Senate debates

Thursday, 18 March 2021


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

9:36 am

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021. There are few certainties in life; I think, as we have all lived through 2020, we certainly know that for sure. But you know one thing we can always count on? We can always count on the Liberal Party taking any opportunity they can to make it easier to exploit Australian working families. You see, despite their rhetoric, those on the other side have never been on the side of Australian working families. Most of the time they feel they need to hide it. They have to hide their contempt. They have to hide their true intentions. But there are moments when they show their true colours, what they really think and what they really want to do.

There were a couple of times when they thought they could get away with it. I was here after 2004, when John Howard won a majority in both houses and the Howard Liberals thought they were permanent and invincible. They finally had the confidence, therefore, to reveal that they were not on the side of working Australians and never had been. What did they do? They rammed through the extreme Work Choices law. Australians got the message right away and sent the Howard government packing. Since then the Liberals have been trying extra hard to hide their stripes, but their stripes don't change. Now here we are again, for a second time, with a Liberal government that feels unassailable, takes Australians for granted, feels it's permanent and thinks the collective goodwill and trust in government generated by our shared response to the pandemic means it can get away with things it never normally gets away with. Once again, the government will be proven wrong.

What the coalition have misunderstood about these times, about how we have all pulled together through this pandemic, is that Australians have seen as clearly as ever what matters. Australians want good, secure jobs with fair pay and conditions. Australians want cheaper child care. Australians want to live in a country that makes things and supports local jobs. Australians want to live in an Australia where no-one is held back and no-one is left behind. Australians want a government that's on their side. What have they got instead? Australians have a government that never delivers for anyone other than itself. They have a government that isn't on their side. They have a government that will leave hundreds of thousands of Australians behind when it ends JobKeeper this month. They have a government that makes fundamental parts of life for working families, like child care, just too expensive. They have a government of broken promises, sports rorts, dodgy self-dealing and a trillion dollars of debt with nothing to show for it. They have a government that is overseeing worsening job security and that cuts wages, as it does with this bill.

Labor has set a very simple test. We would support this legislation if it delivered secure jobs with decent pay. But the government's legislation, even with the amendments it grudgingly made, still fails that test. I will return to the provisions of the bill in a moment, but I do want to make the point that it doesn't have to be this way. Labor have set out our plan for more job security, better pay and a fairer industrial relations system. Unlike those opposite, we understand that being in secure work means people can build a future for themselves and for their families, can get a bank loan to buy a home and can take leave when they're sick or need to look after those they love, without putting their jobs at risk.

This is a better deal on offer: job security, better pay, a fairer system, having job security explicitly inserted into the Fair Work Act, rights for gig economy workers through the Fair Work Commission, having 'casual work' properly defined in law, a crackdown on cowboy labour hire firms to guarantee the proposition of same job, same pay—a pretty simple proposition—and a cap on back-to-back short-term contracts for the same role, as well as having more-secure public sector jobs by ending inappropriate temporary contracts, with government contracts to companies and organisations that offer secure work for their employees.

And of course we must tackle the gender pay gap. Labor's plan will require companies that have more than 250 employees to report their gender pay gap publicly. Our plan would prohibit pay secrecy clauses and give employees the right to disclose their pay if they want to. We will take action to address the gender pay gap in the Australian Public Service. We will ensure that the Fair Work Commission has strengthened powers to order pay increases for workers in low-paid, female-dominated industries. And we will legislate a right to 10 days paid family and domestic violence leave.

The singular driving purpose of this parliament should be how we improve the lives of the Australian people. That is why we on this side of the chamber make no apology for standing in the way of legislation that makes life harder for working Australians. And we make no apology for wanting casual workers to have the same basic workplace rights that the rest of the workplace rightly enjoys. You see, under Mr Morrison, job insecurity has worsened. Gig workers regularly get paid below the minimum wage and have unsafe conditions. What does this bill do? In an act of political opportunism, this bill uses the COVID pandemic to entrench the epidemic of job insecurity.

We know COVID-19 didn't create the problems we're seeing in our society—the inequality, the low wages and the poor working conditions, but it did shine a light onto realities that have been ignored by the government every day they have been in power. At a time when those in some of our lowest paid industries have borne the brunt of the pandemic, what thanks do they get from the Morrison government? The government thanks them, Mr Morrison thanks them, by allowing their pay to be cut—the thanks of a grateful Prime Minister! We know casual workers carried this nation through the pandemic. Do you know who they are? They're our aged-care workers, hospitality workers, retail workers, food producers and delivery drivers. Many of them are casual in name only, having essentially worked in the same role for years but without getting the sort of job security that is so fundamental to providing for themselves and their families long term.

This bill will shackle these workers into the definitions and conditions imposed on them the day they started work. Under the proposed section 15A in schedule 1 of this bill, if an employer tells a worker on day one that they are casual, then this employment definition persists and prevails, even if, through the performance of their role, the worker has a set roster and a pattern of regular and consistent hours and even if there is an expectation of ongoing and stable work. But, true to form, the Morrison government is going even further. Section 15A aims to have a retrospective application. The effect of that is that those who were wrongly classified as casual employees remain shackled to that definition irrespective of the years of work history to the contrary. So you're not only doing people over; now you're going back to do them over! This provision ignores real-world practice and turns back many years of legal precedent. Where the courts expanded the rights of workers by examining the employment relationship beyond merely what was enclosed within the express terms inside a few pages, this bill seeks to take them away.

Those opposite claim their inclusion of casual conversion provisions fixes the issue of insecure work. Do you know what? You always have to read the fine print with this government, especially with this Minister for Industrial Relations. When you read these proposed changes closely you will see that an employer is able to reject requests for conversion to part-time or full-time work on so-called reasonable grounds, and the worker can only dispute a rejection if the employer agrees to go to the Fair Work Commission for arbitration. So a casual aged-care worker requests conversion, the employer says, 'Nah, I can't do that,' and she or he has to go to the commission for arbitration. Yeah that's going to happen, isn't it! That's a good way to deal with it! There's no understanding of the disparity of power in the relationship, no understanding—or maybe, actually, they do understand, which is why they draft these provisions in this way.

On wage theft: well, this bill is consistent with the government's pattern of lagging behind the states. While wage theft provisions may, at first glance, look to be a step forward, if you are in Queensland or Victoria from 1 July they're a step back. This bill would prevail over existing state legislation, so if you're in Queensland, where fraudulent falsification of records is a crime, the bill overrides that protection. The Victorian and Queensland legislation has a 10-year maximum sentence. This bill would reduce that to four years. So for millions of Australian workers the Morrison government is reducing their protections against wage theft, reducing the deterrence to engage in it. You see, Madam Deputy President, the bill criminalises wage theft in theory only and sets a bar so high that very few prosecutions could meet it. And we know that if wage theft is not prosecuted it prevails and persists most often in the form of taking advantage of and exploiting our most vulnerable workers.

Australia's workers have demonstrated enormous good faith and solidarity through the pandemic by agreeing to greater flexibility in the workplace to help save livelihoods. These so-called JobKeeper amendments to the Fair Work Act were concessions made with the understanding that we were living in unprecedented times. They enabled businesses in receipt of JobKeeper to alter core aspects of an employee's work. They were provisions agreed to in good faith after there were decent discussions and a decent position was taken by the Australian trade union movement and those they represent. What has this government done? What they've sought to do under Mr Morrison is to take advantage of that good faith and take away protections workers have fought for and won over decades. This government wants to let businesses that never even had JobKeeper change where a worker works or even what a worker does, not during this pandemic but for two years. If that level of insecurity wasn't enough, schedule 2 of this bill plainly legislates pay cuts, enabling an employer to ask an employee to work additional hours without payment for overtime. Really? In the face of that decency, this is what you do? At a time when work is scarce and JobSeeker and JobKeeper are ending, how many workers, do you reckon, are going to be able to say no to that?

Nothing in this bill seeks to increase wages or empower workers, and the enterprise bargaining changes in particular seek to take advantage of workers by masking true intentions in complicated legal jargon—again, no surprise from this minister. We know that an agreement cannot contradict the National Employment Standards; in fact, agreements must reflect the minimums contained within those standards. What this bill seeks to do is to allow employers to insert a clause which purports that they comply with the NES but at the same time lets them include clauses which do not meet the bare minimums threshold. Even though these clauses are illegal, they remain in agreements. And, after all of that, the bill seeks to prevent a union stepping up and warning this isn't okay, because if a union hasn't been part of a bargaining process before the agreement reaches the commission there'll be no mechanism for the union to represent workers concerned. All of this adds up to less scrutiny, less transparency, worse outcomes for workers.

If these realities weren't poor enough, things are worse still for workers engaged in mayor multinational projects—construction or FIFO workers. They face the prospect of being locked into greenfields agreements for eight years without recourse. Eight years is a pretty long time. It's a pretty long time to be unable to revisit wage increases which have failed to keep up with the cost of living, or to address safety issues in the workplace, but it is what you'd expect from a government that considers suppressing wage growth to be a core objective of its economic policy.

The catchcry of this pandemic was, 'We're all in this together,' and, at the height of the pandemic, Mr Morrison established working-group processes designed to make it look like the government were interested in what working Australians wanted. They are trying to spin that this legislation is the result of working groups involving unions representing workers, but the entire movement representing working Australians opposes this bill. Do you know what the true spirit of this legislation is? It's not 'We're all in this together'; it's 'You're on your own.' Now, just as they did after John Howard's Work Choices, Australians will have a choice between a smug, tired party that govern for themselves and a government that is on their side, where no-one is held back and no-one is left behind, an Australia with job security, better pay and a fairer system—but that will come only if we elect a Labor government.


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