so the legislation is self-defeating. It's not about creating secure employment and it's not about the wage rises which are necessary in this country to stimulate the economy; it's about workers having less capacity and confidence to spend. So I don't understand the thinking of this government, except that it's their conservative ideology that keeps them doing this sort of thing.
We have the situation where about a quarter of our casual workforce has lost jobs. They lost them eight times more quickly than anyone else. We have a million casuals who were totally excluded—totally excluded!—from the security of JobKeeper. There wouldn't be a member in this place who hasn't had someone contact them about that. I agree with what the ACTU has said: this legislation is exactly the opposite of what the country needs. It's at precisely the time when we should be appreciating and thanking those people who work in the retail sector, in logistics, in transport and in aged care, and the people who work for councils, in child care and in the university sector. There were so many people who helped us through this pandemic, but instead of stimulating the economy and engaging in recovery by supporting those people we get platitudinous statements from the Prime Minister and those opposite, and they don't cut it.
Actions speak louder than words, and the actions of this legislation show what they really think about those people. It's not what they've said about them but what they really, really think and what they think the prospects of their future ought to be. If you throw in everything like the gig economy, contractors, freelancers et cetera then close to one in two of our workforce is in that insecure-type of employment. How can they get a mortgage? How can they guarantee the school fees for their kids? How can they guarantee their economic future?
What this government is undertaking is a charade. The idea that somehow they got rid of the most egregious parts of the bill—the BOOT with the suspension of the better off overall test—that little part, and therefore the rest of it's great doesn't cut it. The way they'll go around cutting wages, reducing the capacity to bargain and affecting workers rights in the workplace will be more sneaky. It'll be more surreptitious and more covert. They should not get a pat on the back for this, because they can't go to the crossbench or to us and say, 'Hang on a sec, you should support all this stuff,' when the legislation has a deliberate design feature to cut wages and conditions. That retreat by the minister is simply nonsense.
But do you know what? It's not just that. Can I just say: if this government is supposed to be about helping wages and conditions of workers and being a good employer, look at what it's doing to the Public Service in this country. You have a situation where, for example, 42 per cent of the Department of Veterans' Affairs is labour hired, outsourced or privatised. They're casualising the Public Service. That's an ideological thing. They're not a model employer. They're not a good employer. The government show what they're doing in the Public Service as a model for what they want in the private sector. This government's IR policy is not about helping workers. What they have done to the Public Service is a disgrace. Casualisation, contracting, outsourcing and the use of fixed-term contracts are all becoming entrenched inside government. That's what they want for the private sector as well.
A DVA labour hire worker recently told their union this: 'I have been a casual for five years and now I have to reapply for my job because the company that employs me has lost its contract with DVA. If I don't get employed, I will have no redundancy pay or any leave paid out. If the new contractor employs me, it just shows I'm not a casual. This sort of thing is happening to more of us all the time. We are doing permanent work and should have secure jobs.' Amen to that, brother; you should. He's absolutely right. Combined with the cuts we've seen inflicted by a staffing cap across the public sector, we've seen an explosion of labour hire employment in government departments, including the DVA.
Waiting times for processing applications for entitlements and compensation have been blowing out to enormous amounts. Let me give an illustration: veterans in my electorate have told me it often takes six months or longer to have their cases looked at. That's their waiting time. Sometimes it's nine to 12 months for payments. It's an absolute disgrace. What a great model employer, this conservative government! People are fed up with this. Veterans and ex-services organisations are fed up with the Public Service being cut. They're fed up with the delays, the denial and the dysfunction at DVA. They feel taken for granted. That's what the government expects will happen in the private sector with this legislation.
This is not about improving our prospects as a country and recovering from the pandemic. The government's decision to cut permanent jobs in the public sector has been a deliberate decision by an arbitrary staffing cap. When the government announced these changes, we set, as the member for Watson said, a very simple test: we'd support it if it delivered secure jobs and decent pay. The amendment by the member for Watson is all about the fact that the government has failed those tests. This legislation is not in the best interests of the economic development of this country, not in the best interests of workers and not in the best interests of the Public Service. This government has failed with this legislation and has shown its obsession once again.
I rise to speak on the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020. In 2020, the workers of this nation—cleaners, nurses, aged-care and disability workers, retail assistants, truck drivers—kept us going through the depths of the recession and the pandemic. Whilst praising these workers' efforts and sacrifices in speeches, government members have behind the scenes been developing laws that threaten their pay and their job security. The bill before the House represents a gross and bitter betrayal of the men and women who have done so much to keep Australia safe. We saw the unedifying spectacle in question time today of the industrial relations minister being asked whether he would support minimum wage for Uber drivers and what he calls independent contractors, and he wouldn't do it. He wouldn't do it. He would not support the concept of a minimum wage for people who literally put their lives on the line in order to deliver food. At the conclusion of the 2020 parliamentary year, I stood in this chamber and said that we needed to work harder to put Australians first. It is beyond disappointing to be confronted, eight weeks later, with a bill that does the exact opposite.
In a nutshell, this bill will make it easier to casualise jobs that would otherwise be permanent. It makes it harder to bargain for better pay and conditions. It allows for wages cuts. It strips basic rights from high-vis workers on big projects. It weakens wage theft punishments in jurisdictions where wage theft is already deemed a criminal act. This bill should not be considered in isolation of the Liberal Party's wider agenda. It is simply the latest salvo in a long-running war between the forces that drive the Liberal Party and the forces that drive the Labor Party. The Liberals have always sought to depress wages and conditions, and Labor has always sought to elevate them.
My mum was a hospital cleaner. When I was a boy she told me, 'Brian, it's Labor for the workers and the Liberals for the rich.' That was 40 years ago, and it's as true today as it was then. Those opposite are convinced and have always been convinced that keeping wages low and keeping workers powerless drives economic growth. They believe down to their guts that paying people less means employers will invest more and that this in turn will keep the economic wheels turning. It's not that they hate workers; it's just that they believe workers are a means to an end, a cost item, a line on a balance sheet. For the Liberals it's all about the employers and lowering employers' costs. If that means lower wages, so be it; workers should simply be grateful they've got a job in the first place, no matter how little it pays or how bad or unsafe the working conditions. Five dead delivery drivers, and the minister could not bring himself to back minimum wages for gig workers.
It is Labor that says there's a better way. That is why we support minimum wage laws and why we support mandatory safety conditions for the workplace, annual leave provisions, eight-hour days, the concept of a weekend and job security. All have at some stage been opposed by the Liberal Party and its antecedents. It is not that we do not understand that business must be efficient in order to compete and that businesses need to be profitable in order to continue to employ people and, hopefully, grow and employ more people; it is simply that we believe business must adhere to a set of standards that protects the people who generate the profits in the first place—that is, their workforce.
The model that those opposite are wedded to, the one where low pay and low corporate taxation supposedly lead to more investment and therefore greater opportunities for employment, has been tried and it has failed. It's a formula that has been rolled out in America since the 1980s, under Reagan, and it has been a dismal failure economically and socially. The practice has not matched the theory. Workers' wages and conditions and job security have plummeted in the US over the past 40 years. Many workers work two or even three low-paid jobs to survive. People are living in their cars. But the billionaires? Well, their wealth has absolutely skyrocketed. If it is the government's job to make rich people even richer then the Liberals' economic theories can be described as a stunning success. But if it is the government's job, to paraphrase Ben Chifley, to spread greater wealth amongst the mass of the people then the Liberals' policies and broader ideology can only be described as a failure, and this bill represents that failure.
It is a fact that over the past 40 years the once-great American middle class has been crushed. The time when a man working a low-skilled job in a factory, perhaps as a janitor, could provide for his family is gone. He might work full-time hours, but these days he's casualised or contracted out, and one job won't pay the bills. At the same time, public infrastructure in the US has crumbled. Railways, schools, roads and public health clinics are barely distinguishable from the Third World due to a lack of investment. Billionaires and millionaires have never had it better. Those wealthy enough to afford private schools and health care, who go home to gated and locked communities patrolled by armed private security, live in bubbles of affluence. But the vast majority of Americans, the ordinary workers—teachers, drivers, cleaners, shop assistants and streetsweepers—are doing it very hard. Yet this is the dystopian landscape the Liberals are importing into Australia—an Australia of low wages, less job protection, less equality, less social mobility and less fairness. They call it flexibility, but their flexibility only ever runs one way.
Labor did give the government plenty of flexibility at the height of the pandemic. Extraordinary times called for extraordinary measures, and we played our part. The workers of Australia played theirs, too. Australian workers were prepared to accept that employers did need more flexibility during the pandemic. But, now that the worst of the pandemic is behind us and with the government boasting that the economy is rocketing ahead, the government wants to keep those extraordinary measures permanently. It is a kick in the teeth. Australian workers offered goodwill and cooperation by temporarily suspending their hard-won rights, and the Liberals have cried, 'Come in spinner' and are now exploiting that generosity to make the changes permanent. In Tasmania, Jess Munday, the secretary of Unions Tasmania, told The Examiner:
For workers who have already experienced job losses, stand downs, and reduced work hours, this bill is exactly what they don't need right now.
Ms Munday says workers in casual jobs are 'crying out for more job security, but this bill will make jobs and incomes more precarious'.
For casuals, this bill provides little to no job security. It gives employers the right to deny workers a transfer to part-time or full-time employment regardless of their work pattern, and it costs workers money because, if a court determines that a casual worker is, in fact, a permanent worker, then any casual loading they had received would simply be offset against any permanent entitlements that they are owed. The government's own figures—as unreliable as they are—show that this will strip at least $18 billion in back pay that would otherwise be owed to workers. And let's not think that a casualised workforce is confined to fast food, bar work and young people. As the member for Blair said, 42 per cent of the workforce of the Department of Veterans' Affairs is casualised or contracted out. I know the former Department of Human Services, which is the Department of Social Services now—they've stripped 'human' out of it—does the same. They privatise their workforce.
Casual workers are trying to raise, and provide for, families in this country. They're not just kids. Fifty-one per cent of the University of Tasmania's workforce is casualised or on fixed-term contracts. With university workers locked out of JobKeeper and their employer suffering the loss of international students, you can imagine the distress that many university workers were in, only to be now confronted with a bill that strips their rights even further. Tasmania's 1,300 teacher aides receive 10 permanent hours a fortnight but often work more and regular hours. Under this bill, construction workers could be locked into pay and conditions for eight years without ever having agreed to the terms and without any access to arbitration. This is a government that has put into law compulsory arbitration for massive media companies when dealing with international companies like Facebook but says it's complicated or too hard to put into law protections for independent contractors so they can receive the minimum wage. It's clear whose side this government is on, and it's not on the side of workers.
Also in the government's sights are the rights of Australian workers to decent overtime pay. With the creation of 'simplified additional hours', many workers will be denied penalty rates when working more than their usual hours. There is a very real risk that that provision may normalise a standard 16 ordinary-time hours commitment, with simplified additional hours being used to top up on an as-needed basis. This reduces job security and, effectively, casualises part-time work. In Lyons, the casualisation rate is upwards of 36.8 per cent, and this is a common figure across many regional and rural areas. If we want to rebuild our regions, we need more job security, not less, and workers in regional areas need higher pay, not less. This bill is bad for workers and bad for our regions. It does not drive economic growth. It stifles it. If workers have less money in their pocket, they have less money to spend at the shops or at the car yard. If workers have less job security, they are less likely to make the big financial commitments and they are more likely to save for a rainy day, taking money out of the economy when it needs it most.
Labor is offering Australian workers a better deal. To improve job security, a Labor government will make job security an object of the Fair Work Act 2009 so it becomes a core focus for the Fair Work Commission's decisions. Labor will extend the powers of the Fair Work Commission to include employee-like forms of work, allowing it to better protect people in new forms of work, like act based gig work, from exploitation and dangerous working conditions. We are not going to give up, like this minister, and say, 'It's complicated.' We're going to deal with this. Labor will legislate a fair, objective test to determine when a worker can be classified as a casual, so people have a clearer pathway to permanent work. Labor will limit the number of consecutive fixed-term contracts that an employer can offer for the same role, with an overall cap of 24 months. Labor will ensure that we are a model government and a model employer by creating more secure employment in the Australian Public Service, where temporary forms of work are being used inappropriately and being overused. Labor will use government procurement powers to ensure that taxpayers' money is used to support secure employment. To deliver better pay, Labor will work with state and territory governments and with unions and industry to develop portable entitlement schemes for annual leave, sick leave and long service leave for Australians in insecure work. Labor will ensure that workers employed through labour hire companies receive no less than workers employed directly.
This bill, as I said at the beginning, is an absolute betrayal of the workers of this country, particularly those who have worked so hard over the past year to keep this country safe. It does nothing for job security. It does nothing to provide casuals a permanent pathway—because job security really is what it's all about. You can't get a mortgage, you can't get a loan for the things you need to provide for your family, if you don't have job security. Try going to a bank, if you're a casual, and saying, 'I need a substantial loan to provide for my family.' They'll laugh you out of the bank. It won't happen. This bill does nothing to provide workers the job security they need. It's not good enough to say that the economy is recovering. We need an economy that is recovering for the workers of this country, the people of this country. It's no good just looking at the broad economic figures, at GDP. You've got to look at how workers are better off and how families are better off. Families and workers are only better off if they have job security and better wages.
Over the last few weeks we've seen the government's crocodile tears about insecure work and casual workers, but this bill, the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020, shows that they are not backing it up with substantive change. They talk about their concerns and about how important this bill is when it comes to wage theft and a pathway for casuals, but you've always got to look at the detail rather than the spin from this government. Not only does this bill have ineffectual clauses; it doesn't pass the test of, 'Will this deliver secure jobs and decent pay?'
There might be people surprised that the government's been saying one thing and doing another, but I've known for a long time that this government—and, indeed, governments before it of the Liberal-National persuasion—have no interest in improving workers' rights. In fact, their mission in this place—and it's one of the things that often hold them together—is to reduce the wages and conditions of workers in this country. I know this more than most, having been elected in 2007, in that Work Choices campaign, in which at least the government then was honest: 'We are going to cut your pay, we are going to cut your conditions, we are going to make collective bargaining harder and we are going to destroy the award system.' One of the things that we hear from this government about the award system—I'd like to take this opportunity to remind the House—is that there would be no award system in this country if we'd seen the full fruition of Work Choices. By 2010, we would have had no awards in this country. There would be no safety net except the national standards, and that is something I will never forget and I know many in my electorate will never forget.
But let's talk about insecure work. We've got over two million Australians employed casually. That's one in every four workers. Of course, for some of these casual workers, this works for them. There is absolutely a place for casual workers. But I hear in my electorate too often that there are Australians in what are effectively permanent positions that are deemed casual. They are forced to take casual or gig jobs, cobbling together different jobs here and there, trying to make it work to ensure that they have enough ongoing income. I regularly speak with casuals and I hear the same all the time. 'I've been in a job for five years.' 'I am a casual, but I can't get a home loan.' 'I've got to work two or three jobs just to get by.' 'I live in constant fear that the work will dry up and I won't have an income.' These workers have no leave. They have no annual leave. They have no sick leave. Many of them have worked for years in the same place of employment with regular hours comparable to part-time or full-time work, yet they're denied access to the rights of permanent workers.
Then there's the insecurity of their pay. Of course, casual workers do get a loading, and we hear that a lot from the government. In the pandemic we heard: 'Why don't they put their 20 per cent away? That can pay for their 14 days isolation.' That's what we heard from this government, which said, 'They can just pay for it because they get a loading,' with no real understanding of what it's like for those casual workers week by week, with hours going up and hours going down, not sure what the next week holds. Of course, for most casuals, penalty rates or the casual loading are not put away for a rainy day but cover the absolute essentials: grocery bills and other important things such as, often, child care, because that's expensive. And so it is really difficult. Today in question time Labor asked a lot of questions about workers in the gig economy and the insecurity there. Once again we really had a government that dismissed it and had no answer.
Of course, we know it's not only the day-to-day difficulty for these employees; we know that they were hit hardest by the pandemic. Workers in casual jobs lost their employment eight times faster than those in permanent jobs. Nearly one million casual workers were left behind when the Morrison government kept them off JobKeeper. Not only did we have them in precarious employment; this government decided to deliberately target them because they were casual workers. They were not afforded the same protection as their permanent counterparts. Of course, as I mentioned, often they were asked to stay home—stay home to isolate, stay home to keep others safe—and they did so without paid sick leave. It was belatedly that this government was dragged kicking and screaming to actually look at a paid pandemic scheme. It was really disappointing. It had got to the point where they had no choice. That is how difficult this government is.
The government, in response to this, has provided this interesting pathway to casuals. They say this legislation is really important because it gives someone the option to ask to be made permanent after 12 months—the option just to ask. And, of course, under these laws, if a worker agrees to be employed as a casual at the start of their employment, they remain casual regardless of their actual work pattern. As long as the employer employs them on that basis, they make no firm advance commitment to continuing in indefinite work according to the agreed pattern of work. This is very difficult for many casual workers. This bill also says, sure, as part of the national employment standards an employer must make a written offer of conversion to permanent employment to a casual after 12 months. But the really difficult bit here is that the employer does not have to make them an offer if there are reasonable grounds.
What are the options for that employee? It's to go to the Federal Court. The government seems quite fine and sure that this is the option that a lot of casuals would take. They seem absolutely unable to understand the huge power imbalance between casual employees and their employer. You don't pick a fight with your employer if you're a casual worker. I know that from firsthand experience.
As a 19-year-old, I saw the advertisements. John Howard told me I could go and negotiate my AWA with my large retail employer. I did. I went in and said: 'I have some concerns with this. I've seen the ads. I'm here to negotiate.' They laughed me out of the room. It was a take-it-or-leave-it contract. Then, a few months later, supposedly coincidentally, I received a letter in the mail, saying: 'Dear fill-in-the-name, your services are no longer required. You were a Christmas casual.' I had worked at that employer for five years since I was a 14-year-old. I had worked consistently, a shift every week, at that employer and they sacked me. I was lucky. I had the resources of a union. I also went to the Industrial Relations Commission. The commissioner was very nice. He told them to give that poor girl her job back. But that shows the power imbalance that is there. That shows the difficulty. Without the ability for arbitration in the now Fair Work Commission, this really is a mockery. It makes a mockery of this very provision in this piece of legislation.
In addition to this, we know that the government did try and get rid of the better off overall test that was there in the 1998 legislation and was removed in the 2007 legislation. I know that the Liberal Party has been desperately wanting to get rid of the better off overall test or the no-disadvantage test—it's been called many things—and this was a pretty sneaky way to get rid of it. We know what the better off overall test does. The better off overall test makes sure you can't go below the award. It actually ensures that there is a safety net in this country. We now know that the government's backtracked on it. But the fact it was in there at all shows what the intentions really were. It shows what the government wanted to do: get rid of the safety net.
We know they have also allowed for a two-year extension of the flexible work directions brought in with JobKeeper. The original directions to accompany JobKeeper were introduced on the basis that they would be temporary and only connected to employers receiving JobKeeper. These flexible directives allow employers to direct duties and locations of work. But as so often happens with this government it's now using what was originally a short-term measure to try to permanently water down the rights of individuals by stealth. This is what it's doing. It is once again not surprising that this means for workplaces covered by specific awards that special flexibility will be available to every employer, even those that never qualified for JobKeeper.
We worked very hard to work with the government when it came to this pandemic. We worked very hard. We called for JobKeeper and we supported JobKeeper. But what we now see as we come out of this pandemic is that the government is using it as cover. It's using it as cover to actually extend some of these provisions to ensure that they actually apply to all employers, even if those employers were booming over this crisis. We know that some businesses did very well. Even they will be able to avail themselves of this. They will not have to satisfy any turnover test. The employer just needs to believe it was necessary to give a directive to assist with the revival of their enterprise.
The government have also in this legislation removed, like I said, its better off overall test, but they're also cutting bargaining rights and protections for workers whose pay and conditions are covered by agreement. Taken as a whole, these changes to enterprise agreements amount to fewer obligations on employers, less scrutiny and a reduction in the union's capacity to participate in the approval process. The government think that watering down the role of unions is a good thing. They think, 'This is great.' But what they don't understand is that there are many people that rely on their union for a voice. If power is just one way, it will never end well for employees. But the government have a one-eyed view. As I said at the beginning, they shed crocodile tears when it comes to workers and their rights and conditions, but then they do another thing when people are not looking. Through the pressure that many ordinary Australian workers have put on the government, they have backed down when it comes to the BOOT, but this bill still allows for making agreements that are below the safety net, cutting wages and creating unfair situations.
Of course there are a lot of problems in this bill, but I want to go to the last issue, about wage theft. I have to say that for the Attorney-General to get up and say that somehow Labor's for wage theft and the Liberal Party coalition is not is absolutely hypocritical. We have a government that has shown no interest in dealing with the issue of wage theft, and on this side of the House we regularly raise it. I and others have regularly raised it in many forums as a serious issue in this country. Of course, what this bill actually does—once again, you've got to look at what it does—could override the strong wage theft laws in Victoria and Queensland, giving workers in those states fewer rights and protections. You'd think that, when you're looking at best practice, you'd rise to the highest level around the country and pick the best laws when it comes to wage theft, but instead we have a government that is now putting in some sort of provision that could actually make workers in those two jurisdictions worse off, with fewer rights.
All in all, when it comes to this bill, I do recognise that the government finally backed down on abolishing the better off overall test, but I would say to workers in this country: keep an eye out, because this government and the Liberal and National Party governments before it have always looked at ways to water down wages and conditions in this country. It is in their DNA. Watering down wages and conditions is the thing that unites them. They'll look at it every way. The only reason we don't see the abolition of the BOOT in this piece of legislation is that they're scared of the Australian people. That's the only reason, because it's in their DNA to pursue this. They've done it time and time again, and my message to Australian workers is: be on guard. This is a government that wants to water down your wages and conditions.
The COVID pandemic has shone a bright light on the dark underbelly of job insecurity and the increasing casualisation of our workforce not only in my electorate of Corangamite but across our nation. It's exposed the flaws of an industrial relations system that, under this government, has forced many workers in our aged-care sector, in hospitality and retail, in teaching, in health, in the NDIS, in the gig economy and in security services to take multiple jobs just to pay the bills. Did you know there are currently two million Australians employed casually? With this increasing casualisation comes increasing anxiety, stress and uncertainty, with millions of Australian workers receiving no superannuation, no sick leave and no maternity leave. They have no safety net and little ability to plan and save for their future and the future of their families. This is the story of struggle I hear from many, many people as I move through my electorate—stories of casual workers in hospitality who arrive at work only to be told to go home; workers who, due to COVID, have been asked to take a pay cut and told that otherwise they may lose their job; workers who struggle to get a loan or pay down their mortgage because their pay packets are erratic and insecure; and workers in the gig economy who are forced to bid for work at the lowest rate of pay, below the minimum wage, just to get a few hours of work.
But, instead of recognising the plight of these workers and acting to ensure better and fairer outcomes, the Morrison government have decided to introduce this bill. They call it the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020, but this bill is not fair and it certainly will do little to help workers and stimulate the economy, because at its heart the bill is designed to cut wages, reduce workers' conditions and undermine workers' ability to negotiate a fair and decent rate of pay and security of work.
We have just heard that the Morrison government has flagged that it will dump its plan to remove the better off overall test. Essentially, the BOOT ensures that agreements meet or exceed the minimum legal standards of employment in the sector. Without it, minimum legal standards such as the minimum wage could be ignored. So it is the right decision to retain the better off overall test, to give casuals some basic rights and respect. But it should be noted that the government did this not because they saw the light or because they care about workers' ability to live decent, hopeful productive lives but because they knew that without the better off overall test they wouldn't get the bill passed in the Senate. So, it's politics before people for the Morrison government—certainly not a motto to be proud of but a motto that clearly signals their intentions when it comes to workers and industrial relations.
We now know what they want to do. We know they want to cut workers' take-home pay, and if they get another chance they'll try again. Well, Labor will not stand by and allow that to happen. We stand with workers and with all those families who deserve better. We will oppose this bill, because it is absolutely flawed. It would strip the Fair Work Commission of its power to properly examine whether workers are better off. It would reduce the commission's role to a tick-and-flick approach that is unreasonably short in the time frames. It would remove requirements for employers to properly explain new agreements, and where a worker agrees, when they first start a job, to sign up as a casual they will remain a casual despite their hours of work. The only way for a casual to further question the decision would be to lawyer up and go to the Federal Court. On a casual wage, this is near impossible. Then there is the removal of rights from blue-collar workers and the fact that this legislation would weaken wage-theft laws and penalties in the states of Victoria and Queensland. If it sounds unfair, that's because it is.
This bill was first introduced in the House on the second-last day of parliamentary sittings in 2020, with only a short window for submissions—such an important industrial relations bill, proposing wholesale change to how our employers meet and negotiate with employees, changes to the rules that dictate wages and conditions and changes to the definition of casual work, yet they've allowed only a limited time for submissions. If it sounds dodgy, that's because it is.
The Morrison government is proud of the initial consultation. They say it involved months of roundtables with employee groups, with unions and with business. But instead of transparency and open deliberations these meetings were highly secretive, with all participants having to sign a confidentiality agreement and being told that they would be removed from the process should they breach the rules. Those roundtables covered the general themes of award simplification, enterprise agreements, casual work, compliance and enforcement, and greenfields agreements with new enterprises. But after about 150 hours of meetings and hundreds more hours of additional consultation, this government drafted a mean-spirited and economically weak plan to give one side of the negotiating table everything it was asking for while ignoring the advice of those advocating for workers..
It is worth noting that one of the biggest shifts this bill proposed was the suspension of rules that prevented enterprise agreements from undercutting minimum award standards. And while nobody at the roundtable discussions raised this as an option, the government included it anyway. Luckily they have been shamed into retaining the BOOT. But their actions show a willingness to sacrifice workers' wages and conditions if it helps their mates in big business. Ultimately this bill is not about worker flexibility as those opposite have said. It will reduce work security. It will drive down wages. And it will fundamentally damage the Australian economy. Why? Because wage cuts mean less money in the economy, less spending in the economy and less stimulus in the economy—and in this time of COVID, with so much hardship, not only for workers but also for small-business owners, including all those tourism operators along the Great Ocean Road, the Surf Coast and The Bellarine. This is mean-spirited and short-sighted. It shows no understanding of what the people in my electorate are experiencing.
Labor has suggested supporting JobKeeper, but it is very disappointing that the government wants to continue to water down wages and conditions. Well, Labor has a different plan—a plan that will make the economy stronger by strengthening wages, increasing spending power and creating a resilient economy that will grow as confidence and jobs grow. At the heart of our plan is the welfare, job security and opportunities that all working people deserve. To achieve this, we will arm the Fair Work Act and the Fair Work Commission with the tools to ensure that there is scrutiny, fairness and equity. Labor will do this, and we will do this because we're on the worker's side. Labor will make job security an objective of the Fair Work Act 2009 so that the focus for any decision will be fairness and job security as the centre point of the Fair Work Commission.
Labor will extend the powers of the Fair Work Commission to include employee-like forms of employment. That's to ensure that whether you're casual, part-time or permanent you are treated with fairness and opportunity. It will also mean better protection for people in new forms of work from exploitation and dangerous working conditions. This will be important for those who work in the gig economy today, but it will also be important for those who work in the next frontier of workplace relations tomorrow.
Labor will legislate a fair and objective test to define when a worker is casual and when a worker is permanent; basic rights will not be stripped from workers because they can't afford to stick up for themselves. We will limit the number of consecutive fixed-term contracts an employer can offer for the same role, with an overall cap of 24 months. Labor will make the government a model employer and will use taxpayer procurement dollars to promote secure employment.
Good jobs matter to my community. Well-paying jobs are how the mums and dads in Corangamite look after their families. Secure jobs are how mums and dads stay confident about the future. And when mums and dads are confident in the future they spend in the economy and help small and medium-sized businesses in Corangamite and across our nation to thrive. With a confident customer base, businesses in the Bellarine and the Surf Coast, Queenscliff, the Golden Plains and the Otways will grow and innovate, making our community stronger again. But this is all dependent on the families in my community and across Australia having strong incomes—decent wages—and it is Labor which has a plan to make that happen.
In closing, tax breaks for big business and industrial relations deregulation are at the heart of this mean-spirited and ill-conceived bill. The Morrison government is spinning the line that it will lift Australia out of the coronavirus induced economic black hole. But what the Prime Minister and his Treasurer are failing to say is that this bill will target frontline workers, women and families. It will be Australia's frontline workers, women and families who bear the burden of this government's proposed wage cuts and poor working conditions. Instead, the Labor Party has a vision to increase the strength of the Australian economy and to increase the size of Australia's pay packets. Labor will do better because Labor believes that, when you support and create opportunities for families, women, small business and our vulnerable, the community thrives—we all thrive. Labor says no to this unfair bill. We stand with you and we're on your side.
It is quite a simple question that we need to ask ourselves when we look at this Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia’s Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020: will it give Australians stable work and fair pay? It's a very simple question and, unfortunately, the answer is no, it doesn't. Right now, in 2021, a year into a global pandemic and in a recession with almost two million Australians on JobKeeper—that is, until it gets cut next month—this simple question is more important than ever. Will it give Australians stable work with fair pay?
The answer is no. Make no mistake: the bill represents the most egregious fundamental attack on the rights of workers that we have seen in this place for many years, and it is as tone deaf and unnecessary as the Work Choices laws brought in by the Howard government. The reality is there is no pressing need or economic justification for these changes. Our economy will not recover more quickly because we legislate to cut the pay of workers. We will not help create a single job by making employment less secure for workers. It comes as an attack on workers when they are most vulnerable and when they look to their government for support. Australia's working people have sacrificed the most and paid the highest price as a result of the pandemic. Over 900,000 are unemployed and 1.1 million are underemployed. Many have exhausted their sick leave, their annual leave and their long service leave. Three point three million people have raided their super accounts, with thousands of young people reducing their balances to zero. This has happened while corporate profits have continued to grow and Australia's richest people have become even richer.
Before I reflect on why this legislation has been introduced, let's consider why this is a remarkably bad bill. It attacks the basic foundations of our industrial relations system. I don't propose to offer a comprehensive rebuttal of the bill. My colleagues have made outstanding contributions to this debate already, and I'll not repeat them here. I will, however, highlight a few specific things which are wrong with this bill. The bill proposes to prevent the Fair Work Commission from making recommendations in conciliation that would guide parties to a fast and effective outcome. Conciliation is one of the most effective tools the commission has. It works, as an effort by the commission, to bring parties in disputation together to try and find a solution. If applied properly, conciliation can prevent further issues such as industrial action or legal proceedings, saving money, trouble and wasted energy for all concerned. The cornerstone of conciliation is guidance by the commission to each party to find an outcome. This bill will take that right away. This is just one proposed attack on the commission and its ability to do its job.
Australia has long experienced a crisis in job casualisation. The bill does not address Australia's most pressing labour market problem—the extent to which jobs are casual and insecure. Over half a million casuals lost their jobs at the outset of this pandemic, and 60 per cent of new jobs created since May 2020 have been casual. The government's changes will not help solve this problem. It will make it easier for employers to casualise permanent jobs and pay workers less than the award safety net. The bill shifts more power to employers, which will exacerbate inequality, low wage growth and job insecurity. The current laws have overseen record low wage growth and record high job insecurity. Instead of remedying them to rebalance the system, the bill will make these three serious issues much worse.
In debates on industrial relations like this one, those opposite like to talk about the need for flexibility. The 2020 COVID responses prove that the current system is extremely flexible, flexible enough to make rapid changes where they are necessary as well as fair. Australian workers and their unions worked rapidly with employers to make temporary changes to awards across whole industries to cope with shutdowns, social distancing rules, reduced hours and working from home. Debating proposed legislation can often seem abstract, but this bill will hurt workers across Australia, nowhere more than in my electorate. The proposal in the bill for additional hours agreements will cause great pain to workers in Darwin and Palmerston. An adult part-time worker in one of our shopping centres, such as Casuarina Square, Gateway or the Palmerston Shopping Centre, may lose out on the payments they were once entitled to. A retail worker on a 16-hour part-time contract who works four hours of overtime a month may lose around $650 in overtime wages under this bill. That's less money for their families and for the basic necessities of life. Similarly, a student at Charles Darwin University who works at one of the pubs on Mitchell Street to make ends meet will also lose out. If they pick up three hours of overtime a month, they might find themselves losing around $500. Casualisation and insecure work are among the biggest problems that workers in the Territory face today. You can't heal our economy by hurting these workers, by cutting their pay or making their work more insecure. For the last decade the government has been beating its chest and making many noises about developing the Territory and unleashing the potential of northern Australia. But, without the simple guarantee of secure employment, how can such a lofty goal ever be realised?
Let's also not forget that this bill originally contained the outrageous proposition of suspension of the better off overall test, the BOOT, for two years. That's right. This government wanted to remove the very thing that ensured that no Australian worker was left worse off under a new negotiated EBA. Getting rid of the BOOT was so utterly outrageous that the government have excised it from this bill. But the fact that it was included at all gives us a real insight into the intent and the thinking behind this bad bill. Of course, it's the actions that we should be looking at, not the words, particularly when it comes to those opposite and industrial relations.
Two questions must be asked: Why this legislation? And why this legislation now? The answer to the first question is simple. They have chosen this legislation because it reflects exactly what they believe in. Labour market deregulation is the ideological Holy Grail of those opposite, and at the end of the day that is what this is all about. It's about ideology. The living standards of Australian families are being slashed, all because of an ideological obsession. The answer to the second question is equally simple. They have chosen this moment to move the legislation because they believe that the timing suits them. 'Scotty from Marketing' is on the job. Political expediency and political circumstances have had a greater role in shaping their approach to this than the state of the economy or the living conditions of Australian workers.
That is why the Prime Minister has sought to make these changes now—the political expediency. But, in short, what we are seeing here is nothing more than a cynical attempt by those opposite, by the Morrison government, to achieve a long-held ideological goal. All of this has come in the wake of what at first appeared to be an open process by this government to work with the union movement to respond to the COVID crisis.
I well remember when, midway through last year, the government announced the formation of five industrial relations working groups. These groups, each consisting of 10 full-time members, brought together representatives of unions and employer groups. At the time it was portrayed as an act of cooperation to help guide the Australian economy out of a crisis. An accord, of sorts, for our day. The Attorney-General, the member for Pearce, was quoted in a press release at the time saying:
On top of those who've lost their jobs, there are millions more who have seen their work hours and pay-packets reduced due to COVID-19, and we owe it to them to work cooperatively through this process to deliver solutions that will get our country working again.
They're fine words, fine sentiments, but how did that all work out? Well, we are here today debating legislation, opposed by the union movement, which will fundamentally change what it means to have a job in this country. That is how the working groups process worked out. Those opposite, particularly when it comes to IR, should be judged on their actions, not on their words.
If you want more evidence of the ideological obsession of this government trampling on the needs of the Australian people, look no further than the looming cut to JobKeeper. The idea behind JobKeeper of wage subsidisation originated on this side of the House and in the labour movement. It was a great plan, helping businesses stay open and keeping Australians in work and connected to their employers. Let's be clear: for entering into JobKeeper, those opposite deserve some recognition. It has worked. But cutting JobKeeper prematurely, as those opposite plan to do next month, is incredibly dangerous. I'm in regular contact with businesses back home in Darwin and Palmerston, and they are telling me that there is a massive lack of confidence about what comes next when JobKeeper is cut for those businesses that are exposed particularly to a drop in tourism. Particularly in the tourism industry, which is very important to the Top End, there's a great deal of concern. A survey of members of Tourism NT and Tourism Top End revealed deep anxieties. Thirty-five per cent of respondents have said that the JobKeeper cut would mean they would likely have to stand down, or make redundant, many of their employees. That will make it so much harder for the employees to come back and for their businesses to bounce back, particularly as we're not in the peak tourism season.
The challenge for businesses gets worse when you think about the rollout of vaccines and a return to something resembling normality in the not-too-distant future. Australians may resume domestic travel with a passion, and hopefully a lot of them come up to the north. But the tourism industry has already lost a lot of its capacity to meet this demand, and, thanks to a looming cut to JobKeeper, it will find it incredibly difficult. So let me be clear: it is too soon to be cutting JobKeeper. Businesses and workers are depending on it, and I will do everything I can to fight this change. My message to businesses and workers in Darwin and Palmerston is: I am on your side, and Labor is on your side. This is not the time to be tinkering with a fundamental basis of work and living standards in Australia. This is not the time for this government to launch an attack driven by its ideological agenda. This is a time for the government to stand with and lift up the Australian people, to protect workers and to protect businesses. It is not a time to cut JobKeeper.
I will make a couple of final reflections. I think it's only fair to share one particular note of caution with those opposite. Every time a sitting prime minister has tried to mess with the living standards and the working standards of working Australian people, it has not ended well. Those opposite often respond to only one thing, and that is self-interest. So my advice to you is: connect with your inner self-interest, as you find it easy to do, and do not support this legislation. Support Australian workers instead. In my final reflection, I echo what the member for Blair said in his contribution a little while ago: the casualisation of the Australian Public Service is a very, very dangerous thing because the services that it provides to the public are vital. One example he gave was the Department of Veterans' Affairs, where 42 per cent of staffing is outsourced, with casualisation and the use of labour hire and contracting. It's blowing out the waiting times of Australian veterans who need support. That is one example of the way that this government operates. You should judge those opposite by their actions, not their words.
Not for the first time and not for the last time, I agree with the wise words of the member for Solomon, so elegantly and eloquently expressed on behalf of the people of Darwin and Palmerston, who are so well represented in this place by our friend the member for Solomon. The test for the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia’s Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020, as we've said from the beginning, is exactly the same as the test for this parliament. It's exactly the same as the test for this nation as we emerge from the deepest, most damaging recession in almost a century. The test is this: can we work together to create good well-paid jobs with fair conditions? Can we make job security the defining feature of the recovery in ways that it was not the defining feature of the economy that existed before COVID-19 hit a year or so ago? That is the test for this legislation, it's the test for the parliament and it's the test for the country. How do we get those secure, well-paid jobs with fair conditions so that people who work hard in this country can get ahead and provide for their loved ones? That is the test.
We've said from the very beginning, since this legislation was first put before us, as we worked our way through all of the details, as we consulted widely around the country, that, if this bill creates secure jobs with decent pay, we'll be for it. If it doesn't do that or if it acts against those interests then obviously we will be against it. It's disappointing but not especially surprising that, as we've worked our way through the bill, we've realised that what's happening here is those opposite are using this pandemic as an excuse to come after job security, to cut people's pay and to make people's conditions even less fair. That's why we don't support it.
Those opposite started to come under fire for the obvious ways that this bill was designed to cut people's pay, attack job security and make conditions less fair. So the government over there, on that side of the House, decided that they would drop one element of the bill: the one element which talked about the better off overall test. What those opposite hoped was that all the workers of this country, represented in this place for over a century by this side of the House, the Australian Labor Party, would think, 'Okay, with that part of the legislation gone, the rest of it must be okay.' But what we all know is that even with the junking of that particular part of this legislation—at five minutes to midnight, before it was brought into this place for the debate that we're participating in now; even with that aspect of it removed—there are still some very dangerous parts of this legislation for the workers of this country. That's why, despite the repeated opportunities that the member for Watson, the member for Grayndler and others have given the government to give a guarantee to the workers of Australia that there's no part of this bill that will make them worse off, those opposite have been unable to give that guarantee. That's for the very simple reason that the legislation is designed to make people worse off even with the better off overall test part of the legislation removed. The bill still makes it easier for employers to casualise jobs that would have otherwise been permanent. It still makes bargaining for better pay more difficult than it is now. It still allows people's pay to be cut. It still takes rights off blue-collar workers on big projects. And it still weakens wage theft punishments in jurisdictions where it was already deemed a criminal act. So even with the better off overall test part removed there are a lot of dangerous elements for Australian workers.
This is so important to us and it's so important to the nation. Why this matters so much and why we've been so vocal in opposing the attempts of those opposite to use this pandemic as an excuse to come after workers once again is that, as the dust settles and we emerge from what was the deepest part of the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s, it's now for us to decide—us as in Australians, us as in this parliament, and us as in the political parties which make up this parliament—what kind of recovery we want from that recession. The type of recovery that we have from the recession will be more or less determined by the kinds of jobs that we create in that recovery. On this side on the parliament, we're on the side of good, secure jobs with fair pay and decent conditions. That's what we've been on about since our inception, and that's what we're on about here. We want to create jobs in the care economy. We've made announcements in child care. We want to get cleaner and cheaper energy into the system. We've made announcements on energy transmission. We want to get more Australian apprentices into big government projects, and we've made announcements there as well. These are the sorts of jobs that we want to see created in the recovery from our first recession in almost three decades.
What those opposite would like to see instead is even more casualisation, declining living standards, precarious work—all those issues which more or less defined the economy pre-COVID. They would like to see all that insecurity, all that underemployment, for all those people who just can't find enough hours of work to provide for their loved ones, their families. Those opposite are proposing to go back to that, but worse—to all those issues which were such a contributing factor to the weak growth and the stagnant wages that we had before COVID-19. The member for Fenner is well qualified to understand just how weak the economy was for much of the seven or eight years leading up to COVID. All these issues around stagnant wages, underemployment, precarious work—this bill would be a recipe to go back to that, only worse. We know the consequences of that for ordinary working people in this country and their economy more broadly.
I think what makes people angry about these attempts by those opposite in this legislation is that in all the spin, all the announcements and all the photo ops about the heroes of the pandemic—the workers on the front lines, who are not especially well paid to begin with—the government says to the heroes of the pandemic, 'We think you should be paid less in more precarious ways and have fewer fair conditions.' I think it is disgraceful for those opposite to use this pandemic as an excuse to go after those workers, their wages and their superannuation, and to say to the workers of Australia, 'We don't have enough money or a blank cheque to support employment in this country, but we do have a blank cheque when it comes to doling out airport rorts, sport rorts'—and taxpayer funded executive bonuses, as the member for Fenner has been reminding us.
When it comes to those things, there's a blank cheque. But when it comes to supporting workers and supporting employment in this economy, those opposite talk about the heroes of the pandemic but deliberately go after them with legislation like that which we are debating today. Those opposite can't simultaneously say, 'The economy is going so well that we have to withdraw JobKeeper and other support from the economy,' and, 'The economy is actually going so badly that concessions for business and arrangements in industrial relations need to stay.' They need to choose which of those arguments they are going to make. They can't make both simultaneously, but that's what we've seen them try to do.
As we go towards an election, Australians will have a pretty clear choice. They can choose the more secure work, better pay and fairer conditions that the Leader of the Opposition, the member for Watson and all of us on this side are proposing, with our steps to make work more secure and employment more fair—they can support that or they can support the wage cuts, the super cuts and the budget riddled with rorts being proposed by those opposite. I think all of us understand that when those opposite, as they have before, go after the working conditions and living standards of ordinary Australian people, the workers have the capacity to speak with one voice and to say, 'This recovery can be a good one, can be strong and can be inclusive, but only if we put secure work with fair pay at its core.' Those opposite are incapable of doing that, but we will do it.
I rise to speak on the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020. Despite the government's rhetoric, Labor had a simple test for this bill: Will it create secure jobs and decent pay? Will workers be better off? Whilst we welcome the government's decision to drop its changes to the better off overall test, this bill is still a bad bill. It will still leave many workers trapped in insecure work. It will in fact potentially put many workers who may currently have a full-time job in a casual job, and potentially make many workers who have a secure part-time job flexible part time/casuals.
The answer to the question Labor asked—will this bill create secure jobs and decent pay?—is no. It's not just us saying it; economists are saying it, academics are saying it, unions are saying it and workers are saying it. Overwhelmingly, most Australians engaged in this issue are saying that this bill will not only make workers worse off but that it will also make workplaces harder and more inflexible. Giving the boss too much power will create not a safety net but a race to the bottom, as if we could sink any further.
I sat here today, in question time, shocked at either the lack of understanding the industrial relations minister has about the gig economy and independent contractors or the fact that he just doesn't care. He doesn't care to know the circumstances that they're in. What he has suggested in this bill doesn't actually deliver. It's more rhetoric; it's more spin. This bill will make it easier for employers to casualise jobs that otherwise would have been permanent. In a year when job security is one of the No. 1 issues, after health, and in a year when we've seen so many people miss out on JobKeeper payments and end up on JobSeeker because their employment wasn't secure enough to lock in that payment, we have the government wanting to make more jobs casual—more jobs with less job security.
This bill makes bargaining harder. Yes, they've dropped the changes to the better off overall test, but it still makes it easier for greenfields agreements on big projects and it still makes it harder for workers to get a fair outcome when it comes to bargaining. This bill takes away the rights of blue-collar workers; it makes sure that things become harder for them when it comes to bargaining. It weakens wage theft punishments in jurisdictions where we already have deemed wage theft a criminal act—you don't hear the government being honest about that one. Not liking what's happened in Victoria, where the state government has moved to strengthen wage theft laws, and not liking what's happened in Queensland, where, again, the state government has moved to introduce tough penalties on serial offenders of wage theft, this government's provisions will weaken those state laws—and that is something we cannot stand for.
But the fact that the government tries to spin it as other is, I think, what most Australian workers are disappointed with. Be honest, for once, about your plans for IR. Be honest with Australian workers about what you're trying to do. Don't dress it up with language and spin. The devil with this government, and with IR, is always in the detail. Yes, I acknowledge that the Fair Work Act is not perfect and does need some reform. Labor has announced a plan to help ensure that we have a Fair Work Act that really does help to secure jobs and to increase pay. None of those provisions are in this bill. None of what we see before us today will help make jobs in this country more secure and help ensure that workers in Australia are better off.
Take what they're trying to do with awards. Some awards, for historical reasons, do have what we call 'flexible part time'. It was agreed—back in the old days of the Industrial Relations Commission—between unions and employers in industries like the cleaning industry in Victoria that they would introduce flexible part time. But there was a trade off: it was at a higher rate. It was something workers wanted: if there was an extra shift available or if somebody went on leave, they could put their hand up for it first. The point is that they were able, at the commission, to bargain for a better outcome, an agreeable situation. What the government is proposing to do in this bill is to take that agency away from workers, to get this parliament to decide that all workers who are part time will be flexible, that they'll all be casualised, that they won't have set hours above a certain point. It puts enormous pressure on these workers to accept extra hours, with little notice and no overtime. There's a reason why that provision doesn't exist in every award today. Some workers didn't want it. Some said, 'No, if we get called in at late notice, we want the overtime.' Industries like security still have overtime; if they get called in they get paid the overtime rate, not a flexible part-time rate.
This bill particularly disadvantages workers with responsibilities, who need predictable hours and secure hours. It targets the retail industry, an industry which is predominantly made up of women—older women, younger women. We talked to women working in retail and asked them why they chose retail. They often say it's because they have secure part-time jobs and they know when they're working. I know it to be the case for many of the workers in retail in my part of the world. Many of them have worked in retail for decades. Whilst they accept the industry may not be as highly paid as others, it's the regular roster that they care about. This bill takes away that job security. One of the target industries is retail. They haven't bargained, they haven't sought changes. This government will, through this bill, decide that those workers are now more flexible. That is what is so disappointing when the government turns around and tries to stand in this place and say that workers won't have their pay cut. Well, that is one example. There's no bargaining; it's just a straight pay cut. It's just like what they did to hospo workers when it came to penalty rates. There was no bargaining about trading off for this or that; it was a straight pay cut that Fair Work and this government failed to stand up to.
Another area where this bill is really disappointing is the fact that it tries to overturn an outcome of the courts in relation to casual workers. Workers took a case through the courts to determine that some workers who had worked, in this case, for WorkPac, in the mining industry, had been wrongly employed as casuals by their employer and not paid their correct entitlements. The government has ignored years of common law to overturn a recent Federal Court decision on what it means to be a casual. That's what they're trying to do in this bill. What's happening specifically in the Queensland mining industry is an outrage. It's a mining rort. For decades workers have bargained collectively and built up a good, solid foundation of wages and conditions, only to be undercut by a labour hire firm. This isn't the traditional version of labour hire, where a worker comes in as a surge workforce. This is a worker employed on the same contract, with the same hours, week in, week out, month in month out, continually. They even wear uniforms that have things like 'full-time equivalent' embroidered on their shirts. They do the work, they wear the same uniform and they have the same reporting structures, but their pay is being paid by someone else.
What the court found is that these workers were in fact permanent. They then said that the casual loading that they received would be offset against any of the permanent entitlements they erode. So there is no double-dipping, like the government is claiming. The mining companies and companies like WorkPac are so upset because the casual rate they were paying these workers was far lower than what they would have paid if they were permanent. So there is a cost to business. There is a cost to WorkPac and labour hire companies like this. The court is saying: 'These people weren't casuals and you must pay them their proper entitlements. We will take from that the casual loading, but you still must pay them the proper entitlements.' So what the government is trying to do in this bill is override that decision. It will affect not just a couple of WorkPac employees but every other worker who's been trapped in this situation. Nurses in private aged-care have been trapped in this situation. People who work in various industries are trapped in labour hire, wanting a job, turning up and wearing the same uniform but being paid less than the person who works next to them. That's why Labor's announced the 'same job, same pay' deal: you can't work for less than a person doing the same job as you.
We also want to make sure that job security becomes an object under the Fair Work Act and is considered as a focus of Fair Work Commission decisions. A lot has changed in our employment landscape since the creation of the Fair Work Act in 2009. We now know the full impact of the gig economy. We know not just the impact that it is having on food delivery drivers or on ride share drivers but the impact that it is having on other services that are being delivered: services in home care, whether it be disability or aged care; and services in your home or in a business or even at schools, such as with Airtasker. We've virtually gone back to the days when we were standing in a queue, putting our hand up and hoping to get picked for the jobs—those scenes where we used to have workers lining up at the docks hoping today would be the day they'd get picked for some hours of work. It doesn't happen physically now, with all of us standing together on the docks, but it is happening virtually. Through the gig economy and the development of these platforms, we've lost, almost overnight, the concept of what it means to be a worker and to have that secure contract with a fair day's pay for a fair day's work.
That is why Labor has put forward a series of proposals around job security and making sure that the Fair Work Commission can include employee-like forms of work when we're talking about better protections for people in this app based gig economy work. That is why we're talking about limiting consecutive fixed-term contracts so an employer must offer a job to a person after the person has been doing the same job for 24 months. This used to just be the way it was. This is what employers used to do: when they got a good worker who had done the contract and finished another contract, they said, 'Let's bring them on full time.' But somewhere along the way a group of employers in industry backed out of the compact and started to introduce these horrible rolling-over contracts, with terms like 'full-time equivalent', and labour hire—ways in which to cut wages, cut corners and cut conditions.
Labor's also said that in government we'll be a model employer. One of the things the government also won't tell you is that the federal government is one of the worst offenders when it comes to labour hire. Just under 50 per cent of the Department of Veterans' Affairs workforce is now labour hire. When you ring Services Australia, you could be talking to somebody who's labour hire and who doesn't have the same training, the same skills and the same pay as other employees. No wonder the government want to try and push this bill through. No wonder they want to make sure that every business can do what they do.
This is a bad bill and, whilst the government have dropped some parts of the bad bill in trying to win over crossbench support, they haven't dropped enough of the bad. They've got to drop their changes to the award and their changes to the casuals. It's not casual conversion if it's not a genuine option; it's just window-dressing and more spin from a government who really doesn't care about jobs or job security for Australian workers.
It's a real pleasure to follow the member for Bendigo, a fellow regional MP from the great state of Victoria and someone who knows firsthand what's been happening in the world of work for many people in regional communities over a long period of time. After a year that saw almost a million Australians out of work, queues outside Centrelink offices and our first recession in three decades, now more than ever the government needs to dedicate itself to creating good, secure jobs that drive the economy. One of the key phrases there is 'secure jobs'. If COVID-19 taught us anything—if there is any long-term lesson, as an economy and as a public health response, that we should have learnt from COVID-19—it is that security of work is not only important for the economy, for individuals, for families and for communities but also critical for public health. It was because of insecure work that we saw people having to work two jobs across quarantine—often across the gig economy—and that saw the spread of this virus. It was because of insecure work that we saw people having to make choices about whether to go to work unwell or whether to stay at home because they did not have the secure income to be able to make those decisions. If there is anything we should have learned from coronavirus it's that secure work is absolutely critical.
We have seen a couple of things in Australia over the course of the past decade that have really changed that nature of work in this country—it's happening globally as well. They have really changed the nature of work in this country, and it's been a race to the bottom. We have seen, increasingly, work that used to be permanent and which used to be part of a company being outsourced and casualised—sent to labour hire firms. We've also seen the tendering out of contracts for that work, which has seen more and more players enter the market. Yes, sure—great—that's competition, but it's also meant a race to the bottom for wages, conditions and security of work.
We're seeing that in industry after industry after industry. Aviation, which I have responsibility for as shadow, is absolutely seeing that at the moment. We're seeing it with the outsourcing of baggage handling and security. It's getting to the point where if you go to a workplace or industry then the jobs that used to be done by, say, Qantas, Virgin or Rex, to some extent, or by the airport, or in any industry you look at, they're no longer done by employees of that particular employer. They're not Qantas or Virgin employees. If you go to any of the major department stores then the staff aren't employed by Myer or David Jones or those iconic employers that many of our parents and grandparents worked for; they're employed by a labour hire company or a contracted company. Whilst they might work under the banner of that company, they're not employed by them.
That's the problem in what's been happening with the nature of work in this country. It's meant less security for workers, lower wages and lower conditions. And that has suited employers; it has suited the profits of large-scale companies. Unfortunately, that's the decision that this government has taken, that that's where its support is going to lie. That's the problem right at the heart of this bill: it doesn't address the problems of insecure work; it actually makes them worse. That's why Labor is defending this so fiercely. Of course the government's decision to create greater insecurity in work through attacking the better off overall test attests that the government had to be forced to put that in place. That was because after Work Choices it realised it had a massive political problem on its hands because it had completely and utterly wrecked this country's workplace-bargaining system. The fact that it has now backed away from that is not because it actually believes very firmly that it went a little bit too far or that it was a step too far. It's because it can't get it through the parliament, and that says everything about this government's agenda when it comes to industrial relations.
The test for Labor when it comes to this bill, as it should be for all of our industrial relations measures, is: does the bill create secure jobs with decent pay and with fair conditions for workers? That should be the test. The government, on the other hand, has decided that the test for any bill is: does it create any job—any job at all? It doesn't matter if the job is insecure and it doesn't matter if the job doesn't pay well. In fact, it doesn't matter if the job is dangerous because of its insecurity. It doesn't actually matter about that. The only test is that somehow or other businesses will get more money, more profits, and therefore that will all trickle down to employ more Australians. We know from the government's attempts to get rid of penalty rates that that is just not true. It simply doesn't work that way. It is old economics and not something we should be supporting in this place.
We know that with this bill the government is trying to create less secure work and to create better circumstances for businesses to be able to casualise more, to pay less and to have fewer conditions. We say no to this bill. We say no because it makes it easier for employers to casualise jobs that would otherwise be permanent. We say no to this bill because it makes bargaining for better pay and conditions even more difficult than it already is. We say no to this bill because it takes rights off workers on big infrastructure and construction projects. We say no to this bill that undermines wage theft punishments in states and territories, like my own, where it is already a criminal offence. This bill seeks to weaken those offences. We say no to this bill that allows wage cuts and will see workers face greater wage cuts.
This bill from the Morrison government could deliver the workers who got us through COVID—the heroes of the pandemic: the nurses, the aged-care workers, the cleaners and the delivery drivers—more insecure work and less pay. The government may have reluctantly removed their attack on the better off overall test, but this is still a bad bill that represents a huge attack on the working rights of Australians. It's bad for workers and bad for the economy. If it is passed, it could actively undermine our recovery from COVID. To recover we need workers to be confident in their future prospects, to feel confident to take a bit of money out of their bank accounts and to spend. If you have been casualised and are facing a pay cut or if your work is becoming even more insecure then you're not going to spend. Without spending, there is no recovery. With this bill, workers will only go backwards.
This bill will take workers backwards in a number of ways. The first is by further undermining enterprise bargaining. Under this bill, agreements can cut pay and employers are given significantly more bargaining power. Under the bill, workers will have a right to be represented only a month after bargaining starts, putting workers behind the eight ball from the start. These workers are then stripped of the right to a comprehensive explanation of an agreement that they are being asked to vote on. Workers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, young employees or workers who are not represented in bargaining will no longer be guaranteed an appropriate explanation of a proposed agreement. The Fair Work Commission will have less time and power to ensure an agreement is genuinely agreed to and that it leaves workers better off. Agreements that exclude or misrepresent the National Employment Standards can be approved.
These changes aren't making or creating more secure jobs; they're about making it easier for employees to be ripped off. At a time when workers need more rights, they are being taken away. At a time when workers need secure jobs, the Morrison government is cutting the pathway out of casual work. The casual conversion provisions of the bill are essentially meaningless. An employer is not bound to offer a regular casual a permanent job if they do not think it would be reasonable to do so, and the same employer can veto a worker's right to have the Fair Work Commission consider if the decision was fair. The bill allows employers to call a worker casual even if the job is not casual, stripping them retrospectively of entitlements such as sick leave. This bill strips misclassified casuals of their right to leave entitlements.
At the same time as cutting the road out of casual work, this bill will casualise part-time work. The bill will effectively turn part-time workers into casuals, putting enormous pressure on them to accept extra hours with little notice and no overtime. The bill will in particular disadvantage workers with family responsibilities who need predictable and secure hours. If you have got kids or if you have caring responsibilities for a parent, under this bill that is simply your bad luck. You're on your own. You either take more shifts at short notice or lose out. No part-time workers are safe. These cuts can be imposed on any part-time worker without any award by regulation.
For the next two years workers' rights will be even further reduced with the extension of the JobKeeper style flexible work directions for duties and locations of work without JobKeeper payments and without the key protections that came with JobKeeper, as were supported by the parliament in 2020. Unlike with JobKeeper, the employer will not need to satisfy a turnover test. Instead, they'll simply need to believe it's necessary to give a directive to assist in the revival of an enterprise. When this occurs workers will have no rights to act against unreasonable directions because the government has taken away the arbitration powers of the Fair Work Commission. Workers can see their job change without warning and with no right of appeal. It is nothing short of a disgrace. This bill isn't about helping regrow the economy; it's about attacking workers.
I'm proud to come from a state with strong wage theft laws introduced by a strong, progressive Labor government. These laws protect workers from unscrupulous bosses and from the theft of their wages. That is what it is—it is theft. Instead of applying similar laws nationwide, this bill will override those strong wage theft laws, taking rights and protections off workers in states like my own of Victoria. It does this by inserting a new definition into the law that, to be guilty of wage theft, an action must not only be dishonest but also be known by the defendant to be dishonest according to the standards of ordinary people. This is a very high bar to meet, and it's been deliberately made so by this government. It is hard to prove someone's intent. That is why that definition was not included in Victoria's wage theft laws, because a boss ripping off their employees isn't going to be making it obvious that they knew what they were doing was wrong. This is a deliberate decision to make it easier for wages to be stolen and harder for workers to find justice. So when we hear the Attorney-General up here trying to claim that he's doing this great thing on wage theft, it is simply not true. He is simply watering down the provisions in those states that have strong Labor governments that have enacted wage theft legislation. It undermines good laws in states to the detriment of Australian workers.
So far I've covered how this bill cuts pay and conditions for casuals, part-time workers and victims of wage theft and, indeed, undercuts the rights of every working Australian. But the bill goes even further than that. It attacks the rights of workers on major construction projects. It does this by doubling the nominal expiry date of greenfields agreements to eight years or specifying no minimum annual increase in the base rate of pay. A worker could spend eight years working on a project receiving a pay increase of 0.01 per cent each year. That's a pay cut. Depending on the rate of inflation over those eight years that could be a really big pay cut. The new provision will apply to projects with a construction cost of $500 million or more; however, if the responsible minister declares a project to be a major project and it has a construction value between $250 million and $500 million then it can be included under this provision. As the shadow minister for infrastructure, I'm well aware that $250 million is not a particularly large infrastructure project. A lot of workers will end up being locked into bad deals and locked into years and years of pay cuts.
This government is not about improving conditions for workers. It is not about improving the security of work in this country. As I said at the start of this contribution, a government that had really learnt the lessons of COVID, had learnt that for an economic and public health response you need secure work, would not be introducing this bill and the measure that it has introduced to increase casualisation and to make work less secure in this country.
I'm pleased to rise to join in the debate with my colleagues in opposition to the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia’s Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020 and in support of the second amendment by the shadow minister, the member for Watson. This bill needs to be seen for exactly what it is: both a deeply cynical exercise and a profoundly ideological one. Despite its title, it will do nothing to support Australian jobs or economic recovery. I think we need to focus on both of these things. The cynicism, both in the process leading to the bill coming before the place and in its substance—and these are things that the member for Ballarat touched upon very effectively a moment ago—but also the underlying ideological fixation that animates members opposite. The Prime Minister likes to market himself as a pragmatic decision-maker, but time and time again we see that for what it is. It's a mask, and this bill demonstrates that quite clearly.
When it comes to industrial relations, this government has a long line of form—cutting wages through penalty rates changes and attacking job security. Indeed, we all remember the former finance minister describing low wages as a deliberate design feature of the architecture. In this bill, despite the process, despite the ostensible justification and, most importantly, despite what we've learnt through the pandemic about the danger that insecure work poses not just to individual workers but to our entire community, we see this government's determination to entrench casualised, insecure forms of work and the gig economy as permanent design features of the workplace relations architecture. On this side of the House, we stand squarely against that.
We've heard a lot from the Minister for Industrial Relations, also the Attorney-General, on these issues in question time over the last week. One thing that really strikes me is that he's very fond of referring back to provisions that were inserted into this act in 2009. As with almost everything he says at the dispatch box—this is a Leader of the House who I'm not sure has ever make a point of order successfully, which is why his only successful speeches are the short ones, bringing matters to a close—he talks about this as if it's a winning argument that provisions here resemble those by the former Labor government in 2009. What's striking is that he hasn't noticed some profound changes in the world of work in the last decade and a bit. An enormous increase in casualisation is something that has been noted by pretty much every observer but seems unremarkable to him, and there's the explosion in the gig economy, which he seems to treat as a matter that's beneath him.
In this place today, we've heard a number of quite extraordinary exchanges, exchanges which he seems quite pleased with but which really bell the cat on this issue. The minister says, in response to his characterisation of positions expressed by the Labor Party, that it's complicated—as if that's an excuse, as if the complicated nature of the world of work today means that government can't effectively regulate it. I think that is appalling and embarrassing in equal measure. Of course changes in the world of work change the regulatory task, but this is something that a government should be up for, particularly a government that committed to a deep process of consultation. Again, this betrays the cynicism that lies at the heart of this government. The working groups that were established, which we took a close interest in, failed to deliver a product that had consensus. Again, I think we see here the process as being a mask for an ideological agenda. Never has so much consultation achieved so little for the vast majority of those who were the subject of the consultation. And, at the end of it, this bill before the House—noting that some of the more egregious elements of changes to the better off overall test have been withdrawn—is still a recipe for cutting wages, for shifting the power balance in Australian workplaces away from those who do the work and towards those who benefit from the work and for deepening the incidence of insecure forms of work, whether it's through employment or otherwise.
I guess it makes us wonder exactly what problem this bill is designed to solve, from government members' point of view. What is it intended to do? It's no pathway to the secure jobs that are going to sustain a good society. It's no pathway to introducing a greater capacity for lower paid workers to consume and get the economy up and running in that regard. It's no way to increase the wage share of the economy, which is at a record low. It's no way to address the scourge that is insecure work, in all its manifestations. That may be a complicated challenge, but it's a challenge that we on this side of the House are up for, because we regard it as fundamental to building a good society and a functioning economy. We're not alone in saying that. Pretty much every economist agrees with us, not only those who are traditionally inclined towards the left side of politics. Perhaps, as the member for Ballarat so effectively set out in her contribution, that is because the wider consequences have been exposed—the wider consequences and also, I think, the morality. Through the pandemic, Australians have seen a large number of people's work for what it has always been. They've seen the value in work that has been undervalued economically, because it has kept our society going. We in our communities have been forced to confront that, even if, like some members opposite, it wasn't something we were inclined to do. Surely now, in this place, it's time to treat these people as the heroes that government ministers often describe them as being and to really value the work they do by supporting their capacity to be fairly rewarded for it. Surely it's time to recognise the power imbalances that so often characterise these vital forms of work, whether it is in retail, in logistics or in aspects of the caring economy. Yet these are the workers who will be pushed further behind should this bad bill be enacted into law.
We're putting before Australians a very stark choice when it comes to work: this road to nowhere, this race to the bottom that members opposite seem so keen on accelerating us towards, or the plan that the Leader of the Labor Party has started to articulate. It's a plan that puts secure work once again at the centre of the Australian settlement, at the centre of a new social compact that recognises the dignity of work and the threat it's under. It recognises how central work is to all of us and how we need to reinforce that. It also recognises, as I would hope that some thinking members opposite would, that there is a wider economic imperative here to build cooperative workplaces, to recognise that boosting cooperation in our workplaces is the key to productivity growth and to sustained and sustainable economic growth. But there seems to be no interest in that from members opposite. It's just the same old ideological fixation with taking power away from workers and those who represent them at so many levels through this, with no heed for the wider consequences—the individual moral consequences, which animate those of us on this side, but also the wider economic and social consequences, which should be a concern to anyone who has the privilege to have a voice and a vote in this place. These are concerns that I would hope members opposite would have regard to.
The process of establishing these working groups has really only delivered a wish list to some employers. It's a wish list to continue down the road to workplaces characterised by flexibility only on the terms of the employer and to workplaces which are increasingly uncertain. Of course, there are major issues we have to confront with the system of enterprise bargaining, too, none of which are being addressed. We acknowledge that, in the face of sustained criticism from the Labor team in this place, from the trade union movement and from so many ordinary Australians, the awful changes to the better off overall test have been taken out of this bill. But problems remain, and there's no inclination from members opposite to fix them. Going back to some of those workers who have sustained our entire society through the last year, I think it is particularly concerning that some of their interests are going to be the most affected here. The ability of unions to effectively engage in the bargaining process on behalf of groups of workers, particularly younger workers and workers who aren't from English-speaking backgrounds, is something that I am particularly concerned about. The provisions relating to greenfield sites, touched upon by the shadow minister for infrastructure, are also a great concern.
We've also heard a lot about the provisions around casual workers and casual conversion in recent days. Briefly, I want to put on the record some concerns I have. First, I note that the government that fought casual conversion so aggressively in the courts seeks congratulation for very modest and, frankly, unworkable provisions, in terms of enforcement mechanisms that once again don't understand the realities of power in workplaces or, worse—going back to the cynicism I've been speaking of—mechanisms that do understand it but seek again to put forward something that looks, on the face of it, like an improvement but is of no practical significance to low-paid workers who don't have the capacity, in this case, to seek to enforce a right on paper through the Federal Court. I don't think you need to have thought about this too deeply in order to know how impractical that is for the vast majority of workers. And of course the retrospective application of the broader provisions here come at a great cost to too many workers, as has been highlighted by many of my colleagues.
The provisions around award simplification are also of concern, because here we have another proposal that could well lead to very significant cuts in remuneration. If this is an unintended consequence of the drafting that's been put forward then of course we will see this exposed as we explore it through the Senate committee process. But we see here no interest, no engagement from the minister or his colleagues as to whether these issues can be explored through any process. All the consultation that has taken place today appears to have been a complete sham. The only thing the government will listen to in this—because it is so cynical, so driven by its ideological fixations—is the force of public opinion against changes that are unwarranted and unnecessary and will drag Australians back, in workplaces and across our entire society.
The provisions around wage theft also demonstrate the cynicism of this minister and the government. We see a provision that won't be pulled out from the rest of the bill—a 'take it or leave it' proposal—that is the opposite of the sort of cooperative approach one would imagine that a government intent on an economic recovery that's all about secure jobs would engage in. More fundamentally, the manner in which the provision has been drafted—which is very different from similar provisions in other states, including our own state of Victoria—would make the capacity of individuals who've been the subject of wage theft to make their claims. This is lessening a right when, again, we should be trying to raise the bar.
We have an opportunity here to put in place a different vision of Australian workplaces, a fair vision that's founded on job security, fairness at work and a government recognising the need and the obligation to address those power imbalances that are at the heart of so many employment relationships, as well as those relationships that have not been regarded as employment relationships but that we need to think harder about in terms of their impact on our society. In that regard it was very disappointing to see how dismissive the minister was of the implications of the very recent decision of the UK Supreme Court regarding drivers associated with the Uber platform. These are things that require very serious consideration by any government that's on the side of the Australian people and on the side of Australian working people.
In conclusion, this bill demonstrates that the government has not been listening to Australians through the pandemic—that they have not paid the slightest attention to what has been revealed in our workplaces and how the functioning of those workplaces shapes our society. We need a government that has a different approach to work in Australia and that will focus on secure work, not a cut and race to the bottom.
I rise to speak on the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020. If ever there were an Orwellian name for a bill, this would be it. It seems that many members of the government are living in an alternate universe.
This bill, as we know, was introduced into the House of Representatives on 9 December, the penultimate sitting day for 2020. As we've heard from the member for Scullin and other speakers on this side of the chamber—the long list of Labor members of parliament raising concerns on behalf of their constituents—if, after months and months of consultations with employer groups, businesses and unions through their so-called working group process, this is the best IR reform package the Morrison government could come up with, they really need to go back to the drawing board and actually start listening to what the impacts of this bill will be.
I've gone through the bill and I've read some of the submissions, which I'll focus on tonight in my remarks to the chamber. From the outset, I want to make it clear on behalf of the residents I've consulted with and the businesses and unions I've been hearing from that this bill makes work less secure, cuts pay and goes against the government's own pledge to rebuild the Australian economy. It's without measures to create secure jobs with the prospect of wage rises, and this means that, ultimately, workers will have less capacity to spend and less confidence to spend. That has a huge impact in terms of local economies not just in my electorate of Oxley, which I proudly represent in this chamber—the south-west suburbs of Brisbane and parts of Ipswich; this has a huge impact on many regional and local economies.
From the beginning, our IR team, led by the member for Watson and the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, have said that if this bill left workers worse off we would not support it. The working group process identified five areas to reform: casual and fixed-term employees; award simplification; enterprise agreement-making; compliance and enforcement; and greenfields agreements for new enterprises. The bill attacks job security and, I believe, attacks our economy as we try to recover from COVID-19. Each of those areas of priority, each of those areas identified for reform, I believe, will be worse off under the bill. I want to spend a little bit of time explaining each of those, and I want to ask members of the government and the minister why this bill seems to look out more for big business and those bosses not wanting to do the right thing than it does for regular workers.
I want to focus a little bit on casual workers, and, in particular, what this bill means for my electorate of Oxley and for some of the casual employees who I have been in contact with and who the bill will have a major impact on if it proceeds. The government's efforts to define casual work in the bill are disturbing, underhanded and detrimental. It's ignored the law and has overturned the recent Federal Court decisions on what it actually means to be a casual. Under the government's laws, if a worker agrees to be employed casually at the start of their employment they remain a casual, regardless of their work pattern:
… the employer makes no firm advance commitment to continuing and indefinite work according to an agreed pattern of work …
If an employee wants to challenge that, the only way they can do it is in the Federal Court. If they did this, they'd lose their job—not to mention the fact that most people in insecure work simply wouldn't have the resources to go through this process. This is before we get into the issue of workers from non-English-speaking backgrounds who may have limited access to information. Should the government get its way, if a court does find that a casual worker is in fact permanent any casual loading they receive will be offset against any permanent entitlements they are owed. What does this mean? This means the potential to rip away between $18 billion and $39 billion owed to casuals across Australia and put it right back into the pockets of the employers.
The week before last, I was able to visit Cairns with the Leader of the Opposition to launch Labor's post-recovery jobs industry taskforce. The Leader of the Opposition was able to meet with a number of industry leaders and I was privileged to be briefed by the marine manufacturing industry in Cairns, which is an important industry for the local community. Being on the ground and listening to workers and management alongside Senator Nita Green, the duty senator for the seat of Leichardt and secretary of the task force, we learned that Cairns, in my home state of Queensland, is the postcode with more people on JobKeeper than any other electorate in Queensland. It has the highest number of casual workers in Queensland. More than a quarter of the town's entire workforce is made up of casual workers.
They were the first ones to be hard-hit by the pandemic. The government, as we know, failed to come to their aid when they were vulnerable then, and I believe they're now failing them again. Cairns is an important part of the local economy in Far North Queensland. It has been devastatingly hit by the international border closures—70 per cent of tourism dollars come from international tourists. The same day that I was in Cairns with the Labor leader, the minister for tourism was in town and, of course, came with absolutely nothing to offer the people of Cairns.
Once again, I say to the government, it's bad enough that the economy is crippled in tourism centres like Cairns; they need some certainty and they particularly need to know what the future around JobKeeper will mean for some of those industries. When we were in the city, we heard from a number of operators that would normally have tourist boats out on the water and only a handful were operating in Cairns. The businesses are struggling and the government's only response is to say that it's somehow the Premier of Queensland's fault or Gladys Berejiklian's fault because of state borders. That has nothing to do with the local economy when you're relying on international tourism.
You've got the double whammy in regional centres like Cairns, which was hard-hit by the tourism downturn and which has the complicated issue around the casualisation of the workforce, and this bill will make it worse. Already the most vulnerable members of the workforce are in those centres and towns like Cairns, where the economy is already crippled. We'll see a lack of support for regional businesses when JobKeeper comes to an end in a matter of weeks. Quite frankly, regional businesses are going to be decimated by these laws.
This is another hit for a number of regional centres. In my own electorate of Oxley—where casualisation is a huge issue—for more than 20,000 people working work part-time, the only choice they have is a choice between getting overtime and losing the hours they need to make ends meet. This bill allows an employer and part-time employee to agree to an employee working additional hours at their ordinary rate without paying overtime. This applies to part-time employees working a minimum of 16 hours a week. Under this bill, the financial stability of more than 20,000 people in the electorate of Oxley alone will be under threat, thanks to the normalising of a standard 16-hour commitment with 'simplified additional hours' being used to top up work on an as-needed basis. This does the opposite of what the government claims the bill is all about. It casualises part-time work, reducing job security. If there were ever a time in Australia where we need more job security, it is off the back of the pandemic, when the economy is in freefall and we are seeing alarming figures almost on a daily basis about what is happening in our economy.
As I said in my remarks, I want to talk about some of the feedback and submissions that we've seen regarding the Fair Work Amendment Bill. I refer to Catholic Religious Australia:
Catholic Religious Australia (CRA) has urged the government to consider revisions to the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020 (the Bill) in a submission pointing out elements of the proposed Bill which leave certain workers vulnerable, compromising workers' rights and the common good of the Australian society.
In the submission, CRA calls upon the government to work collaboratively with business, not-for-profit organisations such as CRA, unions and the broad Australian community to ensure that the nation's industrial relations system supports the full employment of Australians, while rewarding employers who provide secure employment.
CRA recognises that the global COVID-19 pandemic has posed an immense national economic and societal challenge, and it has exposed and exacerbated pre-existing weaknesses in the Australian economy. One such weakness is the increasing casualisation of the workforce, which will only further escalate if the proposed changes remain in the Bill, leaving many Australians in an unstable financial position, resulting in greater vulnerability to exploitation, and violating human rights.
CRA President, Peter Carroll FMS said "The increasing vulnerability, instability and stress caused by the casualisation of workers impacts on individuals but also on society as a whole. It's detrimental to the quality of family life and impacts mental health. It reduces consumer confidence, spending and borrowing because of the lack of security in work and income, which in turn affects the economy."
… … …
Anne Walker, CRA National Executive Director said, "Safe, secure, and fulfilling work is a right to which each person is entitled, allowing them to earn a reasonable living, support family, contribute to and participate in Australian society, forge relationships, express their skills and talents and securely enjoy leisure time."
"Legislation should never reduce the function of work to a simple economic contract between employer and employee, or have the sole purpose of increasing capital," she added.
"Any initiatives to rebuild the Australian economy following the global pandemic, any future economic shock and more generally, should always respect and enhance the human rights and the dignity of all Australians, allowing for their full participation in our society".
I wholeheartedly agree with those sentiments. I thank Catholic Religious Australia for their submission, and I thank the countless others who have raised their voices and raised the alarm around this bill.
We saw last week the government try to pull the wool over our eyes about fixing the problems with the bill by removing the better off overall test for two years, but that's only one problem. There are permanent changes that hurt workers. Employers will no longer have to explain an agreement to employees. Think about that for a second: employers will no longer have to explain an agreement to employees. Employers will not have to give an employee a copy of the whole agreement. Employers don't have to tell workers they have started bargaining for a month. The Fair Work Commission is stripped of powers to ensure workers are better off. Unions will not be allowed to assist the Fair Work Commission assessing non-union agreements, and the Fair Work Commission will be forced to tick and flick, with time limits and limitations. This essentially means a reduction in power structures in the workplace. This essentially means fewer rights for those people who need more rights.
The government has yet to explain the benefits of this bill. The Minister for Industrial Relations continually avoids and ducks and weaves on these critical, key agreements. I'm hopeful that the crossbench, members of the Senate and we here in this chamber are clear on what the government is intending to do. We on this side of the chamber have a positive plan. I was delighted to see the Labor leaders' announcements on industrial relations, the key plank in Labor's industrial relations platforms: extending the powers of the Fair Work Commission; ensuring a limited number of consecutive fixed-term contracts an employer can offer for the same role, with an overall cap of 24 months; and legislating a fair, objective test to determine when a worker can be classified as casual so people have a clearer pathway to permanent work.
As we have seen time and again, when it comes to industrial relations and when it comes to the protection of workers, this government simply cannot be trusted. We saw it with Work Choices, the issue the Howard lost the election on. The government got drunk on power in terms of what they tried to do the workforce in Australia and they paid the ultimate consequences at the ballot boxes. Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, now is not the time for the Morrison government to water down provisions and to further casualise the workforce in this nation.
I rise to speak on the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020. As with all omnibus bills, there are good and bad elements. With contentious policy areas such as industrial relations, there is often a polarisation of views, depending on which side of the ideological fence you are on. For example, with respect to this bill, the Labor Party and the unions would have you believe that the world will end if the bill proceeds. The Liberal Party, on the other hand, would have you believe that the world will end if it doesn't proceed. Having looked at the bill and listened to representatives from the ACTU, individual unions, local businesses and industry bodies, there appear to be elements that have merit and some that I believe must be addressed and/or rejected outright.
One element of merit is the introduction of a definition for the term 'casual employee'. Currently the Fair Work Act does not define the term. Instead the meaning is applied from common law. Until recent court decisions, 'casual employee', among other criteria, was loosely defined as employees who were engaged as casuals without expectations of ongoing work and without fixed hours of employment. The Skene and Rossato cases have now created uncertainty for employers, as employees engaged as casuals may now be deemed as other than casuals and at some point in time become entitled to payment of annual and other leave entitlements, even though they have received casual loading. This has left industry with a potential $39 billion in exposure.
Unions have raised concerns that the introduction of a definition of 'casual employment' will deny employees the right to recover entitlements if, during their employment period, the employee was not casual. I don't believe this to be technically true. The bill in this instance takes a common-sense approach, I believe, requiring employees to be entitled to receive in total an amount not less than the casual loading amount. This set-off provision ensures employees receive their legal entitlement and protects employers from paying entitlements twice. Naturally in the Senate, should this bill proceed, there may be amendments with respect to how we create casual employment, but I think that both employers and employees and deserve to have clarity on their roles and responsibilities.
In relation to the compliance and enforcement provision, increasing the cap from $20,000 to $50,000 for small claims wage recovery is an important step, and I think it is admirable. It's insisting employees recover their hard-earned wages in instances where employers have not paid them appropriately. Similarly, the introduction of a criminal offence for wage theft and increasing maximum civil penalties for underpayment contraventions will send the right signal to the small minority of employers that do the wrong thing.
The part-time flexibility amendments may seem sensible. While they reflect the conditions contained in many union negotiated enterprise agreements, I can understand that some unions are worried this has the potential to expect too much flexibility from their employees. They could have 16 hours one week and 32 hours the next. But, of course, when they go to get a bank loan it's only ever the 16 hours that's recognised. As I mentioned, there are union negotiated enterprise agreements, especially in the retail sector, that provide part-time employees that work additional hours without a range. Without a range, as in some agreements, this section simply encourages, I believe, employers to treat part-time workers like casual workers without the casual loading. The government says the employee can choose not to accept, but I don't think that that view recognises the power imbalance between workers and employers. The government's defence that any additional hours must be by agreement I just don't believe is correct. While I believe this provision potentially has a sensible intent, it does not provide appropriate protection for workers and may likely result in a newer form of lower flexible worker. I cannot support this provision in its current form.
We need to recognise in this place that this bill will affect the lowest-paid workers in Australia more than anyone else. During my discussions with unions and industry, the most contentious element of the bill resoundingly centred around the better off overall test changes. I'm pleased the government has abandoned these changes, but I'm deeply concerned that they were there in the first place. While the government seeks to reform and address obvious areas of deficiency, such as the definition of 'casuals' and wage theft, the bill as a whole does not satisfy the fairness test or satisfactorily address the areas of deficiency.
Given the many elements of the bill that I think are fair and reasonable, I think this government should pull apart this bill in this chamber. If the government is not willing to approach the bill in this way, I simply cannot support it and I will need to leave it to the Senate to hopefully ensure that those provisions for the protection of workers continue, particularly around the area of wage theft. The best thing the government can do, I think, is pause this bill, go back to the table, sit down with unions and sit down with employer groups. Let's actually get a bill that does the right thing by workers and by small businesses.
As with so much of the Morrison government's legislation, the title of this bill, the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020, does not at all reflect the intent. The legislation neither supports Australian jobs nor helps with the economic recovery, and I'll talk a little more about that in just a moment.
Put simply, this legislation leaves people worse off. It cuts take-home pay and conditions, and it leaves workers with fewer rights and with less job security. And that's after the government has already removed the two-year suspension of the better off overall test. If the Morrison government had had its way, as was in the original bill, the better off overall test would have been suspended for two years, all under the guise of economic recovery after COVID-19. We know full well that in two years time it is unlikely—particularly if this government is still in office—that we would have reverted to anything other than what is now proposed in this bill. It would then have become part of the norm and continued to be the way business operated.
It's also interesting that for all the government's claims about how this legislation will make it easier for workers to get work, to get more work and to take home more pay, the Prime Minister still refuses to guarantee that no worker will be worse off. The Prime Minister refuses to make that guarantee because he knows he can't. He knows that this legislation will indeed make workers worse off, and that if they do take home more pay it's probably because they'll be working much longer hours in order to do so. It has nothing to do with this bill giving them more pay for the same work they're currently doing.
As we all know, the Liberal Party was literally formed from the business community, the landowners and the business people across this country, and that the Labor Party arose from the working people of this country. It is Liberal Party ideology, and always has been, to have what they refer to as 'trickle-down' economics. That means if business profits go up then there will be a flow-on effect down to the working people of this country. The reality is that it simply does not happen. The facts about wealth distribution, both here in Australia and around the world, are very, very clear: as they increase their wealth, fewer and fewer entities or people pass that on to others. We have seen the stats which show that much more of the wealth around the world today is owned by fewer people, and that will continue to be the case unless changes are made.
Over recent years, there have been numerous cases exposed here in Australia of worker exploitation, worker abuse and worker underpayment. Frequently, those who have offended are businesses which are household names here in Australia—businesses which are well-known to all of us. I accept that in some cases there might have been some genuine misunderstandings or errors made. But, in most cases, I believe that the underpayments were known and were very intentional. Even worse, I believe that what has been exposed is only the tip of the iceberg, and that there is exploitation still occurring each and every day right across the country.
Particularly over recent years, much of Australia's labour force has been made up of vulnerable new arrivals from relatively poor countries, or workers who come from overseas on, perhaps, temporary visas. Those include temporary work visas, where they apply to come here; student visas; or tourist visas, which are provided to backpackers and the like. It is very unlikely that any of those visa holders would even question an employer about their work conditions or payments. They wouldn't do so, either because they originate from a country or culture where workers' rights are simply non-existent or for fear of losing their visa, or perhaps because they are so desperate and need the money that they won't risk the few hours of work and the payment they are receiving. I'm well aware of people that fall into those categories. Perhaps they know that they are being underpaid, but they certainly won't risk whatever little income they've got by raising it with authorities.
It is also very much in the interests of employers to employ vulnerable workers, because it forces Australians competing for the same jobs, and who perhaps know what their entitlements are, to accept lower wages. It's a very direct way of bringing wages and conditions down, because you can say to employees or people that apply for the job: 'Well, if you want the job, these are the terms and conditions. If not, there is someone else that is prepared to work under those terms and conditions and take the job.' I have no doubt that that is also happening and is part of the strategy of employing workers that either are here on a temporary basis or have come in from overseas. It becomes a downward spiral of wages and conditions, and we are seeing that year after year. This legislation will go further in terms of doing exactly that.
We have seen wages stagnate under the Morrison government. Not content with that, the Morrison government now wants to drive down wages even more and make jobs more insecure. The foolishness of that ideology, however, is that when working people earn less they spend less, and when jobs are insecure or paying less people can't borrow money for their homes or for any other matter that they need to borrow money for, and so, in effect, there is less money circulating around the economy. When people have insecure work, it also raises issues of mental health problems and the like.
It actually makes sense to have workers on good incomes, because they spend their money and that in turn has a flow-on effect on the rest of the economy. Indeed, the whole purpose of JobKeeper and JobSeeker, introduced by the Morrison government, wasn't simply to support the workers; the government knew that by increasing the money that workers had in their hands it would prop up the businesses of this country that might otherwise have failed if working people didn't have money to spend. It wasn't just about helping them pay their wages; it was also about creating more money to circulate in the economy so that businesses could also profit from it and survive. Quite frankly, that is a realistic argument to put—and it worked during the COVID crisis. The same argument applies even when we don't have a crisis: if workers have more money in their hands, everybody benefits and profits from it. I really don't understand the logic of the government in continuously trying to push down wages.
A McKell Institute Queensland discussion paper on insecure work, released not long ago, highlights the shifting trend in recent years away from secure permanent work to less secure casual, part-time or contract work. In respect of contract work in particular, it too has been used frequently to circumvent conditions and entitlements of employees who sign those contracts and effectively trade away their rights that would otherwise exist. That's also a trend that is of concern, because with many of those contracts—I'm not just talking about the small contracts, where people become self-employed, as we might describe them, and then enter into a contract with an employer to provide services employees would have provided in the past; I'm also talking about those contracts that might go for three, four or five years, as many of the contracts in the service industry now go for. At the end of the four or five years there is no security for that person, and they hope they might have their contract renewed. But, even worse, within that four or five years they might also have to give away some of the terms and conditions that might have otherwise applied had they been permanent employees of the particular entity.
I understand that in today's workforce of around 12½ million people, less than half of all workers have permanent full-time paid jobs with all entitlements included—less than half. I also understand that 32 per cent of workers—this is according to that McKell Institute discussion paper—work less than 38 hours a week. It's interesting that in 1996, just over two decades ago, the figure was 11.3 per cent. In other words, in the last two decades the number of people who work less than 38 hours a week has trebled—and we'll see that figure rise much higher if this legislation goes through. Twenty-five per cent of workers are casuals.
I accept that for some people working casually or working part time suits their requirements and they are happy to do it. I don't have a problem with that, because I think in some cases it is appropriate. But frankly, for those people who would like to work more hours, and we know that there are about two million people who would, it is not always appropriate. For them, they only do it because they have no alternative. They are locked into an environment, a society at the moment where there is no other choice. There's an interesting correlation in all of this, and that is this: as trade union membership numbers have declined over the years, so too have the rights and entitlements of workers. A very similar trend: as trade union membership has fallen in Australia, so have workers' conditions and entitlements.
I will speak very briefly about the greenfields agreements. In the past, these contracts would have locked you in for four years. Other members have made the point that those agreements will be extended to eight years. Again, who is the loser in all of that? It will be the workers, because if you are locked into a contract for eight years, you are fixed to the terms and conditions applied at the time of signing. At least with four-year contracts you might be able to review them at the end of that contract. Then we have the provision whereby those greenfields contracts apply to entities or to contracts and projects of $500 million or more. We know that under this legislation the minister can intervene and declare a project of anywhere between $250 million and $500 million as a major project and have it included in a greenfields agreement. That declaration is not even disallowable; it doesn't have to come to this parliament! Again, this is a government that doesn't like scrutiny and doesn't like to be held to account in any way, shape or form.
Another matter I will briefly comment on is the issue of wage theft and the provisions in this legislation which actually weaken the protection for workers in Queensland and Victoria, because in Queensland and Victoria the governments have already introduced legislation to do exactly that. So we have legislation in two of the states that provides much better protection than what the federal government is proposing here. If you lower the bar for entities to be able to get away with wage theft, then it's very likely that more of them will still take the chance, and continue to do so.
The last issue I will talk about in the minute or so I have left is the issue of power imbalance. Again, speakers on this side in this debate have made it absolutely clear. Imagine a new arrival who perhaps barely knows the language, who certainly doesn't know all the laws in this country, or a young person or perhaps a person who's struggling with their mortgage repayments and needs whatever work they can get. How can we expect them to challenge their employer about the wages and conditions they get? They will never do that, and certainly they won't do it if they don't have the support of the unions, who have also been sidelined in all of this. So we know full well that whilst the government says people can take matters to the Fair Work Commission and the courts and the like, the reality is it doesn't happen already and it won't happen under this legislation. We know that most employers, and certainly the big employers, already have well-resourced HR departments who know how to manage the situation much better than the poor employees. These employees might be very good at the job that they are doing, but they are not HR managers or lawyers and, therefore, the power imbalance is totally unacceptable with respect to this legislation. We know this from past coalition governments. We've had the waterfront debacle, Work Choices and superannuation freezes. Now, under this coalition government, we see another attack on workers, and it is simply another way that this government and all coalition governments continually try to erode the rights of working people in this country.
To Australians who are listening to this debate as they're driving somewhere, perhaps, or as they're making the dinner, what we're debating is the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia’s Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020—the Morrison government's proposal to change the laws which go to conditions in the workplace.
My background is that I'm a very proud member of a union, and I've spent my adult life representing people to try and get fair conditions in the workplace, but always endeavouring to be a moderate union official—trying to get a win-win and trying to ensure that people have agency over their work, that they're fairly remunerated and that they feel that their interests are aligned with those of their employer. The creation of harmony in the workplace is something that, to me, should be taken very seriously. A lot of people don't realise that the federal government can have a direct impact, in the laws it makes, upon the wages and conditions which people receive and the productivity which companies enjoy—the fairness at work. Australia's always had a very proud tradition of going a third way. We've eschewed the excesses of pure capitalism and, of course, we turned our back on the excesses of extreme socialism and communism a hundred years ago. This third way of a safety net underpinning productivity and underpinning wages growth is what I think has kept a middle class intact in this country. At least, it has for many decades.
I think if you look at the difference between the United States and Australia and the circumstances of people who go to work there as opposed to in Australia—for example, you can work in the United States and still be under the poverty line—there's a lot to be said for sensible industrial relations reform. Having said that I believe very much in a fair go for all, I think this legislation is absolutely not serious. When I say that it's not serious, I think that, if it were to be passed, it would be very serious and would be of great harm to Australian workers and, therefore, to the Australian economy and Australian enterprises. But I think this is a government that didn't think they would be elected in May 2019, because they certainly didn't offer anything in industrial relations policy, but now, to keep the conservative base happy—a bit of red meat—they've decided to take a tried-and-true uniter of many aspects of the current coalition: cutting people's wages and conditions and deregulating the workplace. Tonight my remarks will be in several parts. When I look at this legislation, I cannot help but draw the conclusion—and I'll endeavour to do so for people listening in the next 10 or 12 minutes—that this Prime Minister doesn't actually care. He's wasting the nation's time. He'd be happy if he could get these laws through—and a lot of other people such as the workers of Australia would be unhappy—but, in fact, they're not even serious about it. They don't believe in trying to improve productivity in the Australian workplace.
We've gone through COVID. COVID has been a dreadful experience, and it still is a dreadful experience. Obviously, the greatest suffering is that of the families of those who've passed. But many people have lost their jobs and their livelihoods—small businesses and people in certain sectors of the economy—and, of course, workers have lost shifts and literally millions of hours of work. My view is that the Australian people just want life to go back to normal, such as it can after COVID, and I think that there is a responsibility on all of us who are privileged to serve in the Parliament of Australia to help Australians get back to normal, whatever that will look like. This law actually flies in the face of that, and that's my first objection. COVID has been a torrid time for millions of Australians and their families, so why on earth is the government delaying our return to normal by trying it on with the agenda to cut people's wages? I think this is exactly the wrong time. Even if you believe in the coalition's approach of leaving it to the marketplace and weakening the safety net of minimum conditions in Australia—which I surely don't—surely, given the terrible experience that COVID-19 has been and the battering that sectors like tourism, travel agents, live events and international education are taking, this is exactly the wrong time. Even if you believe in deregulating workplace relations—and this is a move towards greater deregulation—this is exactly the wrong time for it.
Not only is it the wrong time; this legislation is bad for the people, bad for the Australian economy and bad for business. In a moment I'll go through some of the specifics as to why this is very poor legislation. It doesn't do anything to assist productivity. It is on this basis that I encourage the Senate and members of parliament to vote this legislation down. It's not what we need in workplace relations, either now or in the future. It's bad for the people, bad for the economy and bad for business.
Some of the specifics in the legislation are so poorly drafted that it beggars belief that this dog's breakfast is even offered up in legislation. I understand the Attorney-General has taken his metaphorical shears to parts of the bill since it was first raised, but we should still say no to this legislation. The bill is still ugly, is still an eyesore and does nothing for Australian workplaces. The Attorney-General has endeavoured to give this otherwise unloved legislation a makeover—a short back and sides—but he hasn't done a very good job. He has done half a job. He has created the legislative equivalent of the mullet. Indeed, that's probably unfair on the mullet. It is less than a mullet. It is a con. It is a try-on. It is a dare. It is half this and half that. It is a mismatched bill. I will go to those specific points in a moment.
It is a thankless piece of legislation. It is thankless for the Australian people who have got us through COVID and just want to go back to normal. There was nothing flagged at the last election about this legislation. It actually undermines enterprise bargaining. This is the classic stereotype where the Liberals and some of their allies in business—and I don't believe all in business want this legislation—declare to the workforce of Australia: 'This is enterprise bargaining. We're the enterprise and you're the bargain.' That's why this legislation should be rejected.
In particular let's look at the job market for people under the age of 30. If you ask them how the job landscape looks, they would say it's pretty grim. If you ask them if they are getting the hours of work they want and if it is easy to find a job, they would say that it's pretty hard. If you ask them if they will ever be able to afford to buy a house, have a family and settle down on the hours of work they're getting, they would say that that's very unlikely. If you ask them if there is job security available for them, they would say, 'No, there is not.' Then if you ask them if they think that the labour market is too deregulated or not deregulated enough, they would most resoundingly say that it's too deregulated.
This bill, even without its BOOT ban, makes it easier for employers to casualise jobs that would otherwise be permanent—that's bad. It makes bargaining for better pay and conditions more difficult than it already is—that's not good. It will allow wage cuts—that's a poor idea. It takes the rights off workers on big projects by effectively eliminating unions out of negotiating greenfield project arrangements. This might well be red meat for some who are critical of the government for lacking any agenda whatsoever. This Prime Minister is better at tearing things down than building things. Take the electric car shemozzle that this government conducted before the election. Now it's going to have to crab walk back to supporting those cars. This government is not very good at building things, and this is not a recipe to build productivity or cooperation in the workplace. It is most certainly bad economics.
Someone famously said, 'It's the economy, Stupid.' I'd like to vary that and say, 'Actually, it's the workers, Stupid.' We need to make sure that workers are getting proper wage rises. Stagnant wages growth diminishes consumer confidence. Stagnant wages growth diminishes the ability of people in the working class to get into the middle class and those in the middle class to stay in the middle class. Stagnant wages growth damages business because the very customers that businesses need to be coming through their doors, shopping and spending money can't do that, because they're simply not making enough to make ends meet.
This bill does not represent the finest traditions of industrial relations reform in this country, which were achieved by consensus. This government has specifically turned its back on a consensus approach and instead is favouring one set of arguments put forward by some employers and their advocates over the interests of others, including the trade union movement and workers. This law is very poorly drafted. Not only was the BOOT test change that the government proposed stupid—and they've dropped that—but the measures it is proposing to help casuals become permanents are an overworked solution to what is a very simple problem. You could always put in the National Employment Standards the opportunity for casuals to become permanent. I'll tell you what I believe has happened here. The government doesn't really understand workplace relations and an employer group—perhaps the Ai Group—has pushed it into an elaborate method of turning casuals into permanents. It's going to create a shemozzle for employers.
The other thing here is that, when the government wanted to amend specific awards for a specific time to allow for COVID measures, they included the opportunity for arbitration. What this now means under the law that they're proposing is that part-timers could be required to work extra hours. Even though they might be permanently on 16 or 20 hours a week and that's in their contract, that could be amended without the agreement of the worker to have them work up to 38 hours with no penalty rates. The weakness is that there's no arbitration. The reality is that this government, when COVID first hit, argued that it wanted flexibility for employers to be able to amend awards, but the safeguard was that there could be arbitration if people didn't agree on the proposal by employers, and quite often people would come to an agreement. But now they've got rid of the arbitration protection, which means that there is no chance for people to speak up if they disagree with what's proposed.
To show how this government doesn't understand the fire it's playing with, I note that the arbitration protection which was put in place initially when COVID started was used only five per cent of the time. Ninety-five per cent of the time, people, unions and the employers could work it out, but five per cent of the time there were disputes notified which were arbitrated. But the government doesn't like it when, even five per cent of the time, there could be notified disputes and there could be arbitration to check the balance of what might be seen to be an unreasonable proposal from an employer, so it's decided that, even at five per cent dispute notification, that's too much, so it will just get rid of it altogether. This is a government that has gone further than it needs to.
We understand the importance of helping businesses through COVID, and there are plenty of sensible ideas to help businesses get through COVID. You could extend JobKeeper in the travel industry and the live event industry. You could extend JobKeeper for businesses that are affected by the closure of international borders. Perhaps you could run a work value case in aged care. Perhaps you could tackle gender inequality in the wages system. Perhaps you could look at gender inequality in TAFE and degree qualified award classifications. Perhaps you could do more for early-year educators. Perhaps you could expand the National Employment Standards. Perhaps there could be greenfields agreements for project life with unions, not without unions in a way that encourages employers into a wages race to the bottom. Perhaps you could look at exploitation in the horticulture industry, with the treatment of international workers coming to Australia. Perhaps you could look at paid domestic violence leave. You could look at how we can rehabilitate injured workers.
As I said at the outset, there is a fertile and productive area of workplace relations which can increase productivity. But has the government looked at any of that? Not at all. It has, in what I think is a fairly slipshod, not-really-that-interested approach, just picked up a few of the chocolates from the right-wing employer lobby and said, 'This is what we're going to do legislatively.' How does that help people? It simply doesn't.
What we need to conclude when we have a look at this legislation is that the real reason why it should be rejected is that the Prime Minister himself doesn't really believe in it. I'd make a sporting bet with any coalition member that by mid-March, if this has all got too hard, ScoMo is going to drop the reforms anyway. This is just a means for the coalition to paper over its divisions and unite its members in an attack on unions and wages and a war cry of deregulating the workplace even further, even though it's already far too deregulated as it is. There's nothing here for productivity. There's nothing here that guarantees wage improvements. It's a hotchpotch. It's a collection of mismatched ideas, none of which are in the interests of working people.
I suspect that deep down the Prime Minister doesn't even care. Oh, he'd love to get it through; let me be clear about that. He'd love to cut the wages of people. But he is, indeed, wasting the time of this nation, and I suspect that by the time of the budget he won't even be talking about workplace relations, because he knows that the people of Australia aren't going to buy into an 'us versus them' set of rhetoric from this government. He knows that, having gone through COVID, people just want to return to normal, and anything which delays a return to normal will not be met with approval by the people of Australia. The Prime Minister assumes that he can talk about the political benefit of being the incumbent leader during COVID, but at the end of the day people will mark this government down if it persists in resisting their return to normal. People who've lost hours of work, companies who've lost income, businesses who've lost customers, young people who can't get a job in the market and older people who are being displaced by the dodgy labour market schemes of this government don't want this legislation. I'm afraid that, at practically the two-year mark of this government, it's missed an opportunity to do something by consensus. Instead, those opposite have just resorted to their deregulatory, let-the-market-rip approach to workplace relations. That's why this legislation should be rejected. It is not in the interests of Australians, it doesn't let us get back to normal and it puts this nation back when we should be moving forward.
The government has introduced a bill, the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020, which permits employers to cut wages and reduce rights. Of course, the Prime Minister is not the first prime minister to do that. The last Liberal prime minister that introduced a bill to enable employers to cut wages and reduce workers' rights was John Howard, and, as a direct consequence of that bill, the Work Choices bill, he lost not only government but his seat. John Howard wasn't the first Liberal prime minister who would lose his seat and his government by introducing a law which enabled employers to cut wages and reduce rights. There was another gentleman, by the name of Stanley Melbourne Bruce, who lost his seat and his government in exactly the same circumstances. We firmly predict that if this Prime Minister continues on this course then he will be the third Liberal prime minister who loses his government because he has introduced a bill, in the midst of an economic crisis, which enables employers and the government to reduce wages and conditions.
The government has introduced a bill on industrial relations in the midst of an economic crisis. This is an opportunity for the government to make a statement about the future, to set out its vision for the future of Australian workplaces and for good, secure jobs. It's an opportunity to make a statement about what workplaces will look once the crisis has receded. The government has not taken this opportunity. There is not a word about what a workplace will look like in the future. In fact, if you look at this legislation, it's a pretty bleak vision of the future indeed. This bill does none of it. It's an opportunity to take the big economic challenge head on and do something to fix it. It is not in the nature of this Prime Minister to take responsibility for a challenge that the country is confronted with on his watch. It is in the nature of this Prime Minister to do the opposite: 'It's not my responsibility. I don't hold a hose. I wasn't there. I saw nothing. There's nothing to see here.' If this government wants to be taken seriously then it has to confront the biggest challenges that workers and our economy will be dealing with over the next decade: high unemployment, low wages growth, low worker participation, high underemployment and high casualisation.
I want to address the big challenges. Let me deal first with low wages. If we were to go back through every budget paper since this mob formed government in 2013, we would see heroic assumptions about how wages were going to grow. They have not hit a single target. They are not alone; the Reserve Bank has been in exactly the same position. They have not hit a single wage prediction. What we have seen over the last decade is stagnating wages. We have seen wages go backwards. The government predicts they're going to go up, but they don't. The government hopes they're going to go up, but they don't. The government makes statements about more jobs and better pay, but we see neither. We are seeing wages stagnating and we are seeing the workers' share of national income declining year on year on year. How are we going to fix it? This is the biggest elephant in the smallest room. It's not like we haven't confronted this problem in the past.
We invented something called unions—workers getting together, bargaining collectively and increasing their wages and conditions. If the government were truly committed to ensuring that workers wages increase then they would have introduced a bill into this parliament which would have included provisions to enable workers to bargain collectively and to do it more effectively to increase their wages and conditions. Instead of introducing laws which enhance workers' abilities to join a union, to bargain collectively and to have more power in the workplace to increase their wages and conditions, every single instinct of this government is to do exactly the opposite—to water down a union's ability to represent their members and to make it harder for union members to participate in their union. And yet they come in here, year after year and budget after budget, saying: 'What can we do? Wages just won't grow.'
Wages don't grow magically! They grow because workers have the capacity to bargain collectively. The evidence is in: it is absolutely clear. If you look at the difference for workers who have increases based on collective agreement-making the figures are very, very clear. The government's own figures show that between 2016 and 2019 wage agreements subject to collective-bargaining won wage rises of 2.7 per cent as opposed to 1.9 per cent for the rest of the workforce. It's clear: collective bargaining works. So if the government want to do anything about seeing wages increase they will enhance the capacity of workers to bargain collectively. That, and only that, is going to see wages moving in our economy.
It's in the interests of every workplace and every business and in the economy as a whole to see wages growing. Before the recession the Reserve Bank governor said that he wanted to see wage agreements with a three in front of them, and yet a few weeks ago he conceded that we weren't going to see any wage growth at all in the next 12 months. We know the fuel that is going to get economic growth going again is more money in workers' pockets so that they can spend more money in their local economy and get the economy moving again. So if the government wanted to do something about the biggest problem confronting the workforce they would introduce bills which do the very opposite of what this legislation does. They would introduce legislation which enhances workers' ability to join their union, to bargain collectively and to get, effectively, a better slice of the national income.
The government would use their rhetorical power too. We would see the Prime Minister standing at the dispatch box and saying the words that we will never hear a Liberal Prime Minister utter: 'I think unions are good. I think unions play an important role in our workplace. I think unions play an important role in our economy. I think the solution to low wages growth is allowing unions to bargain effectively.' What an impact that would have on legislation, with the Prime Minister using the authority of his position to say, 'We've got to do this differently.' It is the biggest elephant in the smallest room: to get unions working in the national interest and moving workers' wages up, not down. This bill does the very opposite.
I'll say something about casualisation, or, more accurately, let's call it insecure work—casualisation and insecure work. Whether you're an employee or somebody working in employment-like circumstances, at least one in four Australian workers today are in insecure work. For the worker, it means they don't know from one day to the next what their pay packet is going to look like—whether they'll have a few hours work, a whole day's work or no work at all. They can't plan their week, let alone their lives. They can't get access to credit, at least not at an affordable rate, so a big bill can be an economic catastrophe for their household. They certainly cannot hope to get a home loan; no bank would loan to them, because they don't have the income or work history.
One in four Australian workers are facing this situation. Members of the government are claiming that we have a crisis in home ownership in this country, yet on their very watch we see casualisation going up, and the solutions to casualisation are nowhere to be seen. We used to see that this was just a problem for the individual—insecure work, the inability to plan their lives. But throughout the pandemic we've realised that it was not only a problem for the individual worker but also a problem for society at large. Insecure work means that a worker has to work one, two, three and sometimes even four jobs, presenting a health risk to everyone. It's not their fault, but it has a societal impact.
We all have a stake in ensuring that we do more to reduce the rate of casualisation and insecure work. I know that some on the other side say: 'Well, this is the new world. Get excited about it. We've got new app-based work.' A kid on a bike delivering a pizza at the beck and call of an app on his or her phone is not a future to get excited about. Surely Australia can do better than that. Surely Australians who have suffered so much through this pandemic can look forward to much more than that at the other end of it.
I want to say something about older workers, because this is something that this government has completely and utterly ignored. If somebody were to stand here and say that the 13 per cent youth unemployment rate in this country is a national crisis and that we must all lean into it and do something about it, they'd get stern nods from every member in this House, saying: 'Yes, 13 per cent youth unemployment is a tragedy. We must fix it.' If I were to tell you that the jobless rate for workers over the age of 65 is 20 per cent, you wouldn't believe me. But that is the fact. One in five Australians over the age of 55 and under the age of 65 is jobless. Nobody's talking about it. It's a silent crisis.
This mob over here went to the last election saying they were going to stick up for older Australians. They dropped them like a hot mouldy potato as soon as the election was in. That is one in five Australian workers discriminated against in the workplace. They take twice as long to find a job, if they're able to get an interview. If you listen to the stories of older workers, they will tell you: 'I apply for 10, 15, 20 jobs each and every week and don't even get a reply back. They see my age and they assume that my time in the workforce is done—too inflexible, too old, got no skills, not suitable.' Well, I say you're wrong. I say older workers have skills and capacity that we will be relying on, that we absolutely need.
A government member interjecting—
I hear the government minister at the bench saying he agrees. Well, I want more than your words; I want your actions, because the policies that you have introduced in this House not only don't help older workers but make the situation harder for older workers in the workplace. Let's talk, for instance, about your JobMaker plan, which provides subsidies for younger workers but discriminates against older workers. You make it a contest. You've done nothing.
A government member interjecting—
Would you like to know another policy? He's got a lot to say but not much to do. Let's make it quite clear. Stand up when my time's done and tell us exactly what you're doing for older workers, because I'll tell you what you're not doing. Older workers take twice as long to get another job, if they can find one. But the ministers over here refer to them as lounge lizards.
A government member interjecting—
He said it. Your Minister for Human Services said those very words: 'They're lounge lizards and bludgers.' They can't get a job in the workplace, and your plan to fix this is to bounce them back to $40 a day. That's your plan: twice as long on the unemployment benefit. 'They can afford to live on $40 a day, because they're only going to be unemployed for a short period of time.' Unemployment is north of six per cent. For older workers, one in five—20 per cent—are jobless. And all the government can come up with are hopeless interventions.
Well, we've got a crisis in this country, and it's about time this mob did something about it. It's a silent crisis, involving older workers, and they've got no answers for it. When they do introduce policies they make it worse. They introduce bills into this House which miss the obvious solution to the problems that we have, the big problems—low wages, high casualisation and older workers facing discrimination in a crisis—and the best they can come up with is a Prime Minister that doesn't hold a hose, hopeless policies that make things worse and IR policies which hark back to the last century and don't even solve the problems of this century. If this is the best that this mob can do, then this Prime Minister over here will face the same fate as John Howard and Stanley Melbourne Bruce. Bring it on.
An opposition member interjecting—
You should listen, comrade.
In question time today, I was astounded to hear the way in which the Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations dealt with the issue of Uber delivery drivers and the need to guarantee them a minimum wage. I know it's not within the DNA of that minister to understand and address the need of all Australians to have a minimum wage—and to be guaranteed that minimum wage—but I was absolutely astounded today. It demonstrated again the arrogance of the coalition, the don't-care attitude of the Morrison government, in particular, and their total disregard for Australian working people. To try in some way to insinuate that the plight of an Uber delivery driver was something akin to the conditions of an interstate truckie, which is what the minister attempted to do, is just an indictment.
I want to draw the attention of the House to the amendments to the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020 which have been put by the opposition. There are two points to our amendment which need to be articulated to give a sense of where this has all come from, which I will try to do. The amendment reads:
… "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—
you'd think that should be a simple test to pass, but it's not. It's something this bill fails at—
(2) further notes that the bill will make jobs less secure and result in pay cuts".
And that is what it will do.
I'm reminded, as I watch these debates, of what's gone on over the time I've been in this parliament, from the time of the Hawke and Keating governments to our current day. In the period of time that I've observed debates in this place, I have never seen the coalition—whether in opposition or in government—support improving the rights of Australian workers. Never. I've seen them introduce Work Choices and get flogged for it. I've seen them oppose mandatory superannuation. At every turn, they've done everything they possibly could to undermine and weaken the rights of Australian working people and their pay and conditions. This bill is no different.
I think it's probably a measure of the support for this bill and the embarrassment of the government that there have been six contributions, aside from the minister's, from the coalition in this debate—six. If you include the Independents' participation in this debate, the contribution from Labor has been in excess of 30. So 30 members of the Labor Party are committed to protecting and defending the rights of Australian working people, and six members of the government are prepared to come and commit themselves to undermining the rights of working people. I can only assume that the rest either nod sagely and say, 'We agree with them,' or are too embarrassed to stand up, front this parliament and support the government legislation openly, because they know—as you do, Mr Deputy Speaker—that the message to the Australian community is that you cannot trust them. You cannot trust them, because what they will do is everything they possibly can to weaken or take away the rights of Australian working people and diminish their wages.
I don't know how we can possibly accept the propositions that somehow or other this bill will improve the lot of Australian working people, because it simply will not. I've heard the contributions of many of those who have participated in this debate from the Labor side, and I have to say I concur with every one of them, oddly. We don't always agree. Well, that's not true; we always agree once we get in here! But it is true, and I want to applaud all of those Labor members who have made a contribution. It just reinforces the view that we've got a government stuck in an ideological time warp, which is yet again demonstrated by this piece of legislation.
As we know from the contributions of others, this bill makes it easier for employers to casualise jobs that would have otherwise been permanent; it makes bargaining for better pay and conditions more difficult than it already is; it allows wage cuts; it takes rights off blue-collar workers on big projects; and, sadly, it weakens the punishments for wage theft in jurisdictions where it is already deemed a criminal act. Why is it that we can put legislation into this parliament here, now, this year—having experienced the last 12 months of COVID and the sacrifices that Australian working people have made, built on the back of the work which has been done by some of the lowest-paid workers in the country, including Uber drivers, to keep the place afloat—that makes work less secure and cuts pay? Why is it that we don't have measures that create more secure jobs with a prospect of wage rises? I think it must be beyond the wit and wisdom of the government to work it out.
I want to refer if I may to the briefing note that the ACTU have prepared in relation to this legislation, in which they say:
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.
I can absolutely say, 'Hear, hear!' to that. Of course, the bill, as the ACTU has clearly demonstrated, does not represent the consensus outcome from the working group process, which was trumpeted by the government during the last 12 months and which involved the ACTU and employers, around a reasonable way to address the need to change industrial relations—not at all. The government have undermined any prospect of consensus by putting this bill to the parliament.
There are so many elements of this bill that are dreadful, but I won't go through them all. I know others have done it. But I will just make a couple of final observations, noting the time. Secure, well-paid jobs must be the priority of this government during this ongoing and unpredictable pandemic. This bill does entirely the opposite—casualisation, weakening the standards of employment, not guaranteeing minimum wage, not improving productivity and not helping the economy in any measurable way. What we're seeing here is this government, the Prime Minister and the Treasurer in concert with the Minister for Industrial Relations, using this pandemic as an excuse to lower wages and attack super.
I pay tribute to the words of and thank the member for Lingiari for his contribution today in relation to this bill, the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020. The member has been in this House for a number of years and he's seen some terrible things come and go and some terrible people come and go, as he's attested to himself, but this is some pretty awful legislation that seeks only to cut the conditions, cut the pay and cut the super of workers, all led by this ideologically driven Liberal-National coalition.
I speak against the government's fair work amendment bill today and in support of the amendment moved by the member for Watson. This is without doubt the biggest attack on Australian workers since Prime Minister John Howard's infamous Work Choices a number of years ago. This bill would make work less secure and cut the pay packets of hardworking Australians workers who are already under pressure from the pandemic recession. Without measures to create more secure jobs, without a prospect of wage rises, workers will have less capacity and confidence to spend, which will in turn suppress demand and hurt the domestic economy. So, therefore, what is the point of this legislation?
Our sisters and brothers in the union movement have sat down at the bargaining table with the government and employer groups in good faith. It was meant to be heralded as the next accord, the process of these working groups—or it was according to the government. But this bill does not in any way represent a consensus from the working group process. It's just another broken promise from a tired government clinging to the ideology of Howard's Work Choices.
Labor has stated time and time again that measures which reflected agreements from working groups would most likely be supported, but this has manifestly not occurred. The government has turned instead to its habit of ideological dogma, more interested in bowing to unreasonable demands from some employer groups and simply using the COVID crisis as leverage for garnering the support of these groups rather than seeking genuine consensus across the community.
The permanent addition of flexible work directions is proof that changes to the Fair Work Act introduced as temporary by the Liberal-National coalition were never that. This measure was originally introduced as part of the JobKeeper program and limited to employers receiving the wage subsidy. However, since then, it has continued and expanded its application well beyond the original intent.
The government say they support Australian jobs, but we know it's not true. They say it in the title of this bill—'Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill'. They try to convince you through the name of this bill that they will support Australian jobs. But where is the support for the 650 workers at the BP refinery in my electorate? That's 650 jobs lost in Kwinana during this pandemic. I note the member for Gellibrand sitting near me today has also lost jobs in his electorate with the announced closure of the Altona refinery. That's about 1,000 jobs all up. They said they were going to save 1,000 jobs. They said they support Australian jobs.
This government brought in a fuel security plan. Of the four refineries that it was supposed to be aimed at, only one took up the offer. It was such a poorly planned, badly implemented fuel security package that no-one wanted anything to do with it. It was that bad and that inadequate and had no care for the 650 workers that I represent and the more than 300 workers at Altona that the member for Gellibrand represents. Supporting Australian jobs?
There's no evidence to support the claim. In fact, I think it's in a mere two weeks that the BP refinery will close down. I'm going to go on one of the final tours. I'm not going to enjoy it—I can't. I used to go there as a kid, and I remember it. My dad was one of the first workers. I think this is a community asset, a national asset, one that is in our national interest to provide fuel security for the people of Western Australia, for the farmers of Western Australia and for the countless mining and resources industries that need the diesel fuel that's refined—or will be for about a fortnight to come—at the BP Kwinana refinery since 1956.
This government does not care about Australian jobs. They won't support the 1,000 workers now in an increasingly likely-to-be-lost industrial capacity in this country. What a legacy this government is overseeing from this pandemic! It has failed to introduce a fuel security package that will keep a refining capacity in this country, and it will watch 1,000 people lose their jobs and therefore 1,000 families be affected, along with countless small and larger businesses, including supply chain connections throughout Gellibrand and the Kwinana industrial area: chemical manufacturers, fertiliser manufacturers and shipping contractors—you name it. It's unbelievable. A printing company in my electorate is threatened with closure because BP was its biggest client. These are the ramifications of failing to help what should be a treasured national capacity but has been left to rot. Now off go BP and off go the operators from the refinery at Altona. Fuel security, which this government has touted, is just another one of those announcements it makes with absolutely no follow-up. There is a package that is yet to be used, and in the meantime we've seen 1,000 jobs lost in a quick five or six months since that announcement.
I will turn more directly to the bill at hand. We've heard from a lot of members here, and I note the lack of participation from the government. Clearly, they don't want to support the bill; they certainly won't put their names to it. It's funny what they speak on in this House. I notice the freedom of speech bill that will shut down some freedom of speech on university campuses. They'll muck around with that. They're all too happy to come in and show their ideological dogma on that, but, when it comes to actually saving casual workers and providing people in the gig economy with a minimum wage—something I note the Prime Minister wasn't really willing to support today in question time—they duck for cover. I really wonder why they bother coming. What do you do here? You won't speak on bills. You won't speak to represent workers in your electorates. I guess there must be something going on to keep you here.
I will briefly reflect on the provisions that this government, in this bill, has proposed to introduce for enterprise agreements in long-term projects. This is wage stagnation baked into legislation for eight years in a greenfields agreement, a declaration that's not disallowable in the parliament .In infrastructure terms, the projects it will allow to make such agreements are not particularly large: $250 to $500 million. These provisions will bake pay rises of about 0.01 per cent per annum into eight-year agreements, representing a very real pay cut of an unknown quantity, depending on the CPI over time. As Michele O'Neil, the ACTU president, has warned the tradespeople right across the country, 'You will have fewer rights than any other worker in Australia.' To all the tradies in Australia: you will have fewer rights than any other tradie in Australia if you are in the unfortunate position of this government's bill getting through and projects you happened to get a job on being locked into eight-year agreements. What eight-year construction projects are there? There are not that many. Snowy Hydro might be an example, and Western Sydney airport will be another one. These already have funding commitments. We already know what they are going to cost. We know the wage costs in these projects. So what's the point?
What's the point of seeking to constrain workers' wages to 0.01 per cent per annum? This is a ridiculous government that doesn't care for workers. You're choosing to bake in wage cuts in legislation for eight years to workers building the biggest and most important projects in this country. Good employers, good project managers, the people that run these infrastructure projects—