Thursday, 18 March 2021
Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021; Second Reading
In the remaining five minutes in my contribution to this debate on the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021 I want to focus on the elements of the bill that Labor finds unpalatable—well, we find the whole bill unpalatable—particularly the casual worker clause. Seriously, I recall the Attorney-General saying at the start of this conversation that this was about making it fair for workers. It seemed to me at that point that the Morrison government had recognised that workers on the frontline during the pandemic—aged-care workers, early childhood educators, cleaners, security officers, paramedics and a whole lot of people—had very precarious employment. Many were employed as casuals and many had less than full-time work.
We've seen that with security officers in charge of our hotel quarantine. I thought at that point there was some hope that the Morrison government—once and for all—was going to fix up the casual worker clause. But, sadly, I've been mistaken. Disappointingly, so have thousands and thousands of workers across Australia, who saw the opportunity that the Morrison government might fix this and fix their employment. Sadly, if this bill goes through this place today, each and every one of those Morrison government senators and MPs who vote for this bill, along with whoever supports them from the crossbench, will be the ones who condemn Australian workers—casuals in particular—to continued insecure employment and continuing in not knowing how many hours a week they're going to get. They can get a text message from their employer, saying, 'Come to work,' or, 'Don't come to work'.
This is not a respectful way to treat workers. It is time in this country—and we like to pride ourselves on saying we're a fair country—that we treated the lowest-paid in our community with fairness, with respect and with dignity. Today I would urge those on the crossbench who, from all accounts in the media, have yet to make up their minds that it's not too late to do the right thing by Australian workers. Do you know what? Bosses will survive this—they will. Their businesses are not going to crash to the wall because they have to give permanent employment to casuals after a period of time.
At the moment, what's being proposed by the Morrison government—and it's a sham—is that you can be made permanent after six months. But if the boss doesn't do it you have no recourse; there's no recourse for you to go to a court and argue in a fair way to get a fair go. In this place today we have the opportunity within our hands to fix life for casual workers, to fix it once and for all and to make it secure. Those people who took this country forward during the pandemic deserve at least that.
There are a lot of other things wrong with the bill, but in my experience as a union official what stands out to me is seeing women scraping by, looking after families, not knowing from week to week what their take-home pay will be. We know that in this country there are way too many children living in poverty. If the Morrison government agree to this casual clause today, and if those on the crossbench agree with them, they will be condemning a generation of children to poverty. I urge them to take a long, hard look at this and change it.
We want fairness. That's where this debate started—with trying to make the pandemic better for employers. The trade union movement agreed at that time to some temporary changes, but now it seems we're trying to lock those changes in forever. That is not on. I say to the government: if you do that in here today the Australian public will punish you at the voting box, and you will deserve to be punished for condemning low-paid workers to insecure work forever and a day. It is not on. Do the right thing. Do the fair thing. I urge the crossbench not to agree to the amendments or to the bill the government wants to put up today. Listen to the ACTU. Listen to workers out there. There's so much on social media today about people's personal stories, about how life is so hard for them. Don't do this to yet another generation of workers.
I rise to speak on the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021. There are few certainties in life; I think, as we have all lived through 2020, we certainly know that for sure. But you know one thing we can always count on? We can always count on the Liberal Party taking any opportunity they can to make it easier to exploit Australian working families. You see, despite their rhetoric, those on the other side have never been on the side of Australian working families. Most of the time they feel they need to hide it. They have to hide their contempt. They have to hide their true intentions. But there are moments when they show their true colours, what they really think and what they really want to do.
There were a couple of times when they thought they could get away with it. I was here after 2004, when John Howard won a majority in both houses and the Howard Liberals thought they were permanent and invincible. They finally had the confidence, therefore, to reveal that they were not on the side of working Australians and never had been. What did they do? They rammed through the extreme Work Choices law. Australians got the message right away and sent the Howard government packing. Since then the Liberals have been trying extra hard to hide their stripes, but their stripes don't change. Now here we are again, for a second time, with a Liberal government that feels unassailable, takes Australians for granted, feels it's permanent and thinks the collective goodwill and trust in government generated by our shared response to the pandemic means it can get away with things it never normally gets away with. Once again, the government will be proven wrong.
What the coalition have misunderstood about these times, about how we have all pulled together through this pandemic, is that Australians have seen as clearly as ever what matters. Australians want good, secure jobs with fair pay and conditions. Australians want cheaper child care. Australians want to live in a country that makes things and supports local jobs. Australians want to live in an Australia where no-one is held back and no-one is left behind. Australians want a government that's on their side. What have they got instead? Australians have a government that never delivers for anyone other than itself. They have a government that isn't on their side. They have a government that will leave hundreds of thousands of Australians behind when it ends JobKeeper this month. They have a government that makes fundamental parts of life for working families, like child care, just too expensive. They have a government of broken promises, sports rorts, dodgy self-dealing and a trillion dollars of debt with nothing to show for it. They have a government that is overseeing worsening job security and that cuts wages, as it does with this bill.
Labor has set a very simple test. We would support this legislation if it delivered secure jobs with decent pay. But the government's legislation, even with the amendments it grudgingly made, still fails that test. I will return to the provisions of the bill in a moment, but I do want to make the point that it doesn't have to be this way. Labor have set out our plan for more job security, better pay and a fairer industrial relations system. Unlike those opposite, we understand that being in secure work means people can build a future for themselves and for their families, can get a bank loan to buy a home and can take leave when they're sick or need to look after those they love, without putting their jobs at risk.
This is a better deal on offer: job security, better pay, a fairer system, having job security explicitly inserted into the Fair Work Act, rights for gig economy workers through the Fair Work Commission, having 'casual work' properly defined in law, a crackdown on cowboy labour hire firms to guarantee the proposition of same job, same pay—a pretty simple proposition—and a cap on back-to-back short-term contracts for the same role, as well as having more-secure public sector jobs by ending inappropriate temporary contracts, with government contracts to companies and organisations that offer secure work for their employees.
And of course we must tackle the gender pay gap. Labor's plan will require companies that have more than 250 employees to report their gender pay gap publicly. Our plan would prohibit pay secrecy clauses and give employees the right to disclose their pay if they want to. We will take action to address the gender pay gap in the Australian Public Service. We will ensure that the Fair Work Commission has strengthened powers to order pay increases for workers in low-paid, female-dominated industries. And we will legislate a right to 10 days paid family and domestic violence leave.
The singular driving purpose of this parliament should be how we improve the lives of the Australian people. That is why we on this side of the chamber make no apology for standing in the way of legislation that makes life harder for working Australians. And we make no apology for wanting casual workers to have the same basic workplace rights that the rest of the workplace rightly enjoys. You see, under Mr Morrison, job insecurity has worsened. Gig workers regularly get paid below the minimum wage and have unsafe conditions. What does this bill do? In an act of political opportunism, this bill uses the COVID pandemic to entrench the epidemic of job insecurity.
We know COVID-19 didn't create the problems we're seeing in our society—the inequality, the low wages and the poor working conditions, but it did shine a light onto realities that have been ignored by the government every day they have been in power. At a time when those in some of our lowest paid industries have borne the brunt of the pandemic, what thanks do they get from the Morrison government? The government thanks them, Mr Morrison thanks them, by allowing their pay to be cut—the thanks of a grateful Prime Minister! We know casual workers carried this nation through the pandemic. Do you know who they are? They're our aged-care workers, hospitality workers, retail workers, food producers and delivery drivers. Many of them are casual in name only, having essentially worked in the same role for years but without getting the sort of job security that is so fundamental to providing for themselves and their families long term.
This bill will shackle these workers into the definitions and conditions imposed on them the day they started work. Under the proposed section 15A in schedule 1 of this bill, if an employer tells a worker on day one that they are casual, then this employment definition persists and prevails, even if, through the performance of their role, the worker has a set roster and a pattern of regular and consistent hours and even if there is an expectation of ongoing and stable work. But, true to form, the Morrison government is going even further. Section 15A aims to have a retrospective application. The effect of that is that those who were wrongly classified as casual employees remain shackled to that definition irrespective of the years of work history to the contrary. So you're not only doing people over; now you're going back to do them over! This provision ignores real-world practice and turns back many years of legal precedent. Where the courts expanded the rights of workers by examining the employment relationship beyond merely what was enclosed within the express terms inside a few pages, this bill seeks to take them away.
Those opposite claim their inclusion of casual conversion provisions fixes the issue of insecure work. Do you know what? You always have to read the fine print with this government, especially with this Minister for Industrial Relations. When you read these proposed changes closely you will see that an employer is able to reject requests for conversion to part-time or full-time work on so-called reasonable grounds, and the worker can only dispute a rejection if the employer agrees to go to the Fair Work Commission for arbitration. So a casual aged-care worker requests conversion, the employer says, 'Nah, I can't do that,' and she or he has to go to the commission for arbitration. Yeah that's going to happen, isn't it! That's a good way to deal with it! There's no understanding of the disparity of power in the relationship, no understanding—or maybe, actually, they do understand, which is why they draft these provisions in this way.
On wage theft: well, this bill is consistent with the government's pattern of lagging behind the states. While wage theft provisions may, at first glance, look to be a step forward, if you are in Queensland or Victoria from 1 July they're a step back. This bill would prevail over existing state legislation, so if you're in Queensland, where fraudulent falsification of records is a crime, the bill overrides that protection. The Victorian and Queensland legislation has a 10-year maximum sentence. This bill would reduce that to four years. So for millions of Australian workers the Morrison government is reducing their protections against wage theft, reducing the deterrence to engage in it. You see, Madam Deputy President, the bill criminalises wage theft in theory only and sets a bar so high that very few prosecutions could meet it. And we know that if wage theft is not prosecuted it prevails and persists most often in the form of taking advantage of and exploiting our most vulnerable workers.
Australia's workers have demonstrated enormous good faith and solidarity through the pandemic by agreeing to greater flexibility in the workplace to help save livelihoods. These so-called JobKeeper amendments to the Fair Work Act were concessions made with the understanding that we were living in unprecedented times. They enabled businesses in receipt of JobKeeper to alter core aspects of an employee's work. They were provisions agreed to in good faith after there were decent discussions and a decent position was taken by the Australian trade union movement and those they represent. What has this government done? What they've sought to do under Mr Morrison is to take advantage of that good faith and take away protections workers have fought for and won over decades. This government wants to let businesses that never even had JobKeeper change where a worker works or even what a worker does, not during this pandemic but for two years. If that level of insecurity wasn't enough, schedule 2 of this bill plainly legislates pay cuts, enabling an employer to ask an employee to work additional hours without payment for overtime. Really? In the face of that decency, this is what you do? At a time when work is scarce and JobSeeker and JobKeeper are ending, how many workers, do you reckon, are going to be able to say no to that?
Nothing in this bill seeks to increase wages or empower workers, and the enterprise bargaining changes in particular seek to take advantage of workers by masking true intentions in complicated legal jargon—again, no surprise from this minister. We know that an agreement cannot contradict the National Employment Standards; in fact, agreements must reflect the minimums contained within those standards. What this bill seeks to do is to allow employers to insert a clause which purports that they comply with the NES but at the same time lets them include clauses which do not meet the bare minimums threshold. Even though these clauses are illegal, they remain in agreements. And, after all of that, the bill seeks to prevent a union stepping up and warning this isn't okay, because if a union hasn't been part of a bargaining process before the agreement reaches the commission there'll be no mechanism for the union to represent workers concerned. All of this adds up to less scrutiny, less transparency, worse outcomes for workers.
If these realities weren't poor enough, things are worse still for workers engaged in mayor multinational projects—construction or FIFO workers. They face the prospect of being locked into greenfields agreements for eight years without recourse. Eight years is a pretty long time. It's a pretty long time to be unable to revisit wage increases which have failed to keep up with the cost of living, or to address safety issues in the workplace, but it is what you'd expect from a government that considers suppressing wage growth to be a core objective of its economic policy.
The catchcry of this pandemic was, 'We're all in this together,' and, at the height of the pandemic, Mr Morrison established working-group processes designed to make it look like the government were interested in what working Australians wanted. They are trying to spin that this legislation is the result of working groups involving unions representing workers, but the entire movement representing working Australians opposes this bill. Do you know what the true spirit of this legislation is? It's not 'We're all in this together'; it's 'You're on your own.' Now, just as they did after John Howard's Work Choices, Australians will have a choice between a smug, tired party that govern for themselves and a government that is on their side, where no-one is held back and no-one is left behind, an Australia with job security, better pay and a fairer system—but that will come only if we elect a Labor government.
As a servant to the people of Queensland and Australia, I say: what a mess! Industrial relations in Australia is a mess. But there has been unexpected universal agreement that the real problem is the Fair Work Act. The Fair Work Act is the culprit. Union bosses agree with me. Dave Noonan, the national secretary of the CFMMEU, was in my office two days ago, and he agrees with me that it is a mess. He said, 'The Fair Work Act has not protected wages and conditions.' The ACTU's Sally McManus and Michele O'Neil, in my office yesterday, agree with me. Major employer groups agree with me. Small business agrees with me. How the hell can a small-business person and employees, good workers, possibly recognise what their rights and entitlements are? The Gillard-Rudd Fair Work Act has led to union decline, poor business leadership and management and a loss of worker rights. These business and union leaders agreed to an invitation from me to continue this discussion.
As the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021 is, though, we cannot support it. We have many substantive amendments and many technical amendments that will need to be accepted before we can consider this bill. Let's have a look at some key facts. Australia's largest employer of workers is small business—830,000 workers. In Australia we have, across many sectors, 2.5 million casuals, with diverse needs, including flexibility and options. Unions in the private sector now account for just nine per cent of workers. We will protect that nine per cent and we will work for the rest of the 100 per cent and for small business. Remember, only investors, employers and workers create jobs.
We have three aims in addressing this bill: to protect honest workers, to protect small business and to restore our productive capacity in Australia. We want jobs, confidence, certainty, security, workers' rights, protections and fairness. We've invited more than 80 groups to come and talk to us. We've invited them in writing. We've talked to more than 100 groups, some twice. We are listening widely. We've had ideas from the ACTU, unions and employers. We asked, 'What about small business?' There was a hushed silence. I want to point out something else, too. We have rejected the government's Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity No. 2) Bill 2019. We were slammed in the media and slammed by the government, and now employers are coming to us and saying that we did the right thing. In the past we also took the other view, and we supported the ABCC, the ROC and the ensuring integrity bill No. 1. We don't take sides. We get the facts.
There are five key areas in this bill. I will talk first about casuals. Everyone has ignored this problem for six years—Labor and Liberal. Simon Turner is now totally and permanently disabled. Others in the Hunter Valley were crushed emotionally, and some crushed physically—discarded. Stuart Bonds came to their rescue in the Hunter. I grew up in the Hunter. I've worked as an underground coalface miner and as a mine manager. I worked with the Hunter Valley CFMEU in the 1980s as a member and then as a manager and argued with them, and we respected each other.
Coming back to the present, I've pushed for justice and entitlements for Simon Turner for 21 months and will continue pushing. He suffered under a dodgy initial employment breach of award, then under an enterprise agreement that came out of a faulty process. Yet the Hunter Valley CFMEU approved that enterprise agreement and surrendered rights to complain. Joel Fitzgibbon, the Labor member, ignored six letters from Simon begging for help and then he misrepresented me and the problem in the Hunter. The Labor Party has failed. I acknowledge that Senator Sheldon has done some work in that area, but he has come up against a brick wall. The Liberals and Nats have failed, although I acknowledge the Attorney-General and Senator Marise Payne for doing something there. Senator Murray Watt has blown in from Queensland and now mentions the Hunter Valley and Newcastle. Where was he for 21 months? Where was he for the last six years? The union has failed, the Liberal and Nats New South Wales ministers have failed, the employer groups—the New South Wales Minerals Council and the Minerals Council of Australia—have failed; they're not even interested. But there is a shining light: Alex Bukarica, the CFMEU mining division's legal counsel. I applaud his courage and integrity, because he has acknowledged my words about what's happening in the Hunter and how the workers have been sold out.
Let's talk about the Hunter Valley CFMEU. Back in the eighties, when I was a mine manager, they started casuals and then became an employer. They had good intentions but they became an employer. Later they became a major shareholder in TESA and negotiated enterprise agreements for TESA. The Hunter Valley CFMEU made big money when it sold its company to TESA. It reportedly sold enterprise agreements with shelf companies. It approved enterprise agreements that exploited miners. It facilitated, negotiated, approved and recommended more than 300 enterprise agreements containing casuals, yet the Black Coal Mining Industry Award has no casuals working in production, only permanents. The Hunter Valley CFMEU enabled casuals, drove casualisation and now denigrates casuals, while not protecting them in their claims of injuries and serious safety violations. I have lost respect for the Hunter Valley branch of the CFMEU. It also shows that the industrial relations system is broken.
Let's look at the bigger picture. The CFMEU fought for amalgamation and now the mining division wants to pull out. What's going on? The CFMEU funded GetUp, whose main campaign is to stop coalmining and destroy jobs. Look at the Heydon royal commission findings on the CFMEU, the HSU scandal—stealing from their own members who are some of the lowest paid workers in the country—the SDA doing dodgy enterprise agreements and selling out to multinationals and the AWU doing the same. Under the Fair Work Act the unions have failed; workers have lost their protections. In Queensland, the CFMEU, in the mining division, has been admirably honest. Shane Brunker in Townsville said they have to start doing better with casuals. Jim Lambley, union delegate and vice-president in the CFMEU mining division in the 1990s, said then that the union was being overtaken by politics and personal agendas and needed to get back to service. Speaking of service, a union growing rapidly in membership, despite Annastacia Palaszczuk trying to pull them back, is the Nurses Professional Association of Queensland, which focuses on service and lower fees.
How did casuals start? Small business uses casuals quite well and many employees want to be casuals, hundreds of thousands of them, because today workers want options and flexibility. Small business needs options and flexibility—everyone won on that one. Small business needs a big cut in paperwork. Then the grubby, globalist BHP—with its history of managerial incompetence in the coal sector, laughed at in coal by suppliers, workers, unions, labour hire and its own workforce—adopted casuals as a way of getting around this. We've now seen managers in many industries focusing not on making work easier or more productive but on complying with rules. Australian business leadership is poor. It doesn't listen, it doesn't connect; instead, it goes on rules.
The root cause of Australia's industrial relations law complexity—and the industrial relations club live off this monster—is the Fair Work Act. It's the core problem, not the solution. Lawyers, union businesses driving a personal agenda, executives driving a personal or career agenda, industry bodies, HR consultants, some union bosses and industry groups work together, with conflicts of interest. The IR club serves vested interests to get money and power. The IR club is about power with little or no accountability. The IR club makes workers unproductive and strips entitlements. It is a parasite on workers and employers. The complexity makes it easy for the IR club to rule. The complexity makes it difficult for small business and workers to know their rights. It hurts, supresses and harms workers. It robs young people of a fair go to buy a home. This is the core industrial relations problem. Michael Wright, the senior ETU lawyer, and Alex Bukarica, the CFMMEU mining division lawyer, said that we need fewer lawyers involved in IR, and employers agree.
Laws are written to cover the one per cent of bad employers and workers. The Fair Work Act is based on what we don't want, not what we want. We need a positive approach instead, based on needs and principles. We need to focus on the 99 per cent good and have severe penalties for the bad. Long term we need to restore the workplace relationship between employers and employees. That is the core relationship.
With this new bill we can witness our country being squeezed in the IR club's vice. Whichever way we go, there are hazards. Doing nothing is not an option, because it will throw potentially tens of thousands of people out of work. Doing something is difficult, but at least it will give coalminers a pathway to permanent work. We need to make the best of this bill to make sure it protects workers and small business.
The first section is casuals. Casuals are considered in three parts. The pathway to permanency, the conversion, is welcome. Thanks to our work in the Hunter Valley and the government listening, there is now a pathway to permanency in the coalmining industry. The award didn't have it. Remember that there are diverse needs—mums and dads; corner stores; small businesses; McDonald's, with 110,000 largely casual employees; mining; retail; and hospitality. Employees and employers today want flexibility and options. Workers need to apply for the conversion in small business to take the load off small business paperwork.
The definition of a casual is now tight and strong. We were considering making minor modifications. We've one minor modification in the amendments. It's very difficult here to make sure that there aren't future unintended consequences. The government has agreed to our amendment that we will have a review in 12 months.
The third aspect of casuals is the offsetting section. That's to prevent double-dipping. Don't listen to the scare tactics. Double-dipping is when someone is paid a casual loading instead of entitlements and then claims entitlements and are paid twice. No Australian would say that's right. No fair dinkum Australian would say that. This offset clause makes that clear, but the offset says that you still get entitlements. It just means that you can't be paid twice. Protections are built into this amendment in the bill. We checked. It protects workers' rights. We checked the government's application to the High Court. We checked that workers' rights remain intact regarding pay rates. Any legal cases underway continue and are not excluded by this. Don't listen to the lies.
The second section is compliance. We agree with the stiff penalties for deliberate systemic wage theft. We also acknowledge that we are working and discussing with the government a moratorium for small business. That's too complex for this bill, so we're not interested in pushing that today.
The third section is greenfields. We want to cut the maximum duration for an EA from eight years, which the government wants, to six years. That's based on project length evidence. We want to protect workers during those six years by making sure that wage adjustments are based on the percentage increase of the national minimum wage. That's fair. We want to raise the lower limit of projects that are considered large from $250 million to $500 million. We want to remove ministerial discretion to regulate. In future we want the government to provide more opportunities for Australian-owned construction companies. We will be watching to make sure that the government doesn't open up to foreign workers, just like Labor did under the Rudd-Gillard-Shorten years.
The fourth section is enterprise agreements. The government has already agreed to our demand to drop the changes to the BOOT—flat; it did it in the early days. We want to include three months notice before the expiry of zombie agreements. We are making sure that employee protections are preserved, as they are in this section on enterprise agreements. Simplified additional hours agreements, which are common in many awards already, help business recovery. We want to make part-time permanent workers more secure. We want to give them more secure work. We want to make sure there is conversion after 12 months to regular hours. If they have had a simplified additional hours agreement for 12 months then they should be incorporated in regular standard hours. We want safety to be considered in flexible work arrangements. We want a review after 12 months, as I said, and the minister to report to parliament.
This bill is before us. We need to protect small business and honest workers. Governments and the parasitic industrial relations club leeches need to get the hell out of the way so workers can be protected and productive. We need the productive workers in our society to get a fair go. We invite all parties to come together and engage in a bipartisan approach based on principles and workers' needs. Workers have diverse needs: flexibility and options, a fair go, protection and security. Employers have diverse needs: flexibility and options, which will enable them to employ more people. Only investors, employers and workers create jobs.
We need to restore the core workplace relationship between employers and employees. We need to simplify and clarify the industrial relations act—hopeless. We need to do a very good job on this so that it protects and supports workers and gives workers and small businesses flexibility—a system that exposes and holds poor managers accountable and which rewards honest and fair managers and honest and fair workers.
One Nation will work with all parties and the government to support workers and small business in the future, once this bill is out of the way and we can get on with the real job of fixing this. We will continue to work for our three aims in supporting Simon Turner. I'll just mention that if we do nothing then tens of thousands of people will be out of work. (Time expired)
As my colleague and Australian Greens leader Adam Bandt has said in the other place, this Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021 does three things. The first is that it lets employers call you casual, even if you're not, and there's nothing you can do about it. The second is that it spells the beginning of the end of full-time work contracts, because it introduces into the system a new kind of contract, where the employer can employ you part time or full time and then put your hours up and down as the employer wants. Guaranteed full-time work will be a thing of the past. And the third thing—and the government doesn't tell us about this—is that it takes an already difficult process of bargaining for better wages and conditions and tilts it even further in the employer's favour. It makes it harder for people to ask for what they're entitled to in their workplace.
All three of those steps are terrible steps, but they're so consistent with this Liberal government's approach to governing. They're attacking workers, they're attacking the environment and they're attacking civil society. They're governing for their mates and not for the rest of us. They're doing everything they can to undermine anything that stands in the way of big corporations and corporate profits. Never mind that we have just been through an unprecedented global pandemic and that we're still going through that global pandemic. Never mind that we're in a climate emergency. Never mind the devastating impacts that these attacks are having on the lives of workers. They're still determined to undermine and attack workers at every turn.
Let's talk about the pandemic and the year that we've just been through—2020, the year that people want to put in the bin. That's particularly the case for people who were already on insecure and casual work, because the pandemic highlighted the inequality that's been allowed to flourish as a result of insecure work in Australia. Casual workers were hit the hardest during the pandemic. They accounted for approximately two-thirds of the people who lost their jobs in early last year. And those casuals who still had a job were amongst the lowest-paid and most insecure workers. They had no access to paid leave entitlements.
Also, we must not forget the role that insecure work played in spreading COVID-19 across the country, as workers without sick leave were forced to choose between their health or losing their income. Workers who are juggling this mix of multiple part-time jobs were of course going to fulfil their multiple part-time jobs because they needed to. They need to do that to put food on the table, and that made just the conditions—particularly if one of those casual part-time jobs was working in hotel quarantine—to spread COVID across the country. It led to the massive upswing in COVID cases early last year.
Many employers have built insecure work in to their business models and, while they turn a profit, workers have not had job or income security. It's notable that many of the richest and most powerful individuals and companies in Australia did very well out of the pandemic. Their profits increased at the same time that there was a huge amount of suffering for people doing it really tough during the pandemic. That was where we were at with our industrial relations system as it was, yet this legislation is going to make it even worse. It's going to make work even more insecure. It's going to mean that people have less security in their lives and in their jobs. The changes in this bill will further entrench insecure work in Australia and exacerbate the existing inequality in our industrial relations system. As I said, this is at a time when profits for those at the big end of town have increased.
We saw an article on the front page of a newspaper this morning about a billionaire, who was happy to be interviewed. They wanted to interview him and they said, 'Let's come and take a photo in front of your indoor pool' and this billionaire said: 'Which indoor pool? I've got three.' That's appalling. That is the reality of the inequality that is in existence in this country. At the same time as billionaires' wealth has increased during the pandemic, people on the most insecure incomes literally have not got the money to put food on the table. They are literally starving, and that is here in Australia, one of the richest countries in the world. That's not the Australia that I want to live in. I thought we had a social contract that said we were committed to moving towards equality, towards everybody having the opportunity of having a secure income, having a secure house and a roof over their head, having the ability to put food on the table to feed their kids, having the opportunity to flourish. The elements of this legislation are undermining that equality in Australia.
I want to go to some of the details of what's in this bill. The changes to definitions of casual labour will be devastating for people across the country. Workers, particularly casual workers, already face a power imbalance with their employers, and this bill will make it worse. I want to outline some of the things that the ACTU said in their submission. In terms of casual workers and more jobs being casualised, they noted that the bill will result in fewer permanent jobs with rights and an increase in the casualisation of the workforce. As I said, the casualisation of the workforce has been absolutely turbocharged in recent years. Rather than giving people more security, more permanence, it will increase the casualisation of the workforce. The ACTU said the casual conversion provisions of the bill are essentially meaningless, because the employer is not bound to offer a regular casual a permanent job if they don't think it would be reasonable to do so. The same employer can veto a worker's right to have the Fair Work Commission consider whether their decision is fair.
The bill allows employers to call a worker casual even if the job isn't casual, stripping them of entitlements such as sick leave. We know that, when people get sick, that's when the inequality in our system actually reveals itself. If you're a casual worker and you get sick then you can't afford to pay the rent and you can't afford to go out and buy food to put on the table. You'll find yourself homeless, being evicted, because you haven't got an income. This is the inequality that's already built in to our system that we should be doing something about, to actually reduce it, rather than considering legislation like this that increases that inequality. The ACTU pointed out that the bill retrospectively strips misclassified casuals of their right to leave entitlements. Even if it were acknowledged that, no, you aren't a casual worker, you're a part-time worker and you should have leave entitlements, you don't get the opportunity to get the leave entitlements. Basically, everything is stacked in the interests of the employer.
And then we have the fact that part-time work is going to be casualised under this bill. It would cut the rights and the take-home pay of part-time workers, effectively turning part-time workers into casuals and putting enormous pressure on them to accept extra hours with little notice and no overtime. Think of the consequences of that for women in particular, and particularly for women who have got kids in child care. You don't have childcare places that say: 'You've got work today? Fine! Bring your children in.' You don't. You have to commit to a number of particular days, particular hours for your child care—and you've got to pay for them.
The mismatch between childcare provisions and casualised work is enormous. If you've got workers who haven't got child care and who are basically told, 'You've got to turn up for work,' or, 'You've got to work an extra few hours,' what do they do? It creates a huge clash between peoples' family responsibilities and their work requirements. If we want to allow women in our country to flourish, to manage and juggle both their family responsibilities and their work responsibilities, then we've got to give them security. We've got to give them the ability to know that here are their hours of work so that they can organise their lives, they can organise their child care around those hours of work so that both they and their children can flourish. These cuts can be imposed upon any part-time worker under any award by regulation.
I think it is also worth reflecting upon whom in our society these provisions are particularly going to affect. Who are the people most likely to be impacted by these provisions? They are migrant workers and they are younger workers. Migrant workers are already much more likely to be part of the underpaid casualised workforce. These provisions reduce their bargaining power immensely. It's basically a racist provision, because we know it is going to be impacting on people of colour much more than people who have had the privilege of being in secure work already.
The provisions are also going to impact on younger people. Younger people were the ones who overwhelmingly lost their jobs during the pandemic. It is younger people who still have skyrocketing rates of unemployment. And even though the economy is kicking back into action now, younger people look at their prospects for work and they think, 'Where are the jobs?' Younger people are juggling studying and working. They are working in jobs in hospitality, for example, and those jobs just aren't there yet. They are the people who are going to be most affected by this. This is happening at a time when young people are finishing their studies and looking for work and, at the same time, looking for some security for their futures. They want to look forward. If they've found a partner and they're thinking about having a family, or they're thinking it would be nice to move out of the household they're sharing with eight other people into a house where they can settle down, but they can't do that if they haven't got secure work. They can't do that if they don't know whether they are going to be able to pay the rent, let alone a mortgage.
For the young people that I know, the friends and colleagues of my two children in their 20s, the idea that they will ever have the security of employment to be able to pay a mortgage, to own a house—they laugh at you. And this is in Australia. This is Australia, one of the richest countries in the world. We can do better than this. We can give people job security. We can give people a sense of hope about the future but not if you have legislation like this that just exacerbates the existing inequalities, exacerbates that huge divide between those with power in our society and those without.
This is just such a backwards bit of legislation. It is so much not in the interests of the future of Australia. We know that how we are going to develop as a country depends upon having people who have that sense of hope for the future. It depends upon people feeling like they are being treated fairly. Having the basics of being able to have a secure roof over their heads, having the basics of being able to know they can put food on the table—that's what gives them the ability to then be able to contribute to the country, to be able to really work together. If you haven't got those basics, if you're struggling to just survive, then life is just really difficult. There is no way that you can get people who are struggling to put food on the table and struggling to not be homeless to engage in the political process, for example. It's just completely out of the question.
We can do better than this, and we must do better than this. There is hope, given the wealth of this country, with a commitment to equality and with a commitment to working in the interests of all in this country, of stopping this rush towards inequality and of building a better future for us all, where everybody is valued, where everybody has the opportunity to flourish, where everybody who wants a job is able to get a job that has secure conditions, that is well paid and that is doing something that's of use for society and that they can feel proud about. We can do this in this country, but not with legislation like this, not with the ideological commitment to increasing the power of the already rich and wealthy against the interests of those who haven't got the power in our society.
I really urge particularly all of the crossbench—and it sounds like we are in a position to defeat this legislation; I hope this legislation will be defeated in the Senate today. It is what's needed. Then we can go back to the drawing board and start building legislation that makes our industrial relations system fairer for all Australians. (Time expired)
I would like to pick up on what Senator Rice was saying about restoring fairness and balance. If we take a step back, we can remember when the Fair Work Act came into this place to replace Work Choices. Work Choices was twice the size of the previous act that it sought to replace. At the time, even the HR Nicholls Society criticised the then coalition government for providing more regulation, not less, when it came to that government's plan for the industrial relations system in this country. Labor's Fair Work Act put in place a new framework, one that we're very proud of. It was a new framework for workplace relations, with the principle of recognising the government's intention at the time of providing a balanced framework for cooperation and ensuring that there were productive workplaces right across the country, promoting national economic prosperity and ensuring that there was social cohesion. These are core principles that we should think about in this place in debating the changes in the current piece of legislation, the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021.
The Fair Work Act encourages employees and employers to bargain together in good faith and reach agreement. Yet what we see today in the changes before the Senate does the opposite, putting workers and employers against each other. We took the view that it was better for the workers and the bosses at each worksite around the country to work together, not just in their interests but also in the interests of our national economy. At the end of the day, productivity will increase. If you look at all the statistics since the introduction of the Fair Work Act, you see that productivity actually increased, but under Work Choices it went the other way. My fear is that we will end up having a situation where productivity will continue to decline, and that is not good for our economy, especially when we're trying to recover from the current pandemic.
As Senator Farrell and others on our side have articulated this week, the ALP is totally and utterly opposed to this bill. Over 12 months, many Australian workers have experienced the most substantial disruption to their working lives in living memory. Let's not forget that it was around this time 12 months ago that the effects of the coronavirus pandemic first began to manifest in our country. Businesses began to close, communities began to lock down, and, most pertinent to this discussion, workers began to suffer. Australians in their millions all over the country faced the prospect of either losing hours at work or losing their jobs entirely. Australians in their millions were being kept awake at night in fear of what may lie ahead for them and their families.
I'm sure we can all recall with sadness the seemingly endless lines of those who stood in the cold and wind at their local Centrelink offices, desperate for support from this government just to get through and put food on the table. This is to say nothing of those who, through the pandemic, have themselves been on the frontline of servicing our community and its needs. Particularly I think of shop assistants at supermarkets all across Australia who managed the crowds and stocked the shelves as desperate Australians swamped their stores for supplies to get them and their families through the lockdowns. These workers, often young but not always, put themselves and their own health at risk to ensure that our communities had whatever they needed to keep on going. They did so, at least at the early stages, as their union, the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association, battled to make sure that they were provided with the bare minimum of protection by their employers, things like sanitiser, masks, gloves and face shields. You would have thought that many of these companies would have thought, 'We've got to look after our own employees.' But, no, it took the union movement to actually highlight these concerns to many of these employers.
For many of these workers, it must have seemed that after 2020 things could hardly get any worse, and yet we have a bill before the Senate that wants to strip away pay and conditions. This bill can only be described as a vindictive attack on the pay and conditions of many of these hardworking workers who are only now getting back to a sense of normality for themselves and their families. This is the biggest thankyou that this government can say to all those retail workers and all the other essential workers who helped ensure that our country kept ticking along over the last 12 months. This bill is nothing short of a kick in the guts for working people and their families everywhere across Australia.
Not so long ago this government was reassuring workers that their conditions were safe and that they would be no worse off under the proposed legislation that was to come. What nonsense. It's encouraging to hear from media reports today that quite a number of the crossbench are reconsidering their position and even considering the amendments that have been put to this chamber. I applaud them for doing so, because, at the end of the day, it is the very people who, as I said earlier, have ensured that we've all been looked after and that we've all able to put food on our tables that deserve protection. It's not us in this place. We in this place have enough protections. We get paid very well. It's the people outside this building and also our cleaners in this building who deserve the most protections—not having their pay and conditions taken away.
Instead of listening to workers and their representatives, instead of protecting these workers and safeguarding their economic future, we have the bill before us. How predictable it is to see this from a coalition government. Certainly the coalition parties have strong form when it comes to letting their ideological obsessions get ahead of what's morally right and economically sensible. Let us never forget that the Work Choices reforms from the Howard government were detested by the Australian community. Not long after they were legislated that government found itself out of a job and Mr Howard found himself without a seat in the other place. Whilst those opposite may talk of the Prime Minister and compare him to Bob Hawke, we know the truth behind this bill. It is nothing like that. It does not do anything for Australian workers. We know about the lack of action it will bring about on wage theft. We know about the lack of action it will bring about on dodgy labour hire firms. We know about the lack of action it will bring about to address the inequities and the injustices that many gig economy workers face each and every day.
Be in no doubt: if passed, this bill will entrench all the bad things our economy does not need. It will make jobs less secure, with workers being more vulnerable to casualisation. It will allow employers to pay workers less than the award. In fact, witnesses to the Senate inquiry on the bill commented that it was something of a big business lobby wish list. It certainly appears that's the case.
What kind of support is this for an Australian worker recovering from the pandemic? What kind of reward is this for those who have risked their own health on the frontline of the pandemic? Instead of turning to these workers and saying, 'We're here for you—we're here to get you back to prosperity,' or, 'Thank you for all you've done; we recognise how important you are to our economy and we're going to pay you appropriately and secure your employment,' what have we got from those opposite? Silence—that's what we have.
Allow me to go through some of the major concerns in detail. This bill strips workers of their rights in the workplace, specifically in relation to awards. It will facilitate award provisions being cut, with these implications encompassing all awards and not just a few. The introduction of simplified additional hours agreements will allow employers and certain part-time employees to enter into arrangements that will permit the working of hours additional to the usual scheduled working hours of those employees without the payment of overtime. I know that overtime is very important to many households. It's probably the only thing that really gets them by, especially with the rising bills, school fees and the like. It's overtime which makes a difference and which keeps people's heads above water. Such a measure undermines the value of awards in the first instance and has the potential to lead to workers being paid an hourly rate far lower than what they would otherwise be entitled to.
In relation to casualisation: the bill will permit workers who may currently be classified as permanent employees to have their employee status converted to casual, reducing their standing in the workplace. If there's one thing that the pandemic has shown us, it is that those workers in our community who are genuinely essential are highly underpaid, undervalued and subject to significantly higher rates of casualisation. And I bet they're predominantly female workers too. I can't think of any other group like that, other than shop assistants, who I had the pleasure of representing for six years.
I've mentioned shop assistants and I'll also mention hospitality workers and gig economy workers. They facilitated food and other essential items being delivered to our doorsteps, showing their immense value over the last 12 months. Quite frankly, it's a disgrace not only that so few of them can say they have secure, reliable work but also that this government would be seeking to make the situation even worse for them. This casualisation is not a product of nor an unintended consequence of some law from long ago. It's deliberately caused by policy decisions made consciously by government—those opposite—to make sure that our most vulnerable workers are more beholden to the whims of bosses. We should be under no illusion: if this bill is made law it will serve to make more jobs which ought to be reliable and permanent less so.
And that's not where this bill ends. On top of the measures that would see workers' wages reduced and their security at work undermined, this bill will wind back protections that workers have fought for for a very long time, and workers will continue to suffer wage theft. Wage theft is a crime. It is a criminal act to deny workers what they are rightly entitled to. I'm appalled that it's taken as long as it has to recognise this fact and to legislate it. It is owing to this government's record on matters that, whilst they have stood around twiddling their thumbs and looking the other way, state governments right around Australia have had to push ahead with progressive legislation on this very issue to protect workers.
In my home state of Victoria, the Labor government has put in place robust protections for workers. But this bill will override those measures. It will replace laws at the state level with flimsy laws at the Commonwealth level. It will leave workers worse off. I'm disappointed that this is what it has come to.
As has been mentioned by others in this place, the government undertook 32 working group meetings with stakeholders over a period of 10 weeks regarding potential industrial relations reforms. Together these account for around 150 hours of discussion. Many appeared before these working group meetings in good faith in the hope that the government would come to the table in the same manner, but they have not. (Time expired)
I rise to speak on the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021, which, once again, is a very poorly titled bill. It should really be called 'supporting our big business political donor mates at the expense of ordinary Australians and workers', but honesty is not a big feature of this government. Those same big businesses have already benefited disproportionately from the tax cuts this government legislated, which are now under debate. Frankly, they already dodge paying their legal tax obligations much of the time.
Meanwhile, ordinary Australians are facing unprecedented health, housing and employment crises. Wages have stagnated for decades, and the cost of living keeps rising. We've got 40 per cent of Australians in insecure work. The thing I find most sobering is that one in four people working full-time live in poverty. The COVID pandemic has made that worse. It has further exposed the impact of insecure work on individuals and families. We all remember that people were put in the invidious position of having to decide whether to go to work when they had the sniffles because they needed money to buy dinner or whether to do the right thing, get a COVID test and isolate until they got their result but not be paid during that entire period. That was a very difficult decision for so many workers in this nation.
Casual, contract and gig economy workers have always been our most vulnerable workers. These proposed reforms will make that worse. They will entrench insecure work at a time when people can't even afford the basics, like rent and groceries. This bill will allow employers to wrongly classify permanent employees as casuals. Full-time work will become a thing of the past, because there's a new category of worker—low-hours contracts—which guarantees workers only 16 hours a week, with everything else after that completely at the whim of the employer. Workers won't be able to plan their lives or their work, and that puts them at a massive disadvantage when they're seeking to negotiate pay rises. That will lead to even further wage stagnation.
Unions will be written out of the bargaining process, which suits this government nicely, and inflexible agreements will be locked in for years. An insecure casualised workforce is also far less likely to unionise in the first place. We all know there's no better way for a worker to improve their pay and conditions than joining their union and organising collectively. This government has been trying to attack that for decades, and this bill is just the next instalment in that.
The controversy over the better off overall test shouldn't distract from the core of this bill. The dumping of the BOOT was a good step, but it doesn't change the fact that this bill, in the main, is a terrible bill. We will fight this bill every step of the way, and I'm very pleased to see that indeed some of the pivotal crossbenchers came out just an hour or so ago saying that they too will oppose the awful parts of this bill that will entrench casualisation and make insecure work and conditions even worse in this country. So, we're all watching with great attention to see whether those comments in fact hold, because, sadly, One Nation of course have done a deal with the government—as they always do. I don't know why they don't just merge and get it over and done with. But we will fight this bill every step of the way.
And the audacity of the timing of this bill: right when JobKeeper is about to be axed, right when the increased rate of JobSeeker is about to be removed entirely and when this government has come back with an absolutely pitiful increase on that—an insult of, what, $3.57 a day?—and right when insecure work is at an all-time high, they choose now to bring in a bill that will entrench and worsen insecure work. The audacity of this government knows no bounds. They have used the pandemic as a cover to bring in all the nefarious things they've been wanting to bring in for years. They've tried to get away with it, and it's up to this chamber, as the last backstop against the nastiness and the greediness of this government, to stop that and to stand up for the rights of workers in this country. I hope that when the vote occurs that is what the result will be today. Certainly the Greens will be blocking this bill.
We want to raise the minimum wage. Rather than trying to protect against further worsening, we actually want to see conditions increased and improved for all workers in this nation. We think the minimum wage should be raised, we think workers' rights and conditions should be bolstered and we think every Australian should have an opportunity for secure employment and meaningful employment, to earn what they need in order to live a good life. We are such a wealthy nation. It should be our first obligation to ensure that all our citizens can live a good life and have basic universal services provided to them and that they have the opportunity, if they wish, for secure and meaningful employment. We think we can in fact protect workers and also support small business and create the jobs of the future while investing in research and new industry. You can actually do all those things at once; they are complementary. That would of course ensure that our essential services are supported and are truly universal and that our social safety net is there for all who need it—which, sadly, is far too many.
So, we will fight this bill with everything we've got. It's kind of ironic that the government's attempt to sell this bill as 'fair and reasonable' has failed, because this is the biggest attack on workers' rights since John Howard's Work Choices. I'm proud that our party stands with workers and that many of the other parties in this place have done the same, and I want to put on record our praise for the efforts of the ACTU in fighting these latest attacks on workers' rights. Again, the proof will be in the pudding. But it's no surprise that this government is once again trying to take decisions and pass legislation that benefits big business, because big business then make generous donations to their re-election funds. It's all very lovely for the one per cent. Meanwhile ordinary Australians get worse and worse off as the gap between the haves and the have-nots—wealth inequality—continues to worsen in this nation.
Over two million Australians are either unemployed or underemployed. That is such a shameful figure. And we know that women, young people and migrant workers are bearing the brunt of that. What are you doing to fix that? Absolutely nothing. Instead of improving job security and lifting people out of poverty by lifting wages, you're pushing through a bill that will further entrench insecure work, will suppress wages, gives more power to businesses at workers' expense and, conveniently for you, further undermines the power of unions. This bill will particularly hurt women. We know that women suffered the most when COVID hit. We also know that the government tried to crow about job creation post the first wave of COVID. But it's very interesting that casual work dominated the post-COVID job increase. In fact, the figure I have here is that 62 per cent of all jobs that were created between May and November last year, post the first wave, were casual. So I'm afraid you can't really claim that you're creating jobs. You're trying to claim credit for employing more women when you're employing them on insecure, temporary, tenuous contracts with poor conditions, which this bill is going to lock in and entrench. The absolute cheek of you!
The pandemic highlighted that inequality has been flourishing for decades as a result of insecure work, and it's very interesting to contrast that with how well billionaires did in the pandemic. Just last year, in 2020, Australia's billionaires increased their wealth by 20 per cent. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs at the outset of the pandemic. I am pleased the government ultimately accepted the Greens' suggestion, which many others came on board with too, to increase JobKeeper and JobSeeker for a period, but they're dropping that now and they're dumping people back into poverty and back into insecure work; they're doubling down. Meanwhile, the billionaires are laughing all the way to the bank.
Casual workers were hit hardest during the pandemic and two-thirds of people who lost their jobs in early 2020 were casual workers. Of course, those who still had a job were amongst the lowest paid, with no access to paid leave entitlements, and the role that insecure work played in spreading COVID cannot be forgotten. Workers without paid sick leave, as I said before, had to choose between going and getting a test and isolating until they had a result, but not getting paid, or going to work. We, of course, moved for paid sick leave to be made available for casual workers, given that we were in an unprecedented global pandemic, but we got absolutely nowhere. In fact, many employers have built insecure work into their business models and, while they turn a profit, workers have had no job security and no income security. This bill will make it worse. Instead of passing a bill that will entrench insecure work, reduce wages and increase the power of employers, we need to outlaw insecure work and ensure that the rights of all workers are protected in law and that they have a right to safe, meaningful, secure work with good wages and conditions.
The leader of our party, who sits in the House, is, of course, an industrial relations lawyer, so I bow to his superior expertise in examining this bill. He has identified that there are three particularly offensive impacts of this bill. The first is that it lets employers call you casual, even if you're not, and there's absolutely nothing that you can do about it. The second is that it is actually the start of a real threat to full-time working contracts, because it introduces this new form of contract where the employer can, in fact, employ you part-time but then put your hours up and down as they so wish and, again, you can't actually do anything about it. It's just unfathomable that this government is trying to ram through a bill that does such huge things to the employment contract as we understand it more broadly—and thinks it is going to get away with it under the cover of a pandemic and the recovery from same. The last thing that this bill does that the government doesn't want you to know about is that it takes an already difficult bargaining process for wages and conditions and tilts it even more in the employers' favour, making it harder for workers to ask in their workplace what they're actually entitled to.
I've talked already about the pernicious decisions that people were forced to make in the throes of the pandemic between actually being paid as casuals or isolating and getting tested, but we know that casual work has been a challenge for people the whole time, pre the pandemic, because it makes it impossible to plan your life, it makes it impossible to plan your income flow and it's a genuine threat to being able to pay the rent, pay for the groceries or manage your childcare responsibilities. The bill seeks to double down on this. It essentially says that the definition of a casual employee is that, if the employer says you're a casual, well, you are, and that's basically it. Again, this is all stacked in favour of employers and it just rides roughshod over what little rights casual workers had; they're basically going to have none if this bill passes.
The threat to full-time working contracts is an important one to note because, if at the moment you work more than 16 hours a week and you respond to a job ad that's for a job for 20 or 30 hours a week, you get all your pay and conditions on that basis, but, if you work more than that, you get overtime. Not so under this bill. There's a new form of employment contract that says that you can be employed on a minimum of 16 hours a week, but the employer can then lift you up or down unilaterally, according to their desires. You can't actually get any additional entitlements. You don't get any pay for working overtime, even though it technically should be overtime, and before this bill passes it would be considered overtime. So all of a sudden an employer doesn't have to offer a full-time contract. They can just offer a 16-hour-a-week contract and they have this massive flexibility—they might call it flexibility but it's actually just deep unfairness—to pump people up or down according to their needs, with no thought for the difficulty that that will cause for people who need to pay their rent or pay their mortgage. People won't be able to get loans, if they can even afford to buy a house with prices the way they are, because there is no certainty of income there. The banks won't loan to them.
The Reserve Bank has been saying that we want wages increased, to help get the economy moving, but this bill will further decrease wages. People are going to feel less confident about coming forward and asking for a pay rise, because the employer holds all the cards. I don't have time to go into the third aspect, but this bill is Work Choices all over again, and I beg the crossbench to stand firm on their suggestions that they will block this bill. I proudly say that the Greens will strongly oppose this bill.
Workplace relations policy is a unique coming together of economic and social policy. There needs to be a nuanced approach which acknowledges the need for viable employers, because, without viable employers, there are no jobs and, without jobs, there are no employees. It is an inherent need for humankind to be gainfully employed. That is why the social data overwhelmingly advises us that a person's mental health, physical health, self-esteem and social interaction are all enhanced if they have the benefit of gainful employment. So at the forefront of our minds as legislators should be the enhancement of job creation, growing the jobs pool as much as possible, to enable as many of our fellow Australians as possible to gain from those benefits that I've just outlined. So, in setting our policies, it's about job creation, job sustainment, the remuneration of those jobs and pathways for progress without stifling job creation.
It is known that, in general terms, if people start on the lowest rung of the employment ladder, 80 per cent or so move up a rung or more within the first 12 months, and within two years the vast bulk have moved up that ladder of the employment opportunities that are available. Therefore it's important that, in setting the parameters for employment, we ensure that the first rung on that employment ladder is not set too low so people live in poverty—we don't want that but nor do we want that first rung to be set so high that too many of our fellow Australians are denied the opportunity of employment, because that would deny them all the benefits that I previously outlined. And it's not only for them; the social data tells us that people in the household of a person gainfully employed also benefit from those four factors that I indicated earlier.
We in the Liberal Party believe that the employer-employee relationship is in fact a symbiotic relationship. They rely on each other. An enterprise needs workers just as much as workers need an enterprise in which to work. That is why we on this side absolutely and categorically reject the assertion that somehow employment law is about this old-fashioned, discredited concept of class warfare. Instead of seeking to set worker against employer and employer against worker, we seek to ensure that there is as good a relationship as possible, where workers and employers can cooperate to the very best of their ability to ensure that the enterprise remains viable.
We know what human nature is like. There will be those employers who seek to rip off the workforce. That is why we have a Fair Work Ombudsman, that is why we have the Fair Work Commission and that is why we have authorities in place to protect workers' fundamental rights. That is why, as part of this bill—something which I argued before it was in fact adopted by the coalition—is the concept of wage theft being seen as a criminal offence. Guess who is seeking to introduce that into Australian law for the very first time? It is a Liberal-National Party government. When the Australian Labor Party had the levers of government in their hands and introduced the celebrated Fair Work Act, did they introduce the concept of wage theft and criminality? No, they did not. It was not on their radar. It is on our radar, that is why we are seeking to introduce such a concept in this bill.
And what do the so-called champions of the workers do in this place? They're telling us that they're going to vote against it! They are going to vote against the criminalisation of deliberate wage theft. These are the people who allegedly are on the side of workers. I would have thought they would have had the decency to say that this was a huge omission in the Fair Work Act originally, that it should have been there and that they congratulate the Liberal-National Party government on its introduction. But the relentless negativity of the Labor Party is such that no matter what the government does they will be against it or put a negative spin on it.
We on this side reject the class warfare notion that seems to permeate everything that the Australian Labor Party, and especially the Greens, talk about in this place. We see the need for there to be constraints to ensure that employers don't rip off their workers. Similarly, we seek to ensure that the trade unions cannot rip off their members. It's interesting, isn't it? The Labor Party are against both measures. They don't support the criminalisation of wage theft in this bill, nor do they support having unions brought to account if they steal or misappropriate their members' funds. One really wonders what motivates the Australian Labor Party in this space.
The stifling, negative hand of class warfare is something which we on this side repudiate. Indeed, from the very beginning of the foundation of the party that I have the honour of representing, it said in its foundational document, which Sir Robert Menzies penned:
We believe that improved living standards depend upon high productivity and efficient service and that these vital elements can be achieved only by free and competitive enterprise.
We believe that national financial and economic power and policy are to be designed to create a climate in which people may be enabled to work out their own solution in their own way and not to control other people's lives.
These are words which have withstood the test of time. These are principles that are very apt for this particular discussion. This is what we, as a government, are seeking to implement in this legislation.
Some of the contributions that I've had the misfortune of having to listen to in this debate tell me about a government wanting to cut wages. If that were genuinely true, do they think that the workers of Australia would have voted to re-elect us at the last election?
Let's be exceptionally clear here. There is an overwhelming number of workers in comparison to the few people who run the big businesses in this country, so this nonsense that somehow all we do is the bidding of big business makes one wonder why on earth the bulk of workers in fact do vote for the Liberal and National parties come election time. They see through the nonsense. They see through the rhetoric of the Australian Labor Party and they know that the security of their job is determined by the security of the business enterprise in which they work.
Senator Waters, the previous speaker, told us that workers' wages should be raised. Of course we all agree with that, but you have to have the overlay of: is it affordable? In tough times, wages will not be increased as one would like them to be increased. You can increase them if you like, but the Fair Work Commission itself has acknowledged that, in some areas, the pay rates are such that they militate against job creation and job sustainment. You can have one person on a very high wage or two people on a decent wage. I would go for two people on a decent wage as being the better economic and, most importantly, social outcome.
Indeed, that is why we have the Fair Work Commission in this country that actually approves the rates of pay. We have an independent umpire making these determinations, so the assertion that somehow the government is trying to legislate lower wages suggests that the Fair Work Commission is not doing its job. The Labor Party by implication are saying that the Fair Work Commission, which they appointed, is an organisation in which they have no confidence.
We all know that the higher the cost of the product the less likely it is to be bought. It's the same with services. If you artificially inflate wages and that is not sustainable by the business, jobs will be shed and lost. A good example in recent times of the best way to run the economy was the Howard government, which had low inflation, real wages increasing by 19 per cent and, just as we left government, the unemployment rate finally having a three in front of it. It is good economic management when real wages can increase in a good, healthy, sound economy.
In the few moments remaining let's turn to the specific matters in this bill. I've already dealt with the issue of wage theft. For a long time I have supported addressing this issue. I'm delighted this is now before the parliament. I'm shattered, might I say, that the Labor Party and the Greens cannot even bring themselves to vote for that particular part of the legislation.
This bill provides certainty to businesses and employees by clearly defining what it means to be a casual employee and giving eligible casual employees a statutory pathway to permanent full-time or part-time jobs if they wish. Why would Labor and the Greens be opposed to such a sensible, clarifying provision in this legislation? Indeed, Labor had no such definition in their Fair Work Act. We are bringing clarity and certainty for both the worker and the employer. But, no, Labor likes to have this not so well clarified because it then provides greater grounds and opportunities for disputes. We want clarity and certainty. That's what the Australian worker wants. That's what Australian businesses want as well.
We want to extend our successful JobKeeper flexibilities around duties and location of work for businesses in retail and hospitality so that those two hard-hit sectors can continue to work together to navigate the pandemic. Surely that is something that should be embraced and accepted. Indeed, I think at one stage the Labor leader actually supported it. Of course, as is his wont, he has now recanted. In fact, it's in relation to greenfields agreements where he's recanted his position. Why, when this is an opportunity for new jobs; for global investment coming into Australia, providing certainty? No, we want to close the door on that and thus deny our fellow Australians the opportunity of more jobs! We know the social consequences of such a denial. Why, therefore, would Labor and the Greens oppose our measures to ensure that greenfields agreements will be more certain and, as a result, allow more international capital into Australia, creating investment which, in turn, creates jobs?
As part of our measures we will include a free advisory service for small business, to ensure that employees can recover their correct entitlements faster. We have all sorts of provisions in this which are fair, which are equitable, which are reasonable but which do not fit the century-old mantra of worker class warfare, which the Labor Party, unable to bring itself into the 21st century, still wallows in. I support the bill and commend the bill to the Senate, especially to the crossbench.
I'm very happy to stand to address this bill, the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021. I'd particularly like to address some of the comments that have been made about the coalition being on the side of big business and not on the side of workers. Certainly the coalition, as per the Liberal Party's statement of beliefs, believe in small government, in letting people in the private sector get on with the job of creating wealth and creating jobs, which is what they do. The only sustainable way for a country to move ahead is for the private sector to be able to create jobs. But we recognise, as coalition speakers have mentioned in various contributions to this debate, that there does need to be a framework that ensures fair outcomes for workers, as well as opportunities and business conditions that encourage employers and investors to create businesses and create opportunities to employ. They need to be given the certainty around the conditions that they operate under so that they will employ, in particular as we come out of this COVID environment.
I do wish to come to the content of this bill in the context of a number of news reports highlighting that sometimes things don't go well. If you look through news reports over the last year or so, you'll see that a number of companies have been accused of underpaying staff by various amounts. Some names are very familiar: Grill'd. Some institutions are very trusted. The ABC, Qantas, Super Retail Group, Commonwealth Bank, Michael Hill, Sunglass Hut, Bunnings, Rockpool Dining Group, Woolworths, 7-Eleven, Subway—there's a whole range of companies, as well as entities that are essentially part of government, that have been found guilty of underpaying workers. This legislation goes directly to that issue, particularly in schedule 5. It looks to strengthen the compliance and enforcement framework in the Fair Work Act to protect workers from wage underpayment, while supporting businesses to comply with their obligations, including through the introduction of a free advisory service for small business to ensure that employees can recover their correct entitlements more quickly.
I'm going to go into more of the detail of that in a minute, but I want to highlight that we recognise there are times when the government does need to put in place a framework. Concerns around the conduct of everyone from the ABC and Qantas through to small businesses have been raised in the media and raised by members opposite. This bill addresses them. I'm somewhat perplexed by the fact that those opposite and those on the crossbench are choosing not to support these measures which directly address some of the key concerns that have been raised in our community in recent years.
More broadly, the bill also goes on to provide certainty to businesses and employees by clearly defining what it means to be a casual employee and giving eligible casual employees certainty and a statutory pathway to permanent, full-time or part-time jobs if they wish. It extends the JobKeeper flexibilities around the duties and locations of work to businesses in the retail and hospitality sectors so that those businesses that have been doing it hard and their employees can continue to work together to find the best combination of conditions that will ensure the businesses survive and that those people continue to have a job. It gives employers greater confidence to offer secure part-time employment to employees and facilitate additional hours of work for part-time employees in retail and hospitality, people who often want more hours but aren't getting them at the moment. We've heard comments from people in the media and those opposite about underemployment. Here is legislation that seeks to directly address the barriers that prevent employers having the confidence to provide those extra hours and yet it's not being supported.
The bill also streamlines and improves the making of enterprise agreements, which will drive wage growth and increase productivity as a result of the increase in agreements. It also encourages investment in large projects by allowing for greenfields agreements which give certainty to all parties—employers, investors and employees—as to what those conditions will be for up to eight years.
Lastly, as I started with, it addresses the enforcement framework. That is where I would like to go, because the narrative which has been run by many in this chamber during the debate is that the government are on the side of big business and we're pushing these reforms through at the request of big business and we're just trying to support big business. That theme has come through repetitively, again and again. If we have a look at the compliance and enforcement section and particularly if we go through the Bills Digest, which very helpfully picks out some of the key measures but also looks at the stakeholder engagement and has the views of the various stakeholders who were consulted on this (it's largely broken down into academia, the union movement and employer groups) what we find is that there's actually a remarkable deal of support from unions for measures—for example, in the wage theft area—which are actually opposed by industry groups. In black and white, the Bills Digestand that's not a product of the government or the coalition; that's a function of the independent parliamentary process—highlights very clearly that this legislation is actually seeking to put in the appropriate framework to protect workers, guarantee their entitlements and make sure that employers, whether they are the ABC, Qantas or a small business, who do the wrong thing face appropriate penalties and that workers get their entitlements. The fact that it is supported—in some particular clauses, which I will go to, there are some reservations about wording or who particular penalties are paid to, for example—in broad by the unions and opposed by business highlights that the opposition is playing politics with this as opposed to seeking real outcomes for workers.
Here is a case demonstrated in the Bills Digest where the government are not lining up with big business; we're actually saying those who behave poorly should be held to account and those who behave poorly should pay a penalty and workers should get their entitlements. The amendments proposed in this legislation are opposed by business and supported by unions in general. So that highlights that what's occurring here is political in nature. In the broad, this bill will better protect employees from wage theft; deter, by introducing tougher penalties, dishonest employers from undercutting their competitors; facilitate a more efficient recovery of wage underpayments; and encourage businesses to identify and address underpayments more quickly.
The better and stronger protections for employees will include tougher penalties and orders to deter noncompliance. These measures include a new Criminal Code offence for dishonest and systemic underpayments of one or more employees, with a maximum penalty of four years imprisonment, an automatic director disqualification for five years and/or a fine of over a million dollars, or over $5 million for a body corporate. Those are significant penalties. It's not surprising in some ways that they were opposed by industry, but what they demonstrate is that the government are serious about saying that, whilst our philosophical position is that we should remove barriers and encourage business to take risks and invest and work to create wealth and jobs, when they get it wrong and it's systemic and intentional then they should face penalties. Yet the Labor Party is opposing this measure.
The bill also increases maximum civil penalties for underpayments, sham contracting and failing to comply with regulator compliance notices, and increases penalties available under infringement notices. It prohibits employers from advertising jobs with pay rates below the relevant minimum wage and it clarifies that courts can make adverse publicity orders where appropriate. It goes on to expand and improve the small claims wage recovery process by increasing the small claims cap from $20,000 to $50,000, which allows courts to refer appropriate claims to the Fair Work Commission for faster resolution through conciliation or consent arbitration. It'll encourage businesses to proactively identify and self-disclose where there have been underpayments and to rectify those more quickly and efficiently, which ensures not only that existing employees are recompensed but also that, going forward, employees get what they are entitled to under their conditions. It codifies factors that can be taken into account when deciding whether to accept an enforceable undertaking for wage underpayments, which will provide greater certainty for employers and employees.
Mr Burke, in the other place, said, on ABC radio in December 2020 that vulnerable workers getting their money back quickly has to be the highest priority. That is one of the key outcomes of schedule 5 to this legislation, and yet it's being opposed by the Labor Party and the Greens. I'll now go through some sections from the Bills Digest to highlight the consultation that occurred and the submissions and statements that were made publicly by unions and employer groups. What it highlights is that the rhetoric which is being put by those opposite that they're opposing this because the government's on the side of business and not workers does not stack up with the evidence. Schedule 5 deals with compliance and enforcement measures. The Bills Digest goes through, as per normal, outlining the broad areas. It outlines proposed amendments, which I've run through, being remuneration of employees, sham contracting, noncompliance, introducing a new penalty for remuneration related contraventions by bodies corporate and a new civil contravention that prohibits employers from publishing job advertisements with pay rates specified at less than the relevant national minimum wage. What I'd like to go to particularly is looking at some of the consultation in stakeholders' views. The Bills Digest highlights that trade unions were generally supportive of the increased penalties. They did express some concern about subclause 546(3A), which goes to who penalties can be paid to. But they were generally supportive, whereas employer and industry groups generally opposed the changes. For example, the Australian Industry Group said, 'As currently drafted many of the provisions in the bill are highly punitive.' They put forward it 'would operate as a barrier to jobs growth'. As I said, our philosophical position is to be small government and encourage the private sector because they're the ones who generate wealth, they're the ones who generate the opportunity for people to work and, generally speaking, the vast majority do the right thing.
But here in black and white is the evidence that the unions support the measure, with a couple of reservations, whereas industry have said they oppose it. Yet the government is putting forward this measure. We're putting forward this measure in the interests of ensuring that that small group of people who inappropriately do things that disadvantage workers are held to account and that workers get their money back. That means that the opposition to this bill from those opposite is politically motivated, not in the interests of workers.
The same thing can be said about other areas, such as increasing the penalties for sham contracting. Again, the Bills Digest is very clear:
Trade unions support the increase to the penalties applicable for sham contracting …
Again, the trade unions have some suggestions around particular wording, with 'not reckless' being replaced with a 'reasonableness' test, but they generally supported this measure. But the Australian Industry Group opposed these amendments, saying that, at this time, they're not justified. It is yet another example, in black and white, that, while these measures are consistent with our overall philosophy of small government, encouraging the private sector to create wealth and create jobs, for those who are doing the wrong thing, we will put in place a framework that holds employers to account, whether they be the ABC, Qantas or a small business, and we will look out for the worker.
I encourage those who are looking to oppose this bill not to play politics with the recovery of Australia's economy and with secure jobs and pay for Australians and to support this legislation, which is in the interests of Australia and its workers.
The Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia’s Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021 is a complex bill. It is an important bill to many people, for many different reasons. Unions see it as an assault on workers. Employers are looking to protect themselves from a potential back pay liability, first and foremost. Some want to seize an opportunity to push for significant changes to employee conditions and what they call reform of the Fair Work Commission's procedures. It is not so much a compromise bill as a mess of a bill.
The principal reason for this bill was the court cases that potentially brought about a back pay liability for employers. That sent a shudder through every small-business person, in particular. Along the way, government decided to add in components that simply wouldn't cut it for many employees and the unions that represent them. The BOOT test is a very good example of a component that ultimately was in fact dropped. Here we are today debating an omnibus bill that deals with a raft of issues, not just the principal reason for the bill. This is not acceptable to me, nor to many others in this place.
So what is Centre Alliance doing? We're paring back our support to the most important elements of this bill, with appropriate amendments. Of course, this includes supporting enhanced protections against wage theft. We are dealing with the matters that matter the most, starting with schedule 1, which will give employers, and particularly small business, vital certainty about casual employment, and schedule 5, which will enact civil and criminal penalties against wage underpayment. The bill will also retrospectively prevent the so-called double dipping of entitlements. While this will draw a line under the massive outstanding liability, we will move an amendment to ensure that any casual employee who currently has a claim for unpaid entitlements before the courts can still finalise their case under existing laws. This respects the basic principle that people be able to operate under the laws that existed at the time they took action.
A right to casual conversion also forms part of this bill, but the current drafting means almost all power lies with the employer. This isn't necessarily a problem, as employers do need to be able to decide who they hire and in what capacity. We also don't expect that many employees who will seek to convert from casual to permanent would elect to challenge their employer on this. However, we do consider it is important that employees have some means of pursuing an application if they feel they have been hard done by. The government has proposed using the small claims court and conciliation process outlined in schedule 5, which we think is a good option, should employees wish to pursue it.
We will not support the remainder of the bill. It goes well beyond what's needed. It is at times heavy-handed in the way it attempts to address problems in the Fair Work Commission. In other instances, it seeks to legislate matters that are already being dealt with in the courts. By supporting just schedules 1 and 5 we will address the most important and urgent issues which need dealing with right now to provide certainty for employees and, particularly, for small business.
Incredibly, I'm somewhat gobsmacked that I have just received—and everyone in this chamber has just received—the government amendments. These show they're dropping schedule 5—dropping the very same schedule that relates to wage theft. They're dropping it, despite almost every speaker, including the speaker who was just before me, Senator Fawcett, speaking very positively about it. How can they do this? Shame on you all for trashing such an important amendment!
I rise to speak on the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021, and it's great to be here today, because I'm pumped. I'm usually pumped up at the best of times, but I feel like I'm a hot air balloon floating along the skies. I'll tell you why that is: it's because all work is 100 per cent insecure if businesses do not survive: all work is insecure if businesses do not survive, and it will be the taxpayer who picks up the cost of redundancies or unemployment benefits. Never forget: it is the employer who pays the employee; it is not the unions. Without the employer there is no employee. Do the unions pay the employee? Does the Labor Party pay the employee? No, they do not. Not only do they not pay the employee but they take from the employee. They take union fees, they take superannuation fees and, most importantly, they take jobs.
There is no greater threat to the prosperity of this nation and jobs for working Australians than the Labor Party and the union movement: union bred, union fed and union led. With their bullying, their complexities and their gouging, unions steal the jobs of Australian workers and the livelihoods of working families. Now, unbelievably, they've come out and said that they want to steal casual workers' loading. Sally McManus of the ACTU has told the ABCs Insiders that casual workers would lose their casual loading in return for portable sick leave, annual leave and long service leave. Who would manage this? Some union would, of course, no doubt clipping the ticket on the money being held on behalf of the worker.
Why are unions and Labor always stealing money from the workers? Let the workers manage their own hard earned income, for Pete's sake! Get your grubby hands off their money. It's not rocket science; casual workers get a 25 per cent loading and a permanent employee gets four weeks annual leave, two weeks of public holidays and two weeks of sick leave which, more often than not, they don't take and which in many cases doesn't accumulate. Let's do the sums here. Six weeks over 52 weeks is an 11½ per cent loading and eight weeks over 52 weeks is a 15.4 per cent loading. And if we want to add in another week for long service leave loading—make it nine weeks a year—then it's a 17.3 per cent loading. That's a long, long way short of the 25 per cent loading that casuals get.
The Morrison government isn't going to allow Australian workers to be exploited by the Labor Party and their union mates. Under this bill which is before the parliament we will better protect employee entitlements and deter unscrupulous employers from undercutting their competitors by introducing tougher penalties, facilitating a more efficient recovery of wage underpayments and encouraging businesses to identify and address underpayments more quickly. We will introduce stronger protections for employees through measures, including tougher penalties and orders, to deter noncompliance.
Senator Griff has just said that, apparently, schedule 5 has been pulled out of the bill. That's news to me. I'm happy to take advice to the contrary here, but, until I've been told otherwise, I'm going to talk about it. There is a new criminal offence for dishonest and systemic 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 for employers. This bill will increase maximum civil penalties for underpayments, sham contracting and failing to comply with a regulator compliance notice, and it will increase penalties under infringement notices. There's also going to be a new prohibition to stop employers from advertising jobs with pay rates below the national minimum wage and clarification that the courts can make adverse publicity orders where appropriate. This bill will also expand and improve the current small claims wage recovery process by increasing the small claims cap from $20,000 to $50,000, and it will allow courts to refer appropriate claims to the Fair Work Commission for expedited resolution through conciliation or consent arbitration.
You have to ask yourself why Anthony Albanese and the unions are opposing criminal penalties for wage theft. Is it to protect their mates at Maurice Blackburn who got busted for underpaying staff? Let's not forget this IR firm has strong ties with the Labor Party, especially in Queensland. Senator Murray Watt; Senator Nita Green; the member for Griffith, Terri Butler—they're all ex-employees of Maurice Blackburn. Is that what Labor are doing here? Are they running a protection racket for their rich lawyer mates? We know they run a protection racket for their rich union mates and their rich white-collar fund managers in the inner-city ivory castles, and now they've been busted looking after their rich lawyer mates. With 122 awards, some of which have over 60 pay points, the IR system is nothing but rivers of gold for the unions, the Labor party and their IR lawyer mates—what we like to call the 'limousine left'.
So, you see, this bill protects the workers. You have to ask yourself why Labor and the unions are running around fearmongering about this bill. I'll tell you why. It's because Labor and the unions have no idea about running a business and creating jobs. You do, Senator Sterle; I'll make an exception for you. And you, too, Senator Gallacher. You two guys are good old blue-collar Labor guys, right? Their only goal is to keep their jobs, and to hell with anyone else, and the only way they know how to do that is to use fear as a means of distracting people from the truth. And the truth is that only the coalition knows how to protect workers and small business. As we've shown throughout the pandemic, the federal Liberal-National government is determined to implement measures that will regrow jobs, boost wages, enhance productivity and benefit both the employer and the employee.
Now, let's address another aspect of this fearmongering from the charlatans on the other side of the chamber: that the rate of casualisation has increased. This is not the case in the 21st century. Yes, it did increase once upon a time, and let me tell you when that was. That was in the late eighties and early nineties, and do you know what that was a result of? It was the income and prices accord introduced by the Hawke-Keating government. I can remember it. I was a teenager and Hawke came out after an overnight meeting. They had had a discussion about this and everyone was praising Bob Hawke. If you guys want to talk about the increasing rate of casualisation, I suggest you look at history and see where it started to take off, because it was a direct result of the Hawke-Keating industrial relations reforms, which were widely praised at the time by the unions and by industry as being good measures to deal with inflation and stagflation.
But you don't have to take my word for it; you can look at the ABC Fact Check. It agreed with comments by the former Minister for Small and Family Business, Minister Craig Laundy, who said the rate of casuals in the Australian workforce had been steady at 25 per cent for the last 20 years. For a very long time, the rate of casualisation in this country has not changed, so the fearmongering on the other side of the chamber needs to stop. I can tell you, no-one protects small and family business and no-one protects the workers like the Morrison coalition government does. Australia's 3.5 million small businesses are the lifeblood of the Australian economy. They employ over six million Australians and contribute approximately $418 billion to our national economy. When small and family business grows in Australia, the whole economy thrives and every Australian benefits.
To keep Australians in work, the Liberal-National government has provided over $260 billion in combined health and economic support to protect Australians from COVID-19 and to put the economy on the road to recovery. This bill is an important part of that. This bill is a very important part of getting the economy back on the road to recovery so we can repay the debt as quickly as possible and not leave our children with a burden that they didn't incur. Our billions of dollars in direct economic support has provided a crucial lifeline to help small businesses around the country to retain their staff and apprentices, to maintain their cash flow and to reinvest in their businesses. We are cushioning the impact of this virus and helping build a bridge to recovery so that small businesses can look forward to a brighter future and get to doing what they do best: creating jobs and supporting their communities.
The changes made by this bill are essential to ensure that our economic recovery continues. This bill will provide certainty to businesses and employees by clearly defining what a casual employee is and giving eligible casual employees a statutory pathway to permanent full-time or part-time jobs if—and this is the key bit—they wish. This bill will extend our successful JobKeeper flexibilities around duties and location of work to businesses in retail and hospitality so that hard-hit employers and employees can continue to work together to navigate the pandemic. It will give employers greater confidence—there's that word again; I mentioned it yesterday afternoon: confidence and optimism; that's what drives prosperity—to offer those people who work in secure part-time employment and facilitate additional hours of work for part-time employees in retail and hospitality who want more hours but aren't getting them at the moment.
This bill will streamline and improve enterprise agreement-making, which will drive wage growth and increase productivity as a result of the increase in these agreements. It will also encourage investment in job-creating megaprojects—great word, that one!—by providing greater certainty for employers and employees by allowing the construction of major projects to be covered by a greenfields agreement for a maximum of eight years. That's going to help a lot in infrastructure projects that we want to push. We just need the state Labor governments to come on board, because the only two state governments that are really driving infrastructure in this country are Tasmania and New South Wales. We were just discussing it this morning in another meeting—how Queensland tourism has fallen by the wayside over the last 30 years, since the state Labor government has been in power. They've destroyed tourism in Queensland, just like they're trying to destroy mining, destroy agriculture, destroy forestry and destroy fishing. It's shocking, just shocking.
We should never forget, when we talk about retail and hospitality, which party it was that increased penalty rates for retail workers. I'll tell you which party it was. It was the coalition government that increased penalty rates, from 130 per cent to 150 per cent for weekdays between six o'clock and nine o'clock at night, and from 140 per cent to 150 per cent for Saturdays. For six days of the week, we increased penalty rates, because we know that there are times when people need to be rewarded for going that extra mile.
I want to talk about a little bit more of the detail here. This bill will give employers greater certainty about their obligations, meaning more confidence to hire and more confidence to invest, and casual workers will get stronger rights to convert to permanent employment if they wish to. But I'll tell you what we're not going to do: we're not going to take away casual workers' loading. That's what the ACTU want to do. They want to take away workers' 25 per cent loading and make it 15 per cent—so workers would lose 10 per cent in loading—and then take that 15 per cent and put it into a fund so it can be portable. The best place to put workers' loading is their pockets, because they've worked hard for it. If they wanted annual leave, if they wanted the other features, they would take it. The reason they don't is a lot of young people just don't get sick. They'd rather take the 25 per cent upfront and get a roof over their head as quickly as possible, or it might be that they're working part time while they're studying. When I was a student I'd take on a bit of extra work throughout the Christmas holidays, and then cut back when I went back to uni and just work in a pub at night-time.
This bill is all about increasing flexibility, increasing employment, increasing wages and improving the livelihoods of Australian working families. It is not about fearmongering. It is not about protecting the rivers of gold for the union movement and the Labor Party. It is about strengthening Australian families. If we are ever going to move ahead in this country, it's about time the Labor Party got on board. Back in the eighties we got on board with the Hawke-Keating government, so it's about time the Labor Party cooperated with the coalition in order to improve the lives of working Australians.
I rise to speak on the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021. In the few minutes left before the hard marker, I'd like to make a couple of points. We've spent almost all week on this bill, and we're in the position now, pushing up against a hard marker, where the government has lost control of the program. We don't know what's going to happen next. We're hearing rumours of guillotines and hours motions happening. We understand that the government is perhaps going to have to significantly amend this bill in order to get some remnants of it through the chamber today.
The point I would make now, because I'm not sure we will be given time if the guillotine comes in, is that the government needs to be very clear about what it is going to ask the Senate to vote on today in relation to this bill. If the government has amendments that significantly wipe out schedules of this bill, it needs to move early to put them before the chamber so that, in a constrained debate—which I understand is what we're about to have—senators in this place understand exactly what it is they are being asked to vote on. If the majority of schedules are going to disappear from this bill, the government should let the Senate know early that that is what's happening. Senators have a whole series of amendments seeking to amend certain schedules, and there's no point moving those amendments if the government has given up on those schedules. We have no idea what the bill we're going to be asked to vote on will look like once the government has finished its negotiations with the crossbench; we have absolutely no idea. I say to the government: once the guillotine is moved, please be clear early about exactly what is left in this bill for senators to vote on.
This is unreasonable, and it shows the lack of ability the government has to manage the business of this chamber that we are in a position where we will have a guillotine, an hours motion and significant amendments put to one of the government's flagship bills. We've been debating this for three days. The government has put on a filibuster this morning to keep the bill going, because it still doesn't know what it's doing, yet we're going to be given a matter of minutes to vote yes or no on legislation that significantly affects working people's lives, perhaps without any idea of how those amendments work together.
To the government: if you are gutting your own bill, please move those amendments early so that the other amendments that crossbenchers and others, including ourselves, might have, which might become irrelevant if those schedules disappear, can be dealt with in an appropriate matter. It is going to be a constrained debate. The least the government can do in this mess that has been created over the past three days is to be upfront about what the bill as amended is going to look like and what senators will be asked to vote on. It is a complete shemozzle, frankly. We have had hours on this bill. All week the government's been scrambling to get this through. It looks like there will be significant amendments. We say to the government: please let us know what they are, and let us know early in the debate.