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Wednesday, 18 October 2017
Page: 11118


Mr WATTS (Gellibrand) (15:40): This week is Anti-Poverty Week. It should be a week for all Australians to focus on the three million of us, including 730,000 children, who currently live in poverty. I want to talk today about the most important bulwark we have against poverty, as the previous speaker was harping on about: high-quality, secure work. It's something that's been on the minds of my constituents recently as 2,500 high-quality, secure jobs have been lost at the Toyota Altona plant this month as a result of the actions of the Abbott-Turnbull government. Unfortunately, this is just one example of how secure work is currently being challenged by the policies of the Abbott-Turnbull government. In recent times, we have begun to see the emergence of an insidious new form of poverty, which was previously alien to the Australian way of work—the emergence of the working poor in our society.

My electorate in Melbourne's west is home to the gates of the old Sunshine Harvester factory. It is a physical monument not only to the labour of the thousands of people who passed through their gates before the factory gave its name to the surrounding suburb but also to the landmark 1907 Harvester judgement that marked the beginning of a universal minimum employment standard in Australia and an international beacon for workplace rights for decades to come. The IPA once labelled the Harvester judgement as the second-worst decision in Australian history, so that should tell you a little bit about the merits of this policy intervention. The Harvester judgement was founded on a concept of a 'civilised community' and the notion that workers needed to be treated as a human beings, not simply as commodities in a system. It's the spirit that we need to recapture in this building at a time of record low wages growth and skyrocketing underemployment.

The symptoms of the emergence of the working poor in Australia are everywhere you look. One in five Australian households currently lives on less than the age pension and less than the single minimum wage. There are 2.3 million Australians who earn the lowest legal rate of pay for the work that they perform, including 450,000 more people than two years ago. Those are the jobs that the previous speaker was talking about. The Productivity Commission has found that between 10 and 15 per cent of Australians—2.3 million to 2.8 million Australians—are income poor. That is, they are living in households earning less than half the median income or, to put it in practical terms, living in households that are unable to get a car loan, to get a home loan, to plan ahead financially for their children's needs and to deal with the ordinary financial vicissitudes of life of accidents, illness or a car crash. There are now 1.1 million unemployed Australians—people who are capable of working more and who want to work more but who don't have the opportunity. That's up from 170,000 in the 1970s. There are currently 750,000 Australians working second or third jobs as a result of this. It's unsurprising in this context that inequality is at a 75-year high. Too many of our fellow Australians can no longer see the link between hard work and a fair reward.

There are a number of causes of this phenomenon but the key cause lies in the rules of our workplaces. As the member for Gorton told the National Press Club today, 'We cannot tackle inequality or build a system of inclusive prosperity unless Australia has a workplace relations system that is both productive and fair.' Essential to that task is striking the right balance of power between workers and employers, and the tilt of bargaining power away from workers and to employers has gone too far. In Australia, workers' bargaining power has been undermined by the enormous growth of what the Chief Economist of the Bank of England recently called 'divisible work'. Non-standard employment, casual jobs, fixed-term contracts, self-employment, labour hire, internships and temporary visa holders—these are forms of employment that undermine workers' ability to negotiate collectively and that circumvent many of the conditions of formal full-time work. This is a big reason why, despite productivity having grown by 20 per cent in Australian workplaces over the past decade, wages have grown by only six per cent. Thinking that a $65 billion corporate unfunded tax cut will help fix this is not neo-liberalism; it's neo-Martianism. The ministers of this government might as well be on another planet if they think this is going to work.

What we need to fix this is for government to stand up for workers: to change the rules to put an end to sham contracts; to stop phoenixing of companies that cut wages and conditions; to ensure labour hire firms comply with basic employment conditions; to end the rorting of casual work definitions to avoid providing basic workplace standards; and to crack down on the exploitation of temporary migrant workers, an epidemic and a moral stain on our country at the moment. We need a government that will make Australian workplaces work for Australian workers. Thankfully, my constituents and the Australian people have that option. A Shorten Labor government will deliver this. We will fight poverty with the greatest bulwark we have against poverty: secure work at fair wages.