Senate debates

Thursday, 18 March 2021


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

10:36 am

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021, which, once again, is a very poorly titled bill. It should really be called 'supporting our big business political donor mates at the expense of ordinary Australians and workers', but honesty is not a big feature of this government. Those same big businesses have already benefited disproportionately from the tax cuts this government legislated, which are now under debate. Frankly, they already dodge paying their legal tax obligations much of the time.

Meanwhile, ordinary Australians are facing unprecedented health, housing and employment crises. Wages have stagnated for decades, and the cost of living keeps rising. We've got 40 per cent of Australians in insecure work. The thing I find most sobering is that one in four people working full-time live in poverty. The COVID pandemic has made that worse. It has further exposed the impact of insecure work on individuals and families. We all remember that people were put in the invidious position of having to decide whether to go to work when they had the sniffles because they needed money to buy dinner or whether to do the right thing, get a COVID test and isolate until they got their result but not be paid during that entire period. That was a very difficult decision for so many workers in this nation.

Casual, contract and gig economy workers have always been our most vulnerable workers. These proposed reforms will make that worse. They will entrench insecure work at a time when people can't even afford the basics, like rent and groceries. This bill will allow employers to wrongly classify permanent employees as casuals. Full-time work will become a thing of the past, because there's a new category of worker—low-hours contracts—which guarantees workers only 16 hours a week, with everything else after that completely at the whim of the employer. Workers won't be able to plan their lives or their work, and that puts them at a massive disadvantage when they're seeking to negotiate pay rises. That will lead to even further wage stagnation.

Unions will be written out of the bargaining process, which suits this government nicely, and inflexible agreements will be locked in for years. An insecure casualised workforce is also far less likely to unionise in the first place. We all know there's no better way for a worker to improve their pay and conditions than joining their union and organising collectively. This government has been trying to attack that for decades, and this bill is just the next instalment in that.

The controversy over the better off overall test shouldn't distract from the core of this bill. The dumping of the BOOT was a good step, but it doesn't change the fact that this bill, in the main, is a terrible bill. We will fight this bill every step of the way, and I'm very pleased to see that indeed some of the pivotal crossbenchers came out just an hour or so ago saying that they too will oppose the awful parts of this bill that will entrench casualisation and make insecure work and conditions even worse in this country. So, we're all watching with great attention to see whether those comments in fact hold, because, sadly, One Nation of course have done a deal with the government—as they always do. I don't know why they don't just merge and get it over and done with. But we will fight this bill every step of the way.

And the audacity of the timing of this bill: right when JobKeeper is about to be axed, right when the increased rate of JobSeeker is about to be removed entirely and when this government has come back with an absolutely pitiful increase on that—an insult of, what, $3.57 a day?—and right when insecure work is at an all-time high, they choose now to bring in a bill that will entrench and worsen insecure work. The audacity of this government knows no bounds. They have used the pandemic as a cover to bring in all the nefarious things they've been wanting to bring in for years. They've tried to get away with it, and it's up to this chamber, as the last backstop against the nastiness and the greediness of this government, to stop that and to stand up for the rights of workers in this country. I hope that when the vote occurs that is what the result will be today. Certainly the Greens will be blocking this bill.

We want to raise the minimum wage. Rather than trying to protect against further worsening, we actually want to see conditions increased and improved for all workers in this nation. We think the minimum wage should be raised, we think workers' rights and conditions should be bolstered and we think every Australian should have an opportunity for secure employment and meaningful employment, to earn what they need in order to live a good life. We are such a wealthy nation. It should be our first obligation to ensure that all our citizens can live a good life and have basic universal services provided to them and that they have the opportunity, if they wish, for secure and meaningful employment. We think we can in fact protect workers and also support small business and create the jobs of the future while investing in research and new industry. You can actually do all those things at once; they are complementary. That would of course ensure that our essential services are supported and are truly universal and that our social safety net is there for all who need it—which, sadly, is far too many.

So, we will fight this bill with everything we've got. It's kind of ironic that the government's attempt to sell this bill as 'fair and reasonable' has failed, because this is the biggest attack on workers' rights since John Howard's Work Choices. I'm proud that our party stands with workers and that many of the other parties in this place have done the same, and I want to put on record our praise for the efforts of the ACTU in fighting these latest attacks on workers' rights. Again, the proof will be in the pudding. But it's no surprise that this government is once again trying to take decisions and pass legislation that benefits big business, because big business then make generous donations to their re-election funds. It's all very lovely for the one per cent. Meanwhile ordinary Australians get worse and worse off as the gap between the haves and the have-nots—wealth inequality—continues to worsen in this nation.

Over two million Australians are either unemployed or underemployed. That is such a shameful figure. And we know that women, young people and migrant workers are bearing the brunt of that. What are you doing to fix that? Absolutely nothing. Instead of improving job security and lifting people out of poverty by lifting wages, you're pushing through a bill that will further entrench insecure work, will suppress wages, gives more power to businesses at workers' expense and, conveniently for you, further undermines the power of unions. This bill will particularly hurt women. We know that women suffered the most when COVID hit. We also know that the government tried to crow about job creation post the first wave of COVID. But it's very interesting that casual work dominated the post-COVID job increase. In fact, the figure I have here is that 62 per cent of all jobs that were created between May and November last year, post the first wave, were casual. So I'm afraid you can't really claim that you're creating jobs. You're trying to claim credit for employing more women when you're employing them on insecure, temporary, tenuous contracts with poor conditions, which this bill is going to lock in and entrench. The absolute cheek of you!

The pandemic highlighted that inequality has been flourishing for decades as a result of insecure work, and it's very interesting to contrast that with how well billionaires did in the pandemic. Just last year, in 2020, Australia's billionaires increased their wealth by 20 per cent. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs at the outset of the pandemic. I am pleased the government ultimately accepted the Greens' suggestion, which many others came on board with too, to increase JobKeeper and JobSeeker for a period, but they're dropping that now and they're dumping people back into poverty and back into insecure work; they're doubling down. Meanwhile, the billionaires are laughing all the way to the bank.

Casual workers were hit hardest during the pandemic and two-thirds of people who lost their jobs in early 2020 were casual workers. Of course, those who still had a job were amongst the lowest paid, with no access to paid leave entitlements, and the role that insecure work played in spreading COVID cannot be forgotten. Workers without paid sick leave, as I said before, had to choose between going and getting a test and isolating until they had a result, but not getting paid, or going to work. We, of course, moved for paid sick leave to be made available for casual workers, given that we were in an unprecedented global pandemic, but we got absolutely nowhere. In fact, many employers have built insecure work into their business models and, while they turn a profit, workers have had no job security and no income security. This bill will make it worse. 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 that the rights of all workers are protected in law and that they have a right to safe, meaningful, secure work with good wages and conditions.

The leader of our party, who sits in the House, is, of course, an industrial relations lawyer, so I bow to his superior expertise in examining this bill. He has identified that there are three particularly offensive impacts of this bill. The first is that it lets employers call you casual, even if you're not, and there's absolutely nothing that you can do about it. The second is that it is actually the start of a real threat to full-time working contracts, because it introduces this new form of contract where the employer can, in fact, employ you part-time but then put your hours up and down as they so wish and, again, you can't actually do anything about it. It's just unfathomable that this government is trying to ram through a bill that does such huge things to the employment contract as we understand it more broadly—and thinks it is going to get away with it under the cover of a pandemic and the recovery from same. The last thing that this bill does that the government doesn't want you to know about is that it takes an already difficult bargaining process for wages and conditions and tilts it even more in the employers' favour, making it harder for workers to ask in their workplace what they're actually entitled to.

I've talked already about the pernicious decisions that people were forced to make in the throes of the pandemic between actually being paid as casuals or isolating and getting tested, but we know that casual work has been a challenge for people the whole time, pre the pandemic, because it makes it impossible to plan your life, it makes it impossible to plan your income flow and it's a genuine threat to being able to pay the rent, pay for the groceries or manage your childcare responsibilities. The bill seeks to double down on this. It essentially says that the definition of a casual employee is that, if the employer says you're a casual, well, you are, and that's basically it. Again, this is all stacked in favour of employers and it just rides roughshod over what little rights casual workers had; they're basically going to have none if this bill passes.

The threat to full-time working contracts is an important one to note because, if at the moment you work more than 16 hours a week and you respond to a job ad that's for a job for 20 or 30 hours a week, you get all your pay and conditions on that basis, but, if you work more than that, you get overtime. Not so under this bill. There's a new form of employment contract that says that you can be employed on a minimum of 16 hours a week, but the employer can then lift you up or down unilaterally, according to their desires. You can't actually get any additional entitlements. You don't get any pay for working overtime, even though it technically should be overtime, and before this bill passes it would be considered overtime. So all of a sudden an employer doesn't have to offer a full-time contract. They can just offer a 16-hour-a-week contract and they have this massive flexibility—they might call it flexibility but it's actually just deep unfairness—to pump people up or down according to their needs, with no thought for the difficulty that that will cause for people who need to pay their rent or pay their mortgage. People won't be able to get loans, if they can even afford to buy a house with prices the way they are, because there is no certainty of income there. The banks won't loan to them.

The Reserve Bank has been saying that we want wages increased, to help get the economy moving, but this bill will further decrease wages. People are going to feel less confident about coming forward and asking for a pay rise, because the employer holds all the cards. I don't have time to go into the third aspect, but this bill is Work Choices all over again, and I beg the crossbench to stand firm on their suggestions that they will block this bill. I proudly say that the Greens will strongly oppose this bill.


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