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Wednesday, 17 March 2021
Page: 12


Senator WATT (Queensland) (10:49): I'd like to begin my contribution to this debate on the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia’s Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021—the government's changes to workplace laws—with a story of a guy in Central Queensland who I've got to know pretty well through my travels in Central Queensland over the past few years. His name is Chad. Chad's a coalminer, employed as a casual, through a labour hire company, by a major multinational mining company.

Chad has been treated as a casual, paid as a casual and employed as a casual by that mining company and the labour hire firm despite the fact that for over seven years he has worked the same roster, week after week, month after month and year after year. If any objective person were to look at Chad's employment and recognise that he works the same shifts, week after week, month after month and year after year, they would say that he is a permanent employee. And if Chad and the thousands of colleagues he has who are employed on the same basis were treated as permanent employees they would get job security, they would get annual leave, they would get sick leave, they would be able to get a home loan and they would be able to take a day off when a member of their family was unwell and needed attention.

But of course Chad and his colleagues who are employed as casuals, despite really being permanent employees, get none of those benefits. Chad, and every casual employee—whether they be coalminers or in any other industry—who are really permanent workers, don't get job security, they don't get annual leave, they don't get sick leave and they don't get a whole host of other benefits that permanent workers get. And of course they can't even go and get a home loan from a bank, because they're casual employees and banks don't lend those sorts of sums of money to casual employees.

Chad is just one example of what I have come to learn is an epidemic of casualisation in the mining industry across regional Queensland. It's not just in the mining industry, and I'll come to that shortly, but it's certainly something which has changed dramatically in the mining industry in Queensland over recent years—the explosion of casualisation and labour hire at the expense of permanent employment. Major mining companies in this country now employ the majority of their workforce as casuals through labour hire firms. It's being done as a cost-cutting exercise; the mining companies don't deny that. It's important that mining companies make profits and it's important that mining companies employ people, but it is a tragedy that in recent years, on this government's watch, we have seen that occur at the expense of coalminers and workers in general.

I'll give another example, of two other miners who I've met: Simon and Ron. Simon is the permanent employee, paid the EBA rate of pay. He has permanent employment, job security and all those types of leave benefits that come with permanent employment. His colleague Ron, who does exactly the same work as him—day in, day out, week in, week out, month in, month out and year in, year out—is employed through a labour hire firm as a casual. Ron doesn't get the permanent employment, he doesn't get the job security, he doesn't get the leave and he doesn't get all the benefits of permanent employment.

This isn't just some academic exercise; this has real-life consequences for people. As I said, they miss out on all of those benefits and they can't get loans. It puts immense stress on their families because they never know from one day to the next whether they're actually going to have a job. That's one of the consequences of casual employment: you don't have job security. You can be terminated by your employer at very short notice and without the usual redundancy pay that permanent employees get. So you're in constant fear and your family is under constant stress.

It's a disgrace that this casualisation epidemic has exploded across regional Queensland on this government's watch. Day after day, we see members of this government from the LNP in Queensland say how much they love coal, dressing up like coalminers and parading themselves around as if they're the friends of coalminers—

Senator Ayres: They put makeup on!

Senator WATT: You're right, Senator Ayres; some of them, including Senator Canavan, actually even go as far as wiping a bit of dust on their faces to impersonate coalminers! But every time they're actually given the opportunity to do something to help coalminers, or other workers who are trapped in casualisation, they squib it. Every single time they line up with big businesses which are making profits at the expense of ordinary working people. This legislation that we're dealing with today is just another example of that. Have you ever noticed that the only time we hear anything about casualisation from this government is in the run-up to an election? I've been here about five years—

An honourable senator interjecting

Senator WATT: It has gone quickly. But, sadly, what has been going on in the time that I've been here is this government's continued neglect of casual workers. In the run-up to the last election we put a lot of pressure on the government to fix this casualisation epidemic, as did our friends in the union movement, as did workers themselves. Because we put so much pressure on the government, in the run-up to the last election they promised to fix casualisation. I remember in the run-up to the last election all the press releases, the press conferences, the advertisements with George Christensen, Michelle Landry, Matt Canavan and Ken O'Dowd, all saying they would fix casualisation. And here we are, nearly two years after that election, and they still haven't done anything about it. They did the same thing in the run-up to the Queensland state election last year. They were silent for a year and a half after the federal election, having said they would fix it, but in the weeks leading up to the Queensland election, they were going to fix it again. They brought in this legislation which not only doesn't fix casualisation but actually makes things worse. It opens the door for more casualisation of our workplaces.

I have spoken quite a bit about the effect of casualisation and labour hire in the mining industry, because that is one of the most egregious examples that we've seen in recent times. But this is something that is affecting so many different parts of our economy and so many different types of workplaces. Throughout our workplaces, in security, in aged care, in retail and—I'm sure, Senator Sterle—in the trucking industry, we see this explosion of casualisation, insecure work and labour hire with people being exploited. This government continues to do nothing about it. I well remember a particular day in the last term of this government. I'm pretty sure I was in Rockhampton—certainly I was in regional Queensland—talking to coalminers about labour hire and casualisation and how hard their lives were as a result. I got on a plane to head home to Brisbane to do a function with Commonwealth public servants, mostly working in places like Centrelink and the tax office. Do you know what their No. 1 complaint was? It was the fact that this government was moving so many of their colleagues onto labour hire and casual work. In the space of one day, you can go from two different parts of Queensland, talk to blue-collar workers in the mining industry and white-collar workers in the Commonwealth Public Service and they'll have the same complaint about the fact that they can't get permanent work because there's been such a push towards casualisation of their work and labour hire.

We often hear from the apologists for casualisation that it's okay, people choose to be casuals, people get compensated as casuals, they get a loading and all that kind of thing. I don't know where they're getting their figures. I invite any of those people to come with me next time I go and speak to miners in Central Queensland or to public servants in Brisbane, or anywhere in between, because they will tell you that, despite the fact that they miss out on the benefits of permanent employment—the leave, the regular hours, the job security—they actually get paid less than the permanent workers, even after their casual loading is applied. So this claim that casual workers are fairly compensated for missing out on the benefits of permanency through their casual loading is absolute rubbish. I have met people working in the mining industry who are being paid less on an hourly basis than the permanent workers they work right next to, and they're still missing out on all the benefits of permanency.

This is a tragedy for the individuals concerned and their families but it's also a tragedy for regional economies. At a point when we know the economy is very weak, when consumer confidence is very low, what we actually need is a workplace system that gives people the confidence that from one day to the next their job is going to be safe, their wages are going to increase, they will be fairly treated at work. If people have that confidence, they're more likely to take out a loan, they're more likely to go and spend money in the local shops and businesses. Do you know what? That creates more jobs. But, instead, people are terrified of losing their jobs and of not being able to pay off their loans. They rein in their spending, which means we don't have those jobs created in local economies. So this system that the government is presiding over, which will be made worse by this bill, actually threatens to prolong the pain that we are experiencing through this recession and it threatens to rein in the recovery that we all so desperately want to see happen.

In my contribution I have focused a lot on casualisation because it is something that is of great concern to many workers, but there are a whole range of other changes that are being proposed in this bill which will also make people's employment more insecure, rein in their confidence, cut their pay and take away conditions that have been hard won over many years. Again, those changes, whether we're talking about changes to greenfield agreements, to flexible work directions or to how enterprise bargaining is achieved—all of those things combined—are on the wish list for big business and will actually only harm the average working person and be another impediment to trade unions doing their job of working with workers to try to achieve better pay and conditions.

Just to give one example, which goes back to casualisation, of what these laws actually will do—laws that this government says will fix casualisation—is to leave in the hands of employers to choose whether someone is going to be employed as a casual or as a permanent. At least under the current system an employee has the opportunity to go to a tribunal to get a fair hearing as to whether or not they're actually a casual or a permanent. But these laws would enshrine and entrench power in the hands of employers to make the decision at the point of employment about whether or not someone is a permanent or a casual. And even if an employer decides, 'Okay, Johnny, you're going to be a casual,' when the facts are that they're permanent, Johnny's going to be employed as a casual, and there's nothing he's going to be able to do about it because that's what these laws will do.

In addition, what these laws do is effectively leave it up to employers to decide whether or not someone will be able to convert to permanency after 12 months. The government's out there saying that this is going to give casual employees the right to convert to permanency after 12 months. What they don't tell you is that the decision is still left to the employer as to whether or not they will convert someone to permanency, and it basically takes away all appeal rights that an employee has. An employee whose employer unfairly turns them down when they ask to be made permanent can go off to the Fair Work Commission, but only to get conciliation of the matter. The Fair Work Commission can't actually make a decision that someone is a permanent or should be made permanent, and the only option that a casual employee has to enforce their rights is to trot off to the Federal Court. I don't know about you but I haven't found many casual coalminers, public servants, retail assistants or hospitality workers who have a lazy $50,000, $70,000 or $100,000 sitting around in their pockets to spend on barristers to fight out a matter in the Federal Court.

These laws do nothing to fix the casualisation crisis that we've seen across Queensland and across the country. In fact, what they will do is make things worse. Labor have been very clear from the moment we saw this bill that we will be opposing these laws, because what they will do is actually entrench casualisation in the workforce. They will see people's pay cut and conditions taken away from them at the very time that we want to see people spending more in our local economies and creating more jobs and having more secure employment.

There's one group who still haven't shared their hand about what they're going to do on this legislation, and that is Senator Hanson and her colleague, Senator Roberts, in One Nation. This legislation is a very big test for One Nation. They've spent a lot of time rolling around Queensland talking about how much they support battlers. Well, this will be a test. Will they vote with Labor to stop this legislation which will cut workers' pay, or will they side with the LNP and back in big business?