I rise on behalf of the Greens to speak on the Economic Recovery Package (JobMaker Hiring Credit) Amendment Bill 2020. Everyone has a right to a liveable income and a right to a safe, secure and meaningful job that pays them decent wages to live a good life. Even before the pandemic, we should have been really concerned about unemployment in Australia. In March 2020, the national unemployment rate was 5.2 per cent and was even higher for young people, at 11.6 per cent. The underemployment crisis has been one which has been hidden for far too long. The underemployment rate was even worse at 8.8 per cent nationally. It was above 10 per cent for women of working age and 19.1 per cent for young people.
Insecure jobs have plagued workers in Australia for far too long. The role that casualised and precarious work played in the devastating second wave of COVID-19 in Victoria should have been a wake-up call for the Morrison government. COVID-19 also brought to the fore the struggles of casual workers. Instead of a real plan to create a fair, sustainable economy, we have been presented with a plan for an unambitious unemployment rate of six per cent and the JobMaker hiring credit. That's a plan for nearly two million Australians to be unemployed and underemployed, with no assurance of adequate social security payments to enable them to live with dignity. It's a corporate welfare scheme with no promise of creating good, secure, well-paying jobs, just as the government is ripping the social safety net out from under people by cutting JobSeeker and withdrawing JobKeeper. And let's not forget that there was absolutely no support provided to international students and others on temporary visas who continue to suffer and continue to struggle.
If the government's plan is for the economy to have two million unemployed and underemployed people, it is the government's responsibility to take care of them. If the government wants everyone to have a job, they should create enough good jobs for everyone to have one if they want one. The JobMaker hiring credit policy is a recipe for churning vulnerable young people through low-paid, dead-end jobs and funnelling massive amounts of money to business, including huge multinationals like McDonald's and Coles, who have been embroiled in wage theft.
The government says that they want to help young people, but churning young people through short-term, low-paid, exploitative jobs over and over again doesn't help them. This is nothing short of demoralising and confidence-shattering for them just to be seen as an economic unit. Those without a job or enough of a job will just have to struggle.
As I have said before in this place, out of the devastation of the pandemic, we have an opportunity to build a better world. We have the power to end the inequality, poverty and precarity that we have seen flourish over the last few decades. If we only choose to do so, we can create a society and an economy that works to care for our people and our planet. If we want to help people get back to work—into really meaningful, good, safe work—we need to put the needs of the unemployed, the underemployed and the precariously employed people at the centre of our response to this crisis. During the recent Senate committee inquiry into this bill, I had the opportunity to hear from the Australian Unemployed Workers Union. I think they summed up the situation perfectly. This is what they had to say:
The hiring credit will make bad worse: what we desperately need is a program that responds to actual problems with structural solutions.
… … …
This crisis can't be fixed by punishing us with cuts to income support or a hiring subsidy bandaid.
… … …
The dramatic reshaping of the economy gives the government an opportunity to invest in communities and people so that we're all supported and fairly rewarded for our contributions. We're the people hurt by the lack of jobs and that's why we're grateful to the committee for including us today. We're here to make sure the policies that are supposed to help us actually do.
The Economic Recovery Package (JobMaker Hiring Credit) Amendment Bill 2020 will establish a scheme the government claims will create and improve employment opportunities in Australia. However, it lacks important details and protections for workers, gives enormous power to the minister, locks in insecure and low-paid jobs for young people and would allow big business to use public money to bolster their profits under the guise of a wage subsidy. The Greens have serious concerns about this bill, and I will move amendments in the Senate to try and address some of them.
This bill grants very broad powers to the minister to hand out public money to employers, and not much else. The bill doesn't actually establish the JobMaker hiring credit scheme itself. It doesn't provide a single detail about the scheme nor does it detail the eligibility criteria. Instead, it delegates power to the minister to establish an unlimited number of publicly funded wage subsidy schemes until 6 October 2022, with the only criteria being that they improve the prospects of individuals getting employment in Australia or increase workforce participation in Australia.
We do not support the JobMaker hiring credit scheme's being established by the minister effectively solely through regulations, nor do we support the broad and unrestricted powers proposed to be granted to the minister in this bill. The JobMaker hiring credit should be created through legislation and be subject to parliamentary scrutiny and amendment. That's why we will be supporting Senator Patrick's amendment, to bring the rules as they are currently drafted in the exposure draft into the legislation. And, even though these might be changes that could further be changed, we support the intention of this amendment to return parliamentary oversight to the scheme.
Throughout the pandemic we have seen workers suffer, losing their jobs and their income. Perversely and obscenely while workers are doing it tough we have seen some of Australia's biggest companies increase their profits and pay out even bigger executive bonuses and higher dividends to shareholders. In August it was revealed that the publicly funded JobKeeper wage subsidy was being used to prop up company profits. Seventeen of Australia's top companies paid $250 million in dividends while also receiving JobKeeper. Under the proposed JobMaker rules, there is nothing stopping big businesses abusing the hiring credit in the same way. Wage subsidies should subsidise wages, not corporate profits and higher dividends for shareholders.
Analysis shows that the JobMaker scheme will significantly benefit high-performing businesses, such as supermarkets and large fast-food companies—that is, giant corporate outfits notorious for exploiting and underpaying their younger casualised workers. Perhaps recognising how toxic using the hiring credit could be for their brand, supermarket giant Woolworths used their submission to the recent committee inquiry to deal themselves out of the scheme.
During the committee hearings the executive director of Per Capita, Emma Dawson, in response to a question from me, shared concerns about companies paying dividends receiving the credit. She stated:
… certainly before taxpayers are asked to pick up the bill for labour for companies, that should be taken from profits in the first instance.
… … …
I disagree most strongly—any company that is able to pay either dividends to shareholders or executive bonuses should be excluded from taxpayer support.
Companies that have paid increased dividends during the pandemic should not be eligible for the JobMaker hiring credit, and I will move amendments to ensure this.
Many big businesses eligible for the JobMaker hiring credit scheme have a history of facing claims of underpaying and exploiting their workers. Coles saw a 7.1 per cent increase in net profit to nearly $1 billion in 2020, and in November announced that it was in a stronger position than pre pandemic, despite having previously announced underpaying workers by $20 million. McDonald's is currently facing a potential class action after denying hundreds of thousands of workers paid rest breaks. Super Retail Group admitted to underpaying their workers up to $61 million. Qantas was recently found to have underpaid its workers with respect to the JobKeeper payment. I am deeply concerned that this bill does not contain any provisions that revoke eligibility for businesses who are found to be underpaying their workers. Our concern is shared by a number of stakeholders. During the committee hearing, ACTU president Michele O'Neil told us:
If there is an abuse of the scheme where there have been underpayments, breaches in health and safety provisions et cetera, that should render the employer ineligible for the scheme.
The Australian Unemployed Workers Union recommended that public funds should not subsidise companies that have breached workers' rights, including businesses who have underpaid their workers. The AUWU recommend that businesses found to have engaged in such activity during the JobMaker hiring credit scheme or in the two years prior to receiving funds under the scheme be required to pay back all money received. I will be moving amendments to ensure that businesses will not be eligible to receive the JobMaker hiring credit if they are found to be underpaying their workers and will be required to repay the total amount received under the scheme.
The bill also fails to provide a dispute resolution process for any issues relating to the JobMaker hiring credit, including for workers who have been fired or have had their hours reduced. Treasury has suggested that existing protections for workers, such as unfair-dismissal provisions in the Fair Work Act, should ameliorate concerns about this. However, a minimum employment period of six months or 12 months in small businesses is required for workers to be able to claim unfair dismissal, and this requirement leaves many workers behind and without access to necessary protections. During the committee hearing, Treasury referred to the hotline set up by the ATO to deal with concerns relating to the JobKeeper scheme, and suggested that such a system might be established again for the JobMaker scheme. This is insufficient and will not adequately deal with disputes or protect workers. I will be moving amendments to deal with those issues.
I hold deep concerns about workers losing their jobs or losing hours as a result of this scheme. A business that fires workers or reduces workers' hours in order to exploit the hiring credit should be ineligible for the scheme. Again, the Greens will be moving amendments to that effect. We know that the primary motivation of a corporation is to maximise profits for its shareholders. This is one of the most fundamental goals of private enterprise. If a business is able to fiddle with its staffing structure to increase its head count and its payroll, and thereby make more money through the hiring credit, it will do so. At a time when it's hard enough for so many underemployed workers to sustain themselves, the prospect of lost hours just so big business can pay out bigger dividends and bonuses is unacceptable. It is unacceptable for the government to open up workers and households to this risk. There must be safeguards for workers' jobs and hours in primary legislation.
Instead of creating flawed schemes like the JobMaker hiring credit, the government should be directly investing in well-paid, secure public sector jobs to build a better, safer, fairer and sustainable post-pandemic society and economy. A responsible Commonwealth government would work with people and communities to lead the transition to 100 per cent renewable energy as soon as possible to mitigate the climate catastrophe that we are staring down. It would boost our investment in the caring economy to create enough jobs to meet demand for services and ensure that people doing essential labour in education, in child care, in health and in community services are not overstretched and underpaid. It would invest massively in public housing so that everyone has a safe, secure and affordable place to call home. It would revitalise Australian research and development and green manufacturing to help sculpt the economy and the future. It would create jobs to revive and rehabilitate our precious environment. The government do have a choice here: they can invest in public service and secure long-term jobs or keep perpetuating precarious work, which hurts people. They are choosing to do the latter with this bill.
This bill should not be passed without amendments. It will make things worse. There is so much work to be done to create a decent world for everyone. The government should help do that work, not waste public money on corporate welfare and on jobs that won't be secure and might not even come to be.