Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020

February 23, 2021

I speak today on the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020. The government's intention when it introduced this bill last year was to allow employers to cut wages and to reduce the rights of their employees. That's in the coalition's DNA; they in fact even tried to do that to their own employees here in this building.

It's hard to believe that in the middle of a pandemic, when workers are already struggling to make ends meet, the government would want to encourage employers to cut the pay of workers. Think about that; think about how much compassion that entails and how much economic sense it entails. I know this sounds like an exaggeration, but how or why would a government introduce legislation that would cut the pay of workers during a pandemic? But I can say that it's no exaggeration that the bill was designed to cut wages and to reduce employees' rights at work.

How is it going to do that? The bill introduced last year suspended the better off overall test for two years for any business that's been affected by COVID-19. That's likely to be most businesses, given the disruption that occurred last year. The better off overall test is designed to protect workers' conditions. For example, if there's something in an agreement that cuts penalty rates then at some point the employer will need to increase the base rate of pay to compensate for that so the worker won't end up worse off. So for two years from when the legislation would be passed, any agreement that cuts penalty rates would not need to increase the hourly rate. That would leave the worker worse off and that is a pay cut—empirically so.

We also know from experience that even though the suspension would be for two years the effects of a suspension can hang around much longer; workers would not automatically have their pay cut reversed after the two-year suspension ends. This is a typical Liberal Party ploy. We saw similar legislation back in 2004, 2005 and 2006 when John Howard was Prime Minister—the Work Choices bill. This was the legislation that actually forced his own electorate to reject him. Under Work Choices, the no-disadvantage test, which served as a similar protection to workers' rights, was suspended. The problem is that there are still agreements in place today—zombie agreements—from that Howard-era suspension. Even though there's a technical expiry date to the suspension, if the employer hasn't agreed to a new agreement after the suspension is removed, the current agreement that leaves the worker worse off will just keep ticking along.

The government has made an amendment to this bill to remove the most obvious provision that would cut the pay of workers, the two-year suspension of the BOOT test—I know that's tautological but it's just easier to explain it! But this last-minute, desperate marketing amendment to hide the intentions of the bill still doesn't make it a good reform. The product still stinks! The Morrison government are just retreating for the sake of political expediency. They fundamentally want to cut workers' take-home pay, and they will cut workers' pay the minute they have the chance.

It reminds me of the fable that appears in the 1933 Russian novel The German Quarter, by Lev Nitoburg. A scorpion wants to cross the river but can't swim, so it asks a frog to carry it across. The frog hesitates, afraid that the scorpion might sting. The scorpion argues that if it did that, they would both drown. The frog considers this argument sensible and agrees to transport the scorpion across the river. The frog lets the scorpion climb on its back and begins to swim away. Midway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog anyway, dooming them both. The dying frog asks the scorpion, 'Why did you sting me, knowing the consequences?' to which the scorpion replies, 'I couldn't help it; it's in my nature.'

Scorpions aside, the BOOT suspension isn't the only problem with this bill; it's just the most obvious. The only test Labor and I had for this bill is: will it create secure jobs with decent pay? The answer was no in December, when the original bill was introduced, and it is still no. This bill is still a fundamental attack on the rights of workers, an attack on workers the likes of which we haven't seen since John Howard's Work Choices. Even without the extreme BOOT provisions that have been excised, the bill will still make jobs more insecure and lead to pay cuts. All this is in the context of eight years of wage stagnation—flatlining wages that have kept the Reserve Bank governor awake at night.

This is what the bill does: it makes it easier for employers to casualise jobs that would otherwise have been transitioned to permanent jobs; it makes bargaining for better pay and conditions more difficult than it already is; it allows wage cuts; it takes rights off blue-collar workers on big projects—for those who don't know the building game, they're often the industry market leaders for setting wages—and it weakens wage theft punishments in jurisdictions where wage theft was already deemed a criminal act, such as Queensland and Victoria. This bill makes work less secure and it cuts pay. It won't help the Australian economy; it will do the opposite. Without more secure jobs and without the prospect of wage rises, workers will not have the capacity or the confidence to spend.

The government set up a working group comprised of employers, industry groups, employee representatives and government to come up with a practical reform agenda. This was actually referred to by some of the preceding speakers from the coalition side. The ACTU, which was part of that Morrison government working group process, said this about the bill in front of the House right now:

The Bill fails the Government's own test: workers will be worse off.

…   …   …

The Government's changes will make jobs less secure; they will make it easier for employers to casualise permanent jobs and allow employers to pay workers less than the award safety net. This is the opposite of what the country needs.

This is from the ACTU, who were part of the Morrison government's working group. Clearly the government have proceeded with a reform that did not have the consensus of the quoted working group. Labor always said that if measures were proposed that reflected agreement of the working group, we would most likely support the proposals. What the Morrison government has introduced does not reflect a consensus of the working group. This is the Morrison government's own working group that I'm quoting.

Sadly the government have reverted to type. They have bowed to the demands of employer groups and disgracefully are using the COVID crisis as leverage. Australian workers said to employers that they'd give them a lift over the river—over the pandemic—and this is how they repay them. The Morrison government still wants to cut workers' take-home pay. The only reason they ditched their plan to scrap the better off overall test is that they can't get it through the parliament, not because they recognise that it's fundamentally unfair. The Minister for Industrial Relations still believes the change is 'sensible and proportionate' despite it removing the safety net for workers and giving employers vastly expanded powers to cut pay and entitlements. Remember, that's in the context of flatlining wages and more money going to the profits for business. This is the reality we're dealing with right now after eight years of coalition government. There is no moral epiphany going on here when it comes to workers; they have only put forward this amendment for the sake of political expediency. It's a green washing, an advertising tactic, rather than something committed to fairness. You can be sure that at the first opportunity the Morrison government will try again. They want to cut the take-home pay of workers who are doing it tough.

This legislation before the chamber has a sting in its tail. The change to BOOT was the most egregious attack on job security and workers' pay in this bill, but it's certainly not the only one. As I said before, the Labor Party only had one test for this bill. We would support the legislation if it delivered secure jobs with decent pay. I say again: we would support the legislation if it delivered secure jobs with decent pay. The legislation before the chamber right now fails that test. The change to the BOOT test was only a political tactic. They're still fundamentally committed to cutting workers' pay, and that is why I cannot support this bill.