Senate debates

Thursday, 25 November 2021


COVID-19: Insecure Work

5:50 pm

Photo of Marielle SmithMarielle Smith (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed so much about our lives. It's changed the way we buy products and the way we access services. We've seen an enormous growth in deliveries. Australia Post has been delivering more than 10 million parcels each week. We've also seen incredible growth in the use of platform based services like Uber and Amazon. When consumers change their patterns of behaviour to respond to an event like this, businesses adapt their business models to meet demand. In South Australia we've seen businesses adapt, from cafes and restaurants across the state pivoting to takeaway services during lockdowns to fitness and education venues using video technologies to continue their classes from home.

But in this adaptation, in this change, not everyone has been better off. Some of the global businesses benefitting most from these changes have some of the worst industrial conditions of all and have track records as employers that have failed workers—that is, if they even acknowledge an employment relationship at all. Indeed, some have been out in front championing the rapid growth of insecure work, meaning that more and more Australians have joined those without economic security, those without job security, those who are unable to plan for their families and for their futures. Our desire for convenience, as reasonable as that desire is, cannot be at any cost anymore, and the consequences of convenience cannot be without scrutiny anymore, because we know that some of these global companies have been world leaders in abusing corporate power around the world.

The union representing warehouse workers, the SDA, has raised the alarm on some of this behaviour, including the appalling track record on safety standards and working conditions at Amazon. There have been reports of workers raising serious health and safety concerns, the imposition of picking quotas that are unattainable without inhuman effort, and surveillance of workers. It doesn't stop at warehousing. Amazon is continuing to ramp up its expansion into Australia, and the TWU has raised particular concerns about the introduction of Amazon's package delivery service, Flex. Flex drivers use their own vehicles to pick up packages from Amazon warehouses and distribute them to customers. The service has been introduced in major cities around Australia, and it looks set to come to my home of Adelaide soon. Because workers are using their own vehicles, there's no provision for expenses for things like fuel, insurance, parking costs and maintenance.

This new model of work shifts all the burden of insecurity and uncertainty onto workers. Workers are responsible for sourcing and maintaining their work equipment and too often find it near impossible to access basic workplace protections that were fought hard for in our country. The cost of convenience, if it is allowed to continue without appropriate regulation or scrutiny, is simply becoming too high. That's exactly what the Make Amazon Pay campaign seeks to address, highlighting and fighting back against failures to provide decent, secure and safe work around the world. It is a campaign supported by over 70 organisations, including unions, non-government organisations, civil society and environmental groups, who have come together to raise their voice.

During the pandemic the problems with insecure work were made crystal clear. We cannot forget the lessons we learned. Insecure work means people are forced to put turning up to work above their own health and sometimes the health of their community. It can make it extraordinarily difficult to cope with changing circumstances and impossible to plan for the future. While insecure and casual work is too often irregular and unpredictable, we know that costs in life aren't—costs like your mortgage, your bills and your children's food and clothes, whether or not you have shifts. Labor knows this. That's why we'll make job security an objective of the Fair Work Act. We'll restore the proper definition of 'casual employment' and criminalise wage theft once and for all.

Australia's industrial relations system and working conditions have long been the envy of the world, fought for over a century with the blood, sweat and tears of workers and unions. The Americanisation of our workplaces and the conservative undermining of our industrial system will undo that remarkable history if it is unchecked, and we must fight it with the same strength and unity as those who came before. In this fight, and on this day, I am so proud to stand with mighty unions like the SDA and the TWU and all of the workers that they represent.