Monday, 22 February 2021
Matters of Public Importance
There is a job security crisis in Australia. There are more than 2.6 million casual workers in Australia. Now, we understand there is a role for casuals. We understand that permanent employment does not suit everyone and their circumstances. But, when one in four workers is casual, it raises serious issues. We have to ask ourselves: how many Australians are forgoing entitlements, like sick leave and annual leave, because it suits their lifestyle or because their type of employment is being used by employers to avoid ongoing commitments of hours, to avoid paying entitlements—the kinds of entitlements that are a betterment for the Australian workforce—or, incorrectly, to avoid paying these entitlements while extracting the same kind of value from their workforce that they have from permanent employees?
The recent court cases against WorkPac, championed by the CFMMEU, laid bare the exploitation of casuals in the workplace and that it's rampant. As Senator Roberts has repeatedly raised in this chamber, the exploitation of casual and labour hire coalminers in the Hunter Valley borders on the criminal. The government's response is to do nothing. Actually, it's worse than doing nothing. Their response is to further entrench insecure work, pushing a bill that would create a permanent class of casuals—workers who, regardless of how they are treated or the expectations placed on them, will be called casuals day in and day out—completely overturning the outcomes of the Federal Court that protect casuals' rights. It entrenches the unfair advantage being provided to those employers who see their workforce not as people deserving of fair remuneration but, rather, as numbers on a budget line item, a cost of doing business. They only care about the financial cost, not the human cost.
You only have to look at the gig economy: Dede Fredy, a father with a four-year-old son in Bali; Xiaojun Chen, whose eight-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter are in China; Chow Khai Shien, a Malaysian national whose parents and sisters are devastated; Bijoy Paul, from Bangladesh, who leaves behind his parents and sister; and Ik Wong, who had only arrived, from China, in Australia recently. These are the names of the gig workers who died in the past year, on our streets, delivering food for companies like Uber Eats and Hungry Panda. These men and workers have families. They were in families and had been the breadwinners of their families. In many cases, these companies have ignored their responsibility to train, protect and assist their workers. Hiding behind the facade of terms like 'contractors', keeping their workers at arm's length to avoid their responsibilities to safety, to a fair playing field, to fair pay and to remuneration and to be able to organise collectively.
I note that today the Attorney-General, in the House, during question time, was asked about workers' rights, minimum pay and safety. He claimed that two government commissioned reviews had found no clear link between the remuneration and safety of drivers. That was a falsehood. The first review, by Jaguar Consulting in 2014, found: 'A small number of studies have identified statistically significant relationships between driver remuneration and accident involvement.' The second, a PwC report from 2016, stated: 'Directly comparing remuneration and safety does demonstrate statistically significant correlations.' These are just two of the reports over the years that have established a link between pay and safety. Workers in transport on low rates of pay are forced to work beyond breaking point, in dangerous conditions, to make ends meet. Every year, more truck drivers die on our roads whilst this government—the one that abolished the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal—continues to ignore the link between pay and safety.
Thankfully, there are some employers and employer groups out there who are prepared to call for action, when it's needed, to help end the crisis of insecure work. The Australian Road Transport Industrial Organisation and testimony provided to the Senate inquiry last week last called for regulation of the gig economy. The chair, Peter Anderson, rightly pointed out:
The industry sees the oncoming gig economy and the way it's being managed at the moment as a threat to our standard of living and a winding back of employee protections. We would like to see a classification of the industrial relations status of a gig worker. We believe that that simple justification would then be able to lead any jurisdiction and any law in the right direction to ensure that the workers are protected accordingly.
Organisations like RTOs, employer organisations, recognise that further eroding the rights of employees and encouraging greater insecurity of work undermines the competitiveness of employers who do the right thing. It's not just insecure work; it's also the by-product of wage theft that has implications for competition in Australia.
The Senate inquiry into wage theft received 122 submissions, many of which are from employers. One in particular I will draw the Senate's attention to is the Cheesecake Shop, a franchisor with some 200 franchisee cake bakeries across Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. In their submission to the inquiry they make the point: 'Small business that are compliant face a real threat from non-compliant competitors with a lower cost base.' Businesses in their industry face a daily high rise of unfair price competition for employers who do not pay award rates and steal from their workers who don't make enterprise agreements.
As the McKell Institute firmly points out in their 2019 report, Ending wage theft: eradicating underpayment in the Australian workforce, wage theft provides an unfair competitive advantage to some companies. It says companies:
… may lose customers, tenders, and government contracts to businesses that commit wage theft and are able to offer lower prices. Particularly in industries such as hospitality and fruit picking where wages make up a large portion of costs, businesses who pay a legal wage struggle financially against those who commit wage theft.
Isn't the Liberal Party meant to be the party of business? Don't they recognise that insecure work and wage theft are tools used by unscrupulous employers to undermine the success of their competitors? Wouldn't the Liberal-National Party be up in arms, demanding to do something about those unfair operators? Of course not. They won't act to improve job security, which suggests to me that the only businesses they care about are the ones that take advantage of workers and carry out unfair practices amongst competitors.
As we enter the recovery stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no doubt we need to ensure consumer demand will be critical to our economic recovery. But consumer demand relies on confidence. Workers must have confidence in their pay cheques, in their working conditions and in meeting the rising cost of living if they're going to spend and lift demand. Those businesses who are serious about a COVID-19 recovery must understand the important role that increasing wage growth will play alongside the need to improve job security.
The crisis of job security in Australia is one that can only be met with government action. Too many employers exploit our existing system for an unfair competitive advantage. Without government action, this crisis will only get worse. That's why an Albanese-led government is committed to a plan to improve job security, one that will guarantee greater worker rights and conditions to those workers on the edges of the labour market, creating a rising tide to lift boats in the labour market and for all employers. A Labor government will make job security an objective of the Fair Work Act; extend the powers of the Fair Work Commission to include employee-like forms of work and not abandon gig workers and the casualisation of work; consider proposals for portable entitlement schemes to better support workers in secure work in consultation with business; create a fair and objective test for whether someone is truly a casual employee or not; create a clear pathway for permanent work and ensure same job, same pay, ending the practices of labour hire companies paying workers less than workers doing the same who are employed directly; and place a limit on the growing use of fixed-term contracts.