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Speech: Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021

Speeches in Parliament
Mehreen Faruqi 16 Mar 2021

I rise on behalf of the Greens to speak to the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020. I can tell you that, unlike the title of it, there is absolutely nothing fair about this bill. This bill seeks to suppress wages and erode working conditions for all workers, especially those who are the lowest paid, through a suite of measures designed to further shift the balance of power from workers to business. The Morrison government's clear agenda in putting this bill—the biggest attack on workers' rights since John Howard's Work Choices—is entrenching insecure work to the overwhelming benefit of big business and to the enormous detriment of workers and communities.

One of the most noxious provisions of this bill is its redefinition of 'casual employee'. The new definition will give employers all the power to determine whether a worker is casual, and will allow businesses to classify workers as casual at the start of their employment regardless of the hours they end up working. Not only does this new definition do nothing to prevent misclassification of permanent workers as casual; it actually facilitates it by allowing businesses to hire workers as casuals and give them full-time hours, without requiring businesses to pay entitlements or provide any job security.

This bill will rob part-time workers of hours and income security by allowing businesses to effectively treat them like casuals, with the power to increase and decrease workers' hours. Part-time workers in industries that have been hardest hit by the pandemic such as hospitality and retail would be employed on contracts that offer a guarantee of only 16 hours a week, with their employer able to increase their hours without paying any overtime. Workers will be forced into a false choice: accept a contract with minimal guaranteed hours and agree to additional hours at lower pay; or risk losing the job offer or additional hours to one of the over two million people who are currently unemployed or underemployed. This push from the government turns what should be secure well-paid jobs into insecure work, with no guarantee of regular hours or take-home pay.

Despite the removal of the changes to the better off overall test, the government has snuck in changes that could have the very same effect: a suite of changes proposed in this bill would significantly erode workers' rights and undermine the role of unions in the enterprise-bargaining process. The Fair Work Commission won't be required to satisfy itself that an agreement doesn't exclude the minimum National Employment Standards set out in the Fair Work Act. Instead, the bill replaces the safety net with a yet-to-be-seen regulation that will allow employers to provide a model NES interaction term—which will supposedly assure Fair Work that minimum standards are not excluded.

Additionally, employer obligations to provide workers with important information and all documents relating to the agreement are significantly weakened and employers are no longer required to notify workers that they have a right to be represented by their union in negotiations until a month after they begin. This means that workers may not have all the information necessary to make a decision about an agreement, and might not even know that they have access to support until it's too late. The bill also requires the Fair Work Commission to approve agreements within 21 days, a provision which has raised significant concern about pressure to approve or reject agreements without proper scrutiny, resulting in low-quality agreements which actually harm workers.

As if this catalogue of unfairness were not enough, the government has included provisions that prevent unions which haven't been involved in negotiations from making submissions to the Fair Work Commission. This means that unions—the experts in industrial relations—will not be able to scrutinise non-union agreements and work towards improving them.

During the inquiry into this bill, we heard from unions about the working group process up to the bill. Ms Lori-Anne Sharp, assistant federal secretary of the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Foundation, summed it up pretty well when she said:

I was involved in that five-month process, during the lockdown in Melbourne, and we entered it all in very good faith. How disappointed we were to see this legislation, … It seems that the government has gone straight to the hands of the big corporations.

And that is exactly right. The government, as always, has gone straight into the hands of the big corporations.

It appears that while plenty of proposals from business lobbies have made their way into this bill, the recommendations of unions and other labour law experts were summarily dismissed by the government. It's not hard to imagine why. We know why: reforms that would improve workplace entitlements and benefits for workers are not part of the Liberal-National-big-business agenda. I don't think they ever were. Time and time again we have seen big businesses act in their own self-interest at the expense of workers' wages and conditions. However, the government is removing the safety net checks and balances that are designed to protect workers and asking them to trust businesses to do the right thing. This is not a government which has any interest—any interest whatsoever—in supporting good jobs for anyone but the wealthy or the kind of economic recovery which would make life better for everyone in our society. Their interest is in propping up dying industries like coal and gas at the behest of their donors and in securing jobs for themselves—the board directorships and senior executive positions that await them at the other side of their term in this parliament. This government's only true constituency is big business, and this bill is a gift to the corporate interests that bought the Liberal and National parties a long time ago.

A casualised workforce, effectively at the mercy of bosses' wishes to hire and fire, is exactly what corporations and this government are looking for, and that is what this bill will deliver—an insecure workforce with no income security and reduced capacity to organise collectively. It will deliver a more easily exploitable workforce, one which has no choice but to accept bad jobs with bad pay and bad conditions so that people can just get by. The explosion in casual work before and during the pandemic has been a recipe for greater inequality and more stress and angst amongst people and communities.

The pandemic has highlighted the inequality that has been allowed to flourish as a result of insecure work in Australia, and it has supercharged it. Not only is this bill antiworker; it is also racist and sexist. A bill which increases the precarity of casual and part-time workers, reduces collective bargaining power and suppresses wages will be yet another blow to women and migrants, compounding the harm of this government's gendered, racialised and exclusionary responses to the pandemic so far. Just as women and migrant workers have borne the brunt of this pandemic, so too will they suffer because of the provisions of this bill. Already overly represented in the casual and part-time workforce, women and migrant workers are also overrepresented in the lowest-paid sectors of the economy. During the pandemic, women lost their jobs twice as fast as men did, withdrew from higher education at greater rates than men did, were even further loaded with unpaid caring work and, after a brief period of free child care, had that ripped from under them too. Thousands and thousands of migrant workers have been locked out of JobKeeper and JobSeeker due to eligibility requirements. Migrant workers were already vulnerable to exploitation and wage theft. Without the ability to access income support, their situation has become even more precarious. Many have been forced to rely on charity or to try to make ends meet in the gig economy. The danger of unregulated gig work was brought home by the deaths of delivery riders on the job. This bill will only make things worse for the most vulnerable workers in our society.

Before the pandemic, wage growth for all workers was stagnant. Jobs were increasingly insecure and wage theft was rife. Since COVID reared its head, things have only gotten worse. Casual workers were the hardest hit during the pandemic, accounting for two-thirds of people who lost their jobs in early 2020. Casuals who still had a job were amongst the lowest paid and least secure workers, with no access to paid leave entitlements. The labour share of national income has fallen below 50 per cent for the first time since 1959, and corporate profits have soared. Wage growth has fallen to record lows during COVID, and wages have declined in real terms. As lockdowns have ended and businesses have begun to reopen, the proportion of insecure jobs has exploded. Sixty per cent of all jobs that have been created as the economy has started to open up again are casual jobs. Nearly two-thirds of new jobs are part time. Where those part-time jobs are permanent, the government is effectively opening the door to casualising them.

It is impossible to deny the extreme danger to public health posed by insecure work, in the form of both the direct threat to public health in the context of a pandemic and the negative effect on people's psychological, social and economic wellbeing. As we know, the lack of paid leave for casual workers forced people to choose between their health and their income. This government forced people to make an impossible choice between risking contracting COVID by going to work or losing their income and staying home, like we were all instructed to do to keep ourselves and each other safe.

An economic recovery measured solely in terms of how well business is doing will be no recovery at all. An economy is not just numbers cleverly arranged on a spreadsheet. It is not just a series of balance sheets. It is not just the fantasy world of financial markets. The economy is fundamentally about the way our society is organised: how resources, power and the productive and caring work that sustains us are distributed and how that work is compensated. An economy cannot be healthy if it isn't fair and inclusive. If people don't have their basic human needs and rights met, if work isn't meaningful and safe, if people aren't able to be creative and social, because they don't have time or can't afford it, an economy is not functional. The Greens reject the fantasy world the Morrison government lives in, a world where money and price are realistic representations of value and sufficient signifiers of the health of an economy. We recognise the vital importance of social labour and care and the fundamental necessity of making sure everyone's economic and social needs are met. We deserve to have a government determined to help the country grow out of this public health and economic crisis with a more inclusive, safer, secure economy where every worker can honestly look forward to a brighter future.

We should be reducing insecure work, not entrenching it. We need a genuine process for ensuring casual workers have the opportunity to convert to permanent employment if their work is regular and if they would like to, to avoid catastrophes like we have seen throughout the pandemic. At the very least we must ensure casual workers have access to paid pandemic leave, we must ensure that gig economy workers receive the same wages and conditions as any other workers and we must wind back union-busting laws and guarantee the right to strike. We need to shift the balance of power back towards the workers, not more in favour of billionaires.

The Greens want minimum wages, terms and conditions in the Fair Work Act; modern awards or enterprise agreements to apply to gig economy workers; and legislated security of work. Instead, the Morrison government want to take us further down the path of extreme wealth inequality and disempowerment of labour because, like all the neoliberal zealots that came before them, they have no abiding belief in society or community. If the Senate passes this bill, it will be buttressing a nihilistic ideology that sees workers not as people but as wage bills to be minimised and units to be shuffled around to fill shifts and then be discarded. It will send a message to every worker in this country that their lives, their families and their communities aren't important to this chamber. Workers deserve much better than that. The Greens reject this bill and the Greens reject this government.

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