18 February 2021

I rise to make my contribution to the debate on the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020. It's as simple as this: workers will be worse off. The casualisation of the workforce does not create more secure jobs. As stated in the explanatory memorandum, this bill will help employees engaged as casual employees who work regularly to become ongoing employees if that is their preference. While the Attorney-General can call it an important right for workers, the fact is that workers will have fewer rights and these rights will be filled with qualifications.

The new amendment to the Fair Work Act states that an employer must offer full-time employment to the employee, the employee must also be employed with that business for at least 12 months, and must have worked at least six months on an ongoing basis. These changes may be subtle, yet the underlying issues are written between the lines. An employee must complete 12 months of service. However, an employee would be working permanent full-time hours up to a year and still be labelled as a casual employee under this legislation. That doesn't give any power to the employee. The employee must also work on a regular pattern of hours on an ongoing basis, but most employees don't have control over the hours they work. Therefore, it is the employer who is in control of the so-called regular pattern of hours on an ongoing basis. Also, the employee must work these regular hours on an ongoing basis without 'significant adjustment'. This allows the employer to easily declare that workloads will be changing, therefore constituting a significant adjustment. This again does not give the employee more rights or power. Perhaps the government has mixed up the words 'employer' and 'employee' in this relationship. The employer is clearly benefiting, which is odd because the Attorney-General continually says that it's the employee who will be better off.

The government and the Attorney-General can spin words all they like, but the facts are that, under the coalition government of the past seven years, there has been a history of stagnating real wages, higher cost of living and more insecure work. Real wages in Australia were almost one per cent lower in 2019 compared to 2013. In 2019, Australia sat in third-last place out of 35 OECD countries for wage growth. Australia's record on real wages sits well behind those of comparable economies like Germany, Korea, Sweden, Denmark and the United States. And now the government is making the insecurity, inequality and wage stagnation even worse. This restricts a lot of Australians from achieving their goal. A goal for many people in Australia is owning a home. That goal is becoming increasingly unobtainable, largely due to stagnating wages and wealth insecurity. And, if you're working casually, you certainly can't get a housing loan. According to the OECD, Australia is the third most unaffordable housing market within the OECD, because house prices have risen much faster than Australia's income. Wage growth has not yet kept up with the cost of living. Increasingly, inequality has allowed the well-off to drive up property prices, while Australians are facing declines in wages and more insecure part-time employment. Therefore, affordable housing is harder than ever to find, which should not be surprising, as we're in the middle of the lowest sustained wage growth since World War II. Taking power from employees and casualising the workforce will lead to even harsher statistics, and that is a national disgrace.

In Werriwa, 23 per cent of the workforce is already without paid leave entitlements, 16 per cent identify as a casual worker and 35 per cent of all workers do not have guaranteed hours each week. Industries such as retail, health care, social assistance, transport, postal and warehousing are at the highest risk of being affected. These industries represent one-third of employment in Werriwa. Over 60,000 workers will be worse off; over 60,000 people will have their jobs, conditions and job security attacked. Tragically, that is the minimum number of workers in Werriwa who will have their jobs effected. Accommodation, food services, arts, recreation services and administration and support services are among the top five industries whose workers in Australia already work without paid leave entitlements. These workers are being forced into casual work—not permanent, not secure.

Automation is a major challenge for many industries. In Smeaton Grange, Coles is automating its workers out of a job and plans to shut down the warehouse within the next three years. After a 24-hour strike in November last year, Coles have indefinitely locked out their 350 warehouse workers at the distribution centre, with no sympathy for their workers or their workers' families. These workers were the ones keeping the supermarket shelves stocked throughout the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, while Coles experienced more than a seven per cent increase in their profits, with net profits equalling almost $1 billion. Their workers lost their income over Christmas, meaning children missed out because their parents were locked out.

Workers all across Australia need work that will come with protections, protections such as sick leave, family leave, annual leave, penalty rates and work transition packages for jobs that won't exist in the near future as the world changes around us. You can't raise a family, buy a home or build for the future if you do not have a secure job with these protections. This legislation does not provide a means to deliver secure jobs with decent pay. The reality is that the Australian economy was not in a good state prior to the pandemic. The growth of insecure work and wage stagnation were major issues for Australian workers. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed this fact. Too many people in this country work in low-paid, insecure appointment. That includes casuals, contractors, freelancers, labour hire workers and gig workers. These workers were vulnerable. They were the first to be hit by the pandemic. They were the ones who could least afford it. These workers were on edge and the pandemic pushed them over.

The issue doesn't fully lie with COVID-19 and nor should the blame. These workers knew they were vulnerable before the pandemic, as did the government; however, the government did nothing to help these workers. COVID-19 has now presented an opportunity to learn from neglecting low wages and insecure work and the issues those interdependent problems create, but this government has done the opposite with this legislation. It is making it easier for businesses to employ people as casuals even when they work like permanent workers makes employees worse off. Changes to part-time work that will effectively end up casualising it makes employees worse off. And, in aged care, where people need to work in a number of settings to make ends meet, this has caused so many issues for both them as workers and the people that they look after.

Allowing enterprise agreements to not have the better off overall test for two years or longer makes employees worse off. Letting businesses cut wages and conditions by allowing agreements to cut penalty rates, shift allowance and other entitlements makes employees worse off. This is the Prime Minister's and the Attorney-General's answer to the twin problems of insecure and low-paid work: casualising essential workers who carried Australia through the pandemic. Childcare workers, aged-care staff, cleaners, supermarket workers, truck drivers and other essential workers on the front line put themselves at risk to keep our economy going and keep us safe. Now they are facing a pay cut and fewer rights. The last time the government cut penalty rates for retail, fast food, pharmacy and hospitality workers, it failed to deliver a single extra job. Are Australians expected to believe that cutting more penalty rates, cutting overtime, cutting shift loading and cutting allowances will create jobs? What would be different this time?

The legislation fails Australian workers. Fair wages and good working conditions are staples of a functioning society. Neglecting the issues of insecure work and low wages is bad enough, but pairing these issues is inexcusable. For Australia to recover from the COVID recession, we need people to have a secure income and the confidence to spend money back into the economy. Secure work, fair wages and good work conditions is a foundation for that confidence. Allowing employers to pursue wage reduction strategies will not create confidence. People will continue to be too afraid to buy things, because they can only just make ends meet.

This is why Labor will legislate job security as a key objective of the Fair Work Act, which will bring job security to the forefront of decisions made about rights at work. Labor will define what an employee is and ensure that all workers have access to employee protections and entitlements that are currently denied to them. Labor will restore the Fair Work Commission to the centre of workplace relations. Labor will limit the number of consecutive fixed-term contracts an employer can offer for the same role. Australian families deserve better. Australian workers deserve better. They deserve protection, good conditions and fair pay. This government wants to take that away. It is not on your side. Under Labor, workers will not be left behind.