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Wednesday, 16 August 2017
Page: 5889

Senator CAMERON (New South Wales) (18:39): The minister just gets up and makes points on the run. It really is getting to a stage where the argument is not being dealt with but the rhetoric from the minister is getting stronger. This is not about genuine mistakes.

I went through recently some of the Fair Work Ombudsman's decisions in enforceable undertakings, and the minister just seems to have forgotten that if somebody makes a genuine mistake then there is a well-established process within the Fair Work Ombudsman legislation to get enforceable undertakings. I'm a bit tired, quite frankly, of the Fair Work Ombudsman coming to estimates and running an argument that it's just all mistakes from employers and that we will do an enforceable undertaking when tens of thousands of dollars of workers' money has been stolen. That's what happens now. Tens of thousands of dollars are stolen from some of the most vulnerable workers in this country, and you get an enforceable undertaking. The enforceable undertaking, I think, has got a place, and the enforceable undertaking has got a place when there is a genuine mistake. But one company stole $60,000 in unpaid wages from ordinary workers, and an enforceable undertaking was put in place. The enforceable undertaking is not about paying the workers back quickly. They've got a payment schedule. Where else do you do a payment schedule when you've stolen from someone?

The Fair Work Ombudsman has got so much flexibility now that this argument that a genuine mistake will get caught up in this is just another example where this minister is not genuine about protecting vulnerable workers, absolutely not genuine. The arguments that she has just gone through do not stand up to any scrutiny. Some of the other things in the enforceable undertakings decisions included tens of thousands of dollars stolen from workers, and the Fair Work Ombudsman saying to the company, 'Pay $5,000 to a charity, and that's you. On you go.' And a lot of these enforceable undertakings are breached and further enforceable undertakings imposed.

An issue that I have with the operation of the Fair Work Ombudsman is that it is disingenuous. It is not correct to say that this would end up in a position where genuine mistakes would be punished. This is about an employer not keeping proper records. This is about an employer not having pay slips. I can go back to the speeches the minister made about how important it was, how the government were really attacking the ripping off of workers because they were enforcing extra laws in relation to the keeping of pay slips.

So the minister's arguments have got no validity. Genuine mistakes are not the issue. We don't have a presumption that all employers are doing the wrong thing. But what we do know from the Fair Work Ombudsman—we know this from Four Corners, we know this from the behaviour of Caltex, we know this from the behaviour of 7-Eleven—is that some employers carry out the most egregious theft against workers in this country. That's the reality of where we are and that's why we say the reverse onus of proof is important to ensure that vulnerable workers are protected. If an employer makes a mistake, there should be processes through enforceable undertakings and other means to deal with it. But what the minister is trying to say now is that you can breach the laws that I said were so important and there will be no problem for you. All the rhetoric and all the high-and-mighty arguments that we had about what a great job the government was doing by changing laws in relation to pay slips mean nothing when it comes to this government.

We think the reverse onus of proof is absolutely essential to ensure that vulnerable workers are protected. Genuine mistakes will not be an issue. We don't presume that all employers do the wrong thing, but we do know that many employers do a terrible disservice—breach the law, steal workers' pay—and then hide behind having no pay slips. This is unacceptable, and I just think, again, that the minister's contribution demonstrates that this is not really about protecting vulnerable workers; it is about a fig leaf for this government to say it's doing something about it.