The Morrison Govt's Industrial Relations Bill is bad for Northern Territory workers

17 March 2021

Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021
Second Reading
Wednesday, 17 March 2021

This Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021 shows what this government is willing to sacrifice for its conservative idealism, attacking workers at the expense of our economic prosperity. That's what this bill does: it takes away job security for millions of Australian workers; it delays our recovery from the pandemic by crushing wage growth; and it strips away workers' rights which, in turn, impacts on our economy. This bill sickens our economy and it certainly sickens our workers.

The ANU submission to the Senate inquiry into this bill called it an immediate threat to public health. They warned that lack of paid sick leave will exacerbate a weakness in Australia's COVID-19 response. This bill promotes insecure work and erodes the security and protections provided to employees. It allows businesses to hire employees as casuals and to deprive them of leave entitlements, even if they subsequently work a regular roster. The ANU research school's submission noted that Australia already has one of the highest rates of individuals without leave entitlements among OECD nations, with estimates ranging from 25 to 37 per cent of the workforce. And we know that casual workers are doubly impacted by the COVID pandemic due to the absence of leave entitlements and them being among some of the lowest-paid workers.

The public health experts cited modelling that paid leave, including for flu and other infectious diseases, can reduce workplace infections by at least 25 per cent. They argue casual workers are already at risk of infection and transmission, as we've seen this year among healthcare workers, personal care attendants, cleaners, security guards, abattoir workers, delivery workers, supermarket staff, public transport and taxi drivers, and childcare staff. We have listened to the public health experts in our response to the pandemic. This has been a big part of our success in staying safe and reducing the impacts of COVID-19 on Australians. We should be listening to the public health experts on this bill. They said very, very clearly that the proposed changes will undermine our world-class response to COVID-19 by increasing casual employment and insecure working conditions. The so-called reforms will hurt workers and hurt the economy at the exact moment that both need help the most.

Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe has said jobs and wages are key to Australia's recovery. But the government, as usual, isn't listening and it's getting it wrong on both sides of the jobs and wages equation, with no plans for investment on the scale that this once-in-a-generation crisis demands. The government still plans an abrupt end to income supports in a few weeks, despite pleas from workers and businesses. This bill fails every test. It makes work less secure and cuts pay. It is a fundamental attack on the very workers who got us through this pandemic. It's a fundamental attack on the very workers who campaigned so hard and so long in the past to ensure Australian workers have these rights and protections. Many of you, both in the Senate and in the other place, would have seen and spoken with so many workers' representatives who've been in Parliament House this week campaigning against this bill, telling us what harm it's going to cause them, their families, their colleagues and their workplaces. Among them are representatives from Kalkarindji in the Northern Territory, people from the from Gurindji nation, from the place of the Wave Hill walk-off.

The history of the walk-off and land rights is tied to the history of the union movement and workers' rights in this country, and it is a significant legacy. I'd like to quote some of the speech given by Kara Keys, the then ACTU Indigenous officer, at the 50th anniversary of the Wave Hill walk-off:

It is a great legacy because, once the Gurindji walked off Wave Hill, the NAWU gave them their 100% support.

It is a great legacy because the union movement nationwide galvanised around the workers and gave them great support.

It is a great legacy because it fundamentally shifted the NAWU and other unions in the country. It showed unions that Indigenous workers were willing to fight for wage equality and it shifted unions to the role of supporting and fighting for all workers.

And it is a great legacy because while the trigger for the Wave Hill Walk Off was equal wages, the gun powder was the systemic racism, poor living conditions, a legislative environment which allowed for the theft of children from their families and the theft of Aboriginal people having any agency over their own lives.

The Wave Hill Walk Off shifted the nation.

Thank you, Kara Keys, for reminding all Australians of that. That legacy continues, and it is fantastic to see so many First Nations union members here today in the Australian parliament. I thank each and every one of you, the union members of First Nations families from across the country who are not just in the parliament this week but around the country, working with our unions, working to improve the working conditions of all people around Australia. Your message is very clear: this bill will cause more harm to workers and it will particularly hurt casual workers. The government has ignored years of common law and overturned the recent Federal Court decisions on what it means to be a casual.

Under these laws if a worker agrees to be employed as a casual at the start of their employment then they remain as a casual regardless of their actual work pattern, so long as the employer employs them on the basis they make no firm advance commitment to continuing and indefinite work according to an agreed pattern of work. If a court finds later they are in fact a permanent then any casual loading they received will be offset against any permanent entitlements they are owed. Both the definition and offset apply retrospectively. Under the government's own figures, this involves cancelling around $39 billion in back pay that would otherwise be owed to casuals.

There were just over 2.6 million casual workers employed in Australia in August 2019. They accounted for 24.4 per cent of all employees. Tasmania had the highest casual employee share of total employees in August 2019 at 28.3 per cent, while the Northern Territory had the lowest casual share at 21.2 per cent. That is still more than a fifth of our Northern Territory workforce, particularly in our tourism and hospitality sector. This is a sector we know has been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. Many hospitality businesses have closed or downgraded. Hundreds of hotel rooms are offline. Many workers have lost their jobs or they've had their hours reduced or have relied on JobKeeper to stay employed. Making it easier for employers to casualise jobs that would have otherwise been permanent will not assist or stabilise an industry where workers are already struggling.

The mining and construction sectors also make up a critical part of the Northern Territory economy, creating hundreds of direct jobs and contributing in a huge way to the economy. But workers in these sectors will be hard hit by this legislation. Workers on mining and construction projects could be locked into eight-year enterprise agreements, which could actually see wages that don't keep pace with inflation. So how is this good for workers or for the wider economy? How does ensuring workers end up with less money in their pockets contribute to our economy and its recovery? The simple answer is it doesn't.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the fact that too many people in this country work in low-paid, insecure employment—casuals, contractors, freelancers, labour hire workers and gig workers. These vulnerable workers, the ones who can least afford it, were hit first and hit the hardest. Rather than taking this opportunity to learn lessons from COVID-19 and dealing with the twin problems of insecure work and flatlining wages, the government's proposed new laws do exactly the opposite. This bill is bad for Northern Territory workers, it's bad for Northern Territory businesses and it is most certainly bad for our nation. It cannot be supported.