The Fair Work Amendment

February 22, 2021

I rise to speak on the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020.

When I think about the Liberals and the principles which lie beneath their approach to workers' pay and conditions, I think about what I saw when Work Choices came in. One of the most powerful examples that remains with me is the contract my then 16-year-old daughter was asked to sign as part of a before-ballet-school job, working for a couple of hours on a couple of mornings a week at a food retailer with an outdoor store. Not only was it pitiful pay but also she was required to wear a uniform, which she paid for, including a woollen jumper. She had to pay for that uniform out of a very small pay packet, or pay for it up-front, and she was then required to agree to return that woollen jumper to the business when she left, even though she had paid for it.

This was just a tiny example of a whole raft of conditions that were put on employees. I certainly heard stories of what I considered to be absolute exploitation of young workers in their very first jobs. These are the jobs where the power relationship which they felt and experienced was one where they had absolutely no power. These kids wanted to get into the workforce—they wanted to get up at sparrows' start, head in and do a few hours work before going and doing a full eight-hour day at ballet school. It was a physically demanding day. They wanted to work, yet they were taken advantage of.

There were many situations that were just so much more profound in terms of the impact that they had on families during that Work Choices regime, which, obviously, was ultimately the downfall of the Howard government. I saw Work Choices undermine work that I'd seen happen decades earlier by the Hawke government. As a journalist reporting on that government, I saw changes that seemed to be much more about strengthening the relationships between employers and employees—working together, making it a more respectful relationship—and where agreements could be reached which worked for both parties. We saw a government wanting to have a hand in making that happen. Bob Hawke chose the path of consensus. The Prices and Incomes Accord saw unions agree to restrict wage demands in return for a government pledge to minimise inflation and implement social services. This was a three-way pact and it had the effect of lifting this country up and not pushing people down.

That, and the other industrial relations policies of the Hawke and Keating governments, involved award restructuring and the introduction of enterprise bargaining. These, and all the other reforms, led to a much more genuine partnership and good outcomes for workers and bosses, which was really part of setting up this nation for nearly 30 years of consecutive growth. What I saw the Howard government do, with Work Choices, was break that trust between employees and employers. Young workers' first experience of the workforce was of an us-and-them mentality, and that went right through the whole system of employment. It's hard to rebuild trust when it wasn't there in the first place, and that's where this legislation is coming from for people in their 30s, whose first experience of the workforce was under Work Choices. I say all of this because the mentality that drove Work Choices to its extraordinary heights, as I see it, underpins everything that we've seen the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government do when it comes to workers. It reveals who they really are.

The latest example that we see of this, outside this legislation, is buried not too far below the surface of the JobMaker program. It's one that we on this side warned of. The government ignored our warnings, but it turns out that Treasury also warned that one of the things embedded in JobMaker was that employers could sack a full-time worker on $75,000 a year and replace him or her with three part-time staff on wages between $22,500 and $30,000 a year while still remaining in front, financially, thanks to the JobMaker hiring credit. It would lead to figures looking good for the government, as they could claim jobs growth. It would work for the employer because they would get three subsidies for those workers. It might even work for some of the part-time employees, but it doesn't deliver long-term, secure, full-time jobs. I don't have any qualms about wanting that as a goal for this nation. Secure work with enough hours to pay the bills that an individual or a family has is an absolute necessity for a productive, healthy and hopeful society.

Too many part-timers and casuals tell me that they need more hours. They're grateful for what they've got, but it isn't enough to relieve the stress of trying to cover their living costs. With COVID, we've seen that exacerbated with the reductions in JobKeeper: as JobKeeper has come down, so have the hours. The good employers really want to keep their workers on, and workers have agreed to the reduction in hours as a temporary measure, but the danger is that it becomes permanent. When JobKeeper ends, as it does in a little over 30 days, the real danger is that the staff who've hung in there for their workplace will lose their jobs. It is obvious to me, as the daughter of a small-business owner and having run by own business for 25 years, and having talked to my local businesses, that many people are more likely to spend money when they've got a secure income, when they know the amount that's going to come in the door in the next month or even the next week. They feel much more free to spend money in shops, salons and cafes. Without measures to create more secure jobs with a prospect of wage rises, workers have less capacity and less confidence to spend, which will in turn dull demand and continue to hurt our domestic economy. We were already seeing this before COVID. We were already seeing an incredibly lacklustre economy. We saw it in the Blue Mountains and Hawkesbury. There were no wage rises and no pressure for wage rises, and there was not a lot of confidence.

As I mention JobKeeper, I should also add that, as we move into a different COVID phase, the problem is not just the failure of this government to support workers in the arts and entertainment sectors by allowing them to access JobKeeper. They made it so hard for those workers, and I've spoken to many actors and musicians who, because of the unusual sorts of contracts and arrangements they have, just couldn't access JobKeeper. University workers were also left out, and my electorate has many university workers. They missed out completely. But those who did get JobKeeper and are still relying on it are all the travel agents. Every single travel agent who sees no prospect of the borders opening in time for their businesses to kick back in in fewer than 30 days needs JobKeeper to continue. For tourism operators and those reliant on international tourism, like the Upper Blue Mountains in particular in my electorate, right across the top of the mountains going over to Bells Line of Road, international visitors are key. And then there are performers and workers in the arts sector. They all need JobKeeper to continue. That's outside what this legislation is trying to do.

I should add on the warnings by Treasury about the JobMaker program that there would be more part-time, not full-time, work generated that it took freedom-of-information requests by the ABC to even get that Treasury advice revealed and made public. As it does so often, this government chose to bury that and keep it buried and hidden. We've seen again that same pattern this morning in the revelations that the government knew that a fibre NBN rollout would be $15 billion cheaper than it said publicly. I think what people deserve is transparency about employment matters, about the spending of this government and about the basis on which it makes decisions.

On this legislation, workers are already telling me that they feel like they have a minimal voice in speaking out about unfair practices in their workplaces. Under the cover of COVID, a whole lot of things have happened and employees feel vulnerable. As I say, they say to me that they are grateful that are still working even if it isn't enough hours to pay the bills. But this legislation would weaken those voices even further. Our test for this legislation was whether it would create secure jobs with decent pay or not. From what I've said, it's little wonder that I have little trust and confidence in this government to lift a finger to help create good, secure jobs. This legislation certainly doesn't go anywhere near doing that. Even with removal by the government of the most extreme part of the bill, the suspension of the two-year better off overall test, known as the BOOT test, this bill is a fundamental attack on the rights of workers unlike anything we've seen since Work Choices. It will make work less secure and it will lead to pay cuts.

Even though the BOOT test change has been removed, I want to make really clear why it's been removed. The Attorney-General in his statement made it very clear they're not ditching their plan to scrap the better off overall test because they don't think it's the right thing to have in there. It's very clear they still think that the change to the better off overall test should be in this legislation. The only reason it's not there is that they've conceded that they cannot get it through the parliament. It's not because they recognise it's unfair. In his actual statement, Mr Porter said he still believes the change which basically removes any safety net for workers and gives employers vastly expanded power to cut pay is a sensible and proportionate clause to have in this legislation. So the retreat is purely because of politics. It's purely because they can see we will fight it, as we will so many aspects of this bill. This entire legislation is about reducing the security of work, allowing for pay cuts and taking away the safety net. It's pretty clear that, if they're given the chance, if they're given an opportunity, they will bring this change in. There's no doubt that this is what they'd like to do. At this point, they just realise that they can't get it through in this piece of legislation. But even without the BOOT change this is still a bad piece of legislation.

I want to talk about the key reasons for us being opposed to this bill and making amendments to it. One is that it makes it easy for employers to casualise jobs that would otherwise have been permanent. I've just talked through why permanent work—permanent full time and permanent part time—is so important not just for workers but for local economies like mine in the Blue Mountains and Hawkesbury.

This bill also makes bargaining for better pay and conditions much more difficult than it already is. When you have workers already feeling that their voice isn't able to be heard than the last thing they need is to feel they have no power and that they're unable to access support from unions and delegates to help them to argue their case for a pay rise. I just think it's an absolute joke when those on the other side say, 'Oh well, people can just go and ask for a pay rise.' I was doorknocking in Bligh Park the other day and I spoke to a worker who is pretty sure that he is being dudded—that he and a whole lot of other people are being dudded on their award. But they are too fearful of losing jobs to want to make a fuss because they know that the first people to be let go will be the people who have stood up for themselves. To have a system which further entrenches that is absolutely shameful.

This bill allows wage cuts. It takes rights from blue-collar workers on big projects. And when an employer does do something that is illegal this bill actually weakens the wage-theft punishments, even in jurisdictions where it's already deemed a criminal act. As it's in their DNA for the Liberals to want to push workers down, to make sure that they get less and that they have less voice, that's what we're seeing in this piece of legislation.