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Wednesday, 13 September 2023
Page: 106

Mr CONROY (ShortlandMinister for Defence Industry and Minister for International Development and the Pacific) (18:55): I rise to make a contribution to the Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Closing Loopholes) Bill 2023. I want to begin by reflecting on a couple of remarks from the previous speaker, the member for Hughes. The member for Hughes talked a lot about choice—about respecting the choice of casuals to be casual and the choice of gig workers to be gig workers. I accept that, for some casuals and some gig workers, it is a choice. They choose when to work. But I would submit that they are the minority.

When you're applying for a job and an employer says, 'You can accept it as a casual or you don't get the job,' and the choice is between accepting that job on the conditions imposed upon you by the employer and starving or not being able to pay your rent, you have no power. You have absolutely zero power. When an employer says to you, 'I expect you to turn up on every shift I roster you on, even though you're a casual, but I won't give you any employment security. I won't give you leave entitlements, but I expect you to turn up on call when I need you and to be sent home when I send you home without pay,' there is no choice in that for a lot of workers.

This is what this legislation is about. It is about addressing fundamental inequalities that mean hundreds of thousands of Australian workers have no security. They have no ability to predict when they'll work, to predict what they'll get paid, or to pay their rent or pay a mortgage or take a holiday with their family. This is fundamentally what this legislation does. It also addresses a huge structural inequality in labour hire that is crippling families in my region of the Hunter and the Central Coast, which I'll turn to in a minute. I wanted to put those remarks on the record initially.

As we've heard, this bill contains four key elements: first, cracking down on certain labour hire firms that undercut pay and conditions; second, criminalising both wage theft and industrial manslaughter; third, legislating a fair and objective definition of casual work so casuals aren't being exploited and introducing a new pathway for eligible employees to change to permanent employment if they wish to do so; and, fourth, making sure gig workers aren't being ripped off.

I'd like to say at the outset of my contribution that the Albanese Labor government was elected to get wages moving, unlike the Liberal Party and the former finance minister, former senator Mathias Cormann, who said the quiet bit out loud when he explained that low wages were 'a deliberate design feature of our economic architecture'. We know that getting wages moving for workers is not only good for the hip pockets of families; it is good for the economy. This is what this set of reforms is all about: closing down the loopholes that are undermining wages and conditions to help get wages moving again.

We've heard a few furphies about this bill, not only from those opposite but also from stories circling in the media, so I'd like to outline what is being proposed in this bill. These are not radical changes. All we're doing is making the current law work more effectively and providing certainty, fairness and a level playing field for both businesses and workers.

The first key element is cracking down on certain labour hire firms that undercut pay and conditions. The government recognises that labour hire does have a legitimate use in providing surge and specialist workforces. Nothing in this set of reforms changes that. What we are concerned about and what these reforms address is when companies are using labour hire loopholes to deliberately undercut the agreements that have already been made with workers. Currently, businesses are allowed to pay labour hire workers less than directly employed permanent workers doing the same tasks on the exact same roster. We need to close this loophole, and this bill will amend the Fair Work Act 2009 to give the Fair Work Commission the power to make orders that labour hire employees be paid at least what they would be paid under the employer's enterprise agreement. This is delivering on our election commitment for 'same job, same pay'.

Many constituents in my electorate would be very familiar with this election commitment. Whilst we know this is happening across the entire economy, it is becoming increasingly widespread in the mining sector, particularly in coalmining. I'm proud to represent an electorate that covers the beautiful Lake Macquarie and Central Coast, which has long been home to mineworkers and their families. In my electorate of Shortland, there are more than 1,000 workers directly employed in the coalmining industry, and I'm incredibly proud of that. This bill will mean these workers in my electorate can have certainty that they will be getting the same pay for the same job with the work they do.

This is a critical feature, because the cancer of misused labour hire has infected my region most grossly. I have coalminers working in coalmines in the Hunter Valley, where, if you're directly employed by the company, you've negotiated an enterprise agreement and you will be on good wages and conditions. You have to work very hard to earn that pay, usually rotating 24/7 shifts, and I've seen many coalminers not have a Christmas with their family for a long time. But they're fairly remunerated for that. But working alongside them, doing the same jobs, are coalminers employed by a labour hire company, being paid as little as one-third as much as that coalminer directly employed. Those workers on labour hire aren't brought in as a surge workforce. They're not brought in for temporary, specialised, technical jobs. They are brought in to be production workers, employed by a labour hire company, with a sole purpose: undermining the enterprise agreement. That is what that does. That is not what labour hire should be for. It is destroying wages and conditions in the mining industry. It is meaning workers in my electorate can't take holidays, can't pay their mortgages, can't give their kids the best start in life. That's what this does. This bill deals with preventing those labour hire loopholes that are there to destroy wages and conditions. I think every fair-minded Australian would agree that, if workers do the same job, they should get the same pay. That is a critical element of the bill, and that's why I'm so proud of this legislation.

Another element of the legislation I'm so proud of is the parts of the bill that criminalise industrial manslaughter. Many people across the Hunter region will know of the tragic death of Charlestown resident Mmalerato 'Mallis' Harrison at Woolworths Jesmond in November last year. Mallis was employed by a contracted cleaning company at the Woolworths store and was crushed against a wall by the floor-cleaning machine. On a Saturday recently, it was revealed by the Newcastle Herald that Mallis and other employees had consistently raised safety concerns about the equipment and were even told by the employer at the cleaning company that they 'should practise it more'. SafeWork NSW is quite rightly still investigating this tragic incident, but, as Mallis's husband, Glenn Harrison, told the Newcastle Herald:

Every single worker in the country deserves to feel safe at work, and to go home to be with their family at the end of every shift.

Mr Harrison is absolutely right. This is a tragic incident that should never have occurred. To Mr Harrison, I'm so sorry, and, to Mallis's family and friends, I pass on my condolences.

Safety at work is a fundamental right, and we should have penalties for employers who breach work health and safety that are serious and proportionate to act as a deterrent and to keep workers safe. The government stands with Glenn and with every family that has had the tragic news that a loved one won't be coming home from a shift. While this bill cannot bring back those loved ones, it will help to ensure this doesn't happen to more families. On Sunday I was at the miners memorial in Cessnock, which records the almost 2,000 names of coalminers who have died at work, with ages ranging from as young as 11 to ages in the 80s. Every worker has the right to go to work and return home safely.

In addition to promoting workplace safety, the bill will also criminalise wage theft. As we know, if a worker steals from the till, it is a criminal offence. Yet in many parts of Australia, if an employer steals from your pay packet, it's not a crime. This isn't just bad for workers; it's bad for businesses, because good businesses that follow the law and pay their workers are having to compete with dodgy businesses that have an unfair advantage by deliberately underpaying workers. Theft is theft. If an employer intentionally steals from their workers, they should face criminal penalties.

Those opposite spent a decade in government and did nothing to stop the epidemic that is wage theft. The Liberals and Nationals had to be dragged kicking and screaming to even acknowledge that wage theft is a problem. Eventually the Liberals and Nationals introduced some half-hearted legislation, but then they voted against it in the Senate. They voted against their own legislation. It beggars belief that this is the same tired, old Liberal Party tearing up their own draft legislation because they couldn't get enough support to sneak in more cuts to workers' pay and conditions in other ways. Workers cannot trust the Liberal Party to look after their pay and conditions, and nothing demonstrates that more than this incident. They had stagnant wages as a deliberate design feature of their economic policy and failed to crack down on wage theft because they couldn't sneak through measures to cut workers' pay and conditions in other ways. Workers know that only the Labor Party can be trusted to get on with the job of getting wages moving again and cracking down on wage thieves.

The third key element of this bill seeks to close the loophole that leaves people classified as casuals when they are actually working permanent, regular hours. These workers are usually working similar hours to permanent workers but not getting any of the benefits of job security. This bill aims to strengthen the pathway to permanent work for casuals who want it. Importantly, this bill doesn't force anybody to convert to permanent work. With this change, it is expected that around 263,900 casual workers in New South Wales alone will be eligible for greater access to leave entitlements and more financial security should they wish to be. Further, following extensive consultation with the business community and unions, small businesses will continue to be exempt from the obligation and employees will retain the residual right to request conversion that is available to all employees. This is in line with what unions and businesses advocated for. By implementing this change the Albanese government is standing up for casual workers who want to become permanent employees.

The last key element of this suite of reforms is changing the power of the Fair Work Commission to allow it to better protect people in new forms of work, often called the 'gig economy', from exploitation. I want to be clear: this bill is not about turning people into employees when they don't want to be. Many gig workers I speak to across the Shortland electorate prefer the flexibility offered by app technology. But what we need to do is ensure that 21st technologies of the gig economy don't have 19th century working conditions. Currently employee-like workers performing through digital platforms are often engaged as independent contractors, meaning they are not able to receive rights and entitlements under the Fair Work Act. Inquiry after inquiry has demonstrated that some of these workers are receiving less pay than they otherwise would if paid under the award safety net and don't have any protection should they lose their work unfairly. This measure will give the Fair Work Commission a new power to set minimum standards for employee-like workers performing through digital platforms. These new minimum standards are expected to impact an estimated 231,700 digital platform workers in New South Wales alone. Just because you are engaged in the gig economy does not mean you should be paid less than if you are an employee, nor should we become a nation where workers have to rely on a tip just to get by.

In summary, the changes set out in this bill will strengthen the current workplace relations framework. Australians can breathe a sigh of relief that they no longer have a government that keeps wages low deliberately and fails to act to protect their rights at work. The Albanese Labor government was elected to get wages moving again and to ensure that workers aren't being exploited. By closing down the loopholes that are undermining workers' wages and conditions, we are doing just that. I thank the minister for introducing this bill. I am proud to be supporting it in this place.