18 February 2021

 Labor gave the government a very simple test for this legislation. We wanted it to provide secure jobs and decent pay. Well, it fails that test; it fails it dismally. Part of failing that test, as we argued, was their intent to weaken the better off overall test. They have said they will amend the bill with regards to weakening better off overall test because, let's face it, if you weaken a better off overall test, then people are not going to be better off overall. They have said they will think about amending it. They said they were going to do this not because it would make the bill fairer, which is why you'd think they would do it, nor because it would make life better and people would actually be better off overall. No, they have said they're going to do this because it is pragmatic. It is an act of pragmatism.

 

I'm sure every worker out there will be thrilled to know that their government, the law makers of this country are basing their legislative changes on pragmatism, not on good, decent legislation that will make peoples' lives better. Pragmatic or not, removing those provisions will not make this bill acceptable in any way. Yesterday, we heard the Prime Minister absolutely refuse to guarantee that this legislation will not guarantee that workers will be better off. He would not say that no worker will be worse off. He weasel-worded his way around the issue, conflating job security with job creation.

 

When I was president of the ACTU I ran an inquiry into the scourge of insecure work because we believed that while you could create jobs, not every job was a decent job. It's not a decent job if it doesn't give you the dignity of decent pay. It's not a decent job if it doesn't ensure secure income week to week, month to month. We have seen the rise in Australia of insecure work, and that inquiry that we ran at the ACTU showed just how perilous insecure work is. Casualisation is part of it, yes, but there are also private contractors, short-term contracts, zero-hour contracts, single-client contracts for tradies. I don't know if anyone on that side of the House could actually know what it's like to have to try to live a life of insecurity, a life of anxiety, but that's what insecure work delivers for a large proportion of our workforce.

 

The ACTU inquiry uncovered an underbelly of our workforce that live incredibly anxious lives. I would like to share with the House some examples of what it's like to live with insecure work. One woman who gave evidence to the inquiry was a piece worker. Now piece workers receive pieces of material from companies that they then have to sew and put together and make garments. This worker, Mrs Phan, told us she got paid a pittance in terms of what these dresses and clothing items that she made were actually sold for in the shops. Sometimes it was hundreds of dollars difference for a single item. She was set KPIs to make them. If she didn't meet those KPIs she wouldn't get paid. If she made a mistake, she would be charged, she would be penalised the retail price of that garment—not the minuscule hourly rate that she was being paid for making that garment. She told us that sometimes, to meet the KPIs, she would work all night, she would sew all night, until she was exhausted. When the commissioners asked her how did she get the strength and the energy to do that, do you know what she said? She said the thing that drives her is fear—fear of not getting paid, fear of not making those KPIs. The driver behind her work was fear.

 

We heard stories from people who worked for cable TV installers who once would have been employees with sick pay, holiday pay, with all the benefits that come from a good job. But they were sold a story of becoming a self-employer, of getting your own ABN, having your own life and being flexible. 'Life could be a pleasure.' 'You could work when you wanted to.' But they were sold a story that wasn't true. A lot of these tradies told me they had to borrow money from the company to buy the truck and all the equipment to put the cable TVs up. They only had one client, and that client set terrible contracts for them, cruel contracts where they had to meet daily KPIs—again—for the number of things they installed. If they didn't meet those, they didn't get paid. If they were sick, they would have to find somebody else to do their workload for that day. They would get harsh penalties. There were harsh penalties for wanting to get out of the contract, so they were stuck. Their lives were anything but better. I know such contractors aren't covered by this legislation, but I am trying to paint for this House what life is like out there for a huge proportion of our workforce in insecure work.

 

University lecturers who've signed hundreds of contracts throughout their lives never once being offered permanent tenure. TAFE workers who get employed from March to the end of October, which is the academic year, never being able to accrue entitlements like sick leave and holiday pay and even maternity leave. Call centre workers who once used to be employed but were sacked and then offered their jobs back, exactly the same jobs, but they would have to rent the desk, rent the phone, rent the computer and all the equipment that once was provided as part of a good, secure job. Of course they got no superannuation, no sick leave, no paid holidays. Or not being able to say no to a shift as a casual worker because you're frightened you won't get a shift next week. This means you have to work whenever the boss offers you a job; you're sitting by the phone waiting for that call. You miss out on birthday parties. You miss out on your kids' sporting events. You miss out on family gatherings. You miss birthdays, because you're too scared to say no to a shift. I had one young man tell me that he took his girlfriend away for a weekend for her birthday. He said no to some shifts and, consequently, he didn't receive any shifts from his employer for a whole month, purely as a punitive measure. This is what life is like when you have insecure work. You sometimes have to work three jobs just to make a living. There are such things as zero-hour contracts in this country where you can't get three jobs because you sign a contract to say you will wait for a shift to come from that one employer, a shift that may or may not come. You can't get a loan for a car. For many people, if you don't have a car, you don't have a job. And then of course there is the gig economy.

 

Insecure work is a scourge. For many, it is designed to keep workers compliant, scared to speak up about unsafe conditions, about sexual harassment, about wage theft, about unpaid overtime. I have been telling these things here today to paint a picture of a serious underbelly of insecure workers in our workforce out there. This bill, the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020, does nothing to secure work for anyone. It does not fix the casualisation issues. It certainly does not address other forms of insecure work. In fact, it makes it easier to employ people as casuals. The details have been explained very clearly by the shadow minister, the member for Watson, and many other speakers who have spoken to this bill today. So I won't spend time going through the details. But I have spent my whole career fighting alongside workers for their rights, for decent pay and conditions. I became a job rep for the nurses' union as a very young nurse. I actually held honorary positions for the nurses' union, the ANF, now called the ANNF, as president of the Victorian branch and as federal president, and then I held a full-time position as federal secretary of that great union. I then was ACTU president, and here I am in this House still fighting for workers' rights; and it beggars belief that we are still fighting over similar things

 

This government has form when it comes to attacking workers' rights, when it comes to attacking their pay, their conditions and their bargaining rights. This is in its DNA. So this bill is no surprise to anyone. It's no surprise to us. It certainly isn't any surprise to so many hardworking Australians who have had to fight for their rights time and time again because of this government, whether it was Work Choices—remember Work Choices?—whether it was cutting low-paid workers' penalty rates—if you ask, 'Where are those thousands of jobs that cutting penalty rates was supposed to create?' the answer is that they're nowhere—whether it was the so-called, weasel-word-entitled ensuring integrity bill, which tried to cut the right to organise to maintain pay conditions, whether it was leaving workers in key industries out of JobKeeper or whether it was cutting superannuation increases. That is a short list. I could go on forever.

 

The government have said that they will amend this bill, but after the amendment it will still fail the test. It doesn't create secure jobs and it doesn't ensure decent pay. It makes 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, it allows wage cuts, it takes rights away from blue-collar workers on big projects and it weakens wage theft punishments in jurisdictions where wage theft was already deemed a criminal act, as in my state, Victoria. The Minister for Industrial Relations can pop some lippy on this legislation if he likes, but it is still a pig of a bill. We will not support this bill. We stand up for workers, for workers' rights and for decent jobs.