BILLS (Second Reading): Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Closing Loopholes) Bill 2023

15 November 2023

The Albanese Labor Government was elected on a promise to get wages moving. To do that, we had to close loopholes that were undermining wages and conditions, because for 10 years it was the policy of those opposite when they were in government to do the exact opposite, to leave those loopholes gaping and to make sure that wages went nowhere. This is what this set of workplace relations reforms is all about—fixing that. It contains four main elements: cracking down on the labour hire loophole that's used to undercut pay and conditions, criminalising wage theft, properly defining 'casual work' so that casuals aren't being exploited and making sure gig workers aren't being ripped off.

We announced all four of these policies while we were in opposition more than two years ago, and we took them to the Australian people at the election. They endorsed it when they are elected an Albanese Labor Government. But we don't only have a mandate for this legislation; we actually have a responsibility.

These are not radical changes. They're not complicated. If we listen to all the speeches from those opposite, they would have us believe that this is tying the entire economy up in knots. I give our business community a lot more credit than they do. The business community are not stupid. They can deal with these changes that are not complicated and will benefit their workers and, ultimately, the Australian economy, and that means businesses will do better. All we're doing is making the current law work effectively. Closing labour hire loopholes will simply require an employer to pay rates that it has already negotiated and agreed to with its own workers. These are rates of pay that are already set for work being done. They don't have to recalculate, they don't have to change anything, they just have to pay the wages that they agreed to pay. That is not complicated.

Our employee-like reforms simply require workers to have some minimum standards, benchmarked against existing award rates. Those rates are there. They're easy to find, they're well-known right across the business community and they are not hidden in some deep, dark box that will take pages and pages and pages to find. They are there for all the world to see.

Our wage theft reforms will simply strengthen the enforcement of existing rates of pay. Most employers out there don't want to be undercut by bad apples doing the wrong thing. They want an even playing field. and they want to know that they are doing the right thing by their employees without being undercut by dodgy employers.

A new definition of casual employees will clarify what was always intended with casual work , that, if you are working regular and predictable hours, you want to be permanent. You have a pathway available to you to do that. These laws will strengthen current workplace relations framework. It will provide certainty, it will provide fairness and it will provide a level playing field for both businesses and workers.

I've been around the industrial relations are seen for over 30 years of my working life. Hard to believe, I know! I've got to tell you: I've heard it all before. Every time there's any reform to the industrial relations system, I hear it will lower productivity, businesses will close, the pendulum is swinging too far, the sky guy will fall in, it's going to be a disaster. But, do you know what? For over 30 years, it's never happened. Things have gone well, workers have benefited and businesses have benefited.

Casual employment is an issue that is particularly close to my heart. because being employed as a casual is not the Nirvana that many people will have you believe. They say: 'You have the flexibility to work when you want. You can cut your hours. You can do this; you can do that.' Well, I'm telling you it doesn't work like that. It doesn't. Those on that side of the House may never have heard of zero-hour contracts. These exist in our economy. You're employed as a casual, and you are contracted to work zero hours. This means you have to be on call all the time. You can't get another job to prop up your hours, in case your other job calls you in. You can't get a loan. You can't take a holiday, because you may not get enough hours in January or February after you take a Christmas holiday to make up the lost pay. If you work in some institutions, like a TAFE institution, as a casual, you might get employed as a casual from March, the beginning of the academic year, until the end of October, the end of the academic year, and then you are not employed at all over the Christmas period, when the school is out. Sure, everyone says, 'You get leave loading if you're a casual.' Try living on leave loading for four or five months of the year. It's almost impossible, and it's incredibly stressful because you don't know—you really don't know—if you're going to be picked up again in March.

If you're employed as a casual, I'm here to tell you that you don't have any power. It's nice to think that you did, that you could pick and choose your shifts.

You just can't. I was talking to one young man who worked on the docks, on the wharves. He told me he was at the beck and call of his employer. For his girlfriend's birthday, he told his employer that he was unavailable for a long weekend so he could take her camping. He was penalised for that. He didn't get any shifts for a whole month, and they let him know that that was why. Try renting a house and say that you are casually employed. Try getting a car loan. Life is tough. You miss Christmas Day. You miss sporting events with your kids because you have to take that shift just in case there's not another shift. I've heard people tell me they sit by the phone panicking, hoping, waiting for a call to say that they're going to get a shift. That is not a good life. It simply isn't. So we are closing the loophole that leaves people stuck, classified as casuals, even though they work permanent regular hours. It means they can get a job like any permanent employee and all the benefits of job security. We're going to legislate a fair, objective definition to determine when an employee can be classified as a casual.

I did hear some speakers on the other side of the House and on the crossbench say, 'One big thing we're worried about is that the unions are going to come in and force all the employees to be made permanent, and this is going to be terrible and a disaster.' That is just rubbish. That is not true. This can only happen if the employee wants it to happen. No-one will be forced to do anything that they don't want to do.

I understand the need to have casual workers. I come from a small-business family. We were publicans. I know that you cannot know, 'Are we going to have a special function on Saturday night where we're going to have 300 people, or are we not?' I understand the need for a casual workforce and the role it plays in those industries. But there's still a place for people to be permanent. We always employed a core group of permanent people in our pub. Cooks, managers, cleaners, deputy managers or a 2IC—there were always people there all the time that ran the business while the rest of the staff were casual. We get it. But there are so many instances you hear of where people work even five days a week, 52 weeks a year, and they're still casual, without all the benefits of being permanent. So we are going to fix that, and I think that that is a good thing.

On closing the labour hire loophole, again, labour hire has legitimate uses in providing surge and specialist workforces. We know that will continue to be the case, and that's a good thing. There are some good labour hire companies out there. But some companies use labour hire firms to undermine the hard-fought-for wages and conditions of the permanent workforce. You might have two workers working side-by-side doing exactly the same job, with one getting paid a considerable amount less than the other one. We've seen this across lots of industries. I personally have experienced it in my work with the union movement in the aviation industry. The minute an EBA was struck, that particular company disappeared, another labour hire firm would appear and the entire workforce would be moved across on lower wages and conditions. That is not fair, and that is a loophole that we are going to close, because this will give powers to the Fair Work Commission to make orders that labour hire employees be paid at least the wages in a host's enterprise agreement. That is not complicated. That is not hard. It will not reduce productivity. In fact, I could almost guarantee that it will increase productivity, because people will feel valued and they will want to do a good job. It's fair and it's right. If you can run a business, you can understand this. I think it will be well received.

In relation to minimum standards for employee-like workers in the gig economy, our government will extend the powers of the Fair Work Commission to include employee-like forms of work, allowing it to better protect people in this new and emerging form, the platform economy or the gig economy, where people, we know—everybody knows and everybody accepts—are being exploited and they are not being paid minimum standards. We're going to let them continue to work. We're not telling anyone they can't work as a gig worker. We're just going to say that they can have a decent floor of conditions, like any other worker in this country. As the minister says, we are living in the 21st century, and we do not like people to be employed under 19th-century conditions. Again, it will be through the Fair Work Commission, who will be able to set minimum standards for employee-like workers, including in the gig economy. I think that is absolutely a good thing. The bill provides a non-exhaustive list of content that minimum standard orders can cover, including payment terms, deductions, insurance—which is incredibly important—and cost recovery. That will not affect the business in any huge way, shape or form.

Finally, we are going to criminalise wage theft. This is so important, and I cannot believe that those opposite would not support this. We all know—and we've all heard it here from speaker after speaker—that if a worker steals from the till it's a criminal offence, but in many parts of Australia if an employer steals from a worker's pay packet it is not. We have heard terrible stories. You may remember the 7-Eleven scandal, where workers were actually taken to the ATM and made to withdraw money from their own bank accounts and give it to their employers. It was that blatant. But in a lot of other ways wage theft is much more subtle. It is simply underpaying, cash in hand, under the counter or not paying entitlements. My own stepdaughter found, after she left a job, that not a single cent of her superannuation had been paid into her superannuation account—not one single cent. She had zero superannuation after working there for so long, despite the fact that her pay packet said it was going in. I honestly don't think that to this day she has recovered that money. That is theft, and it shouldn't happen. Business owners who knowingly withhold wages should face the harshest penalties.

We must also ensure our new laws do not water down any wage theft laws already put in place by the states, so we are looking at that. The Labor governments in Victoria and Queensland criminalised wage theft because they got sick of waiting for previous federal governments to act on this. Australia does need a national wage theft system to end the rip-offs, and we're determined to deliver on our promise to Australian workers and make wage theft a crime.

I am very proud of these reforms. I think they show workers in this country that we are absolutely serious when it comes to their rights, to their standard of living and to making sure that they are treated with the respect they deserve in the workplace. I've got to say that when I heard the minister stand up and make the very first speech that introduced this bill I nearly cried. As someone sitting in the chamber, I had not heard a minister stand in this chamber and make a speech like that. He talked about workers' rights and he proudly talked about our connection with trade unions, who do an incredible job for workers in this country. He proudly said that this government, an Albanese Labor Government, is going to make the world a better place for our workers and ensure they get the respect, dignity and pay they deserve.