Senate debates

Wednesday, 17 March 2021


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

9:37 am

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

Last week, I attended rallies in Townsville and Cairns with workers who are against this Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021. I told those workers that I would come in here and vote against this legislation because it does nothing to help our recovery, it does nothing to support jobs and it does nothing to fix insecurity in work, which we know this government talks a lot about but doesn't do anything about when it comes to the crunch.

Those rallies took place outside the member for Herbert's office and the member for Leichhardt's office, but we weren't able to get straight answers from either member of parliament about whether they would guarantee that no workers would be worse off under this legislation. The member for Leichhardt didn't even front the media after this rally was held. Workers had to go all the way to his office to be heard and they still had no answers from this government or the member for Leichhardt about why this legislation is being pushed through at a time when regional economies are facing an economic crisis, with JobKeeper being pulled out. It doesn't make any sense. Just because words are put in the title of legislation doesn't mean that it's what that legislation delivers.

The worst part about this legislation—and I will go through the provisions in a moment—is that we know the government are using COVID as an opportunity to attack workers' rights. It says a lot about the government and their priorities. The workers who got us through this crisis are now the workers the Morrison government want to attack—the cleaners, the retail workers, the transport and dock workers. The people who kept the country moving in the middle of a pandemic are the people now being attacked by this government. It says a lot about them. They were in here thanking those workers, posting things on Facebook, thanking people for going out there, doing their jobs and keeping the country moving, but now this is how they thank those workers.

This bill does a number of things to undermine the working conditions of Australian workers. It cuts workers' pay by changing the hours, and overtime power is given to employers instead of workers. It does this by introducing what they say is a modest change to have, by agreement, part-time workers work extra hours without getting overtime. They say that if the employer and employee come together and decide that this is a good thing to do then what's the harm in that? The Liberals will tell you that there is a level-playing field between employees and employers when it comes to making this agreement, but we know that is not true. Individual workplace agreements were the cornerstone of Work Choices. Maybe members of this government don't know what it is like to have an individual workplace agreement slid across the table and for you to have no other option but to sign that agreement. Well, I know what that feels like. When John Howard was here, when Work Choices was in, when this government was trashing workers' rights, that is what happened to me as a young worker: an individual workplace agreement. I didn't have another choice. I didn't have a choice to sign another agreement or to push back; I needed a job.

So many people are now in that situation. They are desperate for work, desperate for hours. This government is putting through a system that means that part-time workers will receive less take home pay, because they won't be able to get overtime. Their employer will slide an individual workplace agreement—that's what it is; they might want to call it a different name now, but that's what this is—across the table. And they can't say no to signing that agreement; otherwise, they probably won't have a job. They won't get the hours that they need. We know how this works. This government doesn't talk to workers. They don't understand what happens in workplaces, so they don't understand how this will play out when it comes to workplaces in this country.

The Liberals will tell you the other thing this legislation does is create a pathway to permanency. They like that term: a 'pathway to permanency'. What it doesn't do is actually give workers a right to permanency. We know that there are two Federal Court cases at the moment that say you can't keep a worker as a casual forever. If you do, you will have to pay them all of the entitlements that you didn't pay them when they were a casual. It's a pretty simple concept. That's why workers, supported by the CFMMEU mining division, took these cases to the Federal Court. This government joined the Federal Court case not on the side of workers but to support the company to stop these cases going forward. They lost that bid; they lost these cases. The Federal Court ruled in favour of the workers to stop them becoming permanent casuals. So what has this government done? It's bringing legislation forward to overturn those decisions. That's what this government is doing. The Liberal and National parties will tell you that all they're doing is just cleaning up the definition of 'casual', but what they've done is overturn those Federal Court cases.

Members of this government have been out in Central Queensland and North Queensland telling people that this legislation will provide a pathway to permanency, but where is the enforcement? If a case goes to arbitration then an employer can decide not to take part in that arbitration. There is no enforcement mechanism. It is all smoke and mirrors from this government. For all of the time that Senator Canavan, that the member for Dawson, George Christensen, and that members of this government have been telling people in Far North Queensland, regional Queensland and Central Queensland, 'We are going to do something about dodgy labour hire, about the problems with casualisation in the mining industry'—here is their chance, and what do they do? They put forward a haphazard overturn of Federal Court cases that will do nothing to help workers in Central Queensland.

This bill also contains eight-year greenfields agreements, so no negotiation can take place between workers and employers for eight years. We heard evidence at Senate inquiries that greenfields agreements have locked in what workers call suicide rosters. They haven't been able to negotiate that. After four years, right now they can go and negotiate those rosters. They can go and negotiate the terms and agreements. Things change in a workplace when there is no project. For years, as a project progresses, those workers invest their hard work and time in getting that project off the ground, and this government will remove the opportunity for them to negotiate for eight years. There are not many projects that take eight years to complete, so this means workers on these greenfields agreements will never get to negotiate their workplace conditions.

This government is bringing forward legislation that it says will improve wage theft laws, that will make wage theft laws better in this country. But we know that the Labor state government in Queensland has already brought in workplace wage theft laws. Those wage theft laws make sure that the penalty for stealing from a worker is the same as the penalty for someone stealing from their boss. There is an equivalency. That's an important part of those laws. But this legislation from this Liberal-National government is watering down Queensland's wage theft laws by not delivering the same level of penalties for employers. That's not good enough for Queensland workers. That is why they rallied outside the offices of LNP members.

What is not in this bill says a lot about this government. There is no policy in this bill that if you work the same job you get the same pay. If you work the same job, you should get the same pay. If we had laws that delivered that, then dodgy labour hire would not be able to undermine the working conditions of people in our country—people working in regional Queensland on dodgy labour hire agreements that undercut their hard-fought working conditions. Labour hire companies have been able to undercut these working conditions so that people are now not able to plan for their future. They don't know when they're going to be able to take a holiday with their family. They are being paid less than the person standing next to them doing the exact same job. This is an opportunity for the government to fix this problem, but they're not doing that through this bill. It says a lot about them that they're pushing through this legislation but not doing anything to make sure that if you do the same job you get the same pay.

This legislation doesn't do anything to stop permanent casuals or continuing short-term contracts. It doesn't provide a way for wages to increase by bargaining better. It doesn't fix that problem. When it comes to IR legislation and making changes, it doesn't provide things like 10 days domestic violence leave. The government is making industrial relation legislation changes, but it left that one out.

In the short time that I have left, the other thing that is deeply concerning about this bill is it makes work more insecure. It means workers won't be able to plan for their future. It means they will be paid less. It means work in this country will be, as they refer to it, more flexible, but we know that when they say 'flexible' they really mean 'insecure'. And this is at a time when the government is also cutting JobKeeper, taking off the table support for communities, jobs and workers around this country. The problem with that is that the government's plan to rebuild the economy is to let workers do it themselves.

The Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment said of the recovery plan the government is delivering that Australians had to 'dig deep' and resist the urge to be 'stingy' when booking a holiday at home. Mr Tehan said that he encouraged Australians not to 'be tight', to spend the same way they do overseas. He said there should be 'no penny pinching in Australia this year'. At the same time as the Morrison government is asking Australians to spend their own money to save jobs in tourism, it's pushing through legislation that makes work less secure. At the same time as the Morrison government is cutting JobKeeper, it's pushing through laws to make jobs less secure. At the same time as thousands of workers risk losing their jobs, the Morrison government is pushing through dodgy IR legislation. At the same time as thousands of workers in Cairns and around the country are concerned that they will lose their job because the government's only plan to support workers is to ask other Australians not to penny pinch, this is the legislation that the government is pushing through. This is their plan for recovery: to cut workers' rights; to make it harder for workers to get a secure, well-paid job; to make sure that the rights and conditions hard-won through Federal Court cases in this country are overturned. That is their plan. Do you think it's going to work? The Morrison government's Liberal National Party member for Leichhardt, Warren Entsch, said that cutting penalty rates would create jobs. Do you remember that one, Madam Deputy President? They said, 'If we cut penalty rates we'll create more jobs.' It didn't create a single one. Cutting penalty rates didn't create a single job, and this legislation will not save or create a single job.

9:52 am

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

It's disappointing that we find ourselves standing here in the Senate chamber today, at the end of a very difficult 12 months for Australians, who've been doing their bit to get through a pandemic, dealing with a piece of legislation, the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021, which proposes the most drastic changes to our industrial relations system in over a decade. It's no coincidence that this is coming in the recovery phase—we hope—of a pandemic. It's just like the way the government has used COVID to push its agenda, or the agenda of its donors, for a fossil fuel led recovery, the 'gas led recovery'. I and many senators have sat on the COVID committee hearings over many months and we've witnessed this cynical use of a pandemic to say: 'Hey, we need a COVID recovery. Jobs are important, the economy's under assault; let's do this.' They've used it to push their agendas. Today is another example of an agenda, which they just can't let go, to do whatever they can to undermine workers' rights—to come into this place and work for their special interests, the big business sector.

It is especially disappointing because two things we can reflect on from COVID over last 12 months are how it relates to workers' rights and how we operate in this place. Firstly can I say that it gave me, as a senator, a lot of hope during the first phase of COVID, when we were all in lockdown and working from our homes, to see political parties come together and unions and business advocacy groups come together to put in place a stimulus package that helped both businesses, especially small businesses, and workers. Of course, that was the JobKeeper program. It wasn't perfect. Not enough people got it. The Greens pushed hard for those who were unfairly or unnecessarily, through mean-spirited politics, left out of JobKeeper.

I remind my colleagues across the chamber that the Greens were the first to be campaigning and calling for a living wage during the pandemic. We worked hard to speak to stakeholders to try to get everybody on board, as I am sure the Labor Party did. To your credit, you did listen. It took a few weeks for you to get on board but eventually you did listen to the business sector, the unions and other political parties in here, and we got a good result for Australians. I don't think any of us can deny that JobKeeper and certainly an increase in JobSeeker, which we would like to see made permanent, has helped every state economy and our national economy. It has helped small businesses stay in business. It has given workers the certainty they have needed during this very difficult period. So where has that spirit of cooperation gone, where everybody is working for the public interest? Where has that spirit of cooperation gone? It's especially damning that it's back to cynical self-interested politics so early.

We also know that COVID laid bare just how bad and how big a problem insecure work is in this country. Many of us probably felt the frustrations. It wasn't just state premiers or the Prime Minister who felt frustrated when we saw outbreaks from hotel quarantine. But we learned that those hotel workers who had spread COVID, which led to more shutdowns, were working two or three jobs. They were out there because of insecure work. They had to do two or three jobs to put food on the table. If that's not an indictment of just how bad insecure work in this country is, I don't know what is.

What we have before us today is a cynical attempt to use the COVID recovery period, under the guise of 'we need jobs and growth'—just the name of the bill tells you that: the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021—to say: 'Forget about these concerns that workers, unions and some in the small business sector have about this bill. What's more important is that we have jobs and recovery during a pandemic.' If anything, it should be the other way around. The pandemic should be an opportunity for us to press reset for the next 20, 30 or 50 years. We should use this as an opportunity to get things right—to maintain a higher level of JobSeeker to give people fairness and dignity in their life, and review this concept of a living wage that has so helped so many Australians. That money has been circulated through the economy. The circular flow of income has worked. It has kept certainty in our communities.

The reaction we are seeing right around the country to the removal of JobKeeper tells you something very important. People aren't confident, without government stimulus, of the economic landscape, both here and overseas, in the next nine to 12 months. While government regulations are in place, while the government are dictating border closures and restrictions for business and restrictions on international travel—and, may I say, restrictions that are totally necessary—they have a role to play and a responsibility to look after small business and workers. It has worked very well in the last 12 months. But here we have, before us today, an attempt to lock in insecure work. I'm going to go through my key problems with this bill in a moment, but it's worth pointing out that over two million people in Australia are unemployed or underemployed, with women, young people and migrant workers particularly bearing the brunt of this statistic. Instead of improving job security and lifting wages—which, as the Reserve Bank governor continues to remind us, is absolutely necessary if we're going to have a future recovery—the government's pushing for a bill that will further entrench insecure work, suppress wages, give more power to businesses at workers' expense and undermine the role of unions. It is more of the same, more of what I and other senators in this chamber have seen every day in this place since the government came to power in 2013.

I've mentioned that the pandemic has highlighted inequality that's been allowed to flourish as a result of the push by this government for insecure work over many, many years. Casual workers were hit the hardest during the pandemic, accounting for approximately two-thirds of people who lost their job when the pandemic hit just over a year ago. Those casuals who still had a job were amongst the lowest-paid and most insecure workers, with no access to paid leave entitlements. And we mustn't forget the role insecure work played in spreading COVID across the country as workers without paid sick leave were forced to choose between their health and their income. I once again remind senators of issues around quarantine outbreaks among hotel workers. Many employers have built insecure work into their business models. While they turn a profit, workers have not had a job or income security. Changes in this bill will just entrench that. Instead of passing a bill that further entrenches insecure work, reduces wages and increases the powers of employers, we need to outlaw insecure work and ensure the right of all workers to a safe, meaningful, secure job with good wages and conditions.

The first issue I have with this bill is the definition of a casual. The new definition will give employers all the power to determine whether a worker is casual and will allow businesses to classify workers as casual at the start of their employment, regardless of what ends up happening after that or how many additional hours they end up working. The bill clarifies that to avoid any doubt: the question of whether a person is a casual employee is to be assessed on the basis of the offer of employment and the acceptance of that offer, not on the basis of any subsequent conduct of either party. In other words, it allows the use and abuse of casual workers, who may be required to work full-time hours but don't get any of the entitlements that go with that. I've got no problem with casual work if it's with the agreement of the worker. I've been a casual worker myself, and that has suited my personal circumstances. But without agreement and with a scant regard for workers' wellbeing it's totally unacceptable.

The other issue is casual conversion. Casual-conversion offers must be made to casuals who have been employed for 12 months unless—and I stress 'unless'—there are reasonable business grounds not to make the offer. This is unenforceable, as arbitration is available only if both parties agree, and the employer has very broad rights to refuse conversion on reasonable business grounds. Well, what does 'reasonable business grounds' mean? Does it mean the employer wants more profit? As if that's going to work and be a fair basis to make casual-conversion deliberations!

I've also got problems with a new class of workers, what we call 'part-time flexi'. This bill will create a new class of de facto casual workers by robbing part-time workers of hours and income security by allowing businesses to effectively treat these workers like casuals, with the power to increase and decrease their hours. The bill introduces simplified additional-hour agreements, which allow part-time workers in industries that have been hardest hit by the pandemic, such as hospitality and retail, to be employed on contracts that offer a guarantee of only 16 hours a week, with their employer able to increase their hours without paying overtime. We note that penalty rates will still be paid where applicable. This applies to 12 modern awards; however, the minister will have the power to make regulations to include or exclude modern awards. If you were a worker, having seen the track record of this government in the last nine years, would you trust the minister and this government to make those decisions in your interests? I wouldn't.

Enterprise bargaining: there is a suite of proposed changes in this bill that significantly erode workers' rights and undermine the role of unions in the enterprise-bargaining process. Time and time again, we've seen big businesses act in their own self-interest at the expense of workers' wages and conditions. However, the government is removing the safety net checks and balances that are designed to protect workers and asking them to trust big business to do the right thing. Once again, I'll remind the chamber of Philip Lowe's comments when speaking recently about the need for wages growth. What is needed, and what economists, unions and workers call for, are for policies that will increase wages. However, this government is pursuing a bill that will suppress wages as if we haven't learnt the importance of being fair and equitable during the pandemic.

Greenfield agreements: this bill will allow the Fair Work Commissioned to approve greenfield agreements to operate for eight years, locking workers into subpar agreements without the opportunity to renegotiate or access arbitration—eight years! That's a long time; eight years is nearly a decade. And wage theft: while the bill criminalises wage theft for systemic patterns of underpayment, which is welcomed, it doesn't apply to one-off underpayments, inadvertent mistakes or miscalculations. That needs to be fixed also.

So there are six or seven key things in this bill that the Greens fundamentally oppose. But, more importantly, I ask senators in this place to think about the last 12 months. Think about the spirit of cooperation that we've all worked together on in this place—something we can be proud of for the rest of our careers—helping our country to get through a difficult period. Unions were working with businesses and politicians were working across political parties to help workers, small businesses and everybody to get through the most difficult of times. That spirit of cooperation has now gone. This bill signals that. This bill is a return to business as usual: trying to screw workers, trying to help big business and supporting their donors in politics. I urge senators to reject this bill.

10:07 am

Photo of Malarndirri McCarthyMalarndirri McCarthy (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021 shows what this government is willing to sacrifice for its conservative idealism, attacking workers at the expense of our economic prosperity. That's what this bill does: it takes away job security for millions of Australian workers; it delays our recovery from the pandemic by crushing wage growth; and it strips away workers' rights which, in turn, impacts on our economy. This bill sickens our economy and it certainly sickens our workers.

The ANU submission to the Senate inquiry into this bill called it an immediate threat to public health. They warned that lack of paid sick leave will exacerbate a weakness in Australia's COVID-19 response. This bill promotes insecure work and erodes the security and protections provided to employees. It allows businesses to hire employees as casuals and to deprive them of leave entitlements, even if they subsequently work a regular roster. The ANU research school's submission noted that Australia already has one of the highest rates of individuals without leave entitlements among OECD nations, with estimates ranging from 25 to 37 per cent of the workforce. And we know that casual workers are doubly impacted by the COVID pandemic due to the absence of leave entitlements and them being among some of the lowest-paid workers.

The public health experts cited modelling that paid leave, including for flu and other infectious diseases, can reduce workplace infections by at least 25 per cent. They argue casual workers are already at risk of infection and transmission, as we've seen this year among healthcare workers, personal care attendants, cleaners, security guards, abattoir workers, delivery workers, supermarket staff, public transport and taxi drivers, and childcare staff. We have listened to the public health experts in our response to the pandemic. This has been a big part of our success in staying safe and reducing the impacts of COVID-19 on Australians. We should be listening to the public health experts on this bill. They said very, very clearly that the proposed changes will undermine our world-class response to COVID-19 by increasing casual employment and insecure working conditions. The so-called reforms will hurt workers and hurt the economy at the exact moment that both need help the most.

Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe has said jobs and wages are key to Australia's recovery. But the government, as usual, isn't listening and it's getting it wrong on both sides of the jobs and wages equation, with no plans for investment on the scale that this once-in-a-generation crisis demands. The government still plans an abrupt end to income supports in a few weeks, despite pleas from workers and businesses. This bill fails every test. It makes work less secure and cuts pay. It is a fundamental attack on the very workers who got us through this pandemic. It's a fundamental attack on the very workers who campaigned so hard and so long in the past to ensure Australian workers have these rights and protections. Many of you, both in the Senate and in the other place, would have seen and spoken with so many workers' representatives who've been in Parliament House this week campaigning against this bill, telling us what harm it's going to cause them, their families, their colleagues and their workplaces. Among them are representatives from Kalkarindji in the Northern Territory, people from the from Gurindji nation, from the place of the Wave Hill walk-off.

The history of the walk-off and land rights is tied to the history of the union movement and workers' rights in this country, and it is a significant legacy. I'd like to quote some of the speech given by Kara Keys, the then ACTU Indigenous officer, at the 50th anniversary of the Wave Hill walk-off:

It is a great legacy because, once the Gurindji walked off Wave Hill, the NAWU gave them their 100% support.

It is a great legacy because the union movement nationwide galvanised around the workers and gave them great support.

It is a great legacy because it fundamentally shifted the NAWU and other unions in the country. It showed unions that Indigenous workers were willing to fight for wage equality and it shifted unions to the role of supporting and fighting for all workers.

And it is a great legacy because while the trigger for the Wave Hill Walk Off was equal wages, the gun powder was the systemic racism, poor living conditions, a legislative environment which allowed for the theft of children from their families and the theft of Aboriginal people having any agency over their own lives.

The Wave Hill Walk Off shifted the nation.

Thank you, Kara Keys, for reminding all Australians of that. That legacy continues, and it is fantastic to see so many First Nations union members here today in the Australian parliament. I thank each and every one of you, the union members of First Nations families from across the country who are not just in the parliament this week but around the country, working with our unions, working to improve the working conditions of all people around Australia. Your message is very clear: this bill will cause more harm to workers and it will particularly hurt casual workers. The government has ignored years of common law and overturned the recent Federal Court decisions on what it means to be a casual.

Under these laws if a worker agrees to be employed as a casual at the start of their employment then they remain as a casual regardless of their actual work pattern, so long as the employer employs them on the basis they make no firm advance commitment to continuing and indefinite work according to an agreed pattern of work. If a court finds later they are in fact a permanent then any casual loading they received will be offset against any permanent entitlements they are owed. Both the definition and offset apply retrospectively. Under the government's own figures, this involves cancelling around $39 billion in back pay that would otherwise be owed to casuals.

There were just over 2.6 million casual workers employed in Australia in August 2019. They accounted for 24.4 per cent of all employees. Tasmania had the highest casual employee share of total employees in August 2019 at 28.3 per cent, while the Northern Territory had the lowest casual share at 21.2 per cent. That is still more than a fifth of our Northern Territory workforce, particularly in our tourism and hospitality sector. This is a sector we know has been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. Many hospitality businesses have closed or downgraded. Hundreds of hotel rooms are offline. Many workers have lost their jobs or they've had their hours reduced or have relied on JobKeeper to stay employed. Making it easier for employers to casualise jobs that would have otherwise been permanent will not assist or stabilise an industry where workers are already struggling.

The mining and construction sectors also make up a critical part of the Northern Territory economy, creating hundreds of direct jobs and contributing in a huge way to the economy. But workers in these sectors will be hard hit by this legislation. Workers on mining and construction projects could be locked into eight-year enterprise agreements, which could actually see wages that don't keep pace with inflation. So how is this good for workers or for the wider economy? How does ensuring workers end up with less money in their pockets contribute to our economy and its recovery? The simple answer is it doesn't.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the fact that too many people in this country work in low-paid, insecure employment—casuals, contractors, freelancers, labour hire workers and gig workers. These vulnerable workers, the ones who can least afford it, were hit first and hit the hardest. Rather than taking this opportunity to learn lessons from COVID-19 and dealing with the twin problems of insecure work and flatlining wages, the government's proposed new laws do exactly the opposite. This bill is bad for Northern Territory workers, it's bad for Northern Territory businesses and it is most certainly bad for our nation. It cannot be supported.

10:18 am

Photo of Jess WalshJess Walsh (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

At the outset, Labor said that we would apply a very simple test to this legislation: will it deliver decent pay and more secure jobs for Australian workers? In fact, this legislation does the exact opposite. It fails our test, and that's why we will not be supporting the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021. This bill is an attack on workers, especially the lowest paid and most insecure workers in the country. Labor have always stood up for and Labor will always stand up for the workers of Australia. We will stand up against pay cuts and job insecurity and we will stand up against this legislation.

The legislation before us has come to us at an absolutely unprecedented time in our history. We face remarkable challenges as a result of COVID-19. COVID has seen the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs across the country. The recovery is patchy, and jobs in some sectors are still at risk. So the government's pay cuts and their attacks on job security could not come at a worse time. But one of our greatest problems—that is, low wage growth—cannot simply be blamed on the pandemic, because under this government wage growth has never been slower. The problem of low wage growth will only be made worse by this legislation.

Low wages growth is bad for workers—of course it's bad for workers, who are finding it hard to make ends meet and put food on the table—but it is also bad for the economy, because right now we need people with money in their pockets and with the confidence to spend it. It seems that everyone agrees with that basic proposition—everyone except the Morrison government. We know the Reserve Bank Governor, Philip Lowe, has said on multiple occasions, so many times, that we need to get wages moving in this country. He said wage growth is absolutely fundamental to repairing the economy and lifting spending, investment and growth. The Australian economy desperately needs wages to get moving right now, and so do Australian workers. But the wage-suppressing policies of this government are hurting workers and putting a brake on the economy.

The bill that is in front of us today, make no mistake, will only make this worse. The Prime Minister is asking us to believe that cutting wages will create jobs. Where have I heard that before? The government is a repeat offender on the lie that cutting wages creates jobs—it's a lie. Cutting penalty rates did not create a single additional job in this country. Even business groups admit that. So, for Australia to recover from the pandemic, we need people with money in their pockets and with the confidence to spend it. We do not need pay cuts and even more insecure jobs.

It's estimated that today up to five million Australians have insecure work arrangements. The government's legislation will make work even less secure through an expanded employer controlled definition of 'casual labour'. Under this provision, if an employer says that you're a casual, even if you work like a permanent staff member, you'll be treated like a casual—no leave, no entitlements, no rights, no security. That is what the government is offering you with this bill. And while you could ask your employer to be made permanent after 12 long months, if they say no, well that is just the end of it: full stop. If this legislation is passed, it will hurt wage growth and it will increase job insecurity and financial uncertainty for Australian workers. It will damage the economy more broadly by hurting consumer confidence and consumer spending. Too many Australians are already in insecure jobs; too many Australians are casuals, contractors, freelancers, labour hire workers, gig economy workers.

We saw the devastating consequences of this insecurity in the pandemic. We saw aged-care workers juggling two or three jobs just to make ends meet. Their insecurity, tragically, put them and the people in their care at extreme risk. Aged-care workers, like so many workers, often have jobs with no certainty of work for the next day, the next week, the next month ahead. Workers like Sherree, a veteran aged-care worker with more than 20 years' experience in the sector. Sherree is contracted to work just 16 hours a fortnight. While she consistently works above that, she is never sure exactly how many hours she's going to get from week to week. On top of her irregular hours, the pay is low in her job, so she can't convince a real estate agent to give her a lease, she can't convince a bank to give her a loan and sometimes she can't make enough money even to meet her own basic needs. Sherree wants us to vote this legislation down. She has spoken out against this legislation and, today, I stand with Sherree and I stand with all of the Australian workers who are stuck in casual jobs and in insecure jobs. We need to vote this legislation down.

This government's legislation would increase the casualisation of jobs and insecurity for all workers. The so-called part-time flexibility arrangements turn permanent part-time workers into casuals. These measures allow the government to extend the sorts of hours Sherree works to everyone on an award—16 hours one week, 20 hours the next, 30 hours the week after that, no overtime for going above your rostered hours, no certainty of when you will be offered more hours, no security whatsoever. This is happening right at the time when we need more job security, not less.

Last year, the Prime Minister took every opportunity he could find to thank an essential worker—every photo opportunity, every doorstop. But what a difference a new year makes, because this legislation is how he is thanking the workers of Australia—the hardworking, essential people who kept our country going through the pandemic. This nasty IR bill is how Prime Minister Morrison is thanking the essential workers that this year he once called heroes. This nasty IR bill contains pay cuts, it casualises work and it makes work less secure. It gives more power to employers over workers and it gives fewer rights to unions.

Well, I have a different message for Australia's essential workers, and Labor has a different message for Australia's essential workers, because we know that you turned up every day last year to do your job. We know that you turned up to deliver the parcels. We know that you turned up to put food on the shelves. We know that you turned up to take care of our elderly in aged-care facilities. We know that you turned up every day to our childcare centres. And we know that you continue to turn up every day to do your job. The Morrison government needs to do its job and turn up for you. The Morrison government needs to do its job and turn up for you and scrap this nasty IR bill. The Morrison government needs to do its job and turn up for you and tell the people of Australia, tell the workers of Australia, exactly what their plan is to get wages moving and exactly what their plan is to make their jobs more secure, because this bill is not that plan. This is a bill that will keep wages low, this is a bill that will keep jobs casual and make more jobs casual, this is a bill that will hurt people's job security, this is a bill that will hurt Australians workers and this is a bill that will hurt our economy and hurt our recovery. We fundamentally and absolutely reject this bill.

This government has had nine years to answer the questions that I've asked today: How are they going to get wages moving? How are they going to make jobs more secure? Nine long years—in that time, I have to say that I cannot think of a single thing this government has done, a single initiative this government has taken, to get wages moving. I can't think of a single thing this government has done, a single initiative this government has taken, to make our jobs in this country more secure. In nine years, I cannot think of a single thing this government has contributed to getting wages moving and making jobs more secure.

One thing is clear today: this bill is not the answer the people of Australia are looking for. This nasty IR bill is not the answer to getting wages moving. This bill is not the answer to building more secure jobs. It's not the answer for workers struggling to put food on the table. It's not the answer for local businesses, who actually want to see people in their communities opening their wallets and having the confidence to spend; that's what local businesses want to see. This bill is not the answer for our economic recovery. It is just one more tired and nasty iteration of this government's same old ideologically-driven policies that hurt workers and unions: cutting wages; going after union bargaining rights; and calling insecurity 'flexibility', the better-sounding and more acceptable word. This is the Liberals' go-to plan. Well, enough is enough. People need good jobs. They need secure jobs they can count on, they need rights at work and they need a government that is going to look out for them and back them up. This Morrison government will never deliver what the people of Australia need.

This bill also misses the opportunity to deal with wage theft, which is a national epidemic. Wage theft robs workers of wages and entitlements, and it also robs us of tax income. It's estimated that national revenue loss due to foregone income is over $9 billion annually. Wage theft is bad for workers, bad for the economy and bad for government, but this government doesn't seem to care. If this bill passes, it will wipe out Victoria's and Queensland's stronger wage theft laws—laws that workers themselves stood up for and fought for.

The government's bill will set an impossibly high bar for successful prosecution of wage theft offences; employers will face little prospect of prosecution and will face trivial criminal penalties if, indeed, they are caught. That's why workers like Jules fought so hard for those Victorian wage theft laws. She's a veteran hospitality worker. In her time she's seen every type of wage theft in that industry. These are her words about the stronger wage theft laws she fought for in Victoria being overturned by this bill: 'When Victoria introduced legislation criminalising wage theft, I cried. Finally, workers were going to have something solid and strong. The federal government's legislation is a kick in the guts to workers like me.'

The Victorian government has said that the Commonwealth should amend its legislation to bring wage theft provisions in line with stronger Victorian offences. But instead the Morrison government will give unscrupulous employers in Victoria a free pass, and workers will find it much harder to prosecute their employers for wage theft. So the next George Calombaris, the next Rockpool, the next MasterChef who comes under scrutiny could very well get off the hook if this bill becomes law. The government is pursuing a deeply entrenched ideology in this legislation. There is clear evidence that better agreements are struck where unions are engaged in effective bargaining.

10:33 am

Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021. The Morrison government spends a great deal of time talking about the economic recovery from the pandemic. It likes to talk about reviving the manufacturing sector to reduce Australia's dependence on fragile global supply chains. In this process it asserts it is creating new skilled jobs for Australians. But so far we've seen very little evidence of the investment necessary to actually achieve those objectives. The truth is that the government does not have a plan for recovery. It only has a plan for increasing the amount of insecure work, for keeping wages growth stagnant, for doing the bidding of the top end of town.

What we see outlined in this bill is the nearest thing to an agenda that this government has. It is a bill which is aimed at increasing what the employer advocates like to call flexibility. 'Flexibility is a very, very familiar word in the mouths of conservative politicians. We've come to understand what it really means of course: it's code for cutting wages, cutting working conditions, undermining job security and making it harder for workers to organise in defence of their rights. All the talk about flexibility masks the fact that increasing numbers of people are being forced into insecure, precarious work. The Centre for Future Work at the Australia Institute estimates that casual jobs account for some 60 per cent of the jobs that have been created since May last year. From May to November 2020, casual employment grew by 400,000—the biggest increase in Australia's history. They have massively added to the numbers of what have already been called 'the precariat' in this country.

In late May 2020 the International Labour Organization called for urgent and large-scale policy responses to prevent long-lasting damage from the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly to young people. It feared that multiple shocks would lead to a lockdown generation, lacking social and human rights including the right to collective bargaining and participation. It noted that little or no social protection, including adequate unemployment and sickness benefits, accounted for these precarious conditions. What we're seeing in this government is a repudiation of that approach.

The initial response to COVID from the government was to spend very, very large sums of money to ensure that we did not sink too far into depression, but now we see a reversion to kind, to type. What we are seeing is a return to policy positions where the government is seeking to impose a regime of competition—the neo-Liberal settings which inform employment relations and welfare policies that are about fostering more precarious approaches to social relations in this country. We have seen this develop since the economic crisis of 2007-08 and we've seen it exacerbated throughout this last pandemic, right around the world. We've seen it happening not just in this country but across all market economies. It's not just a technological change—although some will say 'What do you expect, with the changes of digitisation?'—but a deliberate policy of conservative parties. It is a consequence of the disruption of the pandemic but it is exacerbated by the policy positions being pursued by conservative parties. These policies, when applied to the workplace, to the welfare system, to vocational education and training, maintain a pool of low-paid and mostly unemployed workers who have to compete with one another at the bottom end of the labour market. So they're able to provide reserve wage conditions to maintain suppression on the growth in real wages. Instead of stimulating growth, what we've got is a competition for jobs. That is the fundamental principle that underlies the economic theory behind the development of the precariat not just in this country but in so many other countries. It's why we see the deregulation of employment conditions; why we're seeing, under internationalisation and marketisation, the growth in casualisation; why we are seeing the reduction in social protections. It is why we're seeing this push for supply-side employment policies aimed at developing a marketing arrangement matching existing skills, rather than the development of new skills for new industries.

This is a bill that employer advocates would naturally support. They say it's not really a problem, because insecure work has really been much the same over the last 20 years. They say casualisation has remained about 20 per cent of the workforce. What they do not acknowledge is the rise in casualisation throughout the period starting probably even before the previous economic crisis. In 1982 casuals comprised some 13 per cent of the workforce. By 2017 they were 25 per cent of the workforce. More importantly, casual work, which has a narrow definition in terms of sick leave and other entitlements, forms only one part of 'precarious work'. Precarious work is work that's performed by workers with little economic or social security, with little control over their lives, with little control over their work environment. It includes not just casual work but work on fixed-term contracts, seasonal work and employment under labour hire contracts. According to the OECD, in 2015 Australia ranked third in the world for non-standard forms of employment. The OECD average for those forms of employment is one in three jobs, but in Australia, the OECD noted, it was 44 per cent.

This bill before us will increase competition for low-paid, precarious work, but it will not drive economic growth. It will be a further rip into the social fabric of this country. People will find it more difficult to control their economic lives and maintain the bonds that keep households and communities together. People will start to become alienated from a system that they feel no longer works for them. It will further exacerbate the tensions within society. It will undermine trust amongst citizens and between citizens and public institutions such as parliament. As a consequence of this kind of thing, in many democracies around the world we have seen the rise of far-Right populist movements. In many parts of the world, we've seen fascism in its many forms—which many said was defeated in 1945—re-emerge from the economic crisis of recent years.

Conservative governments in this country seem oblivious to the social and economic costs of the policies that they are pursuing. They have clung to a neoliberal approach aimed at driving down wages and placing more people in more precarious situations within our society—a goal that gives the lie to their supposed interest in economic recovery. Increasing the general wage level is the most direct means of stimulating economic growth. It's probably the most effective way of increasing people's opportunities. It's not complicated. When people on low incomes are paid more, they will spend more, and that benefits businesses and the workers they employ.

It is a short-sighted approach that the government is pursuing. Cutting costs is a prescription for a downward spiral in economic activity. That's what we've been locked into for quite a while. The Centre for Future Work stated in its submission to the Senate inquiry into this bill:

… a dramatic and lasting deceleration in wage growth took hold beginning around 2013. Wage growth fell by half, with private sector WPI plummeting to a low of around 1.8% in 2016 and 2017. … plummeting to record-lows during the COVID recession to only 1.2% …

Because the government keeps chipping away at everything that protects the standard of living of Australians, you might think that the government is set upon an ideological agenda of undermining the living conditions of the people of this country. You'd be right to think that, because what you're seeing in these circumstances is that people who are often self-employed, who are often engaged in informal work or casual work, have all had to face increasing economic pressures associated with a precarious way of life, and their entitlements and their protections and their employment rights have been reflected in the lower bargaining power that they enjoy and, as a result, a decline in their economic independence.

It's often presented to them that they are in fact more independent, because they're self-employed. In fact, their position is more and more dependent upon others. For work, they depend on a relationship with a single source, rather than a range of clients, and that's exactly what the courts of this country have found, and that's what obviously distresses the government so much. The provisions of this bill seek to overturn those court rulings. Under this bill, a worker who agrees to be employed as a casual at the start of their employment can remain casual, regardless of their actual work patterns. That requires that the employer hires them on the basis that they make 'no firm advance commitment to continuing and indefinite work according to an agreed pattern of work'. If a court were later to find that the worker in this position was in fact permanent, any casual loadings paid would be offset against the permanent entitlements the worker is owed. Both the definition and the offset can apply retrospectively.

By the government's own estimate, these changes will cancel up to $39 billion in back pay that otherwise would be paid to casuals. Under the National Employment Standards, employers are required to make a written offer of a conversion to permanent employment after 12 months if there has been a regular pattern of work for six months. But under this bill an employer faces not having to make the offer if there are no 'reasonable grounds' to do so—for example, if an employer thinks the job might not exist in another 12 months or if there has been a significant change in the hours of work. So, the 'reasonable grounds' exception is broad enough to block any transition to permanent employment. The bill offers people who are in insecure casual work a catch 22. Of course you can become a permanent employee, but there's still another reason you can't: this bill allows for an employer of a part-time employee who is working a minimum of 16 hours a week to agree to work extra hours at the ordinary hourly rate—that is, without overtime.

The provision initially applied to 12 awards nominated in the bill, but the number of awards to which this simplified additional-hours provision applies can be expanded by regulation. It's another pernicious increase in the amount of delegated legislation, which of course is a matter that this Senate should be concerned about. This is a provision that will inevitably reduce job security, because it effectively casualises part-time workers.

The better off overall test has been a crucial protection for workers during EBA negotiations. The Fair Work Commission has been able to exclude changes that would disadvantage employers, but this bill suspends those protections. And with greenfield agreements, the bill provides extended new EBA periods of up to eight years. This provision will apply for projects with a construction cost of $500 million, but the minister can declare it to be a 'major project' and the production cost can be as low as $250 million—and we know that, on the scale of infrastructure projects in this country, that is not a great deal of money.

So, the parliament's ability to scrutinise these agreements, to hold to government to account, is removed, and the government's capacity to introduce flexibility, as defined by employers, is increased dramatically. This bill increase penalties for the underpayment of wages, and that's a good thing. But the government is very deceptive. It does not define what 'dishonesty' is. It does not in fact provide the protections it is alluding to. These measures are in no way a plan for recovery and they in no way protect us from the precariousness and the undermining of working conditions in Australia. (Time expired)

10:49 am

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

I'd like to begin my contribution to this debate on the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia’s Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021—the government's changes to workplace laws—with a story of a guy in Central Queensland who I've got to know pretty well through my travels in Central Queensland over the past few years. His name is Chad. Chad's a coalminer, employed as a casual, through a labour hire company, by a major multinational mining company.

Chad has been treated as a casual, paid as a casual and employed as a casual by that mining company and the labour hire firm despite the fact that for over seven years he has worked the same roster, week after week, month after month and year after year. If any objective person were to look at Chad's employment and recognise that he works the same shifts, week after week, month after month and year after year, they would say that he is a permanent employee. And if Chad and the thousands of colleagues he has who are employed on the same basis were treated as permanent employees they would get job security, they would get annual leave, they would get sick leave, they would be able to get a home loan and they would be able to take a day off when a member of their family was unwell and needed attention.

But of course Chad and his colleagues who are employed as casuals, despite really being permanent employees, get none of those benefits. Chad, and every casual employee—whether they be coalminers or in any other industry—who are really permanent workers, don't get job security, they don't get annual leave, they don't get sick leave and they don't get a whole host of other benefits that permanent workers get. And of course they can't even go and get a home loan from a bank, because they're casual employees and banks don't lend those sorts of sums of money to casual employees.

Chad is just one example of what I have come to learn is an epidemic of casualisation in the mining industry across regional Queensland. It's not just in the mining industry, and I'll come to that shortly, but it's certainly something which has changed dramatically in the mining industry in Queensland over recent years—the explosion of casualisation and labour hire at the expense of permanent employment. Major mining companies in this country now employ the majority of their workforce as casuals through labour hire firms. It's being done as a cost-cutting exercise; the mining companies don't deny that. It's important that mining companies make profits and it's important that mining companies employ people, but it is a tragedy that in recent years, on this government's watch, we have seen that occur at the expense of coalminers and workers in general.

I'll give another example, of two other miners who I've met: Simon and Ron. Simon is the permanent employee, paid the EBA rate of pay. He has permanent employment, job security and all those types of leave benefits that come with permanent employment. His colleague Ron, who does exactly the same work as him—day in, day out, week in, week out, month in, month out and year in, year out—is employed through a labour hire firm as a casual. Ron doesn't get the permanent employment, he doesn't get the job security, he doesn't get the leave and he doesn't get all the benefits of permanent employment.

This isn't just some academic exercise; this has real-life consequences for people. As I said, they miss out on all of those benefits and they can't get loans. It puts immense stress on their families because they never know from one day to the next whether they're actually going to have a job. That's one of the consequences of casual employment: you don't have job security. You can be terminated by your employer at very short notice and without the usual redundancy pay that permanent employees get. So you're in constant fear and your family is under constant stress.

It's a disgrace that this casualisation epidemic has exploded across regional Queensland on this government's watch. Day after day, we see members of this government from the LNP in Queensland say how much they love coal, dressing up like coalminers and parading themselves around as if they're the friends of coalminers—

Photo of Tim AyresTim Ayres (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

They put makeup on!

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

You're right, Senator Ayres; some of them, including Senator Canavan, actually even go as far as wiping a bit of dust on their faces to impersonate coalminers! But every time they're actually given the opportunity to do something to help coalminers, or other workers who are trapped in casualisation, they squib it. Every single time they line up with big businesses which are making profits at the expense of ordinary working people. This legislation that we're dealing with today is just another example of that. Have you ever noticed that the only time we hear anything about casualisation from this government is in the run-up to an election? I've been here about five years—

An honourable senator interjecting

It has gone quickly. But, sadly, what has been going on in the time that I've been here is this government's continued neglect of casual workers. In the run-up to the last election we put a lot of pressure on the government to fix this casualisation epidemic, as did our friends in the union movement, as did workers themselves. Because we put so much pressure on the government, in the run-up to the last election they promised to fix casualisation. I remember in the run-up to the last election all the press releases, the press conferences, the advertisements with George Christensen, Michelle Landry, Matt Canavan and Ken O'Dowd, all saying they would fix casualisation. And here we are, nearly two years after that election, and they still haven't done anything about it. They did the same thing in the run-up to the Queensland state election last year. They were silent for a year and a half after the federal election, having said they would fix it, but in the weeks leading up to the Queensland election, they were going to fix it again. They brought in this legislation which not only doesn't fix casualisation but actually makes things worse. It opens the door for more casualisation of our workplaces.

I have spoken quite a bit about the effect of casualisation and labour hire in the mining industry, because that is one of the most egregious examples that we've seen in recent times. But this is something that is affecting so many different parts of our economy and so many different types of workplaces. Throughout our workplaces, in security, in aged care, in retail and—I'm sure, Senator Sterle—in the trucking industry, we see this explosion of casualisation, insecure work and labour hire with people being exploited. This government continues to do nothing about it. I well remember a particular day in the last term of this government. I'm pretty sure I was in Rockhampton—certainly I was in regional Queensland—talking to coalminers about labour hire and casualisation and how hard their lives were as a result. I got on a plane to head home to Brisbane to do a function with Commonwealth public servants, mostly working in places like Centrelink and the tax office. Do you know what their No. 1 complaint was? It was the fact that this government was moving so many of their colleagues onto labour hire and casual work. In the space of one day, you can go from two different parts of Queensland, talk to blue-collar workers in the mining industry and white-collar workers in the Commonwealth Public Service and they'll have the same complaint about the fact that they can't get permanent work because there's been such a push towards casualisation of their work and labour hire.

We often hear from the apologists for casualisation that it's okay, people choose to be casuals, people get compensated as casuals, they get a loading and all that kind of thing. I don't know where they're getting their figures. I invite any of those people to come with me next time I go and speak to miners in Central Queensland or to public servants in Brisbane, or anywhere in between, because they will tell you that, despite the fact that they miss out on the benefits of permanent employment—the leave, the regular hours, the job security—they actually get paid less than the permanent workers, even after their casual loading is applied. So this claim that casual workers are fairly compensated for missing out on the benefits of permanency through their casual loading is absolute rubbish. I have met people working in the mining industry who are being paid less on an hourly basis than the permanent workers they work right next to, and they're still missing out on all the benefits of permanency.

This is a tragedy for the individuals concerned and their families but it's also a tragedy for regional economies. At a point when we know the economy is very weak, when consumer confidence is very low, what we actually need is a workplace system that gives people the confidence that from one day to the next their job is going to be safe, their wages are going to increase, they will be fairly treated at work. If people have that confidence, they're more likely to take out a loan, they're more likely to go and spend money in the local shops and businesses. Do you know what? That creates more jobs. But, instead, people are terrified of losing their jobs and of not being able to pay off their loans. They rein in their spending, which means we don't have those jobs created in local economies. So this system that the government is presiding over, which will be made worse by this bill, actually threatens to prolong the pain that we are experiencing through this recession and it threatens to rein in the recovery that we all so desperately want to see happen.

In my contribution I have focused a lot on casualisation because it is something that is of great concern to many workers, but there are a whole range of other changes that are being proposed in this bill which will also make people's employment more insecure, rein in their confidence, cut their pay and take away conditions that have been hard won over many years. Again, those changes, whether we're talking about changes to greenfield agreements, to flexible work directions or to how enterprise bargaining is achieved—all of those things combined—are on the wish list for big business and will actually only harm the average working person and be another impediment to trade unions doing their job of working with workers to try to achieve better pay and conditions.

Just to give one example, which goes back to casualisation, of what these laws actually will do—laws that this government says will fix casualisation—is to leave in the hands of employers to choose whether someone is going to be employed as a casual or as a permanent. At least under the current system an employee has the opportunity to go to a tribunal to get a fair hearing as to whether or not they're actually a casual or a permanent. But these laws would enshrine and entrench power in the hands of employers to make the decision at the point of employment about whether or not someone is a permanent or a casual. And even if an employer decides, 'Okay, Johnny, you're going to be a casual,' when the facts are that they're permanent, Johnny's going to be employed as a casual, and there's nothing he's going to be able to do about it because that's what these laws will do.

In addition, what these laws do is effectively leave it up to employers to decide whether or not someone will be able to convert to permanency after 12 months. The government's out there saying that this is going to give casual employees the right to convert to permanency after 12 months. What they don't tell you is that the decision is still left to the employer as to whether or not they will convert someone to permanency, and it basically takes away all appeal rights that an employee has. An employee whose employer unfairly turns them down when they ask to be made permanent can go off to the Fair Work Commission, but only to get conciliation of the matter. The Fair Work Commission can't actually make a decision that someone is a permanent or should be made permanent, and the only option that a casual employee has to enforce their rights is to trot off to the Federal Court. I don't know about you but I haven't found many casual coalminers, public servants, retail assistants or hospitality workers who have a lazy $50,000, $70,000 or $100,000 sitting around in their pockets to spend on barristers to fight out a matter in the Federal Court.

These laws do nothing to fix the casualisation crisis that we've seen across Queensland and across the country. In fact, what they will do is make things worse. Labor have been very clear from the moment we saw this bill that we will be opposing these laws, because what they will do is actually entrench casualisation in the workforce. They will see people's pay cut and conditions taken away from them at the very time that we want to see people spending more in our local economies and creating more jobs and having more secure employment.

There's one group who still haven't shared their hand about what they're going to do on this legislation, and that is Senator Hanson and her colleague, Senator Roberts, in One Nation. This legislation is a very big test for One Nation. They've spent a lot of time rolling around Queensland talking about how much they support battlers. Well, this will be a test. Will they vote with Labor to stop this legislation which will cut workers' pay, or will they side with the LNP and back in big business?

11:04 am

Photo of Tim AyresTim Ayres (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

On this day last year Australia had recorded its 100th confirmed case of COVID-19. There were recorded coronavirus cases in every state and territory. There'd been COVID-19 deaths in New South Wales and in Western Australia. The first, ultimately inadequate, stimulus package had been announced and the first public health restrictions were coming into effect. Australia's case numbers were rising in line with comparable countries like the United States and the United Kingdom. Our trend followed that of Italy, who'd just entered their lockdown.

When the isolation measures were announced, millions of Australian workers lost their jobs—700,000 in the first week of April. Those who could do so prepared to work from home. And still millions of Australian workers went to work. They were the essential workers, the ones we could not function without. Every morning, many of them went into a dangerous and uncertain world. Health workers, doctors, nurses, paramedics, receptionists, porters and cleaners risked exposure to the virus to treat those who were already infected. It was dangerous and important work, and it still is. In January, the International Council of Nurses announced that globally 2,262 nurses died from coronavirus in 2020, yet nurses went to work. Some of them came out of retirement in order to staff hospitals. We saw that same courage in so many types of workers in those early months—teachers, supermarket transport and warehouse workers, aged-care workers, cleaners and food-manufacturing workers. Those were food-manufacturing workers like the ones on strike at McCormick today, who haven't had a pay rise for five years. The company's opportunistically using these current bargaining laws to strip away their rights, entitlements and conditions.

A promise was made by the Parliament of Australia in that moment of fear and uncertainty that as a nation we would rebuild in a way which would look after those workers who have looked after us. This bill is a repudiation of that promise. It is a broken promise for Australian workers. It is especially a broken promise to all of those workers, mostly women, who stood by us during the pandemic. If it's passed, it will make workers' jobs less secure. If it's passed, it will mean many workers are subject to pay cuts and less secure work. It will casualise some permanent workers' jobs and create new loopholes for employers to exploit and put competitive pressure on those good employers in a race to the bottom in Australian workplaces to drive their own wages and conditions down. It will further entrench a bargaining system that is sclerotic and failing and that denies workers the right to be effectively represented and to win the pay and conditions they deserve.

Minister Porter, the architect of this piece of legislation, is conspicuously absent this week. He's availed himself to the paid leave that this bill would deny to many millions of Australian workers. In his speech commending this bill to the other chamber the minister concluded:

This bill removes barriers that stifle the job growth of today and limits the job creation of tomorrow …

To the Morrison government, measures to give workers a fair say in their conditions of work are an impediment. To the Morrison government, measures to ensure job security and protections for fair collective bargaining are a problem for employers. The underlying assumption of this bill is that the recovery will be built on an increasingly insecure labour market, low wages and less secure jobs. That's not a plan to rebuild the Australian economy. That is a plan to entrench the problems that were already present in our labour market, that were driving higher levels of casualisation and that were producing more bad jobs in the economy instead of producing good jobs.

For one thing, Australia's bad experiences during the coronavirus pandemic were in no small part driven by problems in our labour market. There were leaks from quarantine facilities that had come from insecure workers forced to take multiple jobs just to make ends meet and, particularly in Melbourne, spread by casual workers who were forced into an impossible choice between their own family's financial security and taking appropriate public health measures in the public interest. It was that combination of insecure work and working multiple jobs that brought the virus into our nursing homes, yet the government's plan does nothing to deal with insecure work.

The problems of insecure work are well documented. It's not as if we don't know what they are. Casual workers can't make long-term financial decisions. Many of them can't buy a house. It expands the gender pay gap. Women workers are more likely to be casual workers. It means that businesses fail to invest in skills, and the long-term real productivity gains that this country needs are not made. Real economic recovery doesn't come from cutting wages and it doesn't come from holding back real wage growth. A real plan for recovery would come from investing in Australian workers. A real plan for recovery would understand that job security is a critical component of all of our long-term prosperity.

A bargaining system should encourage employers to negotiate fairly. It should ensure that workers' interests are properly represented. It should ensure that workers solve these problems in partnership with their employers, on an equal footing. It should allow labour market institutions to deal with the real productivity problems that plague our economy. It should deliver real, tangible economic benefits for everybody. It's not just about fairness and ensuring that Australian workers have the democratic rights that they deserve and should be their birthright in this country; it's about building a better type of economy, about lifting productivity and about creating more good jobs. This plan does nothing to achieve any of those objectives.

Last month Anthony Albanese offered a very different vision of work and dealing with insecure work in the economy: job security explicitly inserted into the Fair Work Act; rights for gig economy workers through the Fair Work Commission—and five food delivery workers have died in Sydney over the last six months; there's no plan from the government to deal with that question—portable entitlements for workers in insecure industries; 'casual' work properly defined; a crackdown on cowboy labour hire firms that plague in particular the mining industry—and Senator Canavan and some of these other characters put the Maybelline on, pretend they are mining workers, wander around in high-viz and confect interest in the jobs of mining industry workers, but when it counts they're on the side of the worst kind of labour hire operations that discriminate against ordinary workers and put them in a very tough position indeed—a cap on back-to-back contracts for the same role; more secure public sector jobs; government contracts to companies and organisations that offer secure work; and, on top of that, a real plan to deal with the gender pay gap.

We have a very different vision of the economy. What has been shown this week is that there are two very divergent visions for the future of the Australian economy and Australian jobs: firstly, Scott Morrison and Mr Porter's sclerotic, narrow, pea-hearted vision of a race to the bottom on wages and conditions on a low-wage, low-road future for Australian workers and, secondly, Anthony Albanese and Labor's vision of lifting everybody up, of producing more good jobs, of having a real strategy to lift wages and conditions and to improve productivity in Australian workplaces—a vision that keeps its promise to those essential workers who stood by us during the pandemic and delivers fairness and prosperity to everybody.

There have been critical failures of leadership by this government when it comes to the economy and the public health response. This government had to be dragged to measures to stop mass redundancies. This government left it to the states to run quarantine, blamed them when it went wrong and undermined it. I remember seeing senators from here, from Western Australia and Queensland, bellowing about opening the borders. It was Mr Morrison, the Prime Minister, who teamed up with Clive Palmer, so he can indeed take credit for the Western Australian election result. He should take credit for the Western Australian election result, because it was his decision to team up with that plutocratic, absolutely in the interests of Clive Palmer and Mr Morrison, to undermine the public health response in Western Australia. If they had succeeded—and every Western Australia knows this—the Western Australian economy would have been decimated, as well as the public health response. The truth is that there's no economic recovery without a public health recovery. The states got it right and Mr Morrison got it wrong at every juncture last year.

At the end of March two important events will occur. One is that the JobKeeper program ends and the second is that we will get to see whether Mr Morrison's promise to the people of Australia that four million vaccines will be delivered will really come to fruition. We'll see whether the four million vaccines that Mr Morrison promised have been delivered around the country. Why on earth are we cutting the JobKeeper program when we know that it will cost at least 110,000 jobs? Why on earth are we cutting that program if Mr Morrison can't deliver on his promise to Australian workers and the Australian people?

And why on earth would Senators Hansen and Roberts, and anybody on the crossbench, vote for this rotten piece of legislation, which will make workers' jobs less secure, not more secure? We should be legislating in this place to make people's lives better, to make people's lives safer and to lift people's wages and conditions. Instead, the miserable vision that this government has is a bit of tinkering to create a few more loopholes to make it easier for bad employers to work their way through the system and undermine wages and conditions. It puts pressure on good employers to do the wrong thing in order to compete and survive.

Instead of doing what we should be doing, Mr Morrison is breaking the promise that he made to those workers who got us through the recovery. The strongest symbol of that, of course, is the fact that the Minister for Industrial Relations is not here to push this package through the parliament and make the arguments for it. The Prime Minister wants this chamber to pass significant changes to our industrial relations system while there are serious questions about whether the Minister for Industrial Relations is indeed fit to hold his own job. The Prime Minister wants this chamber to pass a bill condemning more workers to insecure work and which erodes their right to negotiate better wages and conditions while the relevant minister is on paid leave. The Prime Minister wants this chamber to pass a bill that will likely extend the gender pay gap in a week when thousands of Australian women have been marching for equality.

One of the demands, indeed, of those marchers—one of the things that has been squarely on the government over the course of the last 12 months—is that if they were really interested in people's rights in Australian workplaces they would deal with the Respect@work report, which was launched more than 12 months ago. Three out of 55 recommendations in that have been partially dealt with. If that's a measure of the commitment of this government, and if this bill is a measure of the commitment of this government to better jobs, no wonder our labour market performance is deteriorating so badly.

11:19 am

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

I rise to make a contribution on this very important piece of legislation, the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021. There are a lot of perceptions in the community about how difficult it is for people to understand the lawmaking that goes on in this place, but I want to make a few things pretty clear to the ordinary Australians who vote and send us here and expect us to stand up for them, especially when the government is going to have a good go at them.

The government has created this bill and called it an omnibus bill. It has 'bus' at the end of it. We understand what a bus is; it carries an awful lot of people. This bill carries an awful lot of legislation in it, and it's going to affect every Australian. It's very significant. Instead of having a long time line for careful consideration of the legislation they're advancing, the government limited the amount of time for due scrutiny of this bill. I know that the crossbench, who deal with Labor senators in good faith on many issues, will be paying attention to this debate. They were right when they made it clear on the weekend that they wouldn't support this legislation this week not only because it's such a bad piece of legislation, which I will get to, but because of the unseemly haste with which the government has tried to push it through.

Instead of allowing hearings right across this country for Australians to participate in, the government forced us to hold only three days of hearings. The committee travelled to Townsville and to Adelaide for hearings, and then had a hearing in Canberra. People were on the clock for half an hour each, being rolled in one after the other. They were not even able to have their say. The committee had to apologise to nurses who came to Adelaide to give evidence, because they weren't allowed to give their statements because there wasn't adequate time allocated. That is the contempt we see from the government about due process, and the people of Australia are waking up to it on many fronts. This is not just an idea out there that might or might not affect you; this is something that is going to affect your business. If you're a decent businessperson employing people in your local community, you're going to be caught in this trap the government is setting. The changes the government is advancing are being advanced by people acting in bad faith against the workers and the good small businesses of this country.

I want to put on the record right at the beginning of my speech what Ms Pulleston, a nurse, had to say in Adelaide of this bill. She read it. She got across the detail. She stood up on behalf of nurses at the front line. She came to Adelaide, and this is as much as she got out on this legislation:

I would say that it's a real kick in the guts. Other people got to stay home and work from home and not have the risk of taking this infectious disease—

referring to COVID—

home to their families. That is something real we had to prepare for. I had to prepare my husband and my kids and say, 'If there is an outbreak, I am not coming home to give it to you. Mum has to stay somewhere else.' That was a real fear that we had to face, and we still showed up—

This is what she says about this bill—

Cutting shifts and making life harder for us when we are going to have to put in that extra effort and when it does affect our residential aged-care facilities, that's the time when everyone has to stand up.

The 'everyone' who needs to stand up today, who can prevent the government from advancing this bill in a way that will negatively impact on Australian workers and small businesses, is the crossbenchers sitting on the benches in this chamber. They have the capacity today to slow this bill, to halt this bill, to send the government back to do better consultation than three short days on legislation that will linger long and have a profound impact on Australians.

We see that the government have got form on this. Every time the Liberal-National government get an inch of wiggle room on industrial relations, they try to ram through anti-worker provisions. As soon as they got control of the Senate in 2004, as people will remember, what did they push through?

Senator Sterle interjecting

They rammed through Work Choices—indeed they did, Senator Sterle. Senator Sterle remembers it well. It was one of the most repressive and cruel blows to workers outside of the Depression.

With everyone focused on a pandemic and a vaccine rollout that is very problematic, disgraced minister Christian Porter's omnibus bill is put before us. This is a Frankenstein amalgam of anti-union provisions meant, deliberately, to crush wages at a time when workers absolutely need them to grow. The bill as it stands for debate is a little changed from what it was just a few weeks ago, when the last version of the bill sought to exempt enterprise bargaining agreements from the better off overall test. That was so bad; it was really the 'worse off overall test' the government wanted to put in. The crossbench stood up to them at the time and said: 'Forget it. That's just got to go.' The government, under pressure from the crossbench, removed that. Well, the crossbench have the power to halt this bill today, and that is what I encourage them to do.

In a time of wage crisis, if the government's bill gets through this house today it will push wages further down. The government's plans are actually revealed in this bill. There is a plan for fewer full-time jobs. In all of their media they call it 'flexibility', and they speak about it as 'flexibility'. Flexibility that only goes one way is a form of abuse. Flexibility for workers and flexibility for business owners needs to be something that's negotiated in good faith, and nothing about this bill has been undertaken in good faith. Everything about it has been a stitch-up by very, very powerful advocates of the largest businesses in this country against decent, hardworking sole traders, small-business men and women, and the workers of this nation, who keep things on the road.

The government ludicrously pretends that this bill will allow a path to permanent conversion for a casual worker. But, in fact, what it does is the exact opposite. It gives the employer a veto over that request. We had considerable evidence about this. If you're a casual worker and you definitely want to be a casual worker—sometimes it does suit people's lives—that's not a bad thing. But, if you're a casual worker who can't get a car loan because you're a casual worker or if you're a casual worker who can't get a housing loan because you are a casual worker and you decide you'd like to become permanent, do you know what this government has cooked up for you? A few magic words: 'Give them the old razzle-dazzle so they can say that they're giving them casual conversion.' Mr Morrison—the master of spin and show, the showman—

An opposition senator interjecting

Absolutely! The reality is that, under this legislation, your employer will actually be able to say: 'There's a pattern of work. If I don't really want to have to offer them casual work, I'll just change their pattern of work and, then, in that last six months, they haven't worked a regular pattern—sorry, not eligible.' The definition of 'casual' is really entirely up to the employer. If they say you're casual, you're casual. You're stuck with it. That is not an advance in security for the Australian people. That is not good business practice. It's not good for the genuinely great small business employers who know their employees by name, who pay the right wages, who want to do the right thing. In the committee hearings, they were on the record talking about the need for a very, very different view of the conversion from casual status to full-time work.

I acknowledge that this bill does address one issue that is relevant to some states—that is, the crime of wage theft, which is absent in federal legislation. Again, it is so close. They look like they're doing the right thing, but it's a bit like The Wizard of Oz: you pull back the curtain, and what's really going on with the machine? Well, behind the scenes, what this really means is that, for workers in Queensland and for workers in Victoria, this legislation will water down the protections they have in getting back the wages stolen from them by unscrupulous employers. These are stolen wages, wages taken from Australian workers. They've showed up, they've worked the shifts, they've done the hours, they've provided the service—they've done their part of the deal. This government says, 'We need to do something about wage theft, but, oh, my God, let's make sure we don't do it as well as Victoria or Queensland.' They've literally got the template for how to do it right, yet, if this bill passes today, they take those rights away from the workers of Queensland and Victoria.

Again I say to the crossbench: do not let this government get away with this absolute con job. It is a con job with regard to protection of workers' wages. I had a great conversation with Senator Gallacher, who is in the chamber and who may be making a contribution very shortly, about who's robbed when wages are robbed. It's not just the individual, and I'm sure he'll make more comments about that himself.

I read an article just the other day—and people are seeing this happen; we saw the 7-Eleven debacle—in which Adele Ferguson said there's another wage theft case involving truck drivers in Victoria. She notes in the article:

In the past month alone 10 security businesses, Chatime bubble tea, … a toy retailer and an IT services business have been pinged by the regulator—

for various sets of arrangements to take people's wages. On 1 July this year that Victorian legislation comes into effect. Is that why the government are so hell-bent on pushing this through this week? Do they want to trump Victorians, who fought for their fantastic piece of legislation for years and years and years? Is that the idea? Get the crossbench on board, look like you've done a little bit of work this week and totally do over the Victorian and Queensland states and everyone who lives and works there? Is that what the rush is, because if that's the reason for the rush then that is another reason why the crossbench should say, 'Hold the phone guys; we are not going to advance with this today.' There are so many reasons why this bill should not be passed.

At a time when everyone from unions and the Reserve Bank to prominent business leaders are clamouring for the government to do anything—anything!—to grow wages, the government have introduced this bill that will cut wages. Deloitte Access Economics reports that, even on our current trajectory, Australian workers could wait up to five years for wage growth. If this bill passes it will be even longer before you get a wage rise. If the government were really serious about helping struggling businesses, they wouldn't be pushing this through today. Instead, they would be advancing something to support the extension of JobSeeker, especially for select industries that are still struggling from lockdowns and the pandemic. They should be keeping consumers spending, not rashly ending the supplements for JobSeeker and JobKeeper, which have lifted thousands of Australians out of poverty for the first time in years.

I know that there are nine public health experts from the Australian National University in Canberra who wrote about this bill. One of the terms they used to describe it was that 'it is an immediate threat to public health'. That's how they described the bill that this government is trying to get the crossbench to sign onto today. Their submission notes that Australia has one of the highest rates of individuals without leave entitlements. I love Australia. I'm so proud to be Australian, even though I am celebrating St Patrick's Day today. The reality is we have problems in our country. Leave entitlements in Australia are amongst the lowest in the OECD, with estimates ranging from 25 per cent to 37 per cent of the workforce without them.

I'm sick and tired of the attacks on workers by this coalition government. If it isn't an attack on their democratic representatives in the union movement, it's an attack on Australians' wages and conditions. It's a Neanderthal view from those opposite that the only way to achieve economic growth, the only way to achieve national prosperity, is to pay workers less, to make them work more hours and to give them more insecure conditions. It is a recipe for disaster for this country—not just for individuals but for the whole fabric of society. We should all be sharing in the wealth of this nation, instead of concocting, through this omnibus bill, some ridiculous plan to disadvantage Australian workers, the people on whom this country relies to lift us during pandemics, to lift us every day when they go to work. They need security; they don't need this bill. They need leave; they don't need this bill. They don't need this government. (Time expired)

11:34 am

Photo of Alex GallacherAlex Gallacher (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak against the passing of the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021. There was a time when the conservative side of the chamber was much more forthright and open. The Hon. Peter Reith gave a speech at the Royal Perth Yacht Club where he said: 'I know whose side I'm on. I'm on the side of business—small businesses, medium sized businesses and big businesses, and we will do what's necessary for those businesses.' I think that's what's missing in this debate. I listened to the contributions from Senator Bragg and others talking almost as if they were the workers' friends. They are far from the workers' friends.

I want to put some economic data on the record before I hop into a bit of criticism of the other side. The share of national income going to Australian workers has been steadily declining since the 1970s, with the profit share increasing. But the labour share has suddenly fallen below 50 per cent for the first time since 1959. Obviously the trend is exacerbated by the COVID-19 recession. On Thursday, the Bureau of Statistics released its June quarter gross domestic product data, and the data showed that economic activity across April, May and June shrank by seven per cent, the biggest quarterly contraction in 60 years. But the ABS noted something else. It said that company profits jumped a massive 14.9 per cent in this quarter, while the total wages and salaries bill for workers—characterised as compensation for workers—fell by a record 2.5 per cent. That meant that the labour share of income has fallen below 50 per cent for the first time in decades, while profits have hit record levels.

Why would wages and salaries decline when the government has been providing billions of dollars for JobKeeper payments? Mr Pickering, an economist at Indeed Hiring Lab and a former Reserve Bank official, told the ABC the emergency subsidies to businesses had helped:

What's basically happened is there's been a range of sectors that have reported quite a significant increase in profits, largely due to subsidies received from the government — JobKeeper.

At the same time, we've had a significant decline in employment, which is putting downward pressure on compensation of employees [wages and salaries].

However, he said, the large shift in the income share between labour and profit in the June quarter should only be temporary:

It should unwind over the coming quarters.

Saul Eslake, a very familiar name in economic circles and now a Vice-Chancellor's Fellow at the University of Tasmania, said the noticeable shift in income share in the June quarter was largely a 'statistical artefact'. He said:

It's because a whole lot of people stopped working and had their income replaced by government benefits, so profits represented a bigger share of what was left.

From one perspective, you could say JobKeeper propped up profits and in a way they did, because if it hadn't have been for JobKeeper, profits probably would have been a lot lower.

But it's basically showing that a whole lot of employees, and hence their wage payments, were removed from the equation.

Mr Eslake said there was an important phenomenon to consider when thinking about this issue. He said that we had to keep in mind what had happened to low-paid workers this year. He said that the data shows average non-farm compensation per employee actually increased by 3.3 per cent in the June quarter and by five per cent from a year earlier. That was the fastest year-on-year growth in that measurement since March 2012. Mr Eslake said:

Now, how do you explain the total wage share going down [by 2.5 per cent] and the average non-farm compensation per employee going up?

The answer is: it was disproportionately low-income and low-paid workers who've lost their jobs this year.

So, what's left tend to be higher-paid people, and even though higher-paid people have taken pay cuts themselves, the impact on that has been more than outweighed by the culling of workers at the bottom end of the scale, so the average income goes up, even when the overall income goes down.

The punchline, when we get to it, is fairly straightforward:

… over the last six years in Australia especially, and over the last 20 years in other countries, and over the last 40 years in the United States, there has been a steady shift in the distribution of income from labour to capital.

Australia was sheltered from that for a while by the mining boom, but not anymore.

If we have a predicament like that, where labour's share of national income has consistently been declining for a number of years and has now fallen below 50 per cent, disproportionately shareholders and companies are taking the lion's share of the national income. So you end up with low inflation, clearly not a bad thing, but stagnating wage growth. In an environment where people can't get a pay rise at the moment, where people can't get an increase in hours at the moment, where some of them can't get jobs at the moment, we have an omnibus bill designed to help them. Well, I think I've been around industrial relations long enough to know that the other side of the chamber has never put up a bill that's designed to help workers get a pay rise. If they were honest, they would say that. There's never been a case where that side of the chamber has put forward any sort of legislation which is designed to get people a greater share for their labour.

It just doesn't happen, and Peter Reith was honest enough to say that. That honesty is lacking on that side of the chamber now, because people are saying, 'Look, we're helping you.' They're not helping people into higher, more secure, better paid employment. They're not doing that at all. They're making it easier for employers to spread the meagre amount of money they want to spend on labour across a greater number of people. We will end up exactly like the United States, where, if you're working in a bar or restaurant and you don't get a tip, you basically can't pay your rent; you can't afford your outgoings. I don't think those on the other side of the chamber are innovative enough or smart enough to come up with a new scheme, with a new paradigm; they're basically taking an old well-trodden path in the United States, in the United Kingdom, in other parts of the world, bringing it to Australia and making Australia a poorer place for working people.

If they were honest, they would say that their job is to look after capital, 'and you lot look after labour'. But what's happened in looking after labour is they had 12 years of the Howard government, with probably another seven years of this government, which makes it extremely difficult for organised labour to actually operate. In the meantime, as Senator O'Neill alluded to, they're actually ripping off Australia. There are submissions to the wage theft inquiry which say that the amount of forgone taxation revenue from wage theft would probably be approaching a $9 billion hit to the national economy. The amount of forgone contributions tax on super is also quite a large figure. The Taxation Office is on record saying what it is. Coincidentally, the Taxation Office is in charge of collecting it. They know how much has been forgone, but they don't take any steps to collect it. If this government and the other side of the chamber had half the acumen they profess to possess, they would stick on another thousand tax collectors. I think the figures are quite simple: for every dollar you spend on a tax collector, the return to the government is $5 to $6, so another thousand people in the taxation department chasing people who are not paying superannuation and therefore not paying contributions tax would be beneficial.

If we had another group of people looking at those who systematically underpay wages, we would have more taxation revenue. We're not talking about mum and dad with two trucks or mum and dad with a small landscaping business; we're talking about huge corporations, like Woolworths owning up to $300 million worth of underpayment. How much was forgone in the taxation area? How much was forgone in the superannuation area? But, no, the coalition came up with the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021, which I think basically will mean: if you haven't got a job, you can probably get one, but it's not going to be as well paid as the one you lost, and, by the way, we'll determine whether you're actually going to get overtime or not based on who's willing to work. If you're starving or you've got bills to pay and you want overtime, you won't get it, but, if someone wants to continue on ordinary pay, they will get it.

These are disgraceful things: eight-year agreements. Who's going to know what is happening in terms of the CPI and the like in eight years time? By the way, you won't get a chance to negotiate that because, if it's a $250 million investment, that will be done before you get there. By the time you get there, it will be: 'Great news! We have an eight-year agreement here.' If you ask what the wage rise is, they'll say, 'Stuff all,' or you might get CPI or half a per cent. Anyway, that'll be nothing to do with you; that will already be sorted out. How do you change it? You can't. This is a prescription for a dire situation. We should be trying to recover for people proper, full-time, secure work that's reasonably paid, not creating another underclass of people in Australia who will never see permanent employment.

There are many young people at the moment who have never had the luxury of a permanent job. They have never had it. They can get 16, 17, 22 or 25 hours but they can't get a permanent job. In other areas of quite reasonable economic activity, you have an inordinate number of casuals or labour hire people. Once again, those people don't see a permanent opportunity coming forward. But the coalition's putting up the smokescreen, in my view, that this legislation is coming along to help reinvigorate the economy. If the national labour income share continues to decline, we'll end up exactly like the United States, where you have a lot of people who, since the seventies, haven't seen their share of the wealth of their great country increase, which hasn't been good for the economy. America's deficit, you can't count the zeroes on the end of it. Australia's different. I suppose because we are different and capital is no different—capital is international—we're attracting attention. But I wish that those on the other side would at least come to the argument with clean hands.

The ACTU and other parties sat down with the Hon. Christian Porter and the Hon. Josh Frydenberg and attempted to resolve areas of concern. But, in my view, the whole lot should be just opposed absolutely. There are no redeeming features in here which will redress what is a national shame—that workers who carry this country, such as cleaners, garbagemen and all of the people who do all of those jobs we take for granted, are not getting a fair share of the national income. This bill will make sure that that never happens. It will never happen. They will be consigned to insecure work, low pay and no hope for the foreseeable future. Unless the electorate changes and votes in a different government, there will be no respite.

Actually, this is a culmination of decades of attacks on working people. We are now starting to see, in economic measuring terms, the fact that the labour share of income is dropping below 50 per cent of national income. I would prefer an economy where we were growing through productivity and economic activity, where workers were getting an increasing share of the national income, because workers spend their money. Workers do not put it in a tin and dig a hole in the garden or send it to the Cayman Islands and seek to avoid tax. There's no seeking to avoid tax if you're a wages and salary earner. You earn your money, tax goes to the appropriate place, super goes to the appropriate place and you are contributing fully to the economy. If we paid that sector correctly and gave them more freedom to bargain and the ability to increase their wages and contribute economically, they would educate their families and contribute all around in the community, and Australia would be a much better place. I don't want to see the low-wage inequality that exists in the United States.

11:49 am

Photo of Sarah HendersonSarah Henderson (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It's my great pleasure to rise and speak on the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021.

I was disappointed to hear the contribution of Senator Gallacher, who made a number of sweeping statements, many of which were incorrect, with no credibility. Unfortunately, it reflects the sad fact that Labor doesn't seem to understand that strong businesses equal more jobs and greater opportunities for Australian workers. I just want to put on the record that I can only imagine, if the member for Maribyrnong, Mr Shorten, had been elected prime minister in 2019 with his plan to impose $387 billion of more taxes on Australians, what that would have done to this country. So I reject very strongly the sweeping, discredited statements made by Senator Gallacher which do not, in any way, represent the truth of the work of our government, the Morrison government, in backing jobs and our economic recovery at this very important time.

It is the case that COVID-19 has derailed our economy and forced hundreds of thousands of Australians into the bleakness of unemployment or being stood down. Despite the darkness of 2020—the lockdowns, the mass closures of businesses, the isolation from our friends and families—one small glimmer of hope remained: that all of this would eventually pass and that we would emerge, once again, a stronger and more resilient nation than before. Already we have seen huge rebounds in our economic recovery, led by Prime Minister Morrison and the many hardworking members of our government. There are few better indications that this hope has been vindicated than this bill, which manifests the government's commitment to ensuring Australians get back to work quickly and fairly.

This bill makes a number of balanced and sensible changes to the Fair Work Act which will stimulate jobs growth and boost the economy. It provides much-needed certainty to businesses and employees by clearly defining what it means to be a casual employee, and it gives eligible casual employees a pathway to permanent full-time or part-time jobs that are guaranteed by statute. The bill gives casual employees the best of both worlds. If they wish to remain casually employed, they can do so and take advantage of the flexibility of casual work. However—this is probably a key issue which Senator Gallacher overlooked—if they wish to transition to full-time or part-time work, they can do that too and take advantage of the stability of these forms of work. In this way the bill gives casual employees concrete rights which respect their employment choices, but it also gives employers the kind of certainty and transparency they need when negotiating agreements with prospective employees. The bill also introduces greater flexibility into awards in sectors of the economy hardest hit by the pandemic: the retail and hospitality industries. Many businesses in these industries have emerged in the wake of the pandemic battered and bruised but are still fighting hard to keep the employees they have and take on new ones. This government is committed to helping these hard-working Australians re-establish themselves in our economy. In keeping with this commitment, the bill adapts the government's successful JobKeeper flexibilities concerning duties and location of work, which helped save thousands upon thousands of jobs during the pandemic. They remain available for employers and employees to whom key awards apply across the hard-hit retail and hospitality sectors. The bill also allows employers and part-time employees in these sectors, which together employ over a third of all casual employees, to work together to agree on additional hours of work for part-time employees who want them. This will help to increase working hours and wages. It will also encourage employers to offer more permanent and secure roles with benefits including paid sick leave, over traditionally more flexible forms of employment like casual roles.

The bill simplifies and expedites enterprise bargaining by requiring that these agreements be finalised, as far as practicable, within 21 working days. This means employers can get on with creating jobs and employees can enter the workforce more quickly, easily and fairly. Enterprise agreements pay, on average, 69 per cent more per week than award wages. That is an average of $542 more per week. This shows that the government is serious, not just about getting Australians back to work but also about getting them better working conditions.

A big part of the government's plan for Australia's economic recovery is securing investment for greenfields agreements involved in large-scale projects valued at over $500 million, or between $250 million and $500 million if they are major projects of national or regional significance. The bill enables the Fair Work Commission to approve greenfields agreements for longer-term major projects by allowing the nominal expiry date to go up to eight years. In this way, the bill ensures that there will be certainty for investors in these large-scale projects, and this will help to create jobs and drive wage growth. In other words, employers and large-scale projects cannot be held to ransom by protracted and uncertain EBA negotiations, which put jobs at risk. The bill also protects workers on these projects by guaranteeing that any longer-term greenfields agreements will include annual pay increases for the nominal life of the agreement. Of course, this government proposes these changes with its eyes wide open. We all know that some businesses—including universities, I might add—have in the past underpaid their workers. In light of this, the bill introduces stronger protections for employees by instituting tougher penalties and orders to deter noncompliance.

These are incredibly important measures. They include a new criminal offence for dishonest and systematic underpayments of one or more employees, with a maximum penalty of four years imprisonment, automatic director disqualification for five years and/or a $1.1 million fine, or $5.55 million for a body corporate. The measures also include increasing maximum civil penalties for underpayments, sham contracting and failure to comply with a regulator compliance notice; increasing penalties available under infringement notices; and prohibiting employers from advertising jobs with pay rates below the relevant national minimum wage. The measures also include clarifying that the courts can make adverse publicity orders where appropriate. The bill encourages businesses to proactively identify and self-disclose and to rectify underpayments more quickly and efficiently to ensure that employees are repaid as soon as possible.

This is a good bill. It is good for the economy. It is good for employers. It is good for employees. This bill and these changes to our law are good for all Australians. It is a bill that takes the economic recovery of this country seriously and tackles the challenges of casual employment for both employers and employees head-on. It complements the government's other economic measures, such as the $9 billion of tax cuts that have already gone into the pockets of hardworking Australians. It is a bill that implements changes to the law that will see our economy restored and our hopes fulfilled. I commend this bill to the Senate.

11:59 am

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Manufacturing) Share this | | Hansard source

Here we are today, debating a bill, the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia’s Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021, in the middle of an economic crisis. The government needs to be supporting economic recovery. Instead, we have a bill that makes it easier for employers to cut wages and conditions, which is contrary to our national interest; it's contrary to recovery. On this side of the chamber, in the Labor Party, we stand with working families. We oppose the government's bill that will allow workers to have their pay and conditions cut, leaving them worse off and, indeed, stymieing our national economic recovery. We have a bill that takes rights from workers, and we need a parliament that supports workers and that does not strip them of hard-won rights, pay and conditions.

Through COVID, we've seen how important it is for us to stand together as a nation to support each other. However, making workers more vulnerable by allowing employers to cut their pay and conditions, which this bill facilitates, is the opposite of that. Our Prime Minister paints himself ostensibly as 'the fair-go PM', yet this bill undermines that fairness. It entrenches insecurity, inequality and a very unfair go for Australian workers. Why does the government want to do this? It won't help economic recovery. It will not help working families. But who does it help? Is it big businesses that claimed JobKeeper while giving executive bonuses, sacking staff and enjoying increased profits? Yes, it certainly helps them.

The government need to be on the side of workers, not their mates, which makes it easier for them to rip them off. A good example is that, in Qantas, $267 million worth of JobKeeper subsidies retained its workforce. Now it plans to axe 2,000 jobs. These jobs still exist—Qantas still needs baggage handlers—yet Qantas is outsourcing its work and is therefore able to pay workers less, owe them less in entitlements and create more insecure jobs. This bill does nothing to address this. It's unbalanced. It favours employer interests in the name of flexibility.

This bill weakens fundamental safeguards in our industrial system. It does this on the basis of a theory that employers will create jobs only if labour is cheaper. This ignores fundamental economic theory and, indeed, the lived reality in our nation, as economic commentators have shown, that, frankly, labour demand is derived by market demand for goods and services. Lower labour costs do not create jobs and they do not drive productivity; they simply add to profits. Increasing demand and increasing employment require local consumption—consumption that's heavily influenced by confidence. Insecure work and low wages are dampeners on consumer confidence. Again, this bill pushes in the opposite direction. It does nothing to address the problem of insecure work and low wages growth.

I draw the attention of this place to the evidence of Ms Sheree Clarke, an aged-care worker whose evidence to the committee was very moving. She said:

Because most of my work is so insecure, I can only plan to live on my minimum contracted hours, and a contract of 16 hours per fortnight is not enough to live on. This impacts all aspects of my lifestyle, including health. My budget does not allow me to choose healthy options and I often miss meals. Paying my car registration or visiting my dentist is a day-to-day decision for me.

She expressed her distress that she could not afford to assist her own elderly parents or even afford her own housing. She said she can't secure a long-term rental lease because she doesn't have an income. She lives in a caravan park. She said:

As a low-income worker, I'm not alone here.

We have in the legislation before us a how-to guide for corporate lawyers who want to construct employment contracts that casualise not just the existing casual jobs but any job in this nation. Far from being a pathway for conversion to permanency, the impact of this bill—on any analysis of the detail—is the opposite. It's there to manipulate the system and contrive employment offers that lock people into casual employment.

I note that the government did drop one hurtful amendment to the BOOT, but I have to say that this is not a win. The government dropped that disastrous amendment knowing that they would never receive support and creating a facade of compromise, but there has been no compromise. What we have is a bill that's designed to cut workers' pay and conditions and keep going the long-term trend of weakening wage growth in our nation.

I ask this place to think about the frontline workers who risked their safety to serve their communities through the pandemic, who ensured Australians still had food on the supermarket shelves, hospitals that had been cleaned and a public transport system that kept running. While some Australians were fortunate to work from home, many workers were not. Frontline and casual workers put their families' safety at risk to support our communities. Because casual workers can't earn a living wage, they work in multiple locations, including at multiple quarantine hotels during the pandemic. There are the aged-care transport workers. Many Australians put themselves on the line for low incomes to ensure that Australians are being looked after. How does this government thank them? By cutting their pay and conditions.

This pandemic has reminded us that our actions affect those around us, that we have a responsibility to keep our fellow Australians safe and looked after. This government is not only ignoring this by allowing workers' pay and conditions to be cut, leaving families worse off and the economy worse off in its recovery, but also thanking frontline workers, who have so courageously served our communities, by cutting their pay and conditions. This bill allows wage cuts to be made and also makes it easier for wages to be stolen. The government has placed much weight on its rhetoric in here about increased penalties et cetera, but the detail in this bill means that the recovery of stolen wages is less likely, not more likely.

I also note a submission signed by nine public health experts from the Australian National University. They have called this bill a threat to public health. The submission notes that Australia currently has one of the highest rates of individuals without leave entitlements in the OECD. Is the new OECD chief, Mathias Cormann, going to fix this? This bill increases the casualisation of work, the growing number of workers without paid sick leave. These experts state that casual workers' lack of sick leave is a threat to Australia's public health, because, whether they have the flu, COVID or whatever, they can't afford to take a day off.

Some 62 per cent of all jobs created between May and November 2020 were casual. The majority of jobs were casual. Casuals have fewer rights, fewer entitlements and less security. Casualisation is already an incredibly difficult and great issue in Australia. This bill doesn't fix it. This bill makes the problem worse.

The bill is entitled the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill, yet it is very clear that the jobs it is supporting are jobs that are casual, insecure and make life more difficult for workers and our economic recovery. Our recovery is slow and will be inequitable with these changes. Some 23 labour law experts across Australia signed a submission warning that this bill leaves workers worse off. They contradict very clearly the government's claim that it will not facilitate pay cuts. Once again, this government has ignored academic experts. I don't have time today to go through all of the important detail in this bill, all of the examples, but the detail is there in the submissions from working people, academics, health experts, unions, the ACTU, migrant workers and a great many others.

In closing, I want to highlight an important issue in relation to greenfields agreements. The ETU's submission detailed the story of a worker, Robert, an electrical fitter mechanic and instrumentation technician. He worked on the Gorgon project on Barrow Island, a $53 billion project. He worked 29 days on, nine days off. It was tough, and he saw depression run wild through his workmates. At one point there was a run of suicides. One worker tried to take his own life on a flight home. The roster was the root of these issues, but it was locked in by the greenfields agreement which covered the job.

We know that the Gorgon project took a long time, but here we see an eight-year time line for greenfields projects. Mental health issues are rife, and it is morally wrong to have greenfields agreements with a lack of flexibility for up to eight years. Suicide clusters happen. Fourteen suicides were reported in connection with the INPEX project alone. I implore this place: the greenfields regime must be flexible enough to adapt to the evolving needs of a site. The amendments proposed in the bill do the exact opposite, locking in life-of-project agreements that in all likelihood, I believe, have the capacity to kill people.

We on this side strongly oppose this bill. The Labor Party is the party of working people. It always has been and it always will be. We will stand up to ensure that workers in our nation receive fair pay and conditions for the work that they do. We are the party of award safety nets, leave entitlements and secure work. The coalition is the party of cutting penalty rates, delaying rises to super and entrenching insecure work. The coalition is the party of Work Choices, union-busting bills and ensuring Australian workers do not get a fair go. This bill is just the latest attempt by this government to hurt working families. It will ensure that recovery from the pandemic is slow and inequitable. It's a story we've heard before: the coalition wanting to hurt workers, under the guise of economic improvement. The bill should not be passed in its current form. There are too many fundamental problems and all the risks fall one way: into the laps of working people. The coalition says that this bill will create confidence for employers to employ, but the risks all fall into the laps of working people. Here in this place we are defending workers from having their pay and conditions cut once again. The Labor Party will continue to fight to make sure that workers are treated fairly and that this bill does not pass.

12:14 pm

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

It's a pleasure to follow Senator Pratt, who laid out the Labor Party arguments on this Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021, which have been consistent for a number of months. Increasingly those arguments have actually been taken across Australia—and certainly across regional Queensland, where a number of unions have been out having meetings and talking to people. They've really been giving people the opportunity to understand the damage that this bill will do to their ability to go about their lives and their workplaces.

It's a bill that says so much about this government. It sums up how they operate, what they stand for and how they see life for Australian workers and families into the future. We can start with the name of the bill, 'supporting Australia's jobs and economic recovery'. It's always the cynical, political messaging with this government. They never miss an opportunity; it's politics all the time, and we see that with the title of this bill.

We've also seen it in the way that they've negotiated on this as well, and their positioning. They dropped getting rid of the better off overall test—the BOOT—during the first effort to get the bill passed. But they're prepared to use that to play on the fears of Australians, knowing full well that it was brought in around Work Choices the first time. Let's also think about this moment in time and look at what the world has been dealing with and going through over the last 12 months, then consider what Australians have been going through as well over this period of time. We know that hundreds of thousands of Australians have lost their jobs and that many of those have been relying on JobKeeper, which is due to expire in a couple of weeks.

We know that Australians have a new-found sense of what an essential worker is through what we went through last year. Australians have appreciated those people who were able to provide the support so that many of us could get through, whether it was from frontline health workers—those people behind the scenes in health services who have helped to keep hospitals in shape and enabled us to deal with the pandemic—or those who have been on the frontline in supermarkets. We know how under pressure they've been. The last 12 months have certainly given Australians a new sense of what an essential worker is.

But this bill is the vision of this government. All it is is a series of ideological attacks—long-held beliefs that they've always wanted to pursue and have racked up under cover of dealing with the pandemic. That's what says so much about this government: the fact that they're pursuing long-held beliefs and agendas that they've always wanted to get on with in terms of attacking workers but wrapping these things up in terms of dealing with the pandemic. That is their cynical way of trying to get this through.

Some of the challenges that all workers are facing across the country were in place before the pandemic, such as increasing casualisation. We know that two million people were unemployed or looking for more work and that record low wage growth was well in place before the pandemic. And, sadly, from Queensland's point of view, there was the use of labour hire through many parts of Queensland, particularly through some industries. That's being used to drive down wages and conditions. We can then add onto these existing conditions the pandemic, and that's what the Australian people have been dealing with. But this bill is being presented today as this government's vision for a solution for those challenges that workers are facing.

It's so lacking in vision and it's bereft of any creativity from this government. They're incapable of offering up a better Australia. If this bill is the best they can put up then it's a sad indictment on this government that this is their vision for Australian workers. We actually had a moment, during what Australia went through over the last 12 months, when people did work together. The opposition were prepared to work with the government to try to find solutions to these challenges. Yet here we are, 12 months on, and Australia might have got through the pandemic but the government don't have a vision for what the future looks like. They don't have a vision for a better Australia, and all we see in this legislation is actually going to make things worse. It's going to make things worse for workers and it's going to make things worse for those families as a result of this.

Those challenges I spoke about before—low wage growth, casualisation and people looking for work—were around before the pandemic. They've been accentuated now because of what we've been dealing with, but still the government shows no vision and no creativity. They just revert to the age-old attacks on workers that we've seen since the Howard days. It really is a tragedy that this is the best they can do, given the opportunity that they have had.

So what does this bill do to hurt Australians? It makes it easier for employers to casualise jobs that would otherwise have been permanent. It makes bargaining for better pay and conditions more difficult than it already is. It allows for wage cuts. It weakens wage theft punishments in jurisdictions where wage theft has already been deemed a criminal act, like my home state of Queensland; this is something the state government has been really proud of delivering on, and was something that was seen as a significant factor in the recent election.

I turn to some of the evidence that was placed before the committee hearings. They were truncated committee hearings, because of the government's urgency on this, but it was a great job by Labor senators and others to get some of this evidence on the record. I know the committee spent time in Townsville as well, within Queensland. According to the Centre for Future Work:

Australia has not experienced such a sustained deceleration of both nominal and real wages in its entire post-war history.

The Liberal-National government's plan to get wages growing again is to make it easier to casualise workers. The Senate economics committee looked into the government's bill and heard from workers and other groups. Included in this was the Centre for Future Work, who said that weakening casual labour definitions and increasing employer control over these definitions will suppress wage growth and fuel insecure work:

The worrying expansion of insecure work in Australia is already associated with major economic and social consequences, including the slowest wage growth at any point since the Depression, undermined consumption spending, rising household financial instability, and rising inequality.

This was furthered by Per Capita:

… the Bill is likely to exacerbate, rather than relieve, the insecurity of hours and income experienced by too many workers in Australia.

…   …   …

At its worst interpretation, the new definition and conversion clause could encourage employers to offer casual employment to all new employees, giving them a year of 'try before you buy' employment for all employees, regardless of the eventual hours worked.

This is particularly important given that the growth in employment has been on the back of casual work.

Sixty per cent of all jobs created between May and November last year were casual work, according to the Centre for Future Work. In this period, casual employment grew by 400,000 jobs. Similarly, part-time work has also grown strongly in the same period. Australia's COVID recovery can't be built on the back of more insecure work, and this bill is going to make that worse. It won't improve conditions for casuals. The government even overturned the Federal Court decision on what it means to be a casual, making it harder.

Under these laws, if someone starts a job and agrees to be employed as a casual they remain a casual regardless of their actual work hours and patterns, as long as the employer employs them on the basis that they make no firm advance commitment to continuing in indefinite work according to an agreed pattern of work. Even if a court finds that a casual worker should be permanent, any casual loading they have received is deducted from outstanding permanent entitlements. So they still find a way to punish workers.

There are countless examples of workers doing the same job but being paid less—30 per cent to 40 per cent less on average, it is being reported, than their permanent counterparts. We've seen numerous examples of that in Queensland through the resourcing industry. Not only are they getting less than their full-time counterparts; they will not get what is owed to them even if they are found to be permanent.

This bill does very little to address the permanent-casual problem, something that is rife throughout Queensland and regional Queensland. The provisions don't offer a realistic pathway to permanency, with a loophole of potentially unlimited reasonable grounds that employees will not be able to challenge. The ACTU called the provisions 'essentially meaningless', given that employers are not bound to offer permanency if they do not think it is reasonable and can also refuse to consent to arbitration before the Fair Work Commission.

I think this is a key part of this, particularly from a Queensland point of view, because we have seen this become prevalent throughout regional Queensland. I've spoken about this in the chamber before because, ultimately, what this is doing is driving down the pay and conditions of all workers. But it's also changing the nature of many of these regional towns in terms of regional Queensland being a good place to live, work and raise a family. If the only employment you can rely on is casual, you aren't able to make the same decisions in life as others who have full-time or permanent work. It is changing the nature of these places and making them less attractive for people to live, work, and raise a family as generations of Queenslanders and, indeed, Australians have done.

There is the simplified additional hours agreement. This provision means an employer and a part-time employee can agree to the employee working additional hours at their normal pay rate without the employer paying overtime. The Queensland Nurses and Midwives' Union stated there has been a proliferation of part-time employees who are being treated as casual employees whilst negating the need to pay the 25 per cent loading required for casual employees. It argued: 'Effectively, the employee has limited control over hours worked and loses the benefits of part-time employment. Whilst the employer gains flexibility and reduced hourly rates, expansion of part-time employment practices by employers will further exacerbate insecurity and precarious employment.' The Queensland Nurses and Midwives' Union obviously covers so many vital workers, particularly given the health crisis that we have been dealing with over the last 12 months.

The bill will also weaken wage theft laws in Queensland. The Queensland Council of Unions said in their evidence that the bill considers the penalty for stealing by a worker to be 2½ times worse than stealing by an employer. In contrast, wage theft in Queensland is set at the same corresponding penalty if the stealing is conducted by a clerk or servant in relation to the employer's property. The Queensland government has criticised the wage theft changes. Queensland has a maximum penalty of up to 10 years imprisonment, whereas the Commonwealth regime has a maximum of only four. The Queensland government said in their submission:

The setting of a lower penalty at the Commonwealth level appears to signal that the Commonwealth Government regards wage theft as a less serious act than, for example, the forgery of postage stamps (which attracts a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment).

I think that shows the attitude to wage theft of this government, which has been its attitude for years, despite the overwhelming evidence that has been presented for Australian workers being ripped off.

Australia and Australian workers need an economic recovery that benefits all. Labor believes that we need to promote inclusive prosperity, where we create wealth through improved job security and decent wages. Per Capita summarised Australia's recovery well:

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

The reality of this bill that we are debating today is that it will make that worse. Labor has been consistent since this bill was first introduced that this is bad legislation and it needs to be voted down, and that is what Labor will do. But more than that, it is such a missed opportunity for the country.

At a time when Australians are actually looking for a better vision, looking for something to look forward to that offers hope for their future, the government have turned up and put forward this bill that is going to make Australians and their families worse off. It is a sad indictment on this government that this is the best they can do, but they are so lacking in vision, they are so lacking in creativity, that this bill has to be opposed. I encourage the crossbench to oppose it as well. There is nothing that can be done to improve this. It is something that needs to be voted down, and the Australian people need to punish this government at the next election.

12:29 pm

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Road Safety) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to make my contribution to the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia’s Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021 and I state at the outset that the first thing that should be front of mind for most Australian people is that, when the Liberal-National government set out to tell workers that they've got their back and that this fantastic piece of legislation is in the best interests of Australian workers and is going to improve their lifestyle, the warning bells and the alarms should be screaming at fever pitch.

I remember sitting in this chamber back in 2005 on the day Work Choices went through. The Howard government had the numbers in the Senate, in their own right, to ram through any legislation, and they did—and weren't they proud! I also remember a clap of lightning hitting this place—true as I speak. There was a little bit of sunlight shining through on Senator Abetz's head at the time, and I remember wondering if that shard of light would turn into a lightning bolt one day. Well, how did that end up for the coalition? What coalition member couldn't stand proud and tell us during the Work Choices legislation debates and when the subsequent bill hit the streets that they were so proud of the Howard government for doing that? I even saw a couple of them doing high fives, slapping each other's hands.

One thing about being in this place is that you know history does repeat itself. Here we go again. Regardless of the bad behaviour we've seen in this place—the cover-ups and the alleged offences in the last few years that would make any decent Australian want to vomit—what do they do as soon as there's a pandemic? They can't help themselves; it's in their ideological DNA. I heard the contributions of a couple of senators yesterday, one of whom was Senator Small from WA, and I did read some comments on Facebook—and I'm not going to be so rude as to mention anything about his name and his capability; I wouldn't dare do that—telling us that this is not ideological. Bulldust! This is ideological. I'll tell you why. If the government over there, any of those Liberal or Nationals senators, had a shred of decency in them they would be telling the Australian people, while they're telling them what a magnificent job of looking after people they're doing with this piece of legislation, what they have done for Australian workers in the last seven years they've been in government. I'll make it easy for them: just name three things that would have Australian workers standing up saying, 'What a magnificent job the Liberal-National coalition have done!' Not one of them can do that, because they would get torn to shreds. What have they done for their mates in big business? That would read like a Funk & Wagnalls; that would be 26 or 27 volumes. And here we go again.

While we're talking about history, I want to send a message to my crossbench colleagues. I do respect the crossbench; I am one of those who absolutely respects the crossbench. Even though we have differences of opinion, they were elected in their own right. They have faced the people and they have been sent by their respective states to represent the good people of those states. I say to Senator Lambie, Senator Patrick, Senator Griff, Senator Hanson and Senator Roberts: the last time we saw a wonderful—and I've got my tongue in my cheek—piece of legislation to 'help' working men and women in Australia, the crossbench senators who supported that bill are no longer here. There could be myriad reasons why, but I've got to tell you, Senators, the biggest thing going into the 2007 election was Work Choices. The Howard government, with all the lemmings on the other side and the crossbenchers who supported them, couldn't wait to put it in. They all went out the exit door. They're not here anymore. I appeal to the crossbench senators not to fall for it—no matter how those opposite fluff it up, no matter how many hundreds and thousands they sprinkle on this horrible sandwich—because the Australian people will not be taken for mugs.

We know one of the greatest issues this nation faces is wage theft. This is not new to me. I've been talking about wage theft for many, many years. I'm really happy now that the media are actually talking about wage theft. I want to congratulate those two magnificent Labor state governments in Queensland and Victoria, who not only talked about wage theft but moved heaven and earth to bring in legislation to address the issue. When will it ever happen in this place? Never. I shouldn't ask myself the same questions. It's never going to happen. I have been running around the great nation of Australia talking to truck drivers left, right and centre—not just to the suits and the representatives of transport associations. Senators opposite, if you want to have a bubble, bring it up now; give me examples of where I might be wrong. All they want to talk about—they want to talk about many, many things, but the biggest issue is wage theft. What really irks people is that mob over there. They pretend to be the friends of small business. This is the nonsense you'll hear from the LNP: 'We're the party of small business.' Well, if you are the party of small business, please explain to me how we have small businesses in this day and age that are getting the living daylights screwed out of them by the top of the supply chain. Nothing in this bill goes to addressing that. What about all those magnificent, hardworking small businesses in every industry you could think of who are being told to sharpen their pencil every time they put a quote in. They are being told, 'We can't pay you in 30 days. We might pay you in 45. We might even pay you in 60.' I have examples of 120. I have examples of 150, but that was one of the multinationals.

So, LNP senators, tell me what you've done for small business in this nation in terms of getting them remunerated on time or in a reasonable time. LNP senators, it's crickets over there. Not a thing! Also, where in this nation do we have a body called the Fair Work Ombudsman? The Fair Work Ombudsman is charged with a number of things. One is to seek out those people who aren't doing the right thing in paying their wages. Where in this bill—please point me to it—does it even say that thou shalt fund the Fair Work Ombudsman, let alone have it get out there and prosecute people and put them behind bars if it has to, or whatever it needs to do, to recuperate hard-earned moneys for people who have not been paid properly? I gave examples of that in this place two or three weeks ago. Please tell me where in the bill it tells me that you're going to address this in order to look after workers? As expected, there is not a thing. I'm giving you the opportunity.

We have examples of high-profile businesses self-reporting, and good on them. They've self-reported and come out and said, 'Look, we haven't paid our people properly.' And I can understand that sometimes there could be bogies in computers and all that. I get all that. We have celebrity chefs and we have Bunnings. These are people—not the celebrity chefs but the likes of Bunnings—who normally do pay, but there has been a slip-up. They've fixed it. That's fine; that's great. We heard that Maurice Blackburn had done it. They got out there and fixed it. When the grand party of the small business stand ups and says, 'You know what? Every time we give the opportunity for an employer to do the wrong thing and not get pinged,' where in your psyche do you think to yourselves, 'But what about the poor people that are doing the right thing?' Point me to the clause in this bill that says that you will do your best to look after the people who are paying the correct wages but are losing contracts to people who absolutely engage in wage theft and superannuation theft? Is there anything there? No, I didn't think so. You can't point me to it.

I listened intently to a number of contributions today. One of the best contributions I heard was from Senator O'Neill, who was on the committee. A legislation committee looked into this bill. I've done a few committees myself over the years. I heard Senator O'Neill tell me very clearly that the government—not the opposition and the crossbench and the Greens—only let them have three hearings. This is a massive bill that is going to be so fantastic for Australian businesses, so fantastic for Australian workers, so fantastic for casuals, so fantastic for those that have insecure employment now! There were three days.

I've made a couple of contributions in here in the last couple of weeks about how disgusted I am in the modus operandi of this LNP government. In the last seven years they have done everything they can to not answer questions in the inquiries. They get the departments not to answer. And—lo and behold—it happened again to me last week when I was conducting the inquiry into the Transport Security Amendment (Serious Crime) Bill 2020. It was the same old same old: 'We'll insult the Senate. We'll insult the senators.' That's fine; you'll get away with that for a while. But you insulted the witnesses who had travelled and who wanted to come and present their cases. You, the LNP Morrison government, are all guilty, the whole lot of you together, of sitting back and thinking that you could control it and that there would be only three hearings. Last time I looked, there were about six or seven capital cities that we would normally go to to seek that information from the people. Then I heard the example from Senator O'Neill of the nurses who had travelled. There might have been one nurse or a couple of nurses; I apologise if I've got that wrong. They were most upset that they couldn't get to present their take on insecure employment and their take on the bill.

As Senator O'Neill said very clearly, our frontline workers were the ones that ministers and the Prime Minister couldn't wait to get their photos taken with. They were standing next to the nurses, standing next to the healthcare workers, standing next to our essential workers fighting the pandemic. Senator O'Neill described when a nurse had to say to her husband and kids, 'If it breaks out, I might not be able to come home for a month.' The LNP senators—I don't know who the LNP senators were on the inquiry; I'm blaming the whole damn lot of them because they're all guilty through association. Where in your psyche do you think it's fantastic that you can snub the Australian people on the one hand, while on the other hand telling them you're doing everything you can to look after them? I know no-one on that side is going to answer that. I know there are Labor senators who are going to answer that, and Greens senators and crossbenchers who can answer that.

Here's another one—casualisation. Before they all start jumping up like a pack of cockies carrying on, casual work suits certain employees. But I've got to tell you, as someone who didn't slither my way through university while I was trying to figure out how I could work for someone and then get a job in the Senate or as a member of parliament without actually going off to work and doing things, when you are casual there is no way known you can seek a loan. You cannot get a loan for a car. You can't do it. You certainly can't get a loan for a house. How do I know? Because I have spent many, many years—I broke every industrial law in the land I could find, and I am proud of it. I marched truck drivers and forklift drivers and loaders off the job in the good old days, when workers could collectively bargain, before Howard got his claws in there with the support of all the lemmings behind him, to proudly stand on picket lines and proudly make it known to anyone around, 'We ain't moving until our brothers and sisters have got permanent jobs.' I'm so proud of my history there. I just wish I could have spent the last 15 years doing it as well, but I've been in here trying to fight the good fight for workers. So, in this bill, you point me to where any worker can say, 'Thank you LNP, thank you Mr Morrison and the lemmings; you have got my back.' What a load of bull.

There is another part here I want to find out about. One of my greatest hatreds in the transport industry—and I'll let other senators talk about this—was, and still is, labour hire. I might be wrong; labour hire may now have a conscience. But back in the great old days, when I had the steelcap boots and jeans on, there was not one decent word that I could put my tongue around to describe or link to labour hire. Labour hire were the parasites of the road transport industry. If it's changed, come and see me. Labour hire: the preferred option for the multinationals and everyone else who wanted to screw down wages and conditions. Do you know why I hated them? They never invested one single cent into the welfare of the workforce. Show me one single cent in the transport industry that labour hire put towards training and skills development. It ain't going to happen because it never happened. Give me one example where labour hire said: 'Gee whiz! We're making a motza, so how can we pay our labour hire people on a multinational site the EBA rates of pay that the permanent employees get on those sites, or the casuals?' Guess what? Chameleons. The labour hire mob could blend in with the jungle because they were never responsible. They never did anything for anyone except for themselves, except for helping bosses screw down the working conditions and wages of their permanent and their casual staff. Please point me in the direction of whatever page, of whatever paragraph that proves me wrong, shows where this bill is so darn good for working men and women in Australia?

12:44 pm

Photo of Nick McKimNick McKim (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Well, here we go again! Under the cover of the pandemic, the ideologically driven neoliberals in this place have come in here, once again, to do the bidding of their corporate masters at the expense of ordinary Australian people. Let's just take pause as we debate this legislation and reflect on where neoliberalism has brought us to today. The planet is cooking. We are in the sixth mass extinction event in the history of the Earth. We are pricing an entire generation of young people out of the great Australian dream of owning their own home. We have millions of Australians unemployed or underemployed, with women, young people and migrant workers bearing—

Debate interrupted.