Senate debates

Wednesday, 7 September 2022

Statements by Senators

Workplace Relations

12:44 pm

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

One of the major criticisms of the Morrison government was that they never took responsibility for their mistakes. They went to great lengths to never admit when they were wrong. This new Labor government is committed to being accountable. In that spirit I want to acknowledge that our bargaining system, which both parties have contributed towards, does not work. The single-enterprise-centric bargaining system introduced by Labor in the 1990s is no longer fit for purpose. To end the right of workers to pursue multiple-employer agreements was a mistake. That system laid the groundwork for subsequent coalition governments to launch a full-scale assault on the rights of workers to collectively bargain. It opened the door for the Howard government's WorkChoices legislation and some of the most extreme antiworker legislation ever introduced into the developed world.

Labor sought to repair the damage done by WorkChoices through the Fair Work Act in the late 2000s. The Fair Work Act included a provision for multi-employer bargaining in low-paid industries, but that provision has failed. It has failed to create a real multi-employer bargaining option for low-paid industries, and, worse still, the act has loopholes that employers have been exploiting to drive wages down. The nine years of the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments were the worst period for wages in Australia's history. It was a lost decade for the Australian middle class. We've had almost an entire decade where wages and the standard of living of the Australian middle class have gone backwards. This government was elected on a mandate to ensure that Australian workers do not go any further backwards. We were elected on a mandate to ensure that we get real wages growing again. But, to be blunt, real wages will not grow if we do not fix our industrial relations system. It's that simple.

We've seen the productivity growth, we've seen massive profit growth, but none of that is getting through to workers. Fundamentally, that means Australian workers do not have enough power to bargain for their fair share. If you don't have power to bargain, all you have left is the Oliver Twist approach, favoured by the last government, where workers have to come on their hands and knees to their employer and say, 'Please, Sir, can I have some more?' And even where good employers want to give their workers a fair go, they are inevitably undercut by dodgy employers who want to squeeze every last penny out of their workforce. So, how do we put real power back in the hands of Australian workers?

Firstly, we need to undo the mistakes of the last few decades and cut the red tape preventing multi-employer bargaining. We need multi-employer bargaining for industries where low pay is entrenched as part of doing business. I'm talking about industries such as child care, where today thousands of workers are taking strike action to fight for a fair go. I'm talking about industries like aged care, where nine in 10 workers are hired on insecure, part-time or casual contracts. Unless workers in these industries can bargain collectively, they do not have the power to get paid fair value for their essential work. Ray Collins, an aged-care organiser at the Health Workers Union, told the job security inquiry last year:

The business model to operate when you're using a casualised workforce is to keep everybody hungry, lean and green.

Ray told us how aged-care employers hire their entire workforces on part-time contracts, where each worker is only guaranteed a few hours a week. They might work a 30-hour week, but they're only guaranteed three hours, so, if anyone complains about not having PPE or not having enough time to properly care for residents, the employer can take almost all their hours away and throw them into poverty. If someone doesn't agree to take on a shift with one hour's notice, they lose their hours. Aged-care workers are put in a position where they are constantly on call, where they can't take leave, where they can't speak up about any problems because, at the drop of a hat, their employer can take all of their hours away.

Sherree Clarke, an aged-care nurse, told the job security inquiry:

When my mother went through cancer, I couldn't tell her that I would support her to appointments, because, if you're not available to pick up a shift, they don't offer you a shift the next time.

And Sherree can't do anything about this because they do not have a real voice or real bargaining power. It's not only happening in the care industries that have been underpaid and undervalued for years. Even in jobs that used to be well paid and strongly unionised, the lack of worker voice is driving a race to the bottom—look at aviation. Getting a job at Qantas used to mean a lifelong career. It used to be that, were you a pilot, a flight attendant or a ground handler at Qantas, you were the cream of the crop. You could raise a family. You were highly trained and highly experienced. You took pride in your work because you were the best of the best, and you were paid a rate of pay that reflected that.

That was the spirit of Australia, but not anymore. Our industrial relations system has failed Qantas workers, as it has failed many Australians. It has failed to give them a proper voice and proper power. Alan Joyce has steamrolled them all and led the way for so many more. Qantas has a set up shell companies to hire workers on lower pay and conditions than direct Qantas employees, and Mr Joyce gradually moved the entire workforce into these shell companies or, worse still, he moved them to external labour hire firms. He illegally outsourced nearly 2,000 people, and the Federal Court said that he did not have to rehire them because he would probably sack them again anyway.

On Four Corners on Monday night we saw brave current and former Qantas employees speak out about this. Matthew Allsop was a flight attendant at Qantas for 16 years, and I will quote Matthew, who said:

I was with the Qantas group of companies just shy of 16 years … I managed to work for wholly owned subsidiaries or labour hire firms … but never actually worked for Qantas Airways.

…   …   …

… each time to slowly erode the high value of pay and conditions that once existed in the legacy part of the airline.

…   …   …

… on any given day, you would have crew employed under four different contracts. So we had our wholly-owned New Zealand-based subsidiary, the UK-based subsidiary, and then you had your two Australian subsidiaries.

Alan Joyce can do this because Qantas workers do not have real bargaining power. If you have workers on one plane being hired by five different companies but they can't even bargain together, they have no power.

It's the same story in the mining industry. BHP have dusted off the Alan Joyce playbook and set up their own shell company as well. They call it BHP Operation Services. BHP told the job security inquiry that only 29 per cent of workers on their mine sites are actually employed by BHP. The rest are employed by their shell company or by external labour hire firms, and they are paid an average of 24 per cent less for doing the exact, same job. That is a 24 per cent pay cut for these workers, because they do not have real bargaining power. They can't bargain directly with BHP, because BHP is not technically their employer. If you want to face the wages disaster of the last decade, we need to fix bargaining, because Qantas, BHP and so many others are making a mockery of our industrial relations system.

Again, only today, if you look at the ABS statistics that have just come through, you will see the effect that those sorts of figures have on so many Australians and the disconnect with what is a fair return for labour. Real unit labour costs have dropped for four successive quarters as a result of the previous government, while the labour share of income has fallen to a new record low and the profit share has hit a new high, according to ABS national accounts data released today. It's companies like Qantas and BHP that have gamed the system over the last decade. There is an opportunity for us to change that system so that there is a fair share for all and all Australians in the Australian middle class can get their fair share of the Australian pie.