Senate debates

Monday, 13 August 2018



10:09 pm

Photo of Chris KetterChris Ketter (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In a few weeks time we will see the fifth anniversary of the election of the coalition government. Whilst some may see that as an opportunity to celebrate, I can assure you, Mr President, that the workers of this country will have no reason to celebrate five years under this coalition government. I think it is definitely the case that, over that period of time, the rights of workers have deteriorated through direct acts by this government to undermine the rights of workers—actions such as setting up the ABCC and the discredited Registered Organisations Commission. And let's not forget this government argued for no increase in the minimum wage.

But there are other things that this government has not done. They also explain the deterioration in the rights of workers over that five-year period. This government has seen the rise of precarious employment, labour hire employment, sham contracting and sham enterprise bargaining. All of these things are occurring under the watch of this government, and nothing is being done. This government is totally indifferent to those issues. These, of course, are issues that go to the heart of stagnant wage growth in this country. They explain why we are not seeing the levels of wage growth that we've seen in the past: the rights of workers to argue for wage increases have been diminished under this government.

Whilst the government is sitting idly by and doing nothing about some of these fundamental changes that have been occurring to our workplaces, I can assure you, Mr President, and the workers of Australia that the Labor opposition has not been idle. We have been looking at a whole range of policies to take to the next election. One I want to talk about tonight is the 'same job, same pay' policy, which is fairly and squarely aimed at addressing unfair labour hire practices. A Labor government will legislate to ensure that workers employed through labour hire companies will receive the same pay and conditions as people employed directly. Our policy is based on a simple principle: if you're doing the same job, you should get the same pay. I fail to understand how anyone could argue against that principle. At the moment, there are too many workers in Australia who are subject to unfair labour hire practices. I heard some of those stories in Gladstone recently, and I'll talk about that very soon.

Unfortunately, for too many workers, we're seeing this cycle of being employed in labour hire companies becoming a way of life. People are trapped in this form of precarious employment, so Labor has announced this policy. It's quite clear, though, that we need to consult with labour hire companies and host employers, and with unions and other stakeholders, on the details of the legislative scheme and the transitional arrangements. This is not going to be a heavy-handed approach, but we do have a fairly clear policy, and I think it's something that workers will welcome. We're also going to introduce a national labour hire licensing scheme to protect workers from exploitation and to provide an important floor on standards of employment. At a time when we see wages growth at record low levels, this is a very important issue. Wages growth is going backwards in real terms. More than half of Australian workers are in non-standard employment, including, as I said, labour hire, part-time work, fixed-term contracts, self-employment—usually in the form of sham contracting arrangements—and casual employment. This is clearly contributing to low wages growth and the erosion of labour's share of GDP.

Many listeners may not be aware that Australia actually has one of the highest rates of labour hire in the OECD. An estimated 97 per cent of labour hire employees are engaged as casuals. We all know the story, and we all know people—family and friends—who are in this form of precarious employment. We know how difficult it is for them to pay bills, to apply for home loans and to get rental property. These are all factors that are undermining people's capacity to have secure jobs with decent wages. Only a Shorten Labor government will take action to stamp out the dodgy labour hire companies and ensure workers receive a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. This is a pretty fundamental issue of importance.

Now, I put the question to those listening: what if your boss told you tomorrow that you would have to do the same job, use the same desk or workbench, work the same hours and achieve the same productivity, but from now on you'd be earning less money than the person at the next desk or workbench? How would you feel about that situation? I can assure you that that is a common situation in Central Queensland, and this labour-hire exploitation is out of control. On 25 July I co-hosted a forum on labour hire with Zac Beers, our outstanding Labor candidate for the seat of Flynn. Our special guest was Lisa Chesters, the shadow assistant minister for workplace relations. Zac Beers hit the nail on the head when he said that this issue of workers being sacked and offered their job back on reduced pay, and young people being locked out of the housing market is all over the place. The issue of unfair labour hire is out of control, and urgent action needs to be taken.

Coupled with that, of course, is the abuse of 457-style visas. All of these things come together to create a diabolical mixture which leads to subdued wages growth. So, of course, we had a very-well-attended forum on labour hire at the Gladstone Bowls Club. People came out to tell us about their stories and to hear about Labor's plan to stamp out the scourge of dodgy labour-hire practices across Central Queensland. We heard a number of stories that night of how workers are forced to stay quiet about poor conditions and safety issues for fear of not getting work if they speak up; waiting by the phone to hear about work, fearing that a missed call or saying no to a shift would result in weeks of being sent to the end of the queue; how difficult it is for a couple to get by when they're both reliant on casual labour-hire work; and workers taking second-rate pay cheques just to put food on the table for their families.

Of course, this wasn't the first time that we had heard about these stories from workers across the Flynn electorate, and Mr O'Dowd, the current member, is also totally indifferent to the plight of workers in his electorate. But in March we hosted a town hall meeting with Mr Shorten, the Labor leader, and once again with Zac Beers, our candidate, and we have put labour hire companies on notice then and now that we will be coming for them.

Following the overwhelming response to this issue at our forum with Ms Chesters, we also asked the shadow minister for trade and investment, Jason Clare, to come up to Gladstone and to sit down with local union representatives and workers affected by dodgy labour-hire arrangements. I was pleased to co-host a roundtable on 1 August at the Gladstone Library. This is an issue of extreme concern, and we need a federal Labor government to protect the rights of our workers, particularly at a time of stagnating wages growth, as I indicated.

All of these issues lead to a contribution to increasing inequality, particularly in our regional communities. We are at a crossroads in this country; we can become either more equal or less equal, and I'm committed to shining a spotlight on this issue of inequality and the inaction of the coalition government. In my role as Chair of the Senate Economics References Committee, this year I initiated an inquiry into regional inequality. The inquiry has already received 124 submissions from right across the country, close to a quarter of them from Queensland, where inequality is biting hard. I'm very pleased to announce today that the inquiry will be coming to Emerald in Queensland on 29 August 2018 for its first public hearing. We will be hearing from a range of stakeholders: universities, regional councils and other groups, and, I hope, workers as well. (Time expired)

Senate adjourned at 22:19