Scott Morrison's industrial relations Bill will allow employers to cut workers' pay. The choice is clear. The Liberals are for pay cuts. Labor are for secure jobs.
House of Representatives - 22 February, 2021
This is a bill for less secure jobs and cuts to pay. It's a shocker. It's no exaggeration to say that this bill, the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020, will leave working people worse off. If ever there was any doubt, this government is for pay cuts and Labor is for secure jobs.
If passed—if it gets through the Senate—this bill will lead to cuts to take-home pay and conditions. The bill allows agreements to be made below the safety net. It allows agreements to be made that cut wages from where they are now, and it introduces unfair competition between workers and their employers.
Under this bill, employers get more bargaining power when wages are being negotiated. The biggest losers of all will be the many Australians, the millions of Australians, who no longer belong to a union, because unions are increasingly being locked out of the bargaining process.
It's not well known in Australia, but even the workers who don't pay up and join the union benefit from their work. It's the unions that sit there, day in, day out, arguing at the commission, policing the awards, looking at the agreements and doing the hard work to make sure that people's pay is not cut and that the laws are applied. This bill strips away more of their role and more of their responsibilities and rights.
But it's also fundamentally dishonest. In bringing this bill to the House, the government is hiding behind COVID: 'Oh, it's a crisis, it's a crisis.' It's disgraceful. Remember we had that pretend love-in with the Prime Minister at the height of the economic crisis? It was a good thing to do, and we backed it. It was a good thing that the Prime Minister got employers and working representatives—unions and industry bodies—to sit down together in all these working groups and try and come up with some consensus recommendations. We said: 'We'll back what they come up with. If everyone signs off on it and they bring laws in, we will back it.' Well, they've reverted to type. This stuff was not agreed to by workers, by unions or by working representatives.
We get to choose the kind of society we want. We don't have to choose this kind of legislation. We don't have to choose to cut workers' pay. We don't have to choose to cut people's job security. That's a choice that the government is making. That's the choice that the Morrison government make when they bring legislation like this into the House. It's their choice.
It also shows that the Liberals have learnt nothing from COVID. That's the dishonesty in bringing this bill forward. They say it's all about COVID and responding to COVID. It's not. It's the same kind of industrial relations deregulation agenda that they were pushing before COVID. It's the same kind of stuff they'd introduced. They've just dressed it up differently. They have learnt nothing from COVID, because the Liberals' bill means that more jobs will be casualised. If there's one thing in industrial relations that this country should have learnt from COVID, it's that casualisation has gone too far. We saw, as the pandemic and the recession took hold, millions of Australians turfed out of work literally overnight because they had no job security. We had millions of Australians who had no sick leave revealed. Who knew? Sick leave in this country has a purpose. The pandemic hit, and the weaknesses in our society were revealed. Job security is important. People need predictable hours to survive. The government's response, though, is to hide behind COVID and make it easier for employers to casualise jobs that should otherwise be permanent. The minister knows the casual conversion provisions in this bill are meaningless. They're just window-dressing. They're full of loopholes. There's no obligation on employers to make anyone permanent. If you go and ask under this bill, if it is passed, there are a million reasons they can give for why they're not going to make someone permanent. This bill, if passed, would allow employers to call a worker casual even if their job is not casual. It strips workers of sick leave.
I really wonder: does the government have any idea what it's actually like to exist with no job security? I represent the most socioeconomically disadvantaged part of the city of Melbourne, a city of over five million people. The city of Greater Dandenong is, on the indications, the most disadvantaged area of Melbourne. Tens of thousands of people in my electorate don't have secure work. They exist from shift to shift, roster to roster, week to week, wondering if the boss will give them a few more hours. Even if they've been there for years and years doing the same job and working the same number of hours, they're casuals in the Morrison government's world. They can't get a home loan. Even if they earn decent money, they can't go to the bank, because they have no job security. They can't get a home loan. They can't plan for their families. Then overnight a crisis happens, someone gets sick and they're turfed out of their job with no sick leave and no rights. The government says, 'Oh, well, some people like working casually.' Sure, some people like working casually, but there are millions of Australians who want permanent, secure jobs. They don't want to be stuck in the casual workforce when they're doing the same job year after year after year. Quite simply, the pendulum in this country has swung way too far towards casualisation.
We hear these words. The minister bandies them around: 'deregulation' and 'simplification'. 'These are simplified awards. These are modern awards.' When you hear these words coming from Liberals, you should be suspicious. If you are a casual worker, you should be afraid, because what this means is age-old. The Greens political party love to get their meme every week to try and pretend that the two major parties are the same. The Labor and Liberal parties are not the same. The age-old truth still underlies these debates. There's labour with a u, people who work and small businesses—that's the overwhelming majority of people in this country—and there's capital and big business, the people who already have wealth. The Liberal Party's core purpose is always to protect the people who have wealth. In every industrial relations debate, as surely as night follows day, they will be trying to push the pendulum up to advantage employers and big business and the people who have wealth. Every time they bring a jobs or industrial relations bill into this place, that's what happens.
That's because the Liberal Party exist to protect people who have wealth. That's who funds them. That's who donates to them. We have a choice, as I said. The government says we can't afford decent working conditions. Well, we can. We choose what kind of society we want to be.
The minister's been playing games with this bill. He put an extreme provision in there to abolish the better off overall test—an extreme pay cut mechanism. He backed down on it last week, in the face of community outrage, media outrage, outrage from workers and an indication that even the most right-wing of senators were not going to vote for this nonsense. He was gaslighting workers. He was like the schoolyard bully, running around for the past couple of months saying, 'I'm going to take your lunch, I'm going to take your lunch, you're going to starve, I'll take your lunch,' and then in the end he says, 'No, I'm only going to take your sandwich, your Big M, the Saladas, the Vegemite and the Kit-Kat, and I'll let you have the limp celery sticks.'
The government confirmed, though—we need to be clear on this—that it still wants to cut pay. The bill will still do this; it will just do it more sneakily. They're only ditching their plan to scrap the BOOT because they can't get it through the parliament, not because they admitted it was wrong. They didn't stand up there last week and say, 'Okay, we've listened; that was wrong, that was unfair.' They still believe that their proposal to remove the safety net to give employers these extreme powers is 'sensible and proportionate'. I'd hate to see what they think is unfair or, God forbid, extreme. They've only backed down for political reasons right now. But people should be very clear: that's still what they want to do. That's still where they want to push the pendulum and advantage employers over workers. They still want to do this, and if they win the next election that's exactly what they'll try, yet again.
I just want to make a few remarks on what they put under the heading 'award simplification'. There are a whole lot of provisions there that in substance mean they're going to casualise part-time work. These provisions allow an employer and a part-time employee to agree that the employee will work extra hours at ordinary hourly rates with no overtime. Many awards already have these provisions. They apply to part-time employees who work a minimum of 16 hours a week. Many of the awards that this bill covers already have these provisions, and there's some of the agreements. I think Woolworths is an example of one that has this provision. Fair enough, if that's been negotiated. It sounds neat. But the risk is that if you roll this out widely in the way the government proposes then the practical impact—not the minister's spin, but the practical impact—may be to normalise a 16-hour commitment, with extra hours when needed.
So, if you're someone who for years has worked three or four days a week, as many working mums choose to do, for 10 or 15 years or more, under this bill, as things roll on, it's highly likely that you'll be pushed down to 16 hours a week. That's all you can bank on. The rest will be at the whim, at the gift, of your employer, with no overtime, no security. This is exactly the same situation that faces large swathes of the aged-care workforce. Late last year I met with workers from the aged-care sector whom the United Workers Unions brought to meet with us, on Zoom. Their stories were tragic. These are people who are committed to aged care. They're passionate about aged care. They come in every age—people in their 20s who want to make a career in aged care through to people who've been working in it for decades. One of the common threads in their experience was that they get only 16 hours of work guaranteed a week because of the way these awards are structured, and the rest is up to their employer. Usually they get more, but they can't bank on it. They can't get a home loan based on it. They can't plan to pick their kids up from school and have a normal family life with it. And they're forced to work between two and sometimes three aged-care homes because of these kinds of awards.
That's the kind of world the government wants to roll out to the rest of Australian society, all in the name of flexibility, choice, deregulation and modernisation—all these buzzwords. But what they really mean, when you strip their language back, is that employers can choose whatever they want and the workers have to cop it. Well, we do have a choice as to what kind of society we want to be. We don't have to chase the American path, where workers live off tips, if they're lucky, and have no job security. We can choose another direction.
The bill does another bunch of obnoxious, unreasonable things. It entrenches unreasonable flexible work directions. Now, these were emergency measures—surprise, surprise! They were emergency measures, negotiated for employees who were in receipt of JobKeeper, whereby for a limited period of time, given the recession and the pandemic, employers had extra powers to direct workers where they had to work and the kind of work they had to do. In those circumstances, that was a reasonable thing. The government of course then couldn't help itself. It extended it to employers who are no longer in receipt of JobKeeper but used to be in receipt of JobKeeper.
So they're kind of widening it. Now they want to extend it to all of these awards. To millions of workers to extend it to all of these awards, to millions of workers. They don't have any protections, though, like the JobKeeper rules had—the turnover test—and they're stripping the Fair Work Commission of the power to arbitrate. It just continues to give employers more power.
Workers are not slaves. If you say, 'You're going to work for an employer, you've got a job description, that's the job you apply for and it's going to be done at this site,' employers have never had unfettered power just to order you on no notice, saying: 'You no longer work in Geelong. You're now working in Melbourne. You're going to turn up at 6 am and you're doing a completely different job.' That's kind of power that this government thinks is reasonable to give to more and more employers. How can anyone plan a family life?
The other thing the bill does is cut bargaining rights and protections for workers whose pay and conditions are covered by agreements. This has nothing to do with COVID. This is just the same old right-wing industrial relations deregulation agenda. 'We'll just roll out a bit more of it and we'll dress it up as COVID.'
Enterprise agreements are supposed to be a way for workers to share productivity, to invest with the boss, with the employer, in how we can get more out of the business, how we can contribute more, how we can create more wealth and give a bit back to the workers for that by increasing wages. It's supposed to be a deal, a bargain. Instead, this government wants to pervert the system so EBAs become a way for employers to escape the safety net and reduce employment rights, pay and entitlement. Workers, if this law passes, won't be able to trust the EBA process.
There are fewer obligations. You don't have to tell people you've started bargaining for at least a month. They're fiddling the voting rules and changing the process. There will be less scrutiny by unions, reduction in unions' capacity even to scrutinise agreements and intervene when they're cutting wages below the safety net and restrictions on the Fair Work Commission when considering amendments. And they would strip workers—this affects numerous people in my electorate—of the right simply to receive a proper explanation of the agreement they're being asked to vote on. That particularly impacts people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds who might not have great written English. They're no longer entitled to a proper, simple, plain English explanation. For young people, non-unionised workers, there's no guarantee of an explanation.
And there's a particular impact in my home state of Victoria. The bill will override the strong wage theft laws in Victoria and Queensland—laws that the Andrews government introduced, and they should be so proud of their work there. They're taking rights and protections off these workers in these states. The bill would make it harder for unions and individuals to take employers who underpay their workers to court by removing an important avenue to recover the costs involved. If this bill passes, in conciliation talks the Fair Work Commission would be prevented from making a recommendation that could guide people to a fast and effective outcome.
In summary, Labor opposes this bill and we're right to oppose it. It would mean less secure work and more casualisation of work across the economy at the very time we should be looking for more secure work, as Labor proposes, in a lesson from the pandemic. We want more secure work, not more casualisation. It will casualise part-time work. It will allow cuts to pay and weakens protections against wage theft, but fundamentally it's dishonest. It has nothing to do with COVID. It's the same old, same old, tired, right-wing industrial relations agenda that workers have rightly had enough of.