Senate debates

Monday, 22 February 2021

Matters of Public Importance

Job Security

4:17 pm

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I inform the Senate that, at 8.30 am today, 26 proposals were received in accordance with standing order 75. The question of which proposal would be submitted to the Senate was determined by lot. As a result, I inform the Senate that the following letter has been received from Senator Green:

Pursuant to standing order 75, I propose that the following matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion:

The Morrison Government's failure to address job security is giving companies that exploit workers an unfair advantage against honest employers.

Is the proposal supported?

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in today's debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.

4:18 pm

Photo of Nita GreenNita Green (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This is a very important motion for the Senate to be discussing today as we seek to rebuild and recover from the coronavirus pandemic. From an economic point of view, what the coronavirus pandemic has shown us is that insecure work can have a significant impact not only on our economy, not only on our society, but also on our public health.

The Morrison government's failure to address job security is giving companies that exploit workers an unfair advantage against honest employees. We know that there are good businesses out there that do the right thing. There are a lot of good businesses that are trying to keep up, but this government's policies have allowed other businesses to exploit workers and undercut good businesses. Not only do the policies of this government hurt workers but they hurt businesses that are doing the right thing.

There are many examples of exploitation of workers in our country and a few come to mind. Of course, wage theft is one of the biggest ways that workers are exploit. The wage theft laws we have in Queensland at the moment were introduced by the Palaszczuk Labor government in its last term of government. They were fought for incredibly hard by the union movement, by young workers. The Young Workers Hub in Queensland did a fantastic job of communicating to young people out there why these wage theft laws were necessary, because time and time and time again we saw that the policies from this government were allowing wage theft to occur in businesses all across Queensland. It was particularly rampant with young workers and particularly rampant in places in South East Queensland, where wage theft went unchecked.

In my previous employment I worked for the AMWU and we had apprentices who had suffered from wage theft. It's a complicated process to go through to get back that money. But the Queensland Labor government's criminalisation of wage theft means that those workers are now protected and those bad businesses are on notice that they cannot get away with wage theft anymore.

The government has introduced a bill that purports to deal with this issue in some sort of way. But, make no mistake about it, the federal government's policies will water down the hard-fought wage theft laws in Queensland, because they're not as strong as the Queensland laws. So when you hear those opposite talk about the fact that they want to introduce laws to criminalise wage theft or do something about wage theft, something they should have done in every other year of their government, be very clear about what these laws will do. If they will water down the hard-fought wage theft laws in Queensland then they're not good enough, and the Senate shouldn't pass them. Those opposite should not try to mislead people in Queensland that their laws are as strong as the ones already in place.

The other form of exploitation that we see most often in Queensland is the use of labour hire to undercut workers' pay. This comes back to this idea that good businesses do the right thing; they employ workers directly and they pay them on a permanent basis. But you've got some businesses out there who, under this government's policies, have seen labour hire as a loophole. Dodgy labour hire companies are used as a loophole to reduce the wages and conditions of hardworking Queenslanders. Businesses that do this get away with it because this government has continually not stood up to those businesses. It has become so rampant that now it is a business model in some parts of Queensland to employ your workforce under labour hire arrangements, sometimes as casual workers, sometimes on short-term contracts. But how can good businesses compete when other businesses are using labour hire arrangements to undercut workers' pay and conditions? Well, they simply can't. And this government has let businesses like that get away with it.

I often hear comments from the various LNP MPs and senators from Queensland in this place and in the House of Representatives come down here and say one thing but, once they get back to Queensland, it's a totally different story Because they have been under pressure from the labour movement and from the Labor Party over the last seven years to do something about labour hire. We had George Christensen out there in 2018 saying that mining companies need to start shifting away from labour hire as unemployment rates plummet or risk being unable to attract workers. He is happy to say something like that when he's standing up in Central Queensland but not happy to come down here and do anything about it. Senator Canavan, we know, has got a real flair for dressing up as a miner and smudging make-up on his face and pretending he cares about the plight of working people. He has said, 'In my short time in politics I have had to fight against 100 per cent FIFO and the increasing casualisation of the industry.' He hasn't fought very hard, because it is still going on. They can make statements like that up in Central Queensland and North Queensland, but, when it comes to being here, it's the policies they implement that are letting companies get away with this exploitation.

Scott Morrison was asked in question time what he thought about these arrangements and whether, if you're working next to someone and doing the same job, you should get the same pay and workplace conditions. But he wasn't really able to answer that question, was he? The first time, he refused to answer the question altogether. The second time, he just said, 'It's complicated.' That's exactly what Christian Porter said last week when he was asked whether gig workers should get the minimum wage: 'It's complicated.' It's too complicated for this government to do the right thing, to step in and protect workers and the good businesses that choose not to exploit them.

We know there have been many examples of exploitation in Far North Queensland and Central Queensland. There was the Operations Services debacle, where BHP literally went out and created a new EBA, got a couple of people in Western Australia to sign up to it, even though it was less than the EBA in Central Queensland, and then sought to apply that EBA, which no-one had ever seen, to the thousands of workers in Central Queensland. And this government's policies have let them get away with it. We know there was a Federal Court case that tried to intervene, to make sure that people who were permanent casuals would have protection under the law. What did the government do? They intervened in the court case, not on the side of the workers but on the side of big businesses and the company that was seeking to exploit workers.

Labor thinks that if you do the same job you should get the same pay. It's pretty simple. I can come in here and say that but the senators opposite cannot. Labor has a policy to make sure that if you do the same job you get the same pay. At the moment, there are too many workers in Australia subject to unfair labour hire practices. They're treated like second-class citizens, with lower wages, worse conditions and no job security. While there are workers who like the flexibility that labour hire provides, often it's not their choice—not their first choice, anyway. Their first choice would be to have job security, to get a good job, to be able to get a mortgage, to plan holidays with their family, to plan for the financial security of their family. Because of this government's policies, they're not able to do that.

Labor in government will legislate to ensure that workers employed through labour hire or other employment arrangements, such as outsourcing, will not receive less pay than workers employed directly. It's a pretty simple idea. Labor's on the side of workers who have been exploited through labour hire under this government's policies.

4:28 pm

Photo of Susan McDonaldSusan McDonald (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Labor lecturing the government on jobs is like someone burning sausages on a backyard barbecue telling Gordon Ramsay he's running his food empire badly. They don't know what it's like to navigate the reams of legislation and numerous pitfalls involved with awards and human resources. They don't understand the daily stress of ensuring that there's enough work coming through the door, managing cash flow and creditors. They've never had to worry about a militant union accusing them of wage theft because of a simple, innocent error in applying one of the myriad award rates. Labor is the anti-jobs party, and never has the old adage 'There's no U in Labor' been more true.

In my home state of Queensland the Labor Party has for years refused to approve an expansion of the New Acland coalmine, forcing the loss of scores of good, high-paying jobs around Toowoomba. This is even worse when a majority of the surrounding residents want the expansion to go ahead. Let's not forget the Adani Carmichael mine in Central Queensland, a project that promises and is delivering stable, high-paying jobs and also hope for the small towns nearby that were facing a bleak future as the blue-collar jobs they were built on became despised by the new Labor Party. I travel regularly to regional areas to talk to employers and employees, and I can say unequivocally that schemes like JobKeeper, and the changes to IR rules that go with it, were a godsend for both parties.

The other thing we always hear from rural and regional Queensland is that people can't remember the last time they had a visit from Labor politicians at a state or federal level. Rather than parroting lines given to them by union hacks, I encourage those opposite and the Queensland Labor state government to get out, to go west and north, and listen to the people at the front lines. For Senator Green, it is all pretty simple. But where is the support—not taxes, but support—for those people who actually create jobs? Because it is small business that is the lifeblood of our economy and Australia's biggest employer. Unlike Labor, the coalition wants people to earn more money and keep more of it. We are the parties of creating jobs and giving people the chance to prosper through their hard work. We have also established the Disability Employment Advisory Committee to give even more people in our society the chance to experience the dignity of real work and the ability to earn a wage and have control over their future.

Senator Sterle, who is one of the few on that side who often makes a lot of sense, said just today that everything has the word 'job' in front of it—JobSeeker, JobKeeper, JobMaker and JobTrainer. And he is right. It's because this government puts jobs in front of everything. This government understands jobs are hard fought for, they cost blood, sweat and tears and they are not created by some magical fairy dust as Labor would have you believe. The Morrison-McCormack government has always had zero tolerance of exploitation of workers. That includes the underpayment of wages and entitlements by any employer. That's why the Fair Work Ombudsman is continuing to take strong action on behalf of workers despite the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019-20 the Fair Work Ombudsman recovered a record amount of money for underpaid workers—$123 million to be precise. They issued 952 compliance notices, recovering $7.8 million in unpaid wages. That is a 250 per cent increase on the number of compliance notices in the previous year. They filed 20 court cases in 2019—more than double the number filed in 2018-19 and close to 10 per cent more than during Labor's last full year in office—and also secured 163 per cent more in court-ordered penalties in 2019-20 than Labor in its last full year in office. They issued 603 infringement notices, an increase of seven per cent compared with the previous financial year, and recovered over $56.8 million in back payments for workers from enforceable undertakings issued.

The commitment of the Morrison-McCormack government to this vital cause has remained unscathed despite a global pandemic, evidenced by the fact that within the first six months of 2020-21 the Fair Work Ombudsman has recovered almost $80 million for over 31,000 employees, filed 37 litigations and entered into 12 enforceable undertakings. Moreover, through legislation that is currently before this parliament, the Morrison-McCormack government understands that it is government's responsibility to ensure that an environment exists where Australians can both seek to be employed and be employed. Never has it been more important that this be emphasised given we are undertaking an economic comeback out of COVID-19.

The amendment to the fair work amendment will ensure people can gain employment, stay in employment and thrive in employment. The fact of the matter is that, given the current economic environment, businesses, in order to remain competitive in an uncertain and unstable global market, must have the necessary flexibility available to them, acknowledging the special circumstances in which we find ourselves in these COVID times. That's why the government will legislate a two-year extension on temporary JobKeeper flexibilities to businesses in identified industries that have been hardest hit by the pandemic, giving employers confidence to offer part-time employment and additional hours to employees and promote flexibility and efficiency.

The Morrison-McCormack government remains committed, as it always has been, to the assurance of a zero-tolerance approach to any exploitation of workers. The Morrison-McCormack government likewise understands the role it must play in ensuring Australians are able to seek to employ and seek to be employed. It is only the creation of real jobs by sustainable businesses that cannot just survive but thrive that will ensure certainty for employees. That should be the focus of us all as we move forward—ensuring that employers are well supported, well resourced and understand that the government seeks to encourage the activities that will mean that they can employ more people, that they have the confidence to employ, firstly, casual people and then move them to permanent part time and then full time, as they feel confident that the work remains for those people, that they can support a line of business coming through the door, that they can manage their creditors and that they can survive in an increasingly regulated environment. Those are the jobs that are genuine, real and should be supported at all costs.

I hear Senator Green and others talk about jobs as if they are created magically. It is not the case. Those people on the other side who have ever run a business will have had to go through the stress and worry of the commitment to employ someone, of making that decision—'Will I have enough work for them? Will I be able to pay them every week?' The focus for this economy, for this government, is to ensure that those jobs are real, that those employees have certainty and confidence. Yet once again we will hear from Labor about the fantasy of wanting to support jobs but not wanting to support employers, not wanting to walk a day in their shoes, not wanting to understand just how difficult it is to make those commitments to people, to mortgage your home, to pay everybody else before you pay yourself—because that's the way it is for most small businesses. Most small businesses survive, on average, for seven years, because they are exhausted by regulation, by ensuring there is work coming through the door, by surviving economic upturns and downturns, by managing seasons, if they're in agriculture, and by managing demand, not to mention a pandemic. And yet we once again have Labor wanting to talk about the negative side of employment as opposed to supporting businesses. I'm talking not about taxing business but about supporting business. I would encourage them to walk a mile in the shoes of small business.

4:38 pm

Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As an Australian who has been elected to serve the people of Queensland and Australia, I'm very proud to say that I have worked in many countries and I am genuinely proud of Australian workers. We have a phenomenal human resource in this country, unequalled anywhere in the world—the initiative, the hard work, the honesty and the integrity of workers in this country, and of many businesses in this country, especially small businesses, which are the engine room of our economy. More people are employed in small business than in any other sector of the economy. We need to get back the dynamism that has been lost in Australia—lost largely because of the decisions that come out of this building.

The MPI is 'The Morrison government's failure to address job security is giving companies that exploit workers an unfair advantage against honest employers.' Let me talk about the example in the Hunter Valley of the exploitation, the abuse and the casual discarding of people who are tossed on the scrap heap when they're burnt out. Casuals have been exploited in the Hunter Valley by BHP, a major mining company, and Chandler Macleod Group, one of the world's largest labour hire firms, an offshoot of Recruit Holdings from Japan, with the complicity of the Hunter Valley division of the CFMEU. It would not have happened without all three being complicit and working together.

But let's go back to the root cause. The root of casualisation started in small business because employers were so confused by the complexity of hiring people and so confused by the complexity when there was a problem to discuss, so they went to employing casuals because it became too hard to deal with disciplinary issues in small business. Quite often we see a small business having problems with an employee who's stolen something from their business, and the small business owner then simply trying to address that ends up just paying $8,000 or $10,000. We heard last week from COSBOA, the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia, about some companies, some small businesses, paying $20,000 in shut-up money for problems to go away. One of the root causes of the insecurity in this country is the highly complex, needlessly complex and destructive industrial relations situation. Then what we saw was large companies taking the small business model and using casuals for a 'try before we buy'. In other words, they would watch the casual worker on their mine site, in their business, and if he or she came up with the goods then they would hire them. That has led to extreme abuse of workers in this country. It's led to safety hazards, which I have complained about in my submission to the Grosvenor inquiry. But in the Hunter Valley it led to miners being intimidated and being threatened with the loss of their jobs if they reported safety incidents. How stupid is a company when that happens? They're losing that prime source of information about their company.

I want to give Mr Bukarica, the national legal adviser for the CFMEU mining division, a huge compliment. In Townsville he had the guts, the integrity and the courage to acknowledge that the Hunter Valley CFMEU is part of the problem at those mines in the Hunter Valley because they enabled casualisation to happen. I also want to give him praise because he said that the CFMEU has not done enough for casuals. Indeed, they have caused the casual issue in the Hunter Valley and the casual abuse of casuals. And he's admitted that his union will need to do more about it.

So what we see is the mess that's been created in the past by labour laws that have become far too complex and by the Liberals not addressing this issue in 2016 when they should have. Casuals show us the pain of people at work. Casuals are also a sign of the failed industrial relations situation—no getting away from it. What the government is doing in its latest industrial relations legislation, proposed to come before the Senate next month, is shifting the liability for that mess from large business to small business. They're helping a couple of large companies manage their risk.

We've approached this differently. We've gone out to listen. We've written to 80 different organisations—employers, employee groups, unions, union bosses, welfare associations, organisations, small business groups—and we've asked them for their advice, their views. They have come and given us their advice. They said no-one else has invited them to do that; we're the only ones. In addressing this legislation, we have three aims that ensure security for Australian workers, whether they be in small businesses or large businesses, and security for small businesses and large businesses. Our three aims are to protect honest workers, to protect small businesses and to restore Australia's productive capacity. We see the employer-employee relationship as fundamental. It is the primary workplace relationship, and that's what's needed to empower workers. We've got the best workers in the world. What's needed is for employers and employees to work together—empowered employees and empowered employers—because that is the only way to create jobs. Government doesn't create jobs. As much as the Labor Party and the Liberal Party talk about it, government does not create jobs. Honest workers create jobs. Small businesses create jobs. Large employers create jobs. The government creates the environment. Labor and Liberal governments have stuffed this country's workplace environment.

The Morrison government talks about security and recovery from COVID. How can that be possible when we've destroyed our electricity sector? How can it be possible when we've got one of the worse tax systems in the world? How can it be possible when we're not supplying the right infrastructure? How can it be possible when we haven't got the skills development needed? How can it be possible when we've got overregulation? Just go and talk to people, not only small or large business employers but also employees, who are sick to death of energy prices, which have gone from the cheapest in the world to the highest in the world under this government and its predecessor, the Labor Party.

Instead of propping up the industrial relations club with excessive, needlessly complex legislation, we need to simplify it. In fact, I put that to Peter Strong when he was in my office last week. I said to him that regulations are written at the moment for the few people, employers and employees, who do the wrong thing. They should be written for the majority of good people, the fine Australians, with severe penalties for the bad. We need to turn it upside down: instead of penalising the 100 per cent with the ridiculous workplace arrangements, we need to penalise the real shonks, the real criminals. Instead of assuming people are bad—employees are bad, employers are bad—we need to free people to produce. We need to penalise and handicap those who deserve it. That's what we need in this country: empowering, not frightening.

What we see at the moment is an IR club of big employers, big industry associations, large unions, employee consultants, employer consultants, industrial relations consultants and, above all, lawyers. Again I come back to the ETU legal adviser in Townsville, Michael Wright, and Mr Bukarica from the CFMMEU, who both said that we have far too many lawyers involved in industrial relations and that's why it's a mess. They both said they want fewer lawyers, that they want to remove the lawyers. Full credit to the CFMMEU mining division and full credit to the ETU for saying that. The big companies and the crooks are the ones who do the best out of the industrial relations club, because they have deep pockets and they can afford to fund the lawyers and others who live off the backs of Australian workers.

What we need to get back to is a simple workplace relationship. Will Labor make a commitment to properly and honestly reform IR? Will you? Will the Liberal Party and the National Party make a commitment to properly and honestly reform IR, to free people so that they're free to compete with the people in Korea, China, India, Africa, Malaysia and Singapore? That's the way to get security of employment: by empowering people. One Nation is the party of energy security and affordability. One Nation is the party of job security. (Time expired)

4:48 pm

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

I'm pleased to speak on this matter of public importance, because the Morrison government's failure to address job insecurity is hurting working families and damaging our national economy. It has become a major structural issue in the Australian economy whereby people who do not have access to secure work are being left behind by this government. It is fundamentally unfair not just for workers but also for those businesses who are doing the right thing, because the use of certain forms of insecure work gives companies that exploit workers an unfair advantage against honest employers. The share of workers in insecure work is continuing to increase. In my home state of Tasmania, we continue to suffer from the highest underemployment rate of any state, at 8.9 per cent. There are 37½ thousand Tasmanians who simply can't get the hours of work they need to make ends meet. This is not secure employment. This does not enable people to live with confidence, to plan their life, to buy a house or to do any of those things that require secure employment and secure finances. Australian workers, our national economy and businesses will all benefit from more job security because we all do better when we all do better. Better pay and a fairer industrial relations system will reap benefits for everyone in our society, from the top to the bottom. That is the approach Australians can expect from an Albanese Labor government; not so from Mr Morrison, however.

This Prime Minister continues to practise the same old, failed Liberal economic policies of a race to the bottom, the lowest common denominator. In contrast, Labor believes that secure work is an essential component of being able to build a secure life. Secure work allows workers to take leave when they're sick or need to care for a family or household member without putting their jobs at risk. It means that they can have the confidence to spend money to stimulate the Australian economy, boost growth and create more jobs. Good, decent, secure jobs are becoming fewer and fewer with the rise of insecure employment. Yet this government has no plan to arrest that rise. Indeed, they encourage it.

What we have seen in the past 12 months with the COVID pandemic is that insecure work not only poses a risk to individual workers but poses a risk to our society as a whole. It is the case that when the pandemic began, casuals, who account for about a quarter of the Australian workforce, lost their jobs eight times faster than those in more secure forms of employment. To rub salt into their wounds, it was an active and deliberate decision taken by this Prime Minister to exclude around one million casual workers from access to JobKeeper, forcing many onto Centrelink. Now that was a measure that the former contributor to this discussion, Senator McDonald, didn't mention in her contribution here today—that this government took the deliberate and active decision to exclude one million casual workers, forcing them onto Centrelink.

But, of course, casual work is not the only form of insecure work. When you add in many contractors, freelancers, gig workers and those on temporary contracts or working in labour hire, what we see is that nearly half the workforce misses out on the many benefits of a permanent job. We know that. Who in our workforce, in our society, is more likely to be stuck in insecure work? Women, young people and those from a migrant background. In fact, one thing we have seen from the inevitable recovery in the jobs market, after the first recession in Australia in 30 years, is that the increase in jobs has very substantially been composed of insecure jobs. This has implications not only for people in those jobs but for our broader recovery and for our potential future economic growth because we know that those in insecure work have much less confidence to spend. But these are the things that the government can do to combat the insecure work—(Time expired)

4:54 pm

Photo of Alex AnticAlex Antic (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

We know we're back in this building when Labor are up to their old tricks. As I do most mornings, I read this matter of public importance with a degree of, shall we say, sympathy, because, ultimately, every day it is for those opposite to concoct a matter of public importance which seeks to attack the government's agenda, and it does so with what could only be described as a limited arsenal.

We know that those opposite sit with a divided party and a leader who doesn't know whether he's batting for the woke inner-city types or for the workers, and we know that that narrative streaks its way all through the party. So what do you do in those circumstances? What do you do in order to try to face up to that? What do you do to face up to a government that is led by a prime minister who has seen us through extraordinarily hard times and a 100-year pandemic, and has done so in circumstances that have cemented our economic recovery?

Today, indeed, we learned that we've retained our AAA rating, so it's with a degree of sympathy that I read this, because it is a very, very difficult task. What does this represent? It represents nothing but gaslighting. Ultimately, that's what it is. It is parliamentary gaslighting. Psychologists use that term to refer to a specific type of manipulation where the manipulator tries to use someone else's reality to question their own. We do so—we know that—because their questions are usually based on lies and are usually based on matters which are of deep importance, such as the rights of workers.

To suggest that somehow the Morrison Liberal government has anything but the workers' best interests in mind is ludicrous. This government has zero tolerance for any exploitation of workers. We've seen that with a number of legislative reforms that have come through. It has zero tolerance for the underpayment of wages and entitlements by an employer. This government has, in fact, taken unprecedented action to date to protect vulnerable workers. That includes a commitment of over $160 million in additional resourcing to the regulator and the Fair Work Ombudsman. There is no unfair advantage to lawbreaking companies in the government's IR reforms. In fact, to the contrary, there are significant measures which prevent exploitation of workers and significant penalties for those who do so.

With the various reforms to strengthen and enhance existing compliance and enforcement regimes that are contained in this bill, this government is continuing to take strong action to protect workers from underpayments. But let's compare and contrast that using the example of gaslighting. It wouldn't be the Labor Party blocking these IR reforms that would be causing problems, would it? But wait. What's this? By blocking this omnibus bill, Labor is actually seeking to block serious reforms such as a quicker enterprise agreement approval process through the Fair Work Commission. This process in itself would actively help to deliver pay rises more quickly, but the Labor Party are blocking it. There is an opportunity for more hours for the almost 30 per cent of part-time employees in the retail sector and 40 per cent of part-time employees in the accommodation and food services sector who want more hours, and we're being told that this government is actually standing in the way of workers' rights. It couldn't be more ludicrous. More job opportunities that would provide providing certainty for mega job-creating projects such as greenfield sites are being blocked by Labor's position on this legislation. In fact, if you look at the detail—we do that on this side of the chamber; we look at the detail—the only side that's proposing to cut wages and cost jobs is actually those opposite, the Labor Party.

Two weeks ago, in fact, we heard Anthony Albanese announcing his undercooked and disappointing attempt at industrial relations policy, which has nothing to do with helping employees and employers work together. By contrast, the Morrison government, in supporting Australia's jobs and economic recovery package of reforms, will actually give businesses the confidence they need to get back to growing and creating jobs. That is exactly what the Morrison government's industrial relations reforms are attempting to achieve. To suggest that this government is failing to address job security is either disingenuous or just simply missing the point—or it is simple gaslighting.

4:59 pm

Photo of Tony SheldonTony Sheldon (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

There is a job security crisis in Australia. There are more than 2.6 million casual workers in Australia. Now, we understand there is a role for casuals. We understand that permanent employment does not suit everyone and their circumstances. But, when one in four workers is casual, it raises serious issues. We have to ask ourselves: how many Australians are forgoing entitlements, like sick leave and annual leave, because it suits their lifestyle or because their type of employment is being used by employers to avoid ongoing commitments of hours, to avoid paying entitlements—the kinds of entitlements that are a betterment for the Australian workforce—or, incorrectly, to avoid paying these entitlements while extracting the same kind of value from their workforce that they have from permanent employees?

The recent court cases against WorkPac, championed by the CFMMEU, laid bare the exploitation of casuals in the workplace and that it's rampant. As Senator Roberts has repeatedly raised in this chamber, the exploitation of casual and labour hire coalminers in the Hunter Valley borders on the criminal. The government's response is to do nothing. Actually, it's worse than doing nothing. Their response is to further entrench insecure work, pushing a bill that would create a permanent class of casuals—workers who, regardless of how they are treated or the expectations placed on them, will be called casuals day in and day out—completely overturning the outcomes of the Federal Court that protect casuals' rights. It entrenches the unfair advantage being provided to those employers who see their workforce not as people deserving of fair remuneration but, rather, as numbers on a budget line item, a cost of doing business. They only care about the financial cost, not the human cost.

You only have to look at the gig economy: Dede Fredy, a father with a four-year-old son in Bali; Xiaojun Chen, whose eight-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter are in China; Chow Khai Shien, a Malaysian national whose parents and sisters are devastated; Bijoy Paul, from Bangladesh, who leaves behind his parents and sister; and Ik Wong, who had only arrived, from China, in Australia recently. These are the names of the gig workers who died in the past year, on our streets, delivering food for companies like Uber Eats and Hungry Panda. These men and workers have families. They were in families and had been the breadwinners of their families. In many cases, these companies have ignored their responsibility to train, protect and assist their workers. Hiding behind the facade of terms like 'contractors', keeping their workers at arm's length to avoid their responsibilities to safety, to a fair playing field, to fair pay and to remuneration and to be able to organise collectively.

I note that today the Attorney-General, in the House, during question time, was asked about workers' rights, minimum pay and safety. He claimed that two government commissioned reviews had found no clear link between the remuneration and safety of drivers. That was a falsehood. The first review, by Jaguar Consulting in 2014, found: 'A small number of studies have identified statistically significant relationships between driver remuneration and accident involvement.' The second, a PwC report from 2016, stated: 'Directly comparing remuneration and safety does demonstrate statistically significant correlations.' These are just two of the reports over the years that have established a link between pay and safety. Workers in transport on low rates of pay are forced to work beyond breaking point, in dangerous conditions, to make ends meet. Every year, more truck drivers die on our roads whilst this government—the one that abolished the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal—continues to ignore the link between pay and safety.

Thankfully, there are some employers and employer groups out there who are prepared to call for action, when it's needed, to help end the crisis of insecure work. The Australian Road Transport Industrial Organisation and testimony provided to the Senate inquiry last week last called for regulation of the gig economy. The chair, Peter Anderson, rightly pointed out:

The industry sees the oncoming gig economy and the way it's being managed at the moment as a threat to our standard of living and a winding back of employee protections. We would like to see a classification of the industrial relations status of a gig worker. We believe that that simple justification would then be able to lead any jurisdiction and any law in the right direction to ensure that the workers are protected accordingly.

Organisations like RTOs, employer organisations, recognise that further eroding the rights of employees and encouraging greater insecurity of work undermines the competitiveness of employers who do the right thing. It's not just insecure work; it's also the by-product of wage theft that has implications for competition in Australia.

The Senate inquiry into wage theft received 122 submissions, many of which are from employers. One in particular I will draw the Senate's attention to is the Cheesecake Shop, a franchisor with some 200 franchisee cake bakeries across Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. In their submission to the inquiry they make the point: 'Small business that are compliant face a real threat from non-compliant competitors with a lower cost base.' Businesses in their industry face a daily high rise of unfair price competition for employers who do not pay award rates and steal from their workers who don't make enterprise agreements.

As the McKell Institute firmly points out in their 2019 report, Ending wage theft: eradicating underpayment in the Australian workforce, wage theft provides an unfair competitive advantage to some companies. It says companies:

… may lose customers, tenders, and government contracts to businesses that commit wage theft and are able to offer lower prices. Particularly in industries such as hospitality and fruit picking where wages make up a large portion of costs, businesses who pay a legal wage struggle financially against those who commit wage theft.

Isn't the Liberal Party meant to be the party of business? Don't they recognise that insecure work and wage theft are tools used by unscrupulous employers to undermine the success of their competitors? Wouldn't the Liberal-National Party be up in arms, demanding to do something about those unfair operators? Of course not. They won't act to improve job security, which suggests to me that the only businesses they care about are the ones that take advantage of workers and carry out unfair practices amongst competitors.

As we enter the recovery stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no doubt we need to ensure consumer demand will be critical to our economic recovery. But consumer demand relies on confidence. Workers must have confidence in their pay cheques, in their working conditions and in meeting the rising cost of living if they're going to spend and lift demand. Those businesses who are serious about a COVID-19 recovery must understand the important role that increasing wage growth will play alongside the need to improve job security.

The crisis of job security in Australia is one that can only be met with government action. Too many employers exploit our existing system for an unfair competitive advantage. Without government action, this crisis will only get worse. That's why an Albanese-led government is committed to a plan to improve job security, one that will guarantee greater worker rights and conditions to those workers on the edges of the labour market, creating a rising tide to lift boats in the labour market and for all employers. A Labor government will make job security an objective of the Fair Work Act; extend the powers of the Fair Work Commission to include employee-like forms of work and not abandon gig workers and the casualisation of work; consider proposals for portable entitlement schemes to better support workers in secure work in consultation with business; create a fair and objective test for whether someone is truly a casual employee or not; create a clear pathway for permanent work and ensure same job, same pay, ending the practices of labour hire companies paying workers less than workers doing the same who are employed directly; and place a limit on the growing use of fixed-term contracts.

5:09 pm

Photo of Gerard RennickGerard Rennick (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What a time to be alive and what a time to see the last 12 months and the way the Morrison government has managed this COVID crisis. It has been a masterclass in economic management. In the space of a few months, we've managed to get over COVID, and we've already got 90 per cent of people back into work. If that's not job security, I don't know what is. That's despite the fact that the state Labor premiers have constantly been opening and closing, and opening and closing, borders. In the first week of January this year, I remember talking to some small-business men, and they were fired up. They were waiting for that first Friday night. We were all going to go headbanging in the pub. And what happened at nine o'clock that morning? The Premier of Queensland shut the pubs, the restaurants, the theatres, and my barber—my barber lost 1,500 bucks that weekend. That's a threat to job security. That creates uncertainty. That creates unemployment. You've got to ask yourself why these state premiers keep flip-flopping on border closures.

Last year, we shut the country down for three or four weeks, and we committed to spending over $100 billion. It was the biggest economic rescue package ever, to make sure that our health system was up to speed and that we had enough ventilators—all of that. I well remember the Queensland Chief Health Officer saying that, once we reopened after the election—funnily enough—we wouldn't have to lock down again. We went 130 days with no COVID cases; we got one case in quarantine, and what happened? Bang! Everything was shut again. Of course, we couldn't have the other Labor premiers being outdone. We had another case in quarantine over in Western Australia, so what did we have to do? That Labor premier had to outdo the Queensland Labor premier and shut down for five days. What's going on here? What's going on with the contact tracing and testing? That is a threat to job security. Do you know what is a bigger threat to job security and a bigger example of wage exploitation? Wait for it—superannuation. Every week, 9½ per cent of the workers' wages are taken from them. They never get to see that money. It's given to someone in one of the big cities, Sydney or Melbourne. One of those white-collared blowhards get to manage that money until people retire, and there's no guarantee of a capital return. Were these people ever asked if they could have 9½ per cent of their money taken? No.

There was a referendum in New Zealand in 1997. They were asked if they wanted compulsory superannuation. Do you know what they said? They said no—92 per cent to eight. At the end of the day, the workers want their own money in their pockets. They want to pay off their house, they want to pay off their HECS debt, they might want a speedboat or they might want to upgrade their semitrailer, or whatever it is. There's all that extra compliance for the employer, who now has to make a separate payment, so he says: 'Okay, this just gets harder and harder. Is it really worth continuing to employ people here in Australia, or am I going to shift offshore?' If you want to talk about wage exploitation, that's the other big threat.

Finally, the last big threat is, of course, unreliable power. Would you employ someone who only turned up to work when the sun was shining and the wind was blowing? No. But that is what the people on the Left want to do with energy. They just want energy that turns on when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining. How can you run a business when you don't know where your energy's coming from next? Which part of Australia are you going to have to wait for the wind to start blowing in before the energy starts coming through? I'll tell you who's feeling exploited. I'll tell you who I'm very worried about right now: the town of Gladstone in my home state of Queensland. They are terrified the aluminium smelter is going to close down. I constantly ask the shadow minister for Queensland resources—because Queensland resources are for Queensland people; we've got the whole Labor thing going here—how many windmills it's going to take to power that Gladstone aluminium refinery. And he can't tell me.

5:14 pm

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It's always a challenge in this place to rise after Senator Rennick—such an enlightening contribution as always. Seeing as we're talking about this matter of public importance, as you well know, Madam Acting Deputy President Kitching, those on the other side love repeating something so many times they think it becomes the truth, but in actual fact it remains as much as a falsehood as when they first began.

Is underpayment of wages an issue? Absolutely. The Fair Work Ombudsman and this government have taken remarkable steps in addressing this as an issue. There have been a number of very significant companies in Australia who have been found to have been underpaying wages—large companies with large human resource departments, companies like 7-Eleven, Commonwealth Bank, Qantas, Bunnings and Woolworths. These are large companies with very complex and well-built human resource systems. Is it wage theft? Do we need to use a pejorative term like wage theft? Well, let's see who else is on the list of those who have underpaid wages? The ABC, a large government broadcaster with a significant human resource department behind it, also underpaid millions in wages. Who else?

Photo of Paul ScarrPaul Scarr (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Who else?

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Who else, Senator Scarr? Well, I believe Maurice Blackburn. Maurice Blackburn, a law firm that bills itself as the friend of the worker, as the industrial relations experts, as the labour lawyers—and you can write that in two ways and still mean the same thing! Maurice Blackburn was found to have underpaid wages for hundreds of its junior employees. I don't cast stones. I don't call it wage theft. I say maybe we've got a systemic problem. Maybe we've got a problem where our awards system is actually so complex that the largest most sophisticated human resource systems in Australia cannot get it right. And we expect small businesses to, where the human resource department is one person—it's the husband or the wife, the brother or the sister. It's the employer who's handling three different parts of the business. They're not departments; they're individuals. They're individuals struggling to keep up with a system that is extraordinarily complex.

Are companies that do the wrong thing a target for this government? Absolutely. This government is actively working to strengthen protections for employees, to strengthen criminal offences for dishonest and systematic underpayments of one or more employees. We're increasing penalties—four years imprisonment in fact. That is a pretty significant penalty in anyone's book, with $1.11 million worth of fines—again, a very significant penalty in anyone's book. We're increasing the maximum civil penalties for underpayment. We're introducing new prohibitions to stop employers advertising jobs with pay rates below national minimum wages and clarifying that the courts can make adverse publicity orders where appropriate. But Labor are not going to support this. Why? They might say, 'Oh, it doesn't go far enough.' Fine. They need to mollify their union mates. That's all well and good. But these changes directly impact the wellbeing of employers across Australia in a system that is undoubtedly overly complex.

Again, I ask all senators to think about those mums and dads, those small-business owners, those single employees who have to operate in this environment, an environment of extraordinary complexity, an environment where the likes of Maurice Blackburn, the labour lawyers, cannot get this right.

Photo of Kimberley KitchingKimberley Kitching (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Government Accountability) Share this | | Hansard source

The time for the discussion has expired.