House debates

Tuesday, 23 February 2021


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

12:03 pm

Photo of David SmithDavid Smith (Bean, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Like many Labor members of this House before me, I rise to speak in this debate to place on the record my opposition to the government amendments in the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020 and why they're bad for those in the community I represent. I do that off the back of a quarter of a century working in industrial relations policy and practice in the Public Service and labour movement. I've been involved in dozens of collective bargaining negotiations and award simplification processes. I've seen a procession of acts come and go and I can smell a dog.

To call the changes amendments, although technically correct, does somewhat understate their impact on those in my community who for too long have faced no wage growth, who have faced a cut in living standards when compared to inflation, who for too long have had to scramble to find secure work, who have had to put up with being paid below the minimum award wage because of their form of employment and who for too long have had to work too many casual and contract jobs to pay the bills. Fundamentally this comes down to whether or not you support the social contract that has been substantially in place since the early years of Federation that valued the dignity of socially just work. You are either a child of HB Higgins or a child of HR Nicholls. This government sits clearly in the family tree of HR Nicholls. Workers and their families in my community deserve a better, fairer deal, and it appears they're not going to get a better deal when it comes to their working conditions from this government or any of those opposite.

As I noted in the Federation Chamber last week, before entering this House I worked as the director of Professionals Australia, advocating for and representing science and engineering workers in the private and public sector for more than a decade in both collective and individual negotiations. I've seen firsthand how power imbalances in industrial relations get in the way of genuine productivity, innovation and fairness. Prior to this, I managed industrial relations at the Australian Federal Police Association during the Work Choices era. Back then, a divisive approach to use of individual agreements and undermining of collective bargaining undermined trust in an organisation that requires it as a foundation. My experience across the labour movement tells me that this government's approach to industrial relations change is indeed wrong. This bill is another of HR Nicholls' children.

Labor's test for the bill is simple: will it create secure jobs with decent pay? The answer to this question was no in December, when these changes were first floated, and the answer is still no. Despite the colour and movement, the sleight of hand and the faux bargaining, the Minister for Industrial Relations still has on the table a bill that diminishes the rights of workers. Earlier this week the minister had three opportunities to agree that all workers deserve the minimum wage. We didn't need a cock to crow to understand his response.

The workers and families most likely to be affected by this bill are those in frontline delivery. These are the very workers who have helped us get through the COVID pandemic—the real heroes, in fact, of the pandemic. These are the people in our community who worked on the logistics lines, worked in our supermarkets, kept our community clean and worked in our health and aged-care system. The pandemic exposed the fact that too many people in this country work in low-paid, insecure employment—casuals, contractors, freelancers, labour hire workers and gig workers. These vulnerable workers, the ones who can least afford it, were the first hit and the hardest hit. Rather than taking this opportunity to learn the lessons from COVID-19 and deal with the twin problems of insecure work and flatlining wages, this government seeks to give a green light to cut wages and conditions. People in the Australian community should know it doesn't have to be this way. They should know that they deserve better.

Unfortunately, the bill will still make jobs more insecure and lead to further cuts to pay and conditions. But are we that surprised, really? This is what the government do all the time. As I said earlier, I've been around the industrial relations space for some time. Across that time I've seen time and again the Liberal agenda to drive wages down, to drive casualisation, to drive insecurity under the cover of flexibility, to make it easier to be dismissed and to reduce union engagement and representation—all under the cover of bills with misleading titles: 'more jobs, better pay', 'Work Choices' and now 'supporting Australia's jobs and economic recovery'. These bills never do what they say on the tin—to be the opposite of a model employer in the Public Service, strangling wages growth and accelerating the use of contractors, consultants and labour hire, despite the costs and consequence of webs of commercial conflicts of interest. In the bottom drawer of every coalition member's desk is a copy of Work Choices waiting to be dusted off.

To the bill itself: many on this side of the chamber have outlined the components, but let's recap. Despite protestations from those opposite, this bill makes it easier for employers to casualise jobs that would have otherwise been permanent. Under these laws, if a worker agrees to be employed as a casual at the start of their employment they remain as a casual regardless of their actual work pattern, so long as the employer employs them on the basis that they make no firm advance commitment to continuing in indefinite work according to an agreed pattern of work. In other words, any job can be casual so long as workers are desperate enough to accept it. This will foster the further spread of insecure employment without paid leave entitlements. Most importantly, it removes a big potential liability faced by employers as a result of recent court decisions under which they might have owed back pay for holidays and sick leave to employees improperly treated as casual workers. Even if a worker can somehow get their case in front of a court, if it finds that they were in fact permanent then any casual loading they receive will be offset against any permanent entitlements they are owed.

As part of the National Employment Standards, employers must make a written offer of conversion to permanent employment to casual employees after 12 months if for the last six months there has been a regular pattern of work. However, under what is proposed the employer does not have to make the offer if there are reasonable grounds not to. This makes the provision essentially meaningless and reinforces insecure work.

The bill continues the flexible work directions provision. This is a two-year provision based on the original JobKeeper stand-down directions that were introduced on the basis that they would be temporary and only connected to employers in receipt of JobKeeper. Since then the provision has been extended to so-called legacy employers, employers previously in receipt of JobKeeper. This means that, for the workplaces covered by the identified awards, the special flexibility will be available to every employer, even those who never qualified for JobKeeper, and a worker's right to stop an employer issuing unreasonable directions has been removed by stripping the power of the Fair Work Commission to arbitrate such disputes—a provision which I doubt will be temporary and which in the end, as with much in this bill, moves the power balance too far along to the employer. People deserve certainty in employment, and I cannot see how this provision does this.

The bill makes bargaining for better pay and conditions more difficult than it already is. Just look at our own staff bargaining process, stagnating even under the current rules. I will just say very briefly—it's not totally unrelated, given the recent no vote by a strong majority of staff members of parliament—that it's about time that the Minister for Finance sits down with staff and puts a better and more substantive enterprise agreement on the table. If we in this place are going to build a better culture, surely pay and conditions are a foundation for this change.

But back to the bill. Taken as a whole, the bill makes changes to enterprise agreements that amount to fewer obligations on employers and less scrutiny of bargaining, beginning with the preapproval requirements and going through to voting, with the reduction in the unions' capacity to participate in the approval process and the way the Fair Work Commission is constrained when considering and approving or not approving an agreement. The government may have put their extreme changes to the better off overall test in the bottom drawer, but the changes to enterprise bargaining will also deliver wage cuts. The changes to enterprise agreement-making amount to less transparency, less scrutiny and no obligation on employers to explain the impact of an agreement to their employees, some of whom may not have English as a first language. Does that sound familiar from this government—less transparency and less scrutiny? It's in their DNA.

The bill places restrictions on union intervention in agreement certification, which will see the Fair Work Commission approving agreements without a union that has the knowledge of the award or industry being able to make submissions as to the real impact or burden. We know that benefits from the hard work of union members in securing better pay and conditions go to all workers. We accept that, and we accept that what is good for one worker is good for all. But this is a deliberate measure to try and push unions and their hardworking teams out of the bargaining process, and it is designed to reduce scrutiny, lower pay and undermine conditions.

This bill contains a provision for greenfields agreements for medium infrastructure projects to have a nominal expiry date up to eight years away. These agreements will cut workers out of any say over their pay and working conditions, including the capacity to resolve such issues as reasonable rosters. And there's a kick-up: whilst those agreements must include annual increases on the base rate of pay, there's no minimum amount specified. So they could lock pay rises of less than one per cent per annum into the eight-year agreements, representing a real pay cut of unknown quantity for the life of the agreement. It's taken more than a decade to extinguish many of the shameful zombie agreements of the Howard era, and here again the government is looking to lock in unjust pay outcomes for a generation of unlucky workers. Once again, are we that surprised? This is a government who put to the Australian Federal Police, to its own staff and to all Public Service agencies a floating index based on the private sector wage price index as a pay measure that will entrench low wages growth in the public sector. That is how they lead by example.

This bill also weakens punishments for wage theft in jurisdictions where it's already deemed a criminal act. Once again, this is an area in need of reform but, as always, there's a catch or two.

My consideration on this bill was also about its impact on the economy across Bean and Australia. Working families don't need less employment security. Without measures to create more secure jobs with a prospect of wage rises, workers will have less capacity and confidence to spend, which, in turn, will suppress demand and hurt the domestic economy. We know locally that, when people are in more secure jobs with decent pay, they spend more. More importantly, it recognises the value of their contribution, particularly in so many frontline roles. They deserve certainty. Our local economy doesn't need less job security; it needs more. We don't need less take home pay; we need wages growth.

Last year, Labor stated that measures that reflected agreement from the working groups on industrial relations would most likely be supported. We were open to changes arising from genuine consensus, as we have always been, but that is not what has transpired with this bill. The government has ultimately reverted to type and bowed to the demands of extreme employer groups, using the COVID crisis as leverage and as shameful cover.

I am unable to support legislation that makes working conditions inferior, reduces security of employment and provides employees with less effective collective representation. Working families in Bean and across the nation have again been betrayed by this government when they needed it to be on their side. It never has been. This bill needs to be booted.

12:17 pm

Photo of Ross VastaRoss Vasta (Bonner, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to speak in support of the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020 currently before the House. It has been extremely disappointing that those opposite have chosen to lead a misinformation campaign against these meaningful amendments that have been developed with some of the most intense and inclusive consultation in recent times. The Attorney-General's industrial relations working groups brought together business, industry and union representatives to work side by side and in good faith to understand the needs of businesses and workers and to help Australia recover from the global COVID pandemic. In the past, much of our industrial relations system was built on pitting one group against another. However, the working groups aimed to change the status quo to achieve more by working together. These working groups negotiated, debated and delivered these minor but meaningful reforms, which will go before the Senate committee, and it is an absolute betrayal of their good faith to see those opposite not only backtrack on these agreed reforms so heavily but also support an aggressive misinformation campaign by the ACTU.

As Australia recovers from this global pandemic, unemployment drops and our economy gets back on track, it is somewhat disappointing to see that Labor is starting 2021 where it left off in 2020, and that is by misleading Australians. The Morrison government's aim is to put the interests of Australian workers ahead of traditional ideological positions. What a shame that those opposite have failed to reciprocate! Labor has had its eyes stuck to a rear-view mirror, claiming to be on the side of workers when clearly it's not. They are not on the side of employees who want to have stronger protections against wage underpayment. They are not on the side of casual workers who want to convert to permanent employment. They are not on the side of part-time retail and hospitality workers who want more hours but can't get them. They are not on the side of employees and employers who want to negotiate higher wages and productivity gains more quickly through a better enterprise bargaining process. The fact is that Labor is not on the side of economic recovery, jobs, lower unemployment or wage growth.

After good-faith working groups, it's in bad faith that Labor is not doing what is in the interests of all Australians during COVID, which is working in a bipartisan manner to save lives and livelihoods. As usual, those opposite are more focussed on appeasing unions by running unbelievable unthruths about what are very modest and much-needed reforms. We will not let Labor's misinformation campaign stop us from delivering a commonsense package with one goal: to help protect and create more jobs as we move out of the COVID pandemic. We will not let Labor's misinformation campaign stop us from helping casual workers convert to permanent employment. We will not let it stop us from providing mechanisms to address the decline in enterprise bargaining, which is a key driver of higher wages, and we will not let it stop us from providing part-time workers with the ability to increase their hours.

The fact is that the Morrison government's IR reforms will make it easier for businesses to create better pay and more secure jobs for all Australians. It will support people to grow their careers as they get back on their feet and aspire to start a family, buy a house, book a holiday or even start planning for their retirement.

12:21 pm

Photo of Josh WilsonJosh Wilson (Fremantle, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for the Environment) Share this | | Hansard source

That was a rare contribution by the member for Bonner! I rise to speak on the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020, which I don't support and Labor doesn't support—and I will make some remarks to that effect—and in support of the second reading amendment moved by the member for Watson. Labor people have come into the chamber over the last day and a half to talk about what is a very significant piece of legislation, because it doesn't create more secure work or fairer wages at a time when we need both of those things. That's what a responsible government would do, and this bill fails. It fails to create more secure work and fairer wages. In fact, it does the reverse.

It was interesting to hear the member for Bonner speak on this bill, particularly his final comments about a unicorns-and-rainbows version of life in which this bill would help people to grow their careers and aspire to families, mortgages and various other things. I'll just pick up some of the points mentioned. The member for Bonner talked about enabling people to get more hours. How does this bill enable people to get more hours? It does so by allowing an employer to offer more hours on the basis that the worker isn't paid overtime. That's how it works. An employer could say to somebody, 'You can work more hours if you like, on the basis that you don't receive the overtime that you're currently entitled to.' Of course, the worker may well say, 'I don't want to work those extra hours on that basis,' or the employer may simply look for workers within their organisation who are interested. But what's the effect of that? It means that the overtime people are currently entitled to isn't paid. Is that going to help someone grow their career or receive higher wages? No. It will do exactly the reverse.

What about the casual conversion—how does that work? First of all, the employer makes the decision at the outset that you are a casual. They effectively make that decision unilaterally, and that's what you will be for at least 12 months, irrespective of whether or not you work a regular pattern. Then, at the end of that time, there's the opportunity for the employee to seek to be converted to permanent employment. But the employer can deny that request on the basis of reasonable grounds, which are not very well defined. That could simply mean that the employer doesn't think that kind of work will exist in future and therefore denies that request. But what kind of recourse does an insecure worker, a casual worker, who can be terminated relatively easily, have at that point in time? They can't go off to arbitration. They would have to go to the Federal Court. How many casual employees in Australia, having made a request to be converted from casual to permanent employment, have been told: 'No, I'm sorry. I can't go along with that. I have reasonable grounds that I will keep to myself for not allowing you to make that conversion'? How is a casual worker realistically going to trot off to the courts in order to have that remedied? It is just ridiculous.

The government, in essence—and people listening to this at home should hold onto this fact—will get away with whatever it can get away with. That's a recurrent theme of the government. They will certainly do that in the IR space when it comes to wages and working conditions. A pandemic ought to be a time in which we look at workplace conditions, employment, pay and all of the other things that make up what has been Australia's approach to working life and recognise some of the shortcomings that exist and recognise some of the new challenges, like people in the gig economy. It's an opportunity to take hold of those things and make changes that are for the broad economic and social benefit of the community. But what the government will do in these circumstances—and they have done it before—is take a time of crisis and instability and use that as the basis to tilt the wheel further away from egalitarianism in this country and return to their old hobbyhorses.

We can see that in the way this bill has arrived here. The member for Bonner made quite a show of the consultation process. The government created, or confected, a set of meetings and discussions to make a show of how everyone was being engaged—'We don't want to have the adversarial approach of the past; we want to get employers and unions together in the same room.' But, at the end of the day, when the bill came forward, the substance of the bill, as you would expect from this government, is heavily weighted towards the interests of big corporations and large employers and fails to pick up many of the concerns that the unions put forward.

The intention of the government in making work less secure and holding wages down was clear with respect to the better off overall test. They wanted to get rid of the better off overall test. That was clear. They then spent some time pretending that that wasn't what they were trying to do, pretending that that wasn't actually in the text of the bill. When that didn't work any longer, when people were holding the page from the bill up in front of them to say, 'This is the part of your legislation that gets rid of the better off overall test,' they finally decided that they would use that as some kind of sacrificial change that they could make to then claim that the rest of the bill ought to be supported because it didn't do some of those things in other ways, which it of course did.

We have to look at these changes in the broader context that we've faced in Australia over the last 10 years and certainly in Australia over the last eight years under this government. The government have sought to undermine workers' pay and conditions at every turn, and they have been successful. They have been successful in undermining pay and conditions at every turn. They have presided over stagnant or falling real wages. That is a fact. Wages in Australia as a share of national income have fallen to a historic low. In fact, as a share of national income, wages have dropped below 50 per cent for the first time since 1959. So, for the first time in 61 years, wages as a share of national income have fallen below 50 per cent as a result of the fact that real wages in the economy have been flat as a tack or falling in real terms under this government.

We've seen a complete disconnection of wages from profit and productivity. Profit in parts of the economy has been really strong, and yet wages have not followed profit. Productivity in parts of the economy has been relatively strong, and yet wages have not followed those productivity gains. What we are told by the government is that, when companies do well, workers benefit and, when productivity gains are delivered, workers benefit. That's not what has happened under this government, and yet nobody will come in here and speak to this bill and explain those things. They are not matters of interpretation. You can't look at the fact that wages have fallen below 50 per cent of the economy for the first time in 61 years and say, 'That's a matter of interpretation.' It's a matter of fact that the government should come into this place and account for.

Those outcomes—falling real wages—are no accident. How do you create falling real wages? Well, you get rid of penalty rates; that's one thing. You stand by and let penalty rates disappear for some of the lowest-paid workers in Australia. You talk down wage rises; you argue against minimum wage rises at every opportunity. You attack unions; you demonise and attack unions' reputations and you restrict their ability to represent workers at every occasion. All of those things are designed to achieve lower wages for working Australians. So the fact that we've had eight years of stagnant wages and that the wage share of the economy has fallen at a time when there have been productivity and profit rises is no accident. It's as the former finance minister admitted—acknowledged—that it's a design feature of the economic management of this government.

We've also seen the growth in insecure work. The government says that their all day every day focus is on creating jobs. We know that through this pandemic 60 per cent of the jobs created since May have been casual jobs. That was described by the Centre for Future Work as by far the biggest expansion of casual employment in Australia's history. And it's another ingredient in this government's recipe for low wages: less secure work and people unable to bargain.

Members on that side—not all of them—don't seem to understand that. Perhaps their experience hasn't allowed them to see that. Perhaps their experience has been one in which they are a price maker and not a price taker. Perhaps they've been in the business or corporate world, where they go in and have a conversation with someone about what they would like to get paid—everybody is basically around the table, asking: 'You've done well, do you want to pay rise? You should get a bonus.' That's fine if you're in that sort of circumstance, but the people who we're talking about and who everyone in this place should be concerned about—who the government should be concerned about—are the people at the bottom. They never have those negotiations. They get told what they'll get paid and, if they don't like it, they get moved on. That's the nature of casual employment. It's grown under this government, and nothing that they're doing in this bill addresses that.

In fact, as I said already, there's a relatively hollow gesture in terms of casual conversion and there's an extension of the flexible work directions, which will just enable more of that flexibility. 'Flexibility' is the euphemism for insecurity. Flexibility means that workers have fewer rights, less security, less certainty and an inability to assert their own rights and interests. What does that flow through to? Lower wages; stagnant wages at best and falling real wages at worst. That's what's happened over the last eight years.

The government said that we needed flexible work directions at the beginning of the pandemic so that JobKeeper could operate. Labor was prepared to be constructive about that because it made a certain amount of sense. Then, as the economy improved to some degree and some entities came off JobKeeper, we were told that we needed to extend those flexible work directions to enable those entities which were transitioning from JobKeeper. We gave that some consideration and there was probably a bit of an argument for that. But what does this bill do? This bill takes those flexible work directions and extends them to every entity, even to entities which never needed JobKeeper—entities like Harvey Norman, which have seen their profits go up 160 per cent. They're now getting the benefit of flexible work directions. What do those flexible work directions enable? They enable employers to treat employees in a high-handed way which undermines their security and undermines their ability to be paid properly.

What else does the bill do? The bill undermines the role of unions. Unions will no longer be able to assist the Fair Work Commission in scrutinising non-union agreements that fall short of national standards. Why would you do that unless you have a philosophical and deep-seated antipathy towards unions? It means, in turn, that you don't understand the fundamental power imbalance between an individual employee and an employer. If people on that side of the House can't hold on to that in modern Australia, where have we come to?

It's the bedrock of our egalitarian way of life to recognise that an employee, by themselves, is in no position to have their interests respected and the value of their work properly reflected in an agreement that is negotiated between parties of starkly unequal power. That's what collective bargaining is all about, yet this government runs it down at every turn.

We can't accept this bill, because it's essentially using the circumstances of the pandemic to turn the wheel further away from those who have the least. That is unconscionable. It is unconscionable, especially at a time when we're trying to recover from a pandemic, that the government does a whole series of things that make life harder for casual employees, for the unions that represent them and for certain part-time employees. All of these things will only exacerbate what has been the record of this government: stagnant wages at a time of rising profits and high productivity. Wages, as a share of the national income, are at a 61-year low. It's not just bad for Australians, particularly disadvantaged Australians and families; it's bad for the economy as a whole. That's the self-defeating part of the let-the-market-rip, law-of-the-jungle, free-market-madness-run-wild approach. Our economy depends on consumption. It depends on people working hard, earning the just rewards of their labour and then having the confidence to participate in the economy. That doesn't happen when people are freaked out about losing their job and about seeing their economic position grow worse day by day, month by month, year by year. That's what this government is delivering for workers, for households and for our economy as a whole.

12:36 pm

Photo of Russell BroadbentRussell Broadbent (Monash, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

My difficulty is that I lived in the real world for nearly 35 years, really employing people. I'm reminded of one very precious employee who has just passed away. She began with me when she had very young children. She could only work a very few casual hours, which suited her. Then, a number of years later, when her children went to school, she said, 'Can I work from 9.30 till three, so I'll be there when the kids leave and when they get home?' No problem. When the kids were a little bit older, she worked full time, and she was one of the most marvellous employees you could ever have. Then there was the young girl who walked in to see me and said: 'Russell, I don't have a resume, because I haven't had a job. Can I work for you for nothing?' Of course, I put her on. She never worked for me for nothing. We paid not only the award but over the award to every one of our employees. That was an insurance policy.

Why is this bill, the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020, and everything we do on industrial relations so complicated? Why are there so many people, with so many agendas, who just want to confuse others, especially the general public? My staff at BL & BM Broadbent Drapers—or whatever we were—worked under the federal award. The federal award says, 'This is what you pay a casual employee; it's about 50 per cent higher than what you pay a permanent part-time employee, who gets all the benefits that go with being a full-time employee.' Simple. Then holiday time came, and, under that award, I had to pay all of my staff 17½ per cent more per week than when they were working in the business. It's part of the award; just accept it. It was uncomplicated: 'Here are the rules; this is what a casual is.' To me, a casual employee is someone who wants to work casually or can be called in, and, in my experience, it suited them to be a casual employee and get a higher rate of pay for the hours that they worked, as compared to those that worked full time or permanent part time. I'll say that again. A permanent part-time worker was somebody in your business who worked certain hours every week, and those hours could be varied at any time. They accepted that. More importantly, they knew what their hours would be for the week and what their wage would be for the week, and that suited them and me. On top of that, we had some 20 full-time employees, with all the benefits that accrued to them, including superannuation, sick leave, holiday pay and all the other benefits.

Now we've got to spend time putting into legislation matters between employees and employers that I thought would have been so simple. In fact, the previous speaker painted a terrible picture of employers as I know them. The most precious part of a small business is often not their stock or their product or their presentation or the building or the fit-out. It's actually their staff because, if your staff or your employees are not engaging with your customers, you don't have a business. They're the ones who engage, and they're the ones who bring the people back into the business. You can get the product and you can get the people in there, but, if you don't have the precious people to work with you, you don't have a business in small business.

Lots of businesses have only two, three or four employees, so they've got to be good. They've got to be engaging with their customers. They've got to have a relationship with their customers. These things that are so important can't be written in a bill. It says here, 'We've got to provide for those people who are doing the wrong thing.' Yet, all the time, we're bagging the thousands of employers in this country who are doing the right thing by looking after their employees and treating them as a very special part of the whole operation. That's how business works. So when we say, 'This bill provides certainty to business and employees by clearly defining what it means to be a casual employee, and giving eligible casual employees a statutory pathway to a permanent full-time job if they wish,' I would have thought that that would be a natural because, when you find a fantastic, terrific, reliable, energetic employee, you want to have them on board and in the business as much as you can. Why does it have to be defined in legislation?

I can't find anything in this legislation that the opposition shouldn't be supporting. They're trying to find parts of this legislation that they can have a fight about, and there's not a lot here to have a fight about. As far as our economic circumstances go, the fact that wages have flatlined has been the case throughout the world. We have gone through this economic difficulty and this difficult time. Every nation in the world has seen their labour market flatline. What we've had to cope with in this last 12 months has been devastating for so many small businesses and for many medium-sized businesses that have had to pull back.

As a former businessperson, I am concerned about how we will fare as we go into the next six months and the six months after that. These are going to be difficult times for this nation, and, of course, you're going to fall back on and rely on your best employees. You can have as much input yourself as you like, but you still have to rely on the employees who are the face of your business to the world. Whether you're a franchise business—a very large franchise or a small franchise—or an independent operator, you're still seeking good employees all the time. The people I meet that want a job and can't get a job are quite often older. That disappoints me greatly. I notice that some franchise businesses are going out of their way to employ older people because they're reliable, they do the job and they turn up. But too many older Australians are not getting the opportunities. I'm saying 'older Australians', but it starts to get hard at 45. That's why small businesses who know somebody who knows somebody are able to get that sort of person into a job that they wouldn't otherwise get just from a resume. Small businesses are the people that will be affected by this bill, the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020.

All the government has done here is go out of its way to put some flexibility into the marketplace to make it easier for people to get a job, to make it simpler for employees to understand what they need to do, and to make sure there's some cooperation in that whole menage that is business, especially small business. I can't talk about big business. I don't know it; I haven't experienced it. But I've experienced some terrible days in small business, because I was in business in 1990, when interest rates were 22½ per cent and business had huge downturns. We survived, but only just. Do you know why we survived? Because we had fantastic people working with us that carried us through, that were there every day, on time, working with each other and not leaving until their job was done.

If you're going to do the things that we've done as a government to extend JobKeeper and thrust into business—the decisions were made so quickly, knowing that businesses had to keep going and had to keep their relationships with their employees. That was what the JobKeeper program was all about. This bill comes in to support everything that the government was doing in its approach to COVID recovery. This bill supports that. This bill should be supported by every parliamentarian in the House; instead they're making lame excuses about why they can't possibly support this. This bill is not unreasonable when it comes to employee-employer relations. For me, it complicates things that should be a no-brainer. It complicates things that should be just a cooperative effect on a basic arrangement between employer and employee. I've always been a supporter of far more flexible industrial relations processes. Be they industry based or based on a particular sector, I don't mind, as long as both the employer and the employee are happy.

Some of the biggest failures on industrial relations haven't been with small businesses. Who have they been with? Very, very large businesses. But did we scream and go after them? No. We're not painting those huge conglomerates as out of order. Theirs was just a mistake. But, if a small-business person makes a mistake, they're painted into a corner, and that's not fair. There should be some protections built around those too, because it's a huge risk to open a business. It was hard then, and, with all the regulations we've put on business since, it's even harder now—much harder. You risk your family, mortgage your house and have a go. You end up employing people, then more, then more and then more, and when you're reasonably successful these days you pay payroll tax. We have every incentive for people not to do well in business, as far as I'm concerned, especially in our tax regime, because it's harsher on small business than on making sure the large conglomerates, who can pay a fortune, pay the minimal amount of tax. As for the small businesses, like the tyre retailers, what are they doing? They're just selling tyres; they're not in the business of minimising their tax.

This bill should be supported by this parliament. This bill should go through with cheers and roars. That's what I think about this bill. This bill is an opportunity for the opposition to show themselves to be a participant in the COVID recovery. This bill will give employees some security and employers confidence to offer secure part-time employment. What more can you want than that? That is delivered to you; it's handed to you on a platter. It's regulating your opportunity for work. Today I'd like to see a new Australia where employer and employee come together to strengthen our economy at every level and where we actually put our families first and put our nation first and put our businesses first so we can all prosper together. That was my philosophy in my business, and we were hugely successful until I came to this position, when I turned a very good business into a very small business. I've got to be honest with you; this lifestyle I chose takes its toll. But I commend every small business out there and all the employees who work with them.

I commend this bill to the House. I commend this bill to the House even when I've been in places where I haven't commended bills to the House. But I do commend this one, because I believe that we need more flexibility and more opportunity for people to work in this new time.

12:51 pm

Photo of Terri ButlerTerri Butler (Griffith, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for the Environment and Water) Share this | | Hansard source

It's a pleasure to follow the member for Monash. I was listening with great interest when he said that he had been living in the real world and then went on to describe a world in which employers are always magnanimous and reasonable; employees and other workers who are in insecure forms of work are there by choice because it's more suitable for them; and all employment relationships are based on trust, mutual caring and responsible approaches to building their business. I've got to say to the member that that sounds a lot more like la la land than the real world. And I must also say that of course there are wonderful employers and of course there are people who are in insecure forms of work because that does suit them, but that's far from a universal experience.

The member talked about the great risk of taking on a business—starting a business, employing people and taking on that risk to your own economic prosperity. It absolutely is a risk. Do you know what else is a risk? Working in a dangerous industry is a risk. I'm thinking about, for example, coalminers in my state. Over the last few days, coalminers were in a situation where the workforce had to be withdrawn from Moranbah North because of fears about work health and safety. This, of course, comes hot on the heels of last year's explosion at Grosvenor that injured five miners. It's a risk for these guys to go to work. It's a risk for people in the construction industry, which can often be very dangerous work and requires good, strong safety protections, as is the case in electricity. We know that, particularly after 2020, it was a risk for a lot of frontline health workers, aged-care workers, childcare workers and teachers to go to work. There is a lot of risk in our lives, and that seems to be becoming more and more the case. Isn't it the case that the people who face those risks deserve a fair go? They deserve secure forms of work. They deserve a government that will not use a pandemic as an opportunity to try to sneak through ideologically driven industrial relations reforms but will use it as an opportunity to realise the value of our workforces and our businesses and to work towards better settings for everyone.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020, we're just seeing the basest instincts of the coalition that are so familiar to us after decades of attempts to undermine industrial relations settings in this country. We're seeing those basest instincts come to the fore. That's exactly the case with this bill. This bill will make jobs more insecure and will lead to pay cuts; that's what this bill will do. Members opposite who've advocated for us to support this bill need to step back and think about what they're asking us to do. We don't stand for greater job insecurity. We stand for more-secure work. We stand for a fair go at work.

I mentioned the mining sector. This is a sector that is faced with significant change—obviously workplace health and safety concerns, but also the disruptive impact of automation such that it's very unclear to a lot of workers what their jobs will be in the future. It's an industry that's also facing rampant casualisation and labour hire, forms of work that do not provide the same security that permanent work does. When our leader, Anthony Albanese, gave a speech in Brisbane recently in my electorate of Griffith to talk about security at work, he talked about two coalminers, Ron and Simon. These are guys who work side by side doing the same job, but one is on labour hire and one is permanent, and their pay difference is about 20 per cent.

This isn't the Australia that we want to live in, where there's insecurity at work and where people who are doing the same job aren't getting the same pay. That's not the sort of country we should be striving to be. We should be a country where everyone has the opportunity to get secure, well-paid work and where if people are in insecure work then they are in fact there by choice. But that's just not the reality we live in right now, regardless of what the member for Monash said about his experience of the 'real world'.

As I said, the same issues of casualisation, of insecurity, of labour hire, of different pay for the same work and of the ongoing instability and uncertainty that that gives rise to for workers is happening in industry after industry, sector after sector. Why should it be the case that we, a modern nation—a nation that has at its very heart the ethos of a fair go—are in a situation where some of our most important frontline workers, people across different sectors and industries, have no choice but to accept casual work? Why should there be people who have been working in the same job for years and who are still supposedly casual workers? Why should those people not be able to get a bank loan? Why should those people not be able to plan their economic futures and the economic future of their family?

This bill lays bare the fact that the coalition will always lean towards less security, more casualisation and downward pressure on incomes for working families. That's what the coalition will always do. And they've got form. People will remember the Howard government's attempted industrial relations reforms in 1996. They'll remember, a decade later, the Work Choices so-called reforms that went through this parliament and the attempts at the time to get rid of the no-disadvantage test. And they'll remember this year, 2021, for the attempts to get rid of the better off overall test—the modern version of the no-disadvantage test. They'll remember which side fought to make it easier to cut workers' pay and which side fought against those propositions. Labor has stood up to this government in relation to its plans to undermine the operation of the better off overall test, and we will always stand up for better, more-secure jobs, for better pay and for better working conditions for working families.

The government has been embarrassed, has been exposed, in relation to its attempts to make work more insecure and to put downward pressure on wages. It is important to acknowledge that through Labor's advocacy, through the advocacy of the union movement and through the advocacy of many members of our community the government has had to make a concession in relation to this bill. But this bill is still deeply flawed. It will still make jobs more insecure, and it will still lead to pay cuts.

We've made our position on this bill very clear. Our test for this bill has always been: will it create secure jobs with decent pay? It's a pretty straightforward question. It's a pretty reasonable question. I think it's pretty regrettable to say that the answer is still no. This bill will make it easier for employers to casualise jobs that would otherwise have been permanent. It makes bargaining for better pay and conditions more difficult than it already is—and it is already very difficult under current settings. It allows wage cuts. It takes rights off blue-collar workers on big projects. It actually weakens wage theft punishments in jurisdictions where that is already deemed a criminal act. That's what this piece of legislation does. That is the legislation that the Morrison government is asking Labor to support. I think it's very clear why we can't support this legislation.

As I said, it's really disappointing to see that this government has taken the pandemic and the recession as an opportunity to ram through some of its ideological-driven industrial relations changes that have been at the heart of what this government and its predecessors have wanted to do now for decades. Clearly, the lessons of the failed reforms of the Howard government have not been learned by this government. Clearly, this government has no interest in standing up for working families. This government has no interest in supporting secure work. This government is not listening to the cries of suffering and distress from our community.

This is a government that has 1.3 million people relying on JobKeeper. They are relying on the wage subsidy that, by the way, the government didn't want to have in the first place. We had to drag the government kicking and screaming to that wage subsidy. The government knows that those people are relying on this lifeline. It knows that it's coming to an end. It has no plan to make sure that, as the economy shifts forward, all of the people relying on this lifeline are kept in work. It has got absolutely no plan for that. It has got no plan to address insecurity at work.

The government have got no plan to address the fact that wages growth has been utterly disappointing and in the doldrums now for a number of years—since well before COVID and well before the recession. Wages growth has been through the floor in this country because of the economic mismanagement of the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government. They've got no plan to address the downward pressure on wages that has been happening under their watch for eight years now. They've got no plan to address the fact that Australians are terrified about what the future holds, frankly, because of the soft economic conditions that these guys managed to engineer even before we knew about COVID across Australia.

The government have no plan for any of that, but they do have time to try to get this bill through the parliament under the cover of COVID. They do have time to try to push through their ideologically-driven intentions to put further downward pressure on wages and to try to build on their previous approach to make it easier to force people into forms of work that they do not want. As I said before, it's just not the case that every person who is in insecure work in this country is there by choice. It's just not the case.

In the current settings you've got people in the gig economy, people who are on so-called independent contracts, with very little bargaining power. The Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations throughout question time was dodging, weaving and doing everything he could to avoid being honest about the fact that there are workers in this country who are paid less than the minimum wage and their government has no intention of doing anything about that. Gig economy workers are concerned about safety at work. They have been involved in accidents and don't have the same protections as employees. Think about the fact that people are doing the same job for much less pay and that people in insecure work can't get bank loans. If you think about all of these issues then, like me, you'll just be gobsmacked about the government's approach to industrial relations.

Why aren't they coming to grips with the real problems facing households every day, whether those households are in coalmining, health services, frontline services or teaching? I think about my family members—a hospital wards man, a teacher aid and a teacher. In my family I've got people working in resources and the Public Service. They want to go to work, be safe, have some security, have a decent life and have a decent retirement with dignity. That's what people want. Why aren't those the central concerns of your government? 'It's too hard. I don't hold a hose. Sure, the important concerns of households really matter to us. They're someone else's problem though. We need to do this culture war thing. We need to do this ideology thing. That's what our focus is going to be. That's what our priority is going to be'—this is the thinking of those on the other side of this chamber. They need to take some responsibility. They need to get real. They need to stop their own internal nonsense and stop the fighting—all the stuff about people on the backbench who think there's a conspiracy in the Bureau of Meteorology to falsify climate data or a conspiracy about vaccines.

To the government: whatever random conspiracy theory people on the backbench are spouting—of course, some of them are now saying they're going to move to the crossbench—stop being distracted by all this nonsense and do something about the conditions facing working families. Working families need you to start being a real government, to stop saying, 'I don't hold a hose, mate' and to start taking responsibility for improving the lot of families and working people across this country, because the fact is you have left them behind. You have abandoned them. You have betrayed them by failing to focus on the material concerns that are affecting them every day. You might be willing to do that, but we're not willing to do that. We will stand up for secure work. We will stand up for well-paid jobs. We will stand up for a fair go. We will stand up for the concerns and the lives of people on the front line, people who are working hard, people who have managed to keep us afloat—the real heroes throughout the pandemic—and people who make our economy work every single day. The reason we will do that is, as Labor, it is our purpose, our reason for being, to stand up for working and ordinary Australians. It's why we don't get distracted by all the nonsense that affects the other side. It's why we take responsibility. It's why we want to be in government—not for our own benefit but to make life better for people across this nation every single day.

1:06 pm

Photo of Julian SimmondsJulian Simmonds (Ryan, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is my great pleasure to rise in support of the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020, this particular package of changes. It is so important. I listened to the member for Griffith's speech just now, and what strikes me is the way that she and all the other Labor MPs speaking on this bill haven't let the detail of what is in the package get in the way of what they're truly about—another good old-fashioned Labor scare campaign. It simply isn't going to work. The fact they have to dust off scare campaigns from previous elections doesn't make it any less so; in fact, it simply shows a lack of imagination on their side of the chamber.

We on this side of the House want to provide an industrial relations system that creates jobs and puts upward pressure on wages. If the member for Griffith spent less time on Twitter and more time talking to everyday Australians, she would know that that is what they want too and that, as we move around our electorates, average Australians know that, after all the support this government has provided to keep them in jobs, to keep jobs going, to support them while they find another job, that is what this government is about too.

After the year we all went through last year, in 2020, with the sacrifices that every Australian made as we tackled COVID, quite rightly there is a feeling out there in Australia—there certainly is in my electorate—that we must not let this opportunity go to waste. We must take this opportunity. Don't get me wrong; I'd wish COVID away if I could. But having had to go through it, having made the sacrifices that so many Australians have made to adapt their businesses, to adapt their families, to be resilient and to overcome, let's not waste that opportunity. Let's channel that resilience, those changes and that need to adapt into meaningful reform going forward that will benefit all Australians and, most importantly, will create secure jobs going forward. Everything in this bill is designed to allow workers and businesses to collaborate better and to deliver more jobs. It is at the centre of everything we do—not politics or political pointscoring, like the Labor MPs on the other side of the chamber do, but wages and jobs for the people we represent.

I have seen, and we have seen it in speech after speech on this bill from the Labor MPs on the other side of the chamber, that Labor are about politics over people. They are about road blocking, not road building. They are about political jibes, to get themselves on TV, over jobs. What they fail to recognise—

Mr Perrett interjecting

The member for Moreton is interjecting right now about his Facebook page—I'm not sure why that's important to Australians. The point I'm making, Member for Moreton, is just that: if you spent more time off Facebook and spent more time actually reading this legislation, you would find out that what we're trying to do with this legislation is, importantly, to fix Labor's failures. We are fixing the failures in Labor's Fair Work Act, and we're providing some important improvements for working Australians. I just do not understand why they won't support this when, in the same breath, they claim they want to support workers. Clearly their actions don't fit their rhetoric. And not only are we fixing the shortcomings of their Fair Work Act, but we've done it in consultation with industry, with unions, with all stakeholders—that's what good governments do. So, despite all that consultation, it's still surprising that Labor don't support it. I understand why they don't recognise a consultative process when they see it, like we have undertaken.

By defining what it means to be a casual employee and giving eligible casual employees a pathway to permanent full-time and part-time work if they wish, we have provided certainty to both the employee and the employer. And, as we know, certainty is so important for the jobs market. Streamlining the enterprise agreement making will drive wage growth and increase productivity as a result of the increase of agreements. And strengthening the compliance and enforcement framework—I want to come back to this point later as it's very, very important; it's something that this government is particularly focused on, the compliance and enforcement framework—in the Fair Work Act, as this bill does, will protect workers from wage underpayments.

For Labor to continue this farce, that they are for workers and yet oppose this bill, is totally ridiculous. They have lost all touch with Australian workers. They have been calling for tougher penalties for wage theft, they have been calling for a better pathway from casual to permanent work. We consulted with unions, which are at the core of the Labor Party supporter base. And, with the support of the unions, here it is, enshrined in this bill. They have been calling for it, and here it is, but now they will oppose these changes simply on ideological grounds. They are stranded on this ideological island, unable to save themselves from playing politics—even when the bill in front of them achieves things that they claim they fundamentally want.

I want to circle back now, because it's important that Australians understand the consultation that has gone on behind these changes. It is significant. The changes represent hours and hours of extensive consultation with unions, employers and industry. They tackled issues from job growth to underemployment, job security, underpayment of wages and the failure of Labor's enterprise bargaining system to drive wages and productivity growth. The Morrison government said that we wanted to see some good come out of the COVID health and economic crisis, and that we were going to put all these things that I just mentioned on a table populated by the unions and industry groups and we were going to hear everybody out and work with them. A lot of people said it was folly. Labor MPs opposite said it was folly. Yet here we have a collection of improvements that have come out of just that consultation that demonstrate not only how serious we were, not only the opportunity we can now realise out of the COVID crisis, but represent an agreement like we haven't seen before across all of these stakeholders for some time, and we have this opportunity in front of us. We genuinely hoped that 2021 would see the Labor Party adopt a more mature approach to industrial relations than we have seen and that they would recognise this opportunity in front of them and, instead of reaching straight for the old playbook to dust off some scare campaigns from many elections ago, would see and assess these changes on their merits, because they are changes that they have, indeed, called for themselves—to give them their due credit.

I want to come back to the enforcement of laws against wage underpayment, because this bill strengthens these provisions and it's something that this government is particularly passionate about. I want to talk about why the changes in this bill are so important, because this is an issue that Australia has to confront. Don't believe everything that the Labor MPs feed you, Mr Deputy Speaker. As a government, we believe that the job market, and creating jobs, is better when employees and employers work together. But we know that not every employer does the right thing and, when they don't do the right thing, they should be held to account with everything that the legislation and the parliament can muster.

This is why. In the 2019-20 financial year, the Fair Work Ombudsman recovered a record amount of money for underpaid workers: $123 million, to be precise. That was, I might add, five times the amount of money recovered by the agency under Labor's last full year in office. So we have been stronger on this issue than Labor MPs ever were in government, when they talked a heck a lot more about it. The Fair Work Ombudsman issued 952 compliance notices, recovering $7.8 million in unpaid wages. That was a 250 per cent increase on the number of compliance notices issued from the year before. They filed more than double the number of court cases compared to the year before, close to 10 per cent more than during Labor's last full year in office, and they also secured 163 per cent more court ordered penalties compared with Labor's last full year in office. They issued 603 infringement notices, an increase of seven per cent compared with the 2018-19 financial year, and recovered over $56.8 million in back payments for workers from enforceable undertakings issued. That's under this government. That's under the Morrison government, doing more than the Labor government ever did to hold rogue employers to account and to make sure that workers get the entitlements they deserve for the work they have duly done. We are already stronger on it than the Labor government and the Labor MPs ever were.

What we are asking from the Labor members opposite is to go one step further and to allow us to continue to have zero tolerance and to improve the compliance and enforcement when it comes to this. I can't put it any more simply than this: the Morrison government, I and other government MPs, will not stand for the exploitation of workers, and that absolutely includes the underpayment of wages and entitlements by any employer. Our unprecedented action to date simply demonstrates this. The government is continuing to take strong action to protect workers from underpayments, with various reforms to strengthen and enhance the existing compliance and enforcement regime contained in the Fair Work Act changes which we have before us now.

What is worse than blocking these improvements is that the Labor Party actively want to reduce protections for workers by scrapping the ABCC, which has returned millions in unpaid entitlements to thousands of workers since being re-established in 2016. So not only are they failing to support the measures in front of them today, which would allow them to stand up and say to workers—just as we are—that they don't stand for the exploitation of workers, but their policies also demonstrate that they want to go further and they want to be even more detrimental.

I conclude by saying that, as has been very clear from the remarks I've just made, I very strongly support the bill. It improves so much of what was lacking, missing or undercooked in Labor's Fair Work Act. For that reason, it is so important. It will provide more certainty. It will allow us to be tougher when it comes to the exploitation of workers. It will give workers—and employers, for that matter, which is so important—more certainty when it comes to transitioning from casual to permanent part-time or to permanent employment. In that way, as well as promoting more agreements between employees and employers, it's going to create jobs and it's going to secure more jobs, and that's what this government is all about. Australians can be assured that every day we come into this place as a government we're thinking about one thing and one thing alone, and that is them. We know that when it comes to their priorities the No. 1 priority for their families is work so that they can provide opportunities for their families.

I will pick up on one last point from Labor members opposite. I don't accept that flexibility in the workplace is inherently bad. I don't accept it, because flexibility in the workplace means choice for families. Unlike the Labor members opposite, we don't believe in telling people how to run their families. People know the best choices that need to be made for their families, and to make the best choices for their families they need flexibility, choice and options. That's what we're providing in the workplace, to make sure that there are more jobs—that more jobs are created—and that they have certainty when it comes to underpayment and tackling rogue employers. We simply ask for the support of Labor MPs opposite to help us support all Australians, as we do every day.

1:21 pm

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

I speak today on the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020. The government's intention when it introduced this bill last year was to allow employers to cut wages and to reduce the rights of their employees. That's in the coalition's DNA; they in fact even tried to do that to their own employees here in this building.

It's hard to believe that in the middle of a pandemic, when workers are already struggling to make ends meet, the government would want to encourage employers to cut the pay of workers. Think about that; think about how much compassion that entails and how much economic sense it entails. I know this sounds like an exaggeration, but how or why would a government introduce legislation that would cut the pay of workers during a pandemic? But I can say that it's no exaggeration that the bill was designed to cut wages and to reduce employees' rights at work.

How is it going to do that? The bill introduced last year suspended the better off overall test for two years for any business that's been affected by COVID-19. That's likely to be most businesses, given the disruption that occurred last year. The better off overall test is designed to protect workers' conditions. For example, if there's something in an agreement that cuts penalty rates then at some point the employer will need to increase the base rate of pay to compensate for that so the worker won't end up worse off. So for two years from when the legislation would be passed, any agreement that cuts penalty rates would not need to increase the hourly rate. That would leave the worker worse off and that is a pay cut—empirically so.

We also know from experience that even though the suspension would be for two years the effects of a suspension can hang around much longer; workers would not automatically have their pay cut reversed after the two-year suspension ends. This is a typical Liberal Party ploy. We saw similar legislation back in 2004, 2005 and 2006 when John Howard was Prime Minister—the Work Choices bill. This was the legislation that actually forced his own electorate to reject him. Under Work Choices, the no-disadvantage test, which served as a similar protection to workers' rights, was suspended. The problem is that there are still agreements in place today—zombie agreements—from that Howard-era suspension. Even though there's a technical expiry date to the suspension, if the employer hasn't agreed to a new agreement after the suspension is removed, the current agreement that leaves the worker worse off will just keep ticking along.

The government has made an amendment to this bill to remove the most obvious provision that would cut the pay of workers, the two-year suspension of the BOOT test—I know that's tautological but it's just easier to explain it! But this last-minute, desperate marketing amendment to hide the intentions of the bill still doesn't make it a good reform. The product still stinks! The Morrison government are just retreating for the sake of political expediency. They fundamentally want to cut workers' take-home pay, and they will cut workers' pay the minute they have the chance.

It reminds me of the fable that appears in the 1933 Russian novel The German Quarter, by Lev Nitoburg. A scorpion wants to cross the river but can't swim, so it asks a frog to carry it across. The frog hesitates, afraid that the scorpion might sting. The scorpion argues that if it did that, they would both drown. The frog considers this argument sensible and agrees to transport the scorpion across the river. The frog lets the scorpion climb on its back and begins to swim away. Midway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog anyway, dooming them both. The dying frog asks the scorpion, 'Why did you sting me, knowing the consequences?' to which the scorpion replies, 'I couldn't help it; it's in my nature.'

Scorpions aside, the BOOT suspension isn't the only problem with this bill; it's just the most obvious. The only test Labor and I had for this bill is: will it create secure jobs with decent pay? The answer was no in December, when the original bill was introduced, and it is still no. This bill is still a fundamental attack on the rights of workers, an attack on workers the likes of which we haven't seen since John Howard's Work Choices. Even without the extreme BOOT provisions that have been excised, the bill will still make jobs more insecure and lead to pay cuts. All this is in the context of eight years of wage stagnation—flatlining wages that have kept the Reserve Bank governor awake at night.

This is what the bill does: it makes it easier for employers to casualise jobs that would otherwise have been transitioned to permanent jobs; 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—for those who don't know the building game, they're often the industry market leaders for setting wages—and it weakens wage theft punishments in jurisdictions where wage theft was already deemed a criminal act, such as Queensland and Victoria. This bill makes work less secure and it cuts pay. It won't help the Australian economy; it will do the opposite. Without more secure jobs and without the prospect of wage rises, workers will not have the capacity or the confidence to spend.

The government set up a working group comprised of employers, industry groups, employee representatives and government to come up with a practical reform agenda. This was actually referred to by some of the preceding speakers from the coalition side. The ACTU, which was part of that Morrison government working group process, said this about the bill in front of the House right now:

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.

This is from the ACTU, who were part of the Morrison government's working group. Clearly the government have proceeded with a reform that did not have the consensus of the quoted working group. Labor always said that if measures were proposed that reflected agreement of the working group, we would most likely support the proposals. What the Morrison government has introduced does not reflect a consensus of the working group. This is the Morrison government's own working group that I'm quoting.

Sadly the government have reverted to type. They have bowed to the demands of employer groups and disgracefully are using the COVID crisis as leverage. Australian workers said to employers that they'd give them a lift over the river—over the pandemic—and this is how they repay them. The Morrison government still wants to cut workers' take-home pay. The only reason they ditched their plan to scrap the better off overall test is that they can't get it through the parliament, not because they recognise that it's fundamentally unfair. The Minister for Industrial Relations still believes the change is 'sensible and proportionate' despite it removing the safety net for workers and giving employers vastly expanded powers to cut pay and entitlements. Remember, that's in the context of flatlining wages and more money going to the profits for business. This is the reality we're dealing with right now after eight years of coalition government. There is no moral epiphany going on here when it comes to workers; they have only put forward this amendment for the sake of political expediency. It's a green washing, an advertising tactic, rather than something committed to fairness. You can be sure that at the first opportunity the Morrison government will try again. They want to cut the take-home pay of workers who are doing it tough.

This legislation before the chamber has a sting in its tail. The change to BOOT was the most egregious attack on job security and workers' pay in this bill, but it's certainly not the only one. As I said before, the Labor Party only had one test for this bill. We would support the legislation if it delivered secure jobs with decent pay. I say again: we would support the legislation if it delivered secure jobs with decent pay. The legislation before the chamber right now fails that test. The change to the BOOT test was only a political tactic. They're still fundamentally committed to cutting workers' pay, and that is why I cannot support this bill.

Photo of Llew O'BrienLlew O'Brien (Wide Bay, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 43. The debate may be resumed at a later hour. The member will have leave to continue speaking when the debate is resumed.