Senate debates

Thursday, 18 March 2021


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

10:06 am

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

As my colleague and Australian Greens leader Adam Bandt has said in the other place, this Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021 does three things. The first is that it lets employers call you casual, even if you're not, and there's nothing you can do about it. The second is that it spells the beginning of the end of full-time work contracts, because it introduces into the system a new kind of contract, where the employer can employ you part time or full time and then put your hours up and down as the employer wants. Guaranteed full-time work will be a thing of the past. And the third thing—and the government doesn't tell us about this—is that it takes an already difficult process of bargaining for better wages and conditions and tilts it even further in the employer's favour. It makes it harder for people to ask for what they're entitled to in their workplace.

All three of those steps are terrible steps, but they're so consistent with this Liberal government's approach to governing. They're attacking workers, they're attacking the environment and they're attacking civil society. They're governing for their mates and not for the rest of us. They're doing everything they can to undermine anything that stands in the way of big corporations and corporate profits. Never mind that we have just been through an unprecedented global pandemic and that we're still going through that global pandemic. Never mind that we're in a climate emergency. Never mind the devastating impacts that these attacks are having on the lives of workers. They're still determined to undermine and attack workers at every turn.

Let's talk about the pandemic and the year that we've just been through—2020, the year that people want to put in the bin. That's particularly the case for people who were already on insecure and casual work, because the pandemic highlighted the inequality that's been allowed to flourish as a result of insecure work in Australia. Casual workers were hit the hardest during the pandemic. They accounted for approximately two-thirds of the people who lost their jobs in early last year. And those casuals who still had a job were amongst the lowest-paid and most insecure workers. They had no access to paid leave entitlements.

Also, we must not forget the role that insecure work played in spreading COVID-19 across the country, as workers without sick leave were forced to choose between their health or losing their income. Workers who are juggling this mix of multiple part-time jobs were of course going to fulfil their multiple part-time jobs because they needed to. They need to do that to put food on the table, and that made just the conditions—particularly if one of those casual part-time jobs was working in hotel quarantine—to spread COVID across the country. It led to the massive upswing in COVID cases early last year.

Many employers have built insecure work in to their business models and, while they turn a profit, workers have not had job or income security. It's notable that many of the richest and most powerful individuals and companies in Australia did very well out of the pandemic. Their profits increased at the same time that there was a huge amount of suffering for people doing it really tough during the pandemic. That was where we were at with our industrial relations system as it was, yet this legislation is going to make it even worse. It's going to make work even more insecure. It's going to mean that people have less security in their lives and in their jobs. The changes in this bill will further entrench insecure work in Australia and exacerbate the existing inequality in our industrial relations system. As I said, this is at a time when profits for those at the big end of town have increased.

We saw an article on the front page of a newspaper this morning about a billionaire, who was happy to be interviewed. They wanted to interview him and they said, 'Let's come and take a photo in front of your indoor pool' and this billionaire said: 'Which indoor pool? I've got three.' That's appalling. That is the reality of the inequality that is in existence in this country. At the same time as billionaires' wealth has increased during the pandemic, people on the most insecure incomes literally have not got the money to put food on the table. They are literally starving, and that is here in Australia, one of the richest countries in the world. That's not the Australia that I want to live in. I thought we had a social contract that said we were committed to moving towards equality, towards everybody having the opportunity of having a secure income, having a secure house and a roof over their head, having the ability to put food on the table to feed their kids, having the opportunity to flourish. The elements of this legislation are undermining that equality in Australia.

I want to go to some of the details of what's in this bill. The changes to definitions of casual labour will be devastating for people across the country. Workers, particularly casual workers, already face a power imbalance with their employers, and this bill will make it worse. I want to outline some of the things that the ACTU said in their submission. In terms of casual workers and more jobs being casualised, they noted that the bill will result in fewer permanent jobs with rights and an increase in the casualisation of the workforce. As I said, the casualisation of the workforce has been absolutely turbocharged in recent years. Rather than giving people more security, more permanence, it will increase the casualisation of the workforce. The ACTU said the casual conversion provisions of the bill are essentially meaningless, because the employer is not bound to offer a regular casual a permanent job if they don't think it would be reasonable to do so. The same employer can veto a worker's right to have the Fair Work Commission consider whether their decision is fair.

The bill allows employers to call a worker casual even if the job isn't casual, stripping them of entitlements such as sick leave. We know that, when people get sick, that's when the inequality in our system actually reveals itself. If you're a casual worker and you get sick then you can't afford to pay the rent and you can't afford to go out and buy food to put on the table. You'll find yourself homeless, being evicted, because you haven't got an income. This is the inequality that's already built in to our system that we should be doing something about, to actually reduce it, rather than considering legislation like this that increases that inequality. The ACTU pointed out that the bill retrospectively strips misclassified casuals of their right to leave entitlements. Even if it were acknowledged that, no, you aren't a casual worker, you're a part-time worker and you should have leave entitlements, you don't get the opportunity to get the leave entitlements. Basically, everything is stacked in the interests of the employer.

And then we have the fact that part-time work is going to be casualised under this bill. It would cut the rights and the take-home pay of part-time workers, effectively turning part-time workers into casuals and putting enormous pressure on them to accept extra hours with little notice and no overtime. Think of the consequences of that for women in particular, and particularly for women who have got kids in child care. You don't have childcare places that say: 'You've got work today? Fine! Bring your children in.' You don't. You have to commit to a number of particular days, particular hours for your child care—and you've got to pay for them.

The mismatch between childcare provisions and casualised work is enormous. If you've got workers who haven't got child care and who are basically told, 'You've got to turn up for work,' or, 'You've got to work an extra few hours,' what do they do? It creates a huge clash between peoples' family responsibilities and their work requirements. If we want to allow women in our country to flourish, to manage and juggle both their family responsibilities and their work responsibilities, then we've got to give them security. We've got to give them the ability to know that here are their hours of work so that they can organise their lives, they can organise their child care around those hours of work so that both they and their children can flourish. These cuts can be imposed upon any part-time worker under any award by regulation.

I think it is also worth reflecting upon whom in our society these provisions are particularly going to affect. Who are the people most likely to be impacted by these provisions? They are migrant workers and they are younger workers. Migrant workers are already much more likely to be part of the underpaid casualised workforce. These provisions reduce their bargaining power immensely. It's basically a racist provision, because we know it is going to be impacting on people of colour much more than people who have had the privilege of being in secure work already.

The provisions are also going to impact on younger people. Younger people were the ones who overwhelmingly lost their jobs during the pandemic. It is younger people who still have skyrocketing rates of unemployment. And even though the economy is kicking back into action now, younger people look at their prospects for work and they think, 'Where are the jobs?' Younger people are juggling studying and working. They are working in jobs in hospitality, for example, and those jobs just aren't there yet. They are the people who are going to be most affected by this. This is happening at a time when young people are finishing their studies and looking for work and, at the same time, looking for some security for their futures. They want to look forward. If they've found a partner and they're thinking about having a family, or they're thinking it would be nice to move out of the household they're sharing with eight other people into a house where they can settle down, but they can't do that if they haven't got secure work. They can't do that if they don't know whether they are going to be able to pay the rent, let alone a mortgage.

For the young people that I know, the friends and colleagues of my two children in their 20s, the idea that they will ever have the security of employment to be able to pay a mortgage, to own a house—they laugh at you. And this is in Australia. This is Australia, one of the richest countries in the world. We can do better than this. We can give people job security. We can give people a sense of hope about the future but not if you have legislation like this that just exacerbates the existing inequalities, exacerbates that huge divide between those with power in our society and those without.

This is just such a backwards bit of legislation. It is so much not in the interests of the future of Australia. We know that how we are going to develop as a country depends upon having people who have that sense of hope for the future. It depends upon people feeling like they are being treated fairly. Having the basics of being able to have a secure roof over their heads, having the basics of being able to know they can put food on the table—that's what gives them the ability to then be able to contribute to the country, to be able to really work together. If you haven't got those basics, if you're struggling to just survive, then life is just really difficult. There is no way that you can get people who are struggling to put food on the table and struggling to not be homeless to engage in the political process, for example. It's just completely out of the question.

We can do better than this, and we must do better than this. There is hope, given the wealth of this country, with a commitment to equality and with a commitment to working in the interests of all in this country, of stopping this rush towards inequality and of building a better future for us all, where everybody is valued, where everybody has the opportunity to flourish, where everybody who wants a job is able to get a job that has secure conditions, that is well paid and that is doing something that's of use for society and that they can feel proud about. We can do this in this country, but not with legislation like this, not with the ideological commitment to increasing the power of the already rich and wealthy against the interests of those who haven't got the power in our society.

I really urge particularly all of the crossbench—and it sounds like we are in a position to defeat this legislation; I hope this legislation will be defeated in the Senate today. It is what's needed. Then we can go back to the drawing board and start building legislation that makes our industrial relations system fairer for all Australians. (Time expired)


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