The Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020

By Matt Keogh MP

22 February 2021

The Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020, before us today, demonstrates how the Prime Minister and his government want to use the current pandemic situation as a cover to allow employers to cut the pay of Australian workers—workers who got us through, and who continue to get us through, this pandemic. These are workers doing insecure but very honourable work: stacking supermarket shelves; deep cleaning, something that's never been more important than it is now; our essential truckies, moving things across the nation and getting through the important controls which have also been keeping us safe; our childcare workers; and our teachers. It's about so many different workers in so many different areas, like our aged-care workers. So many of them are some of the lowest paid in the nation and so many of them are already in vulnerable employment situations. Far from thanking them and far from giving them that which they deserve, this legislation would actually leave them worse off.

The bill before us today is no way to thank these people for the hard work that they have undertaken for all of us. But I'm not just going to stand here and sprout thanks for the work that they've done. I'm going to stand here to fight against this legislation which this government is proposing and which is about undercutting the employment conditions of these people who we should be thanking. It's not about tokens of gratitude; this is about standing up for their rights, for their employment and for their capacity and ability to look after their families and to put food on the table for them.

Labor is on the side of working families. We know that the way to achieve national reconstruction after a pandemic like this is to focus on jobs. That's not just the raw number of jobs, but good, secure jobs—jobs that have fair pay and conditions, and jobs that make sure people are able to do what they want to do, which is to look after their families. We're on the side of the delivery drivers, the shelf stackers, the cleaners, the aged-care workers, the early childhood workers and all those people working in our hospitals. We know how important all of them are and they will not be forgotten for the work that they have done for our nation. We know how important it is to support local jobs. That means enabling business to employ people and to support those employees to have stability—to know that they have a good job to go to and an income that will put food on the table.

Australians deserve a government that is on their side, and we here are on the side of the underdog against this government. The Morrison government doesn't care, clearly, about these ordinary working Australians. On their watch, we've heard countless broken promises, from sports rorts, dodgy deals and a dud NBN to trillions of dollars of debt. It's on their watch that we have seen wages stagnate and, under this legislation, wages cut and, of course, economic supports which have been needed so desperately, and are still needed, being withdrawn. At the end of March, this Morrison government will leave hundreds of thousands of Australians behind by ending wage subsidies. Currently 1.3 million Australians rely on those wage subsidies. The Treasury department of this government says that 100,000 of those people will lose their jobs as soon as the JobKeeper subsidy is withdrawn.

If the legislation before us passes, as the government wishes it to, there will be no security for the work of these hundreds of thousands—indeed, millions—of Australians. Entire sectors, including tourism and hospitality, will be denied essential support, and job losses will be inevitable. That's why it's important that we talk about the concept of job security and that we understand how important it is. It's why Labor wants to make sure that we have employment legislation that provides security to workers in their workplace and that we're able to ensure that we see wage growth happen in this country, as opposed to the stagnation that we have seen under the government's approach—an official policy of this government, I might add, to suppress wages in this country. But it's not just about the pay cheque; it's about what that enables. It's about helping people to be able to buy their first home or maybe to buy that upgraded home, so that they can fit their expanding family, and so they can put food on the table, provide security and make the decisions that their family need—an opportunity which they don't get when placed in insecure work. It's about providing the confidence to Australian families to spend their hard-earned income which will create growth in our economy, because this government's policy of wage suppression is actively undermining the economic recovery which we all so desperately need and which this government likes to talk about but is not doing anything practical to deliver.

The Minister for Industrial Relations likes to say that the legislation before us is a result of the consultation and broad discussions that were held with the business community and with the union movement. It might be true that this legislation comes after those conversations were held, but it is very clear that this legislation is not a result of any agreement reached or consensus position coming out of those consultations that the government arranged. It is clearly not the case that this legislation is some sort of mutual understanding for economic benefit for all Australians and Australian workers to benefit business and workers. That is not what we have here, as much as the government may try to gild the lily to make it look that way. The most obvious part of that and the most obvious way in which that is demonstrated was the government's decision to include in the legislation, as it was presented to parliament, its changes to the better off overall test.

The better off overall test, or the BOOT, as people like to call it, is a fundamentally essential part of our industrial relations system because it is what enables the flexibility that exists in the system, while making sure that people don't go backwards in providing that flexibility. It's part of what really underlines the idea of enterprise bargaining. You should be able to bargain. We should be able to find true flexibility in our employment relations between workers and employers, to make sure we can deliver the best, most productive outcomes for those businesses and for those workers, but you can't do that if there's a risk that your working rights can be undermined, and that is the purpose of the better off overall test. Yet the government wanted to extend the undermining of this better off overall test for two years through this legislation, once again showing how it is all about undermining wage growth and undermining workers' conditions. The government has said, 'We're going to give the BOOT changes the boot.' They're going to withdraw that component of the bill. And of course that is welcome, but it's still pretty telling. It's still something that all Australian workers should be fundamentally concerned about with this government.

John Howard tried 40 times to remove the unfair dismissal protections from Australian law, and eventually he did it. The government is telegraphing something to Australians in the way they introduce this legislation. They're making it pretty clear. They don't want to talk about it. They try to hide it, but what they're saying here is that this government is more than happy for the term and the concept of 'flexibility in employment' to include undermining fundamental rights of Australians working here. It is completely ridiculous to think that the system will work if you take away those fundamental protections. That's why we are happy that the government has withdrawn it, but we are ever vigilant about what this government is trying to do. It's important that we're vigilant. Look at the rest of this bill and what it is trying to do. They say they're trying to create better protections for casual workers and for bosses by making it clearer what a casual worker is. But, when we look at what they're making clear, they're not making the current law clear. They're not making clear what is and what is not a casual worker, as it is clearly understood in Australia law. No, they're not clarifying. They are fundamentally and substantially changing the definition of 'casual worker' here, making it at the whim of the employer, with no relationship necessarily to how the work is conducted or how rostering is performed. It is a fundamental shift in what it means to be a casual employee that the government is proposing in this legislation. That is something to be guarded against.

What we are seeing, as we have seen throughout the term of this government and indeed before, is the increasing casualisation of our workforce. Employers are not putting on permanent full-time or permanent part-time workers; instead, they are putting on more and more casual workers. The thing is that it's so counterproductive, when we look at it as a whole. Henry Ford understood one fundamental thing in his business proposition: the idea that his own workers should be able to afford to buy the car that they made. The point is that, if you undermine people's working conditions, take away their job security and make them casual instead of permanent part-time, their capacity to spend is reduced. Their capacity to buy not only the fruits of their labour but the product of the employers is less. Economic growth is less. The capacity for our economy to be strong is fundamentally undermined when we make people less secure in their work, and that is what this bill is proposing to do.

The bill has also produced some changes to the way in which bargaining occurs on large greenfield projects. There is certainly something to be said for the concept of providing greater security and certainty to the proponents of these large-scale projects, which can extend for a medium-term length of time, in terms of how their cost structures are going to be affected over the length of an agreement. There is an argument to be made for that, and there is certainly discussion and engagement to be had with the union movement and Australian workers about how we can de-risk those projects. But this legislation does not do that. The idea of having a nominal increase in wages over the length of a long-term agreement, an agreement that could be negotiated with a handful of workers and leave an entire industry's workers undercut and undermined, is not the way to go about doing this. Again, it highlights how this legislation, which the government likes to talk about as being fair, is not about fairness at all.

Then we have wage theft. The government likes to harp on about this. The government likes to say: 'Oh, this legislation is fantastic! You, the Labor Party, should be supporting this legislation because it deals with wage theft.' Well, news for you, government: the wage theft provisions in this bill actively undermine the existing wage theft provisions in some of the states. Yes, it's important to have a national regime, but if you were serious about actually protecting against wage theft then you wouldn't set about doing it in a way that undermines existing protections against wage theft. That's fundamentally important. We have lots of other criminal laws in this country that coexist at a federal and state level. This is not some new invention; we've been doing it for over 100 years. There's no reason we can't get this right. Instead the government has found a way of overriding existing protections in state law by introducing a lower level of protection in the federal law.

It's pretty clear that none of the things that the government is looking to do in this legislation are going to protect Australian workers, provide more secure employment or lead to growth in wages or growth in our economy. That demonstrates the fact that this legislation that the government is putting through is a ruse. The Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations likes to say: 'This is about working better with working Australians. We've come to a great deal after discussing it with the unions. This is about protecting workers.' He might say that in his answers in question time, but, when you look at the content—and I know detail is a bit of a problem for the Minister for Industrial Relations—and at what he's proposed and the way in which he's gone about doing it, he's not delivering on these very important outcomes. That has to be taken in the broader context.

This government likes to walk around and say, 'Oh, but it's going to make it easier to create more jobs.' More jobs that don't afford any additional security to people don't do the job that is needed to be done here. Yes, we need to get more people back into work; that is absolutely the case. There are many people who have been left unemployed because of the pandemic we face. Yet, when we unpick what the government have done, as I mentioned at the beginning of my comments here, they're also proposing to pull the JobKeeper rug out from under Australian small business and the 1.3 million Australians who rely on it to keep their jobs. Treasury says 100,000 people are going to lose their jobs at the end of March because this government is going to remove JobKeeper.

The government like to throw a few breadcrumbs to Australians and say: 'Oh, we're looking at it. We might have something that comes after March.' Well, who for? How does a small business in Australia plan if they don't know whether or not they are going to be eligible for what the government may or may not produce to come in at the end of March? How does a small business plan? Lots of small businesses are planning to have to put their employees on the scrap heap, to wind up their businesses, to let go of staff. How does that help the economy grow? This government owes small business and those 1.3 million workers a better answer than this legislation or removing JobKeeper. (Time expired)