Senate debates

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Matters of Public Importance

Job Security

5:10 pm

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National 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 Walsh:

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 failing wage growth, growing insecurity of work and increasing incidents of wage theft.

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.

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

First of all, I congratulate Senator Jess Walsh for advancing this matter of public importance, because it is indeed a great matter of importance to people right across this country that this government in its third term, having worn through three prime ministers, has presided over a period in Australian economic history that is absolutely characterised by wage stagnation, by growing job insecurity, and what we've come to accept in our parlance is the description of a practice of too many businesses that was, until recent times, called underpayment.

On the watch of this government, the scale of underpayment has been so extensive that it's now known as wage theft in the Australian community. So I sincerely congratulate Senator Walsh for bringing this matter forward, because Australians are feeling this pain. They are feeling it intimately every time they try to balance their budget and every time they try to get ahead, with people in insecure work reporting to Senate committees that they have no chance of getting a loan for a car, let alone a house, when their work is constantly described as 'insecure'.

This government is presiding over a period of separation between hardworking Australians who want to work or who want to work more hours and just can't and a government that's looking after people whose wealth is rising by the day as the Australian stock exchange market rises. This was part of the evidence that we received from Per Capita in the inquiry that is currently underway that deals with critical matters in industrial relations. This is what Per Capita said in their opening statement:

Despite a strong recovery in asset prices and a falling headline unemployment rate towards the end of 2020, the reality is that Australia's …

economic recovery from the impact of COVID-19—

threatens to take the shape of a 'K' rather than a 'V': that is, some people will do very well, having retained their jobs and saved money during the lock-downs last year, while others will fall deeper into insecurity and poverty.

That's what this government is presiding over: a period of time when there is a profound decline in the capacity of Australians to have secure employment and share in the economic benefit of Australia as a very wealthy nation.

I have to say that I was profoundly impacted by the evidence that we received at our hearing just last Friday. A wonderful AIN working in aged care talked about the struggle of trying to make ends meet, of not being able to spend anything in the local business economy but having to go to big suppliers of foods. She couldn't support her small businesses because she needs to buy materials in bulk or buy no-brand or home-brand goods, the very cheapest—all of the time—because her work is so reduced and so insecure.

She also spoke about the ramifications of this job insecurity, in terms of her capacity to do her work ethically. She is a carer, a carer by nature and a carer in her paid work, and her care for the elderly in aged care is critical to their health and wellbeing. She described a situation where her work is now so precarious—based on arguments that no doubt you'll hear from the others on the other side that allow efficiency for some businesses. That's what it is described as: efficiency measures; flexibility measures. Every time someone from the LNP says, 'We need to give businesses flexibility. Workers love flexibility,' it belies the reality of what they're delivering. Genuine flexibility in the workplace, with small businesses, absolutely happens. There are great small business employers. But there are also some pretty dodgy ones out there. What this government has presided over and is attempting to introduce in its IR bill is more of an attack on job security. We need job security and flexibility. We can't trade one off against the other. Flexibility can't always be loaded up as an advantage to the powerful and used as a tool of abuse of those who are in insecure work, yet that's what we're seeing.

The matter we're discussing today is a matter of public importance because good businesses that need money to move around in their local economy—good business owners who employ their staff; who know the names of their staff; who know the families of their staff; who genuinely provide flexible, great, secure work—know that their businesses are hanging on a precipice come the end of March with the withdrawal of JobKeeper. There will be more insecurity, stagnation in wages and, for the worst types of employers, such a sense of entitlement to take and make profit for themselves that they take the wages of the people they dare to call their employees. They should be more truthful. When you steal someone's wages and they work for you for nothing, or work for you for too little or work for wages that are illegal, that is a form of servitude. It's a form of modern day slavery. If the government gets its way we will have worse conditions for Australians. The government's economic agenda reveals their total unwillingness to get wages growing for Australians, their desire to cut working conditions for Australians and their refusal to legislate to protect Australians from increasing instances of wage theft.

Wages in Australia have stagnated under this government. Corporate profits have continued to grow. Average Australian workers, and that's most of us, are not getting ahead. They're feeling the pressure, they're feeling the pain, they're expressing concern, and it's manifesting itself in the data around mental health or, better put, mental ill-health—anxiety, worry, concern that they can't see a pathway forward to look after themselves and their family under this Liberal-National government. Inequality in Australia has grown ever larger, and it has come as a result of the design of this government.

On the new monstrous IR bill, which I think is aptly called 'WorkChoices 2.0', we've been taking evidence about what that will do. Let me be clear: it's a massive bill, called an omnibus bill. It has loads and loads and loads of schedules in it and proposals for change from this government. Buried deep down in the bottom are a couple of half-decent ideas, but even they are not legislatively drawn in a way that will improve the lot of Australian workers. I did not hear any evidence that has given me any sense of hope during the three hearings that we have been allowed to have, because the government only allowed three hearings—and, Deputy President, you would know the pace at which those hearings have had to advance, with half-hour slots and with people coming forward wanting to give testimony but not allowed to speak, because it is so contained by the government.

Not one of those hearings, not one bit of evidence that we've heard, gives me any hope that there will be wage growth under this government. In fact, this bill, if passed, looks like it will put downward pressure on wages. One of the key issues that prevents wage theft is proper legislation that acts as a disincentive for people to steal wages from the people with whom they've entered into a relationship as an employer with an employee. We've seen wage theft at a remarkable scale across this country. Very, very sadly, this government, if it passes this legislation, will reduce the protections that are currently in place for Queensland and Victorian workers. This is a matter of importance to the nation, and the truth should be told.

5:20 pm

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Usually, in matters of public importance, I'm able to compliment the ALP at least for rhetoric, if not on facts. But I must say, on this occasion, I can't even compliment the Labor Party on their rhetoric and, clearly, if the honourable senator opposite thinks that her contribution just then will assist her in her preselection battle with her deputy leader in this place, I'm not sure it's going to cut the mustard. Let's have a look at what this motion actually says, and there are three parts to it. First is the Morrison government's failure—let's be correct, alleged failure—to address falling wage growth. First of all, who determines the wages in this country? It is the Labor Party's beloved Fair Work Commission. It is the one that sets the minimum wages in this country and so, if there is a failure in relation to wages and wages growth, it is in the system that the Labor Party itself set up in the first place. This is the Labor Party's creation, so what they're basically saying, if they were being honest with the Australian people, is that that which they set up has been an abject failure for the workers of Australia.

But let's be clear: good, sound economic management allows for wages growth whilst inflation is kept at bay, and that is exactly what the Howard government was able to achieve in its period of office. There was real wages growth, but for that you need good, sound economic management over a lengthy period of time. It would be fair to say that, after the ambush of the economy by Labor after the Howard government was defeated, it took some time to try to get the economy back on track. We were achieving that when COVID-19 hit. The government's alleged failure in addressing falling wages is what the Labor Party is trying to suggest to the Australian people, who are smarter than that; they won't accept that sort of empty rhetoric. They know that there are circumstances which mitigate against the Fair Work Commission increasing wages because there has to be that balance between wages and jobs and job creation.

The second part of the motion talks about the government's alleged failure in relation to job security. Let's be clear: there was a huge spike in unemployment for one reason—we all know it, COVID-19—so let's not try to get cheap political points on the back of a national pandemic. The unemployment rate, thankfully, is coming down. It is coming down steadily and, what is more, with permanent jobs, with full-time jobs. That surely should be celebrated. But, no, the exact figures to back up that which Labor is asserting in this motion were not presented by the Labor Party in moving this motion. Why? It is because there aren't those sorts of figures to support the assertion. Indeed, so desperate were the Australian Labor Party in this debate that they had to rely on Per Capita as somehow providing some credibility to this motion.

The third limb of the motion talks about increasing incidence of wage theft. Excuse me, where was the evidence for that assertion? It was completely and utterly absent in the presentation that was made to us. But let's be very clear: I recall saying that underpayment, if deliberate, is wages theft, and that is why we, as a government, have said on numerous occasions that we have zero tolerance when it comes to wage theft. If a business can't run without underpaying workers, it should not be in business.

Senator O'Neill in her contribution referred us to dodgy businesses that would seek to underpay. Well, I wonder what dodgy businesses might spring to mind? Senator Small, who in cooperation with the trade union and a trade union leader, who now sits in the other place, who used to be in charge of the Australian Workers Union, underpaid mushroom workers, cleaners, builders? We will see what happens from the Registered Organisations Commission investigation in relation to the union itself, but talk about dodgy. I would have thought that would be one area that the Australian Labor Party would not seek to traverse.

The reason why the Labor Party refused to present figures to us was that, if figures were to be presented, they would be telling us that the Fair Work Ombudsman is taking strong action on behalf of workers. In 2019-20, exactly $123 million was recovered, a record amount of money for underpaid workers, which is more than five times the money recovered by the agency during Labor's last full year in office because we, as a government, resourced the Fair Work Ombudsman to be able to pursue this matter and get wage justice for the workers of Australia.

This momentum is continuing. In the first six months of 2020-21, the Fair Work Ombudsman recovered almost $81 million for almost 31,000 employees, filed 37 litigations and entered into 12 enforceable undertakings. These are the facts. These are indicators that we as a coalition government are concerned to ensure that a worker who is entitled to appropriate wages receives those appropriate wages—none of this funny money dealing that Mr Shorten from the other place engaged in whilst he was secretary of the Australian Workers Union. If the majority of the Australian workforce were actually to believe the mantra of the Labor Party, one suspects we would not be in office on this side, but they take a balanced and sensible approach, recognising there is an independent arbiter for our wages in this country—namely, the Fair Work Commission—and it does its job. Sometimes workers get more than bosses want and sometimes workers get less than the workers want. That is the role of an umpire—to try to make a decision which is fair and reasonable in all the circumstances. We all know, if wages are set too high, it will cost jobs and therefore that important balance is required and that is something which the Fair Work Commission seeks to do to the very best of its ability and that is why we have so many people gainfully employed and being able to sustain themselves in work.

But the Australian Labor Party, in their submission before us, there is not a single alternative what Labor would do other than to oppose the bill that is currently before us. What does that bill seek to do? For the first time ever, it seeks to deal with the issue of—you guessed it—wages theft, to actually criminalise it.

In the years of Labor, under Messrs Hawke and Keating and then under Rudd-Gillard-Rudd, did the Labor Party ever see it necessary to ensure that it could be criminalised in a manner that would dissuade bosses from doing so?

No. They didn't do anything. Who is it being left up to to get a fair and balanced workplace? Yet again, the coalition.

The Australian people have voted previously, and I can reassure them that this is a government committed to fair, balanced workplace relations that ensure that they have the dignity, the self-esteem and the mental and physical health benefits of employment. They're the things that we want to see. We on this side see employment as not only an economic good but an overwhelming social good as well. That is why you have to have that sensible balance, and we on this side are very comfortable in looking after both the worker and the employer. Without an employer, there'd be no employees. We need the balance, and that is what we as a government are providing.

5:30 pm

Photo of Mehreen FaruqiMehreen Faruqi (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank Senator Walsh for bringing this matter of public importance to the Senate. Over the last 40 years, Australia has gone from being one of the most egalitarian countries in the Western capitalist world to one of the most severely unequal—one dominated by business interests. Key to the growth of inequality and precariousness in Australia has been decades of neoliberal industrial relations policy designed to smash the power of organised labour and reorientate workplace organisations in favour of maximising gain for employers and giving them more flexibility to hire and fire workers.

It's not so much that the Morrison government are trying and failing to address stagnant wages, the dominance of insecure work and the scourge of wage theft; they simply choose not to address them. They have no intention of winding back the systems that, to the benefit of corporations and billionaires, entrench poverty, inequality and precariousness for workers. In fact, they're doing the opposite. There are 1.2 million people who are locked out of work. Then there are others on JobKeeper who are locked into poverty.

This government's core constituency is their big donors and big business, and things are going well for them. Before the pandemic, wage growth was stagnant. Jobs were increasingly insecure, and wage theft was at epidemic levels. Since COVID reared its head, things have gotten even worse. The labour share of national income has fallen below 50 per cent for the first time since 1959, and corporate profits have soared. Wage growth has fallen to record lows, and wages have declined in real terms. As lockdowns have ended and businesses have begun to reopen, the proportion of insecure jobs has exploded. This government has shown no interest in genuinely tackling wage theft. The most important and effective wage theft deterrents, such as making sure that wage thieves know they may be caught out and increasing the powers and resourcing of regulators to investigate claims and enforce the law, don't seem to be on the agenda at all.

Forty years of marketisation, deregulation, privatisation, government outsourcing and good old-fashioned union-busting has created an economy designed to funnel wealth upwards and leave workers with the scraps. Suppressed wage growth, the expansion of insecure work and perniciously increasing wage theft are symptoms of a business orientated system working precisely for the big end of town. Until this government either undergo a fundamental shift in their political orientation or are kicked out, nothing will change. They need to be given the boot.

5:33 pm

Photo of Anthony ChisholmAnthony Chisholm (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I, too, thank Senator Walsh for putting forward this MPI. I think it goes to the fundamental failure of this government and it sums up their terrible record over seven years. That record is of failure to address wage growth. It is of failure to address the growing insecurity of work. It is of failure to deal with the increasing incidence of wage theft. Indeed, after seven years of this LNP government, their record is a sad record. I want to consider that record in detail because, when we look at the record of this government over the last seven years, there is a lot of detail to understand when it comes to these issues.

When it comes to wages growth, according to the OECD—and I know Western Australian Liberal senators have a lot of faith in the OECD at the moment—real wages in Australia have declined by 0.7 per cent since the Liberal-National coalition were elected in 2013. That's their record after seven years in government. In 2019—so before the pandemic hit—Australia ranked third last out of 35 countries for wages growth. So even in the year before the pandemic hit the record of this government was a terrible one. It has been a miserable seven years for Australian workers and their families, in particular for those looking to get ahead and build a better future for themselves.

Sadly, the government's record on insecure work is no better. Even pre the pandemic we were seeing insecure work skyrocket. In the travels I do, in particular through regional Queensland, I come across so many people who have been impacted by the use of labour hire in their industry. It is absolutely rampant at the moment. I talk to people who are working side by side doing the same work, but one of those workers is earning 30 to 40 per cent less than their permanent counterpart next door. We exposed some of this during the Senate hearings into the bill put forward by the government. Ultimately, the use of labour hire, as I've observed it through regional Queensland, is actually being used to drive down the wages and conditions of all workers. That's the ultimate game of those who want to bring it in: they want to drive down the wages and conditions of all workers.

When it comes to wage theft, we have a federal government that has done nothing for seven years. Senator Abetz tried to say they have zero tolerance. What he fails to talk about is what they've done for the seven years they've been in power. He highlighted some of the recoveries they've made. Instead of trying to recover money, why don't you try to stop wage theft? That's actually the power of the government. You have the ability to do things to stop this from happening. They say nothing on that because they have no record they can point to after seven years. That is despite so many examples that have come before us, such as 7-Eleven and the outrageous attack on the workers in the employ of that company.

Now, when Australians want to look forward to emerging from the pandemic in a stronger position, when they want something to be optimistic about in the future, the government offer up more of the same. Their IR changes will undermine the pay and conditions of workers. They do little to address the rampant use of labour hire that is prevalent in so many parts of Australia but particularly, I know through my experience, in regional Queensland. They do nothing to create secure jobs with decent pay. What could be more important for Australian families at the moment, as they rebuild after being impacted by a pandemic, than to have a secure job with decent pay? They want something they can plan for the future on, yet this government continues to offer insecure work, not changes that are going to lead to better pay for those Australians. It is consigning more Australians to more years of the same, with more casualisation and insecure work.

The government's proposals on wage theft are weak. Compared to what some of the state Labor governments have been doing to outlaw wage theft, the government have been slow to move, despite all the evidence that has been presented, and, when they do move, it is still weak. They are a government with a shocking record when it comes to wage growth, insecure work and wage theft. After seven years they are offering no solutions to these problems. The best they can do is more of the same. There's no doubt that the Australian people are looking for an alternative. They deserve so much better on these issues than what their federal government has put up so far.

5:38 pm

Photo of Ben SmallBen Small (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm here on behalf of a government that has taken proactive and decisive measures to help Australians. We're focused on helping the economy grow jobs. Having delivered 1½ million new jobs prior to the onset of the pandemic, we see that, under our responsible economic management, 93 per cent of those jobs are already back. We've sought to boost wages for Australians through tax cuts delivered to one million businesses in Australia and 11 million hardworking Australians, who are already seeing more money in their pockets as a result of the initiatives this government has led. We've sought to enhance productivity through measures like the loss carry back and the instant asset write-off. But we aren't done yet, because we've got before this chamber a suite of sensible, measured and incremental reforms that seek to provide people with certainty and enable casual workers to convert to full-time employment.

We've sought to articulate the work that the government is doing with respect to wage theft and enhancing the protections that vulnerable Australians would be protected by. Instead, rather than those reforms already putting more money into the pockets of Australians, and rather than those additional protections already being in place, we are being held back by the Labor Party, who sit opposite. Our approach to this has been informed by extensive collaboration with both industry employers and unions, but instead we've seen the Labor Party seeks to turn workplaces into political battlegrounds whilst the Leader of the Opposition is focused only on his tenuous grasp on his job rather than the jobs of those out in the community.

The government have already demonstrated that we're willing to work with this chamber and work with the crossbench, by removing the section 189 amendment. We've done this because we see five key areas of reform that will assist Australians. But, by attempting to block this, Labor is actually standing between Australians and wage growth, Australians and wage-theft protection and Australians and increased job security through a more prosperous economy. Labor's industrial policies were overwhelmingly rejected at the last election under the then leader Bill Shorten, and we're simply seeing this recycled now by the current Leader of the Opposition. Labor's proposed industry laws reveal who really calls the shots on that side of the chamber. The only job they seem focused on is that of the Leader of the Opposition.

The government have made it clear that we have zero tolerance for employees being underpaid and make no exception for any employer who seeks to exploit vulnerable Australians. The government have committed to decisive action, with $160 million to the Fair Work Ombudsman, as Senator Abetz clearly articulated, and an up to tenfold increase in the penalties for employers. The only thing stopping a tenfold increase in the penalties for employers that do the wrong thing is those opposite. Undertaking reforms to enforce our current compliance and enforcement regime with the current act is also part of this contemplated reform.

But Labor clearly doesn't believe that those workers who are underpaid need and deserve better wage protection. They've seen them as a necessary sacrifice, throwing them under the bus by blocking this bill. They made this blatantly obvious in the past as well when they advocated to scrap the Australian Building and Construction Commission. They've also carefully ignored the fact that the ABCC has already returned millions of dollars to employees since it was reintroduced by the coalition government in 2016.

The Fair Work Ombudsman continues to take decisive action on behalf of workers despite the unprecedented effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and $123 million has been redelivered into the pockets of workers—five times more money than that same agency was able to recover under the previous Labor government. The Fair Work Ombudsman has delivered 952 compliance notices, a 250 per cent increase on the number of compliance notices issued in 2018-19; filed more than double the number of court cases against employers who have done the wrong thing; secured 163 per cent more court ordered penalties; issued 603 infringement notices; and, finally, secured $56.8 billion in back payments for workers.

We are not done yet, but we are being held back by the intransigence of those opposite, who clearly, from their track record of opposing the ABCC and indeed the Registered Organisations Commission, oppose not only the rule of law but also shredding the absolute iron grip that the union movement has over labour relations from their perspective. What proposals have we heard from those opposite in this chamber tonight that would seek to improve worker entitlements and protections? We've heard nothing. In fact, all we've heard from those opposite is a proposal to take $153 a week from the pockets of casual workers across this country, a tax on businesses and nothing else.

In opposing these changes, the Labor Party have further signalled that they do not have any intention to streamline wage recovery. We've seen them with reports suggesting that underpaid employees are merely collateral damage to a broader approach that seeks to emphasise that the Leader of the Opposition holds his job. They've also stood between workers in Australia and a quicker enterprise agreement approval process, when we know that enterprise agreements in this country deliver up to 40 per cent more than award wages into the pockets of Australians. And the Labor Party still oppose that. If that's not wage growth, I don't know what is.

Let's talk a little around flexibility, which those opposite say is a terrible, terrible premise. The reforms that this government has proposed would allow 30 per cent of the part-time employees in the retail sector and 40 per cent of part-time employees in the accommodation and food services sector to work more hours but with the protections of being permanent employees and with the leave entitlements associated. But, no, the Labor Party would rather that those hours go to workers under more flexible arrangements such as casual employment. So it's the Labor Party that stands between part-time permanent employees being able to work more hours with more protection and, indeed, entrenching casual employment at the heart of the Australian economy.

As something that's very close to my heart as the Western Australian representative, we've also sought to create job opportunities with project certainty for mega projects on greenfield sites, allowing up to eight-year agreements to be struck. No; the Labor Party stand between more investment dollars generating more jobs for Western Australians and Australians more broadly, whereas this government is about getting more jobs for more Australians.

Stronger conversion rights for casuals is central to the reforms that this government has offered before this chamber, but Labor are saying that they would rather have more casuals remain, even if they would prefer permanent employment. The mechanisms that this bill articulates provide a clear and consistent pathway for any casual worker having served the requisite time period to convert that employment to permanent employment. It is a right that this bill confers. So what holds that back? Opposition from the Labor Party. So, it seems to me that the only side that is proposing to cut wages, to cut job security and to cost jobs in the Australian economy is in fact the Labor Party.

In true Labor fashion, their solution to all problems is simply to raise taxes, and we saw this going into the last election, with $387 billion worth of new taxes proposed. We've seen it recently, with this $20 billion hit to business, or a pay cut for casual workers of $153 a week. So, if we're serious in this place about putting more money into the pockets of Australian workers, if we're serious about affording Australians the improved job security that comes with a healthy economy, if we're serious about tackling wage theft and getting wage underpayments into the pockets of Australians in a more efficient and streamlined process, then honourable senators in this place will get behind these important reforms and get the job done. That's what the people of Australia sent us here to do.

5:48 pm

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

This motion is one of the least self-aware that I've seen out of the Labor Party. As a servant to the people of Queensland and Australia, I note that the median wage has not increased in real terms over the last 30 years, after adjusting for dramatic increases in the cost of housing, health care and education, yet Australia's gross domestic product per capita has increased over that period from $13,600 to $65,400 in real terms, as have all my figures today. Gross domestic product is up by a factor of five, and the wages of everyday Australians have not increased. Where's the money gone? Average wages for Australians at the upper end of the scale have seen an increase of 50 per cent, and at the very top end the increase is over 100 per cent. A graph of our median and average wages over time is untroubled by changes in government. Liberal, National, Labor or Greens—it makes no difference; workers just keep going backwards.

Wages as a share of GDP have fallen from $116 billion to $96 billion over 30 years. The share of our gross domestic product being paid to Australian workers is at an all-time low, yet corporate profits have grown from $20 billion to six times that amount, $120 billion. Globalist economics has crushed the wages of everyday Australians and deposited the spoils from an expanding economy into the pockets of the big end of town in salaries, bonuses and dividends. Globalist free trade agreements have seen more than one million high-paid, skilled manufacturing and heavy industry jobs moved overseas. Labor is a big fan of globalism, voting in favour of every one of those free trade agreements. Recently the Senate voted for a UN funding bill to direct money into funding economic development in countries with which we have a free trade agreement. This facilitates increases in their productive capacity to take yet more Australian jobs. One Nation was the only party to oppose the funding bill. The Labor Party voted in favour of losing yet more jobs overseas.

COVID restrictions have had a role to play as well. The government's COVID restrictions have moved consumer spending away from small businesses who employ everyday Australians to corporate retailers who pay the minimum wage. Online growth has gone to Amazon, owned by the world's richest man, Jeff Bezos. Social media are calling the COVID restrictions on businesses 'a war on capitalism'; they are no such thing. In corporate Australia, the biggest crony capitalists have record sales and profits and have paid higher dividends and bonuses. As a result of government coronavirus restrictions and measures, the world's 400 richest people have increased their wealth by $1 trillion. Much of this new wealth is money that was once spent in local communities—in hardware stores, community supermarkets, butchers and grocers. It was money that held up real wages paid by local businesses to their loyal staff. Now those businesses have been forced to close or to sack workers.

So the real outcome from coronavirus measures has been the largest transference of wealth from small businesses to foreign owned or controlled corporations in Australian history. We expect this sort of thing from the globalist Liberal Party and their sellout sidekicks the Nationals, yet this has been brought to you by Labor in Queensland, Labor in Western Australia and Labor in Victoria. Almost every government measure during the COVID period has been waved through the Senate by the Labor Party, working in conjunction with the Liberals and Nationals. Labor don't get to complain now; they should have seen this coming. The only thing that was not in this profligate spending was a permanent increase in JobSeeker. The constant pressure from One Nation in this place directly with the government across many years has today had a result. One Nation will continue to stand up for everyday Australians.

The destruction of wages and entitlements of Australian workers has many other causes. At the heart of the problem is supply and demand for workers. At the same time Australia is sending jobs overseas, we are importing workers. Over the last 30 years, Australia has added 10 million new Australians. While many of them do not go into the productive economy, the bottom line is simple: we are importing workers for jobs that have already been exported to lower cost destinations, especially China. There are more workers than jobs, and that can only have the effect of reducing wages. Labor defend Australia's high immigration rate and suggest One Nation are racists for wanting a reduction in the rate of arrivals. The use of the word 'racist' means they have no argument to counter us. All One Nation are doing is standing up for everyday Australians who will never get a decent pay rise as long as the government keeps bringing in more new arrivals than there are jobs. The Rudd Labor government and the Gillard-Rudd Labor-Greens government increased permanent migration from 160,000 in 2007 to 205,000 in 2013. Labor cannot pretend to care about workers when it was Labor that initiated the largest spike in arrivals in the last 30 years.

The other issue around stagnation in real wages is foreign temporary workers. The Senate inquiry into temporary work visas found temporary migrant workers experienced widespread wage theft and gross violations of Australian minimum work standards. These included the failure to pay minimum wages, long work hours and a lack of health and safety training, leading to workplace injuries. Temporary work visa holders are being exploited to drive down wages and conditions. Bill Shorten, as minister, set the record for temporary work visas in this country, a record that Labor still holds. I don't hear Labor complaining about this. This may be because their beloved free trade agreements facilitate foreign workers. The Indonesian free trade agreement section 12.9 removes labour market testing and allows additional contract workers across 400 skilled occupations. It allows for 4,000 temporary working holiday-maker visas per year, and these workers are highly exploited because they'll be deported if they lose their jobs. Wage theft is not entirely restricted to vulnerable foreign workers, although it does account for most of the cases.

The problem of falling real wages, job insecurity and wage theft, which Senator Walsh mentions in this motion, results from Labor Party policies. One Nation is accused of wanting to wind the clock back. Well, on this issue we do want to wind the clock back, back to when workers got a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. We need to start putting Australia and Australians first, back to when workers settled here, became Australian citizens and contributed to the future of our marvellous country. (Time expired)

5:55 pm

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

It used to be said in life there are only two constants: death and taxes. But, under the Morrison government, Australian workers must deal with three constraints and three constants: falling wages, insecure work and wage theft. These three crises of the Australian labour market are not just holding Australian workers back but holding the Australian economy back. Wage growth has reached its slowest pace since the Depression in the 1930s. In the most recent September quarter, wages grew as little as 0.1 per cent. Things have become so desperate that the governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia, Philip Lowe, has been calling it a crisis in wage growth, calling on workers to start demanding wage rises from their employers. Even before the pandemic, the pace of insecure work in Australia had been rising, and since COVID-19 the pace of insecure work has accelerated rapidly. For example, 60 per cent of all new wage jobs created since May last year were casual jobs. This is the biggest increase in casual employment in Australia's history. Three-quarters of all new jobs were part-time in nature, and insecure work, such as our own accounts contracts and gig work, dominated the growth in jobs considered self-employed. Then we come to wage theft. PwC estimates that $1.35 billion in wages are stolen or unpaid every year, and Industry Super Australia estimates that as much as $6 billion in superannuation is not paid, affecting one in three Australian workers.

Under the inaction of the Morrison government, Australian workers must deal with insecure work, with falling wages and with wage theft. Behind these facts and figures are human stories and real workers that have been affected, workers like Diego. Since coming from Brazil three years ago, Diego has been working for the food delivery company Deliveroo. He was often paid below the minimum wage, working almost every day of the week delivering food to people's doorsteps to support his wife and 11-month-old daughter. Diego has become the face of the heartless way these companies try to employ their workers. In the midst of the global pandemic, at a time of unprecedented increase in demand for food delivery, Deliveroo sacked Diego with practically no warning at all because he was 10 minutes late with an order. In the midst of a pandemic, with a wife and daughter to support, Diego was interviewed on the ABC. He spoke of his sacking:

It was frustrating, as I've been with them for years and they just didn't care what I had to say.

I mentioned all of my personal problems, my loss of income, my wife and 11-month-old daughter, who I need to take care of ... but they just don't care.

Backed by his union, the Transport Workers Union, Diego has taken Deliveroo to the court over his unfair dismissal. His challenge is a major test case for the gig economy in Australia, not one this government is funding. They fund cases against casual workers that get rights in the mining industry, they back big labour hire companies and they back big miners. Of course they intervene in those cases, but they don't intervene in the cases for real people that are really struggling and that deserve to have rights in this economy. I eagerly await the case, but I certainly won't be holding my breath waiting for the government to act.

Workers in food delivery need outcomes now. A recent survey of riders and drivers by the TWU and the Delivery Riders Alliance revealed the distressing nature of the industry. There is an average hourly rate of little more than $10 an hour. Almost two-thirds felt that they had been unfairly treated by a company, without a chance to defend themselves. More than one-third had been injured on the job, with almost 80 per cent of those injured receiving no support of any kind from their company. We know this is dangerous work. We know that we've had five people killed in a matter of only a few months. All of them leave behind friends and family—loved ones who deserve better than to lose their father, their brother, their son or their friend to an industry that pays critically low rates of pay and incentivises people to drive and ride dangerously just to be able to put food on the table.

We've been having this debate about what should happen with the media and what sort of arrangements we should have. Some were calling it the Murdoch tax. Others are calling out how this government is prepared to take up this case for Murdoch, against Facebook, the gig economy and tech companies, but they're not prepared to take cases up for hardworking people in this country, who are literally dying at the hands of these companies. They're being ripped off by these companies. Rather than just handing money over to firms in the hope that they will keep journalism going, and taking on the big tech companies—people have been pounding their chests about this in the last few days—how about you pound your chest for Dede Fredy, Xiaojun Chen, Chow Khai Shien, Bijoy Paul and Ik Wong, all of whom died because they did not have the protection against those same monoliths and the same types of corporation that you failed to take into account.

Hearing Minister Porter in the House yesterday, and seeing the responses to questions asked about Deliveroo, we're saying to give these workers minimum wage and rights to collectively bargain, but those things are just too complicated. This Attorney-General, who has responsibility for workplace relations, says someone getting paid half the minimum wage is too complicated for him and the government to work out—that says it all. It's not too complicated. It's just that they've simply taken the side of these big monoliths and made a decision. Their card is always going to be in my pocket. It's quite clear that, when these companies are supported in this sort of lack of action to protect workers, people pay the price.

These companies are literally killing people in the food delivery industry. These companies are literally maiming people in the food delivery industry. There has been report after report about what occurs when you incentivise payments for companies and for workers in the way that these companies are. When you do not give them a minimum wage, an appropriate wage, to be able to sustain their families, they drive like hell and they put themselves at risk, because it's a choice between doing that or not eating. It's a choice between doing that or not providing for your daughter or your partner or your family.

We clearly need a government that turns around and says that all workers are important; that the economy is important, so that people have the capacity to spend; and that business doing the right thing is more important than business doing the wrong thing. There are companies that operate in competition with the gig economy. They operate and pay decent wages. They actually have enterprise bargaining agreements. It might be surprising to some on the other side that the enterprise bargaining agreements with unions are at better rates of pay and have better conditions. Their people have more of a voice and there is more consultation in the negotiations for agreements. It's inconvenient for those on the opposite side to actually recognise that, because that has been the strength of enterprise bargaining agreements. The weakness is the fact that the laws being proposed by this government do not allow proper negotiation to take place, which will further exacerbate the imbalance in bargaining right through the middle of a pandemic.

If you want any more starker example of where this country is getting it wrong and where this government has got it so wrong, it is when we say to gig workers that they don't count, when we say to their loved ones that they don't count, when we say to those who have lost family members that they don't count and when we say that you can be paid less than minimum wage—that it's too complicated to fix. In my previous life I dealt with a lot of employers, and I tell you what: they don't think that it doesn't count. They think it does count for something, and you should think that way, too.

6:05 pm

Photo of Matthew CanavanMatthew Canavan (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to start by recognising the merit in Senator Sheldon bringing these complaints to the chamber and the need for them to be properly investigated. If people are mistreated by large companies, or by small companies, they deserve justice. I note that there has been significant change in employment markets or, I suppose, work arrangements, with the rise of companies like Deliveroo and Uber, and it's probably not unusual, therefore, that our laws might be lagging behind some of those developments. We should look at those things, and that's why we have an inquiry on at the moment to investigate them.

I'm not sure that Senator Sheldon has the solutions just yet. I know he was only able to make a brief contribution, but I'm not sure I necessarily heard solutions. It's one thing to say it's simple and that it's not as complicated as the minister says. But I have been speaking with a few Uber drivers—they're the main ones I interact with; we don't have Deliveroo in Rockhampton, so I don't get that. Some of them really do like the flexibility they get, so I'm not so sure they want to go to a regulated, centralised, unionised environment just yet. Through the inquiry, I will very much make sure that the workers are front and centre of what this parliament should do.

The matter of public importance before us here today is quite an achievement by the Labor Party. I believe they put forward an MPI containing about 19 words. They criticise the Morrison government for failing wage growth, for lack of action on wage theft and for increasing the amount of insecure work. It's quite an achievement—in just 20-odd words, the Labor Party have been able to squeeze in three misleading statements, and sometimes flat-out wrong statements.

In the case of failing wage growth, that is just not true. Wages have not been falling. In fact, over the time of the coalition government, when you take out the effects of inflation, real wages have gone up by 0.7 per cent a year, slightly above the 20-year average of 0.6 per cent a year. Nominal wages have gone up even more, but that's not a fair comparison. So there is definitely not a fall in wages. Of course, we would like wages to be growing higher and better than they have been. As a nation, we do have an issue with productivity growth. That is something that must be focused on, which is why we want to lower taxes, which has been opposed by the Labor Party; why we are providing more tax incentives for capital accumulation through the instant asset write-off changes—they have been very successful; and why we are reforming the overall industrial relations scheme.

This MPI also accuses the coalition government of not acting on wage theft. I'm trying to spend a minute on each of the Labor Party's three misleading statements. I don't have time to go through all of the action that the Commonwealth government has taken, but I believe we have put aside $160 million towards increasing the compliance of people engaging in wage theft. We are going to create a new criminal offence for the dishonest and systematic underpayment of one or more employees, carrying a maximum penalty of four years. We will also be increasing civil penalties and prohibiting employers from advertising jobs with pay rates below the minimum wage. We have seen some shocking examples of underpayments, effectively wage theft, in recent times and, in response to those, the Commonwealth government has taken, and will continue to take, action.

Finally, on the idea that insecure work is increasing, I think Senator Sheldon was quoting that last year somewhere around 60 per cent of the jobs were part time. It may be news to Senator Sheldon that we're in a global pandemic. There was a global pandemic going on and it makes sense, in a time of that global uncertainty, that perhaps there were going to be a lot of companies, a lot of businesses, not offering full-time jobs because, obviously, when you offer a full-time job you're making a commitment over a number of years and you would want to have a fairly certain economic environment to make such a commitment. It's not at all unusual that, in times of global uncertainty the likes of which we haven't seen for a hundred years at least, in terms of the health issue of the pandemic, there would be an increase in the proportion of jobs going to part time. But, in good news, recent employment data, which I don't Senator Sheldon concentrated on, shows 60,000 full-time jobs were created in the last month. That is a massive number and it gives us hope for the future.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator Canavan. The time for this discussion has expired.