Morrison Government’s (Un)Fair Work Act

Published on Tue 23 February 2021 12:21pm

We have to look at these changes in the broader context that we’ve faced in Australia over the last 10 years and certainly in Australia over the last eight years under this government. The government have sought to undermine workers’ pay and conditions at every turn, and they have been successful. They have been successful in undermining pay and conditions at every turn. They have presided over stagnant or falling real wages. That is a fact. Wages in Australia as a share of national income have fallen to a historic low. In fact, as a share of national income, wages have dropped below 50 per cent for the first time since 1959.

Mr Wilson (12:21pm) — That was a rare contribution by the member for Bonner! I rise to speak on the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia’s Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020, which I don’t support and Labor doesn’t support—and I will make some remarks to that effect—and in support of the second reading amendment moved by the member for Watson. Labor people have come into the chamber over the last day-and-a-half to talk about what is a very significant piece of legislation because it doesn’t create more secure work or fairer wages at a time when we need both of those things. That’s what a responsible government would do, and this bill fails. It fails to create more secure work and fairer wages. In fact, it does the reverse.

It was interesting to hear the member for Bonner speak on this bill, particularly his final comments about a unicorns-and-rainbows version of life in which this bill would help people to grow their careers and aspire to families, mortgages and various other things. I’ll just pick up some of the points mentioned. The member for Bonner talked about enabling people to get more hours. How does this bill enable people to get more hours? It does so by allowing an employer to offer more hours on the basis that the worker isn’t paid overtime. That’s how it works. An employer could say to somebody, ‘You can work more hours if you like, on the basis that you don’t receive the overtime that you’re currently entitled to.’ Of course, the worker may well say, ‘I don’t want to work those extra hours on that basis,’ or the employer may simply look for workers within their organisation who are interested. But what’s the effect of that? It means that the overtime people are currently entitled to isn’t paid. Is that going to help someone grow their career or receive higher wages? No. It will do exactly the reverse.

What about the casual conversion—how does that work? First of all, the employer makes the decision at the outset that you are a casual. They effectively make that decision unilaterally, and that’s what you will be for at least 12 months, irrespective of whether or not you work a regular pattern. Then, at the end of that time, there’s the opportunity for the employee to seek to be converted to permanent employment. But the employer can deny that request on the basis of reasonable grounds, which are not very well defined. That could simply mean that the employer doesn’t think that kind of work will exist in future and therefore denies that request.

But what kind of recourse does an insecure worker, a casual worker, who can be terminated relatively easily, have at that point in time? They can’t go off to arbitration. They would have to go to the Federal Court. How many casual employees in Australia, having made a request to be converted from casual to permanent employment, have been told: ‘No, I’m sorry. I can’t go along with that. I have reasonable grounds that I will keep to myself for not allowing you to make that conversion’? How is a casual worker realistically going to trot off to the courts in order to have that remedied? It is just ridiculous.

The government, in essence—and people listening to this at home should hold onto this fact—will get away with whatever it can get away with. That’s a recurrent theme of the government. They will certainly do that in the IR space when it comes to wages and working conditions. A pandemic ought to be a time in which we look at workplace conditions, employment, pay and all of the other things that make up what has been Australia’s approach to working life and recognise some of the shortcomings that exist and recognise some of the new challenges, like people in the gig economy. It’s an opportunity to take hold of those things and make changes that are for the broad economic and social benefit of the community. But what the government will do in these circumstances—and they have done it before—is take a time of crisis and instability and use that as the basis to tilt the wheel further away from egalitarianism in this country and return to their old hobbyhorses.

We can see that in the way this bill has arrived here. The member for Bonner made quite a show of the consultation process. The government created, or confected, a set of meetings and discussions to make a show of how everyone was being engaged—’We don’t want to have the adversarial approach of the past; we want to get employers and unions together in the same room.’ But, at the end of the day, when the bill came forward, the substance of the bill, as you would expect from this government, is heavily weighted towards the interests of big corporations and large employers and fails to pick up many of the concerns that the unions put forward.

The intention of the government in making work less secure and holding wages down was clear with respect to the better off overall test. They wanted to get rid of the better off overall test. That was clear. They then spent some time pretending that that wasn’t what they were trying to do, pretending that that wasn’t actually in the text of the bill. When that didn’t work any longer, when people were holding the page from the bill up in front of them to say, ‘This is the part of your legislation that gets rid of the better off overall test,’ they finally decided that they would use that as some kind of sacrificial change that they could make to then claim that the rest of the bill ought to be supported because it didn’t do some of those things in other ways, which it of course did.

We have to look at these changes in the broader context that we’ve faced in Australia over the last 10 years and certainly in Australia over the last eight years under this government. The government have sought to undermine workers’ pay and conditions at every turn, and they have been successful. They have been successful in undermining pay and conditions at every turn. They have presided over stagnant or falling real wages. That is a fact. Wages in Australia as a share of national income have fallen to a historic low. In fact, as a share of national income, wages have dropped below 50 per cent for the first time since 1959. So, for the first time in 61 years, wages as a share of national income have fallen below 50 per cent as a result of the fact that real wages in the economy have been flat as a tack or falling in real terms under this government.

We’ve seen a complete disconnection of wages from profit and productivity. Profit in parts of the economy has been really strong, and yet wages have not followed profit. Productivity in parts of the economy has been relatively strong, and yet wages have not followed those productivity gains. What we are told by the government is that, when companies do well, workers benefit and, when productivity gains are delivered, workers benefit. That’s not what has happened under this government, and yet nobody will come in here and speak to this bill and explain those things. They are not matters of interpretation.

You can’t look at the fact that wages have fallen below 50 per cent of the economy for the first time in 61 years and say, ‘That’s a matter of interpretation.’ It’s a matter of fact that the government should come into this place and account for.

Those outcomes—falling real wages—are no accident. How do you create falling real wages? Well, you get rid of penalty rates; that’s one thing. You stand by and let penalty rates disappear for some of the lowest-paid workers in Australia. You talk down wage rises; you argue against minimum wage rises at every opportunity. You attack unions; you demonise and attack unions’ reputations and you restrict their ability to represent workers at every occasion. All of those things are designed to achieve lower wages for working Australians. So the fact that we’ve had eight years of stagnant wages and that the wage share of the economy has fallen at a time when there have been productivity and profit rises is no accident. It’s as the former finance minister admitted—acknowledged—that it’s a design feature of the economic management of this government.

We’ve also seen the growth in insecure work. The government says that their all day every day focus is on creating jobs. We know that through this pandemic 60 per cent of the jobs created since May have been casual jobs. That was described by the Centre for Future Work as by far the biggest expansion of casual employment in Australia’s history. And it’s another ingredient in this government’s recipe for low wages: less secure work and people unable to bargain.

Members on that side—not all of them—don’t seem to understand that. Perhaps their experience hasn’t allowed them to see that. Perhaps their experience has been one in which they are a price maker and not a price taker. Perhaps they’ve been in the business or corporate world, where they go in and have a conversation with someone about what they would like to get paid—everybody is basically around the table, asking: ‘You’ve done well, do you want to pay rise? You should get a bonus.’ That’s fine if you’re in that sort of circumstance, but the people who we’re talking about and who everyone in this place should be concerned about—who the government should be concerned about—are the people at the bottom. They never have those negotiations. They get told what they’ll get paid and, if they don’t like it, they get moved on. That’s the nature of casual employment. It’s grown under this government, and nothing that they’re doing in this bill addresses that.

In fact, as I said already, there’s a relatively hollow gesture in terms of casual conversion and there’s an extension of the flexible work directions, which will just enable more of that flexibility. ‘Flexibility’ is the euphemism for insecurity. Flexibility means that workers have fewer rights, less security, less certainty and an inability to assert their own rights and interests. What does that flow through to? Lower wages; stagnant wages at best and falling real wages at worst. That’s what’s happened over the last eight years.

The government said that we needed flexible work directions at the beginning of the pandemic so that JobKeeper could operate. Labor was prepared to be constructive about that because it made a certain amount of sense. Then, as the economy improved to some degree and some entities came off JobKeeper, we were told that we needed to extend those flexible work directions to enable those entities which were transitioning from JobKeeper. We gave that some consideration and there was probably a bit of an argument for that. But what does this bill do? This bill takes those flexible work directions and extends them to every entity, even to entities which never needed JobKeeper—entities like Harvey Norman, which have seen their profits go up 160 per cent. They’re now getting the benefit of flexible work directions. What do those flexible work directions enable? They enable employers to treat employees in a high-handed way which undermines their security and undermines their ability to be paid properly.

What else does the bill do? The bill undermines the role of unions. Unions will no longer be able to assist the Fair Work Commission in scrutinising non-union agreements that fall short of national standards. Why would you do that unless you have a philosophical and deep-seated antipathy towards unions? It means, in turn, that you don’t understand the fundamental power imbalance between an individual employee and an employer. If people on that side of the House can’t hold on to that in modern Australia, where have we come to?

It’s the bedrock of our egalitarian way of life to recognise that an employee, by themselves, is in no position to have their interests respected and the value of their work properly reflected in an agreement that is negotiated between parties of starkly unequal power. That’s what collective bargaining is all about, yet this government runs it down at every turn.

We can’t accept this bill, because it’s essentially using the circumstances of the pandemic to turn the wheel further away from those who have the least. That is unconscionable. It is unconscionable, especially at a time when we’re trying to recover from a pandemic, that the government does a whole series of things that make life harder for casual employees, for the unions that represent them and for certain part-time employees. All of these things will only exacerbate what has been the record of this government: stagnant wages at a time of rising profits and high productivity. Wages, as a share of the national income, are at a 61-year low. It’s not just bad for Australians, particularly disadvantaged Australians and families; it’s bad for the economy as a whole. That’s the self-defeating part of the let-the-market-rip, law-of-the-jungle, free-market-madness-run-wild approach. Our economy depends on consumption. It depends on people working hard, earning the just rewards of their labour and then having the confidence to participate in the economy. That doesn’t happen when people are freaked out about losing their job and about seeing their economic position grow worse day by day, month by month, year by year. That’s what this government is delivering for workers, for households and for our economy as a whole.

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