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Monday, 26 November 2012
Page: 13090

Mr BANDT (Melbourne) (10:53): As we head towards the Christmas break, most of us are looking forward to a couple of weeks off to relax and perhaps to indulge and wind down. But for many Australians it can be a time of great stress as they go without paid leave and as many of them wonder whether or not their contract is going to be renewed next year. We are now in a position in which one in four employees in this country does not enjoy paid leave. That is a national shame. It is something that we need to tackle, because it is having an effect on the ability of millions of people around this country to plan their lives and to take the kinds of steps necessary that the rest of us take for granted to live a secure and planned life.

The Fair Work Amendment (Tackling Job Insecurity) Bill 2012 will mean that millions of Australians trapped in insecure work will have a pathway to secure employment. It will mean that a mother who needs to look after a sick child will have a right to take personal leave. It will mean that a contract teacher who works year after year to teach our children will finally be able to apply for a mortgage. It will mean that a temporary worker who is stuck in an endless cycle of labour hire will have an opportunity for more certainty. The essential premise of almost all the deliberations in this chamber is that we must work towards a strong economy. I and the Greens agree.

However, there is another underlying premise that, if we take all the steps necessary to serve the economy, it will automatically serve us—but I do not agree that this will always happen. As our Greens leader, Christine Milne, said at the National Press Club in September:

We want an economy that serves the people; not the other way around. We must remember that the economy is a tool that we invented. If the economy is not delivering the outcomes we want, making us happy, safe, healthy, better educated and fulfilled, then it is time that our economic tools changed.

There has been a growing trend towards insecure work in Australia, where a staggering number of casuals, and people on rolling contracts, now make up our workforce. Around 2.2 million employees are not entitled to paid holiday or sick leave and have no guarantee of ongoing secure employment. We are often told that this is because business needs flexibility. But I believe this trend is symptomatic of what can start to happen if we let markets become our masters and when financial risk, in an increasingly uncertain world, is transferred away from companies and onto workers—because that is what has happened in Australia over the last couple of decades.

The growth of the casual workforce from around 15 per cent in the 1980s to around a quarter of all employees now is part of the phenomenon that was articulated in the 2010 report, Shifting risk—work and working life in Australia, produced by the Workplace Research Centre. They observed that people are now required to absorb more and more financial, social and economic risks and therefore experience much more financial and social stress. The landmark inquiry report from a previous Deputy Prime Minister, Brian Howe, Lives on Hold, that was released by the ACTU in May this year, builds on this and gave voice to many of those who are trapped in the cycle of insecure work, which often robs them of the ability to make long-term decisions and plans about their lives.

I do acknowledge that there is a place for casual labour in the workforce. It can be used to address genuine business needs, and it can be beneficial for people who only want short-term employment with higher rates to compensate for the lack of tenure. It can be a win-win arrangement. But that is not always the case. In 2007 over half of all casual employees reported that they would prefer not to work on a casual basis. Most of these would prefer to have both paid holiday leave and sick leave, even taking into account the effect that this might have on their income. Over half of all casuals have been employed in their current jobs for over a year, and over 15 per cent of casuals have been in their jobs for more than five years. As I said earlier, many people at this time of the year face the prospect of the holiday season without paid holidays. Those of us in secure employment, as we look forward to a relaxing break to recharge—and perhaps even over-indulge—should remember that this is not a luxury shared by all.

In addition to casuals, there are also a significant number of people on fixed-term contracts and rolling fixed-term contracts. In 2011 there were almost 400,000 people—just over four per cent of all employees—engaged in this form of insecure work. But it is worth noting that these arrangements are heavily concentrated in education, with 15 per cent of the workforce on fixed-term contracts. This means that education alone accounts for almost a third of all employees on fixed-term contracts in Australia. These are the people who are teaching our kids and are bringing up the rest of us through secondary schools and universities, and over a third of all employees on fixed-term contracts are found in education. Numerous teachers will be finishing their contracts in the next few weeks with no guarantee of what the future might hold. What should become a time of rest will become a time of stress.

Many of these teachers may well commence new contracts when school starts next year but, surely, if a contract is regularly renewed, should it not be ongoing? If a strong economy does not deliver secure jobs, is it really serving the people? If some people can only find insecure work then we risk creating a new underclass of people who may never qualify for a mortgage, who may never be able to choose to start a family. Surely, as a society, we should aspire to provide secure jobs for everyone who wants them. The Greens believe that tackling job insecurity is a public good, and this bill addresses that issue. This bill amends the Fair Work Act to provide a process for workers employed on an insecure basis to be moved to ongoing employment on a part-time or full-time basis. The right of small businesses to use genuine casual employees will be preserved, with such employees excluded from the operation of the bill. This exemption for small businesses is consistent with the existing objects of the Fair Work Act.

Two general classes of workers are eligible to request secure employment arrangements from their employers: casual employees and rolling-contract employees. The bill defines a rolling-contract employee as someone who has been employed on a fixed-term contract by the same employer doing the same type of work on two or more occasions. An eligible employee or their union must make a request for a secure employment arrangement with their employer in writing. The employer must give the employee or their union a written response to the request within 21 days. If the employer refuses the request, the written response must include the reasons for the refusal.

If a request is refused then an application can be made to Fair Work Australia for a secure employment order. In deciding whether to make a secure employment order, Fair Work Australia must have regard to a number of factors, including the needs of employees to have secure jobs and stable employment, and an employer's capacity to use arrangements that are not secure employment arrangements in cases where this is genuinely appropriate while having regards to the needs of the business.

A secure employment order may apply to one or more persons or class of persons and may be implemented in stages as Fair Work Australia thinks appropriate. Unions may also apply directly to Fair Work Australia, as may employer associations, for secure employment orders on behalf of classes of eligible persons such as a particular industry, kind of work, type of employment or employer. Small-business casuals will be exempt from any such orders of general application.

The bill does not seek to ban casual labour or fixed-term contracts. These are valid industrial instruments that will be available when genuinely needed. The bill does not remove management prerogative to make business decisions about using insecure employment arrangements but makes sure they are used legitimately and reasonably and leaves open the right of Fair Work Australia to determine that there are circumstances in which an employer may not have an appropriate right to use, say, labour hire or other arrangements.

Good successful businesses have nothing to fear from this bill. Good businesses know that long-term investment in their workers is a good investment. Good successful businesses know that secure workers are more productive workers and that productivity can grow if we invest in our workforce. Good successful businesses know that the growing casualisation of our workforce is unsustainable.

The trend towards insecure work is by no means inevitable. Many other OECD economies have experienced similar structural economic changes and dynamics as Australia but do not have the same levels of insecure work. Only Spain has a higher rate of insecure work than Australia. Spain has one in three workers in temporary employment because of a large seasonal rural workforce. The Greens and the ILO believe that the casualisation of the workforce can have widespread damaging impacts on society, leaving workers and communities in unstable and insecure situations, disrupting their life-planning options. If we can provide secure jobs then we should provide secure jobs.

Bill read a first time.

Ordered that the second reading be made an order of the day for the next sitting.