Protecting your rights at work

By Terri Butler MP

23 February 2021

It's a pleasure to follow the member for Monash. I was listening with great interest when he said that he had been living in the real world and then went on to describe a world in which employers are always magnanimous and reasonable; employees and other workers who are in insecure forms of work are there by choice because it's more suitable for them; and all employment relationships are based on trust, mutual caring and responsible approaches to building their business. I've got to say to the member that that sounds a lot more like la la land than the real world. And I must also say that of course there are wonderful employers and of course there are people who are in insecure forms of work because that does suit them, but that's far from a universal experience.

The member talked about the great risk of taking on a business—starting a business, employing people and taking on that risk to your own economic prosperity. It absolutely is a risk. Do you know what else is a risk? Working in a dangerous industry is a risk. I'm thinking about, for example, coalminers in my state. Over the last few days, coalminers were in a situation where the workforce had to be withdrawn from Moranbah North because of fears about work health and safety. This, of course, comes hot on the heels of last year's explosion at Grosvenor that injured five miners. It's a risk for these guys to go to work. It's a risk for people in the construction industry, which can often be very dangerous work and requires good, strong safety protections, as is the case in electricity. We know that, particularly after 2020, it was a risk for a lot of frontline health workers, aged-care workers, childcare workers and teachers to go to work. There is a lot of risk in our lives, and that seems to be becoming more and more the case. Isn't it the case that the people who face those risks deserve a fair go? They deserve secure forms of work. They deserve a government that will not use a pandemic as an opportunity to try to sneak through ideologically driven industrial relations reforms but will use it as an opportunity to realise the value of our workforces and our businesses and to work towards better settings for everyone.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020, we're just seeing the basest instincts of the coalition that are so familiar to us after decades of attempts to undermine industrial relations settings in this country. We're seeing those basest instincts come to the fore. That's exactly the case with this bill. This bill will make jobs more insecure and will lead to pay cuts; that's what this bill will do. Members opposite who've advocated for us to support this bill need to step back and think about what they're asking us to do. We don't stand for greater job insecurity. We stand for more-secure work. We stand for a fair go at work.

I mentioned the mining sector. This is a sector that is faced with significant change—obviously workplace health and safety concerns, but also the disruptive impact of automation such that it's very unclear to a lot of workers what their jobs will be in the future. It's an industry that's also facing rampant casualisation and labour hire, forms of work that do not provide the same security that permanent work does. When our leader, Anthony Albanese, gave a speech in Brisbane recently in my electorate of Griffith to talk about security at work, he talked about two coalminers, Ron and Simon. These are guys who work side by side doing the same job, but one is on labour hire and one is permanent, and their pay difference is about 20 per cent.

This isn't the Australia that we want to live in, where there's insecurity at work and where people who are doing the same job aren't getting the same pay. That's not the sort of country we should be striving to be. We should be a country where everyone has the opportunity to get secure, well-paid work and where if people are in insecure work then they are in fact there by choice. But that's just not the reality we live in right now, regardless of what the member for Monash said about his experience of the 'real world'.

As I said, the same issues of casualisation, of insecurity, of labour hire, of different pay for the same work and of the ongoing instability and uncertainty that that gives rise to for workers is happening in industry after industry, sector after sector. Why should it be the case that we, a modern nation—a nation that has at its very heart the ethos of a fair go—are in a situation where some of our most important frontline workers, people across different sectors and industries, have no choice but to accept casual work? Why should there be people who have been working in the same job for years and who are still supposedly casual workers? Why should those people not be able to get a bank loan? Why should those people not be able to plan their economic futures and the economic future of their family?

This bill lays bare the fact that the coalition will always lean towards less security, more casualisation and downward pressure on incomes for working families. That's what the coalition will always do. And they've got form. People will remember the Howard government's attempted industrial relations reforms in 1996. They'll remember, a decade later, the Work Choices so-called reforms that went through this parliament and the attempts at the time to get rid of the no-disadvantage test. And they'll remember this year, 2021, for the attempts to get rid of the better off overall test—the modern version of the no-disadvantage test. They'll remember which side fought to make it easier to cut workers' pay and which side fought against those propositions. Labor has stood up to this government in relation to its plans to undermine the operation of the better off overall test, and we will always stand up for better, more-secure jobs, for better pay and for better working conditions for working families.

The government has been embarrassed, has been exposed, in relation to its attempts to make work more insecure and to put downward pressure on wages. It is important to acknowledge that through Labor's advocacy, through the advocacy of the union movement and through the advocacy of many members of our community the government has had to make a concession in relation to this bill. But this bill is still deeply flawed. It will still make jobs more insecure, and it will still lead to pay cuts.

We've made our position on this bill very clear. Our test for this bill has always been: will it create secure jobs with decent pay? It's a pretty straightforward question. It's a pretty reasonable question. I think it's pretty regrettable to say that the answer is still no. This bill will make it easier for employers to casualise jobs that would otherwise have been permanent. It makes bargaining for better pay and conditions more difficult than it already is—and it is already very difficult under current settings. It allows wage cuts. It takes rights off blue-collar workers on big projects. It actually weakens wage theft punishments in jurisdictions where that is already deemed a criminal act. That's what this piece of legislation does. That is the legislation that the Morrison government is asking Labor to support. I think it's very clear why we can't support this legislation.

As I said, it's really disappointing to see that this government has taken the pandemic and the recession as an opportunity to ram through some of its ideological-driven industrial relations changes that have been at the heart of what this government and its predecessors have wanted to do now for decades. Clearly, the lessons of the failed reforms of the Howard government have not been learned by this government. Clearly, this government has no interest in standing up for working families. This government has no interest in supporting secure work. This government is not listening to the cries of suffering and distress from our community.

This is a government that has 1.3 million people relying on JobKeeper. They are relying on the wage subsidy that, by the way, the government didn't want to have in the first place. We had to drag the government kicking and screaming to that wage subsidy. The government knows that those people are relying on this lifeline. It knows that it's coming to an end. It has no plan to make sure that, as the economy shifts forward, all of the people relying on this lifeline are kept in work. It has got absolutely no plan for that. It has got no plan to address insecurity at work.

The government have got no plan to address the fact that wages growth has been utterly disappointing and in the doldrums now for a number of years—since well before COVID and well before the recession. Wages growth has been through the floor in this country because of the economic mismanagement of the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government. They've got no plan to address the downward pressure on wages that has been happening under their watch for eight years now. They've got no plan to address the fact that Australians are terrified about what the future holds, frankly, because of the soft economic conditions that these guys managed to engineer even before we knew about COVID across Australia.

The government have no plan for any of that, but they do have time to try to get this bill through the parliament under the cover of COVID. They do have time to try to push through their ideologically-driven intentions to put further downward pressure on wages and to try to build on their previous approach to make it easier to force people into forms of work that they do not want. As I said before, it's just not the case that every person who is in insecure work in this country is there by choice. It's just not the case.

In the current settings you've got people in the gig economy, people who are on so-called independent contracts, with very little bargaining power. The Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations throughout question time was dodging, weaving and doing everything he could to avoid being honest about the fact that there are workers in this country who are paid less than the minimum wage and their government has no intention of doing anything about that. Gig economy workers are concerned about safety at work. They have been involved in accidents and don't have the same protections as employees. Think about the fact that people are doing the same job for much less pay and that people in insecure work can't get bank loans. If you think about all of these issues then, like me, you'll just be gobsmacked about the government's approach to industrial relations.

Why aren't they coming to grips with the real problems facing households every day, whether those households are in coalmining, health services, frontline services or teaching? I think about my family members—a hospital wards man, a teacher aid and a teacher. In my family I've got people working in resources and the Public Service. They want to go to work, be safe, have some security, have a decent life and have a decent retirement with dignity. That's what people want. Why aren't those the central concerns of your government? 'It's too hard. I don't hold a hose. Sure, the important concerns of households really matter to us. They're someone else's problem though. We need to do this culture war thing. We need to do this ideology thing. That's what our focus is going to be. That's what our priority is going to be'—this is the thinking of those on the other side of this chamber. They need to take some responsibility. They need to get real. They need to stop their own internal nonsense and stop the fighting—all the stuff about people on the backbench who think there's a conspiracy in the Bureau of Meteorology to falsify climate data or a conspiracy about vaccines.

To the government: whatever random conspiracy theory people on the backbench are spouting—of course, some of them are now saying they're going to move to the crossbench—stop being distracted by all this nonsense and do something about the conditions facing working families. Working families need you to start being a real government, to stop saying, 'I don't hold a hose, mate' and to start taking responsibility for improving the lot of families and working people across this country, because the fact is you have left them behind. You have abandoned them. You have betrayed them by failing to focus on the material concerns that are affecting them every day. You might be willing to do that, but we're not willing to do that. We will stand up for secure work. We will stand up for well-paid jobs. We will stand up for a fair go. We will stand up for the concerns and the lives of people on the front line, people who are working hard, people who have managed to keep us afloat—the real heroes throughout the pandemic—and people who make our economy work every single day. The reason we will do that is, as Labor, it is our purpose, our reason for being, to stand up for working and ordinary Australians. It's why we don't get distracted by all the nonsense that affects the other side. It's why we take responsibility. It's why we want to be in government—not for our own benefit but to make life better for people across this nation every single day.