Senate debates

Wednesday, 17 March 2021


Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021; Second Reading

6:25 pm

Photo of Nick McKimNick McKim (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

As I was saying before we ran into a hard marker earlier today, when I was just getting warmed up, it's no surprise at all to see, under the cover of a pandemic, that the ideologically driven neoliberals have come in here to do the bidding of their corporate masters, and of course the people who are going to wear the pain for this are Australian workers. Before I go to the detail of the bill, let's have a look at where four or five decades of turbocharged neoliberalism has brought us to today. We are cooking the planet. The climate is breaking down around us. We are in the sixth mass extinction event in the history of the Earth. An entire generation of young Australians are being priced out of the great Australian dream of owning their own home. Millions of Australians are unemployed, underemployed or in insecure work, with women, young people and migrant workers bearing the brunt. And instead of working to increase job security, to create more jobs, to lift wages—which is what the government should be doing—they are pushing through a bill that will further entrench insecure work, will suppress wages, will give more power to businesses at the expense of workers and will undermine the role of unions. The neoliberals have an awful lot to answer for.

The pandemic has highlighted the inequality that's been allowed to flourish as a result of neoliberalism and as a result of insecure work in Australia. Casual workers were hit hardest during the pandemic, accounting for about two-thirds of the people who lost their jobs in early 2020. Those casuals who still had a job were amongst the lowest-paid and most-insecure workers, with no access to paid leave entitlements. And we can't forget the role that insecure and casual workers played in spreading COVID-19 across the country, as workers without paid sick leave were forced to choose between their health and their income. Many employers have built insecure work into their business models. While they turn a profit, workers have had no work or income security. The changes in this bill will further entrench insecure work in Australia. They will exacerbate wealth inequality in our country and in our industrial relations system.

I want to quote from Alison Pennington, from the Centre for Future Work, regarding the bill. She says:

Casual work has dominated employment growth in our post-COVID recovery. Between May and November, 62 per cent of all jobs created were casual. That's 400,000 jobs in six months, or 2,200 every day. It's the fastest growth in casual work in our history. What that shows is, first of all, that claims that there is a lack of confidence among employers to engage in hiring casual work is not credible. It also shows that the pandemic is intensifying and entrenching the use of insecure and casual work in the economy.

Instead of passing a bill that will entrench insecure work, reduce wages and increase the power of employers, we need to outlaw insecure work and ensure the right of all workers to a safe, meaningful, well-paid and secure job with good conditions. Those are the things that we should be doing.

I also want to make the point that during the pandemic Australia's billionaires did very, very well indeed, increasing their wealth on average by over 20 per cent in the year that we've been living in a global pandemic, increasing their wealth on average by over 20 per cent when hundreds of thousands of Australian workers lost their jobs, increasing their wealth on average by over 20 per cent while most of the rest of the country had to tighten our belts and do it tough. It's about time that billionaires were forced to make a bigger contribution to government funds so that we can fund the public services, the extent of public services and the quality of public services that Australian people expect from their government. We should be making the billionaires and the big corporations pay their fair share of tax so that we can provide more Australians with a dignified life and with safe and secure work and lift people out of poverty. That's what we should be doing, not bringing legislation like this one into the house.

The definition of 'casual' in this bill will give employers all the power to determine whether a worker is casual and will allow businesses to classify workers as casual at the start of their employment regardless of the number of hours they actually end up working. The bill clarifies that, to avoid any doubt, the question of whether a person is a casual employee is to be assessed on the basis of the offer of employment and the acceptance of that offer, not on the basis of any subsequent conduct of either party. There it is, colleagues: it's in black and white. Not only does this new definition do nothing to prevent the continued abuse of casual workers; it actually facilitates it by allowing businesses to hire workers as casual and give them full-time hours without requiring them to pay entitlements or provide any job security.

This is one of the great challenges facing our country today. But what do you get in this place when the agents of the big corporations and the super wealthy in the Liberal and National parties come into this place? They move legislation like this which will entrench insecure work, suppress wages and continue to ensure that millions of Australians live in poverty, in rental stress or in mortgage stress.

What we should be doing is making sure—and we do have the capacity to do this—that we put in place public policies that lift wages and that reduce and ultimately eliminate the number of Australians in casual and insecure work. We are a rich enough country to make sure that every Australian who wants a decent job can have a decent, safe and dignified job. These are not pipe dreams. These are not pie-in-the-sky philosophies. We are a wealthy enough country to generate full employment.

The number of times I hear the Liberal and National parties come into this place and talk about jobs—well, I've got to say, on their own test they are abject and epic failures. They come in here every day and talk about the importance of jobs. I've been in politics for nearly 20 years, and I've never seen the unemployment rate significantly under five per cent. We know there are large numbers of Australians who simply don't participate in the labour market because they've given up all hope of ever landing a job. We should be aiming unabashedly for full employment, where every Australian who wants to work has a job. Yet we get these hypocrites in here. They come in here every day, thump the tub and talk about jobs.

I say to the government: you've failed your own test. And why have you done that? Because you've deliberately chosen to put in place policies where the number of people who are looking for work far exceeds the number of jobs available, and you've done that in order to drive down wages. It's a simple supply-and-demand equation, and you've done it deliberately. Yet you come in here and you hypocritically bang on about how important jobs are and how jobs are your No. 1 focus. I tell you what: if jobs are your No. 1 focus, I'd hate to see what your No. 5, No. 10 or No. 20 focus issues are, because you've abjectly failed at what you describe as your No. 1 focus—that is, generating jobs in this country.

This legislation will create a new class of de facto casual workers by robbing part-time workers of hours and income security by allowing businesses to effectively treat them like casuals, with the power to increase and decrease workers' hours. The bill introduces simplified additional-hours agreements, which allow part-time workers in industries that have been hardest hit by the pandemic, such as hospitality and retail, to be employed on contracts that offer a guarantee of only 16 hours a week, with their employer able to increase their hours without paying overtime. This applies to 12 modern awards. However, the minister will have the power to make regulations to include or exclude modern awards. Workers will be forced into a false choice: to accept a contract with minimal guaranteed hours and agree to additional hours at lower pay or risk losing the job offer or additional hours to one of the over two million people who are currently unemployed or underemployed. This push from government turns what should be secure, well-paid jobs into insecure work with no guarantee of regular hours or take-home pay.

While we're cooking the planet, while the climate is breaking down around us, while a million species are on the road to extinction in the sixth mass extinction event in the history of our planet, while there is a war on nature, while an entire generation of young Australians is being priced out of the housing market because this government allows the RBA to print hundreds of millions of dollars at a time and bung it into the banks—who, instead of lending it to productive businesses, lend it to housing speculators—while we have millions of Australians in insecure work who are underemployed, many of whom are unemployed, and while all these absolutely solvable social and environmental issues exist, what do the government do? They come in here to do the bidding of their corporate masters. And why do they do that? Because they benefit from the institutionalised bribery of dirty political donations. They know that when their time is up in this place many of them will roll out the revolving door and into cushy, well-paid jobs as CEOs, senior managers and board members of those very same corporations. It is nothing other than blatant corruption; that's what it is. What we're seeing here today is yet another example of the old adage, 'If you want to know what's going on, follow the money,' and of the other adage, 'If you scratch most things in politics, the first thing you will expose is self-interest.'


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