18 March 2021
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)