Senate debates

Thursday, 29 November 2018


Education and Employment References Committee; Report

6:09 pm

Photo of Doug CameronDoug Cameron (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Human Services) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to take note of Report No. 12, the Education and Employment Reference Committee entitled 'Wage theft? What wage theft?! I have now had an opportunity since the report was published to have a look at the coalition's dissenting report on this inquiry. Obviously those coalition senators who attended the hearings and actually heard about our most vulnerable workers in the retail sector and in government procurement areas being ripped off by unscrupulous contractors have not really taken any of the lessons of this inquiry into consideration. Their dissenting report simply says, 'We've done enough, there are enough laws in place, and basically those companies that are ripping workers off are a minority.' You hear this refrain from the coalition all the time—that it's only a minority, and even that minority are ripping workers off because they don't understand their obligations. Well, it is not good enough when Woolworths, one of the biggest, most profitable and most successful retail organisations in the country, is standing back and turning a blind eye to subcontracted workers on $7 an hour. In this economy, that is just a nonsense.

It makes me smile a bit when I see Senator Jim Molan, a substitute member on the committee, who didn't attend any of the committee hearings, actually signing off on this basic capitulation to employers in this country who rip workers off. In the report, Labor developed a number of recommendations—22 recommendations—to try to deal with the issue of vulnerable workers in this country, predominantly migrant workers, being ripped off. This is a process that has been put in place—that companies now simply contract out sections of the work that they used to do, when there used to be a very detailed and close employer-employee relationship. They contract it out. That main contractor then subcontracts—pyramid subcontracts—to an extent that the funding that was made available to the main contractor is dissipated through that pyramid subcontracting and there is absolutely no chance of some of those subcontractors further down the line being able to provide decent rates of pay, or even minimum rates of pay, or meet the legal obligations they have to the contract cleaners in that area.

This is happening not only in Woolworths but in other industries as well. In this inquiry we had reports about a contractor called Broadspectrum that was engaged by the Department of Finance to undertake work in government areas and was employing contractors that had been found to be ripping workers off—and had been fined for ripping workers off. That is a disgrace when it comes to a federal government contract. It's understandable when the coalition don't really care about vulnerable workers, when the coalition turn a blind eye to these problems, and senators like Senator Molan are defending Woolworths against workers who are being ripped off.

This inquiry came from the inquiry of the Fair Work Ombudsman into cleaners in Tasmania having their wages stolen. And since this inquiry has been finalised, Labor has received further reports, and the committee has considered further reports, of workers being ripped off in other states, such as Western Australia. So, this is not something that was isolated to Tasmania. It is a national problem, and it is a problem that this government has no concern about. In fact, the government basically says, 'Everything's okay and we've done everything we can; the Fair Work Ombudsman's there, and that'll fix the problem,' when patently it does not and workers are still being ripped off and having their wages stolen.

So, in our recommendations, we say the government should take immediate steps to protect vulnerable workers subject to wage theft and exploitation from companies who operate with impunity. Even if they are caught, what's happening now is that the Fair Work Ombudsman will do a deal with them to go back six months and repay underpayments for six months. The wages that have been stolen go back only six months, when we had examples in this inquiry where the wage theft went back to 2010. So the Fair Work Ombudsman needs to lift its game. The Fair Work Ombudsman actually needs to be a proper regulator. The Fair Work Ombudsman needs to be supported financially to make sure it can track down some of these rip-off merchants.

But the best thing that could happen is that unions get proper access to these stores and the right to look after their members, and that workers understand that the best way to make sure that they don't get ripped off is to belong to a union. We had academic evidence before this inquiry that showed clearly that, if it was the Fair Work Ombudsman that was supposedly looking after the wage theft, not many workers got looked after, but, if you were a member of a union and the union then took that issue up, that was the most successful way to make sure that workers got their wages back and were treated fairly and equitably. But we know how this government treats the union movement. We know how this government sees workers who are in unions and know that that's the best way to go. It tries to ensure that union officials can't get proper access to these workers. It puts up impediment after impediment to workers getting their wages paid properly. So we are saying that the government should take immediate steps to protect vulnerable workers.

We have also said that Woolworths should immediately reassess its methods and resources. Here is how crazy it is. Woolworths said, 'We have notified people about this.' They put ads in the Financial Review and The Australian, and they put notices up online. You'd need to be a reader in law to understand what the notices online were saying, and these are notices to vulnerable, non-English-speaking workers. It is a disgrace. Woolworths have been an absolute disgrace when it comes to looking after vulnerable workers in this country. Woolworths are the only retail store of that size and nature who continue to contract out their cleaning services to contractors who then subcontract again. Then they say, 'We'll put all of these complex, sophisticated monitoring positions in place,' and it means nothing, because Woolworths simply contract out and turn their back on the most vulnerable workers in this country. Their position was a disgrace. They had workers coming onto Woolworths sites, and they didn't know who they were. They had workers coming into Woolworths workshops without it being registered that they were there. Who knows what that could have led to? It was an absolute disgrace. But not one manager in Woolworths was disciplined or sacked or had any other action taken against them. All that happened was that workers had their wages stolen and Woolworths carried on with impunity. Woolworths need to lift their game. Woolworths need to look after their employees. Woolworths should do the same as other companies and employ directly. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.


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