Senate debates

Wednesday, 17 March 2021


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

6:40 pm

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Tourism) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021 on behalf of the many hardworking Tasmanians who are worried about the impact this legislation will have on them and their rights at work. I also wish to highlight the impact this legislation will have on the heroes in our fight against COVID-19: the aged-care and disability-care workers and other frontline health workers. This bill, which has been amply addressed through some of the contributions to this debate, does absolutely nothing to address issues around job security and exploitation—in fact, it does quite the opposite. This bill does nothing to address wage insecurity. This bill seems to assume that employers are not already casualising permanent work. This bill assumes that employers need even more flexibility with rosters. It says nothing about the certainty and security our key health and social services workers need and deserve. And all this is being done by this government, who, every time they have an opportunity, attack workers' rights, entitlements and security. They've done it before. They do it every time they get the opportunity. This time it's even worse, because they're doing it under the guise of a recovery from COVID-19. Under the guise of a recovery from COVID-19, this government is looking to increase casualisation, enable more job insecurity and cut take-home pay. That is what this bill that we are debating here today will do. If it is passed into law, it will make wages less secure, jobs less secure and take-home pay less.

As the Health Services Union said at the Senate inquiry:

When health and care workers don't have secure work, our most vulnerable community members miss out—people with a disability, older Australians and those with mental illness.

We know that is the case. It's the case now, and this bill seeks to make that position worse, exacerbate that position. What will happen is that those most vulnerable in the community will again miss out. We need look no further than the devastating evidence given to the aged-care royal commission to understand the impact that current employment practices are having on older Australians. Aged-care workers are already ending shifts in tears because they are short-staffed and overworked and haven't been able to provide the care that aged-care residents need. What is the government's answer to this? This is after the aged-care royal commission and all the evidence that has been taken and completely ignored by this government. What's the answer? To introduce legislation that will give employers even more flexibility, that will deliver increased job and wage insecurity. Our most vulnerable Australians and the hardworking Australians who care for them deserve so much better than this.

It is estimated that, currently, 40 per cent of workers are in insecure work, while more than one million of our fellow Australians are underemployed and want more work. Surely the cornerstone of any workplace relations legislation should be that workers are entitled to a fair opportunity to provide for themselves and their families. How does this bill do that? The short answer is: it doesn't. Instead, if this bill is passed, the number of people trapped in insecure work will increase. This bill further erodes the rights of casual workers and will broaden the use of casual workers throughout our economy.

This bill has come along after years of advocates and employment spokespeople talking about the casualisation of the workforce. The casualisation of the workforce is even greater, and insecurity in work is growing. It's really quite unbelievable that those on that side think this is an opportunity for them to erode those rights even more and to make casual work even greater in Australia. I'm sure that they would know how difficult it is to care for your family when you're a casual worker, how you're not able to rely on a regular pay cheque, how you're not able to access loans and how difficult it is to secure rental housing. This is the reality. This is what people are dealing with. And your answer is to make it even harder for them. I'm not really sure that you've talked to casuals and long-term casual workers who work the same hours as a permanent part-time position or even, indeed, a full-time position.

People take these jobs and accept those conditions because they need to take care of themselves and their families and to pay their bills. Let's not think that it is easy for these people. They do have issues around being able to secure rental housing and loans. This bill further erodes the rights of those casual workers and will broaden the use of casual workers throughout our economy. Casual and insecure workers experience unpredictable and fluctuating pay, limited or no access to paid leave, and insecurity over the length of their employment. It's at the whim of their employer. Wage increases are irrelevant for insecure workers if they don't have a shift the next day, week or month.

Creating and protecting secure jobs and decent working conditions should and must be our collective top priority. I don't understand why it isn't for this government—or maybe I actually do. Every time the government have had an opportunity to cut workers' entitlements, to cut workers' conditions and to cut workers' pay, they've taken it. Work Choices was the opportunity that they took. That was wholesale destruction of the industrial relations system at the time.

What we're seeing now is the government taking this opportunity under the cover of the COVID-19 recovery; they seem to think this situation should be borne by those least able to afford it. Seriously, get out there and talk to casual workers and talk to employers, because there are plenty of employers that are doing the right thing. What the government is doing is making it harder for these employees and harder for those employers that want to do the right thing by their employees. That's what you're doing right here, right now.

Instead of protecting secure jobs and decent working conditions, this bill is about the growth of casualisation, particularly in industries like hospitality. It is now clear that insecure work is not a stepping stone to permanent employment. Work practices like labour hire, sham contracting, casualisation, gig platforms and more have all thrived under this government and will now become entrenched if this bill is passed. I really hope that that is not the case, but I fear it will happen. It will be the casual workers and their families who will bear the brunt of this legislation. Just look at sham contracting: it's used by employers to disguise employment relationships as independent contracting arrangements. This is usually done so the employer can avoid responsibility for employee entitlements. These contracts are rife in the horticultural, security and cleaning sectors and in the trades. Sham contracting shifts all the additional employment costs, like insurance, onto the worker.

During COVID, Australians got to learn about the employment arrangements and conditions of private security guards. Many of the employees in this sector are overseas students. They were particularly vulnerable during the pandemic as they were excluded from the government's JobKeeper and JobSeeker arrangements—another hard-hearted action by this government. The private security sector has seen increased profitability and growing rates of employment, but that employment comes at a cost. It is a sector littered with extremely poor job and income security. Employees pay up to $1,700 to qualify as a security guard and then earn as little as $13 to $15 per hour. Little wonder they take as many shifts as they can and work across more than one location and for more than one company. I don't think anybody here would like having to bring up a family on that sort of money, or even to keep body and soul together on that sort of money. There's no superannuation, no long-service leave, no sick leave, no overtime loading, no penalty rates for working on weekends or public holidays; it's just a flat rate of $15 an hour. These workers were at the forefront of keeping our communities safe by restricting the spread of COVID.

At the heart of insecure work is the issue of power. Employers know that insecure workers have limited power to speak up and assert their rights. Without job security, workers cannot speak up without risking their job. The legislation before us today makes bargaining for better wages and conditions harder. Make no mistake; that's an actual fact. There won't be any bargaining. The legislation will allow cuts to wages. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it brutally clear that the paid work of women in sectors such as aged care and disability services is fundamental to our economic and social survival. Over 90 per cent of aged-care sector workers are female, and they will bear the brunt of this piece of legislation. That's what's going to happen. It's written to affect this group. The government knows that that is what's going to happen if this legislation is passed into law. This bill marks a return to the us-versus-them mentality that was at the heart of Work Choices. If passed, it will further entrench low wages growth. It represents a return to the let-the-market-rip approach to workplace relations that lies deep in the heart of the Liberal Party. For these reasons and for many more, this bill should be and needs to be rejected.


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