Speeches Chris has made in the Australian Federal Parliament.

Bills - Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020 - Second Reading

February 17, 2021

Mr HAYES (Fowler—Chief Opposition Whip) (19:27): It seems that, in the 16 years I've been in this House, there have been many opportunities for me to speak on matters affecting industrial relations, employee security and the welfare of working families. There's been some history to this particular piece of legislation, the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020, being introduced in the House. The most egregious aspect of this legislation was addressed yesterday by the government—the removal of what is known as the BOOT test, the better off overall test. The significance of that, which has been there since the inception of this bill, is that if it was allowed to remain it would have meant it was legitimate to be able to vary terms of conditions of employees to the point they were no longer better off. I would have thought for most people in this House that would be an anathema, because most of us have the privilege of representing working families.

Far too often, as I say, over these 16 years I've seen legislation brought before this House by the conservative side with a view to doing just that—attacking workers' rights. As I said, removing the BOOT test was the most egregious aspect that was contained in the bill. It was also the most symbolic aspect of the bill that likened it very much to Work Choices. Back in 2008, Work Choices was a delicate piece of legislation which saw the removal of a Liberal government and the removal of a Liberal Prime Minister, because they went too far.


Before the adjournment of the debate on the second reading of the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020 last night, I was trying to give those opposite a bit of a gratuitous history lesson on industrial relations. At that stage, I was talking about their efforts in relation to Work Choices. Just briefly, I would like to continue with that lesson if I could, because what Work Choices did was to establish such a degree of uncertainty in the minds not just of workers but of parents, grandparents and particularly kids who were either graduating from school or about to join the Australian workforce, when they saw what was possible under Work Choices—that is, that people could be paid at less than award rates of pay, for the first time in our history. Collectively, the decision was made throughout the community that Work Choices was not just bad legislation and an attack on workers and workers' rights but fundamentally un-Australian.

Here's a tip for those opposite: workplace relations is not just about workers. It is also about their families and their communities, and it's about looking after people. What we saw in the first iterations of this bill was an attempt to inevitably draw back to their experiences with Work Choices. Sure, they tried to make amends for that yesterday by restoring the BOOT test, but, by and large, you really have to look at the detail of what is in this bill and set it in your own mind. I invite those opposite to do the same. Is this what you want to be seen as the way you represent working families in your own local communities? Putting that into some perspective, you might have noticed yesterday that, whilst the Minister was pretty free with his words in throwing guarantees around the House, it was not so for the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister was nowhere when he was asked to give a guarantee that no worker would be worse off. He wanted to talk about anything else but that. It's probably for very good reason, because he probably has a bit of an inkling of what's in this bill.

This bill as it stands still allows for workers' pay to be cut. It makes it easier for employers to casualise jobs. It makes it almost impossible for a casual worker to be made permanent, except at the instigation of the employer. Unbelievably, if a casual worker at a fast food restaurant or something like that wants to pursue the notion of being a permanent employee, they have to go to the Federal Court. There are enough lawyers in this building to know that, when you do that, you go through your solicitors and, if you're in a jurisdiction like New South Wales, you take your barrister with you as well, and you enter into this legal costs jurisdiction. So, as a casual employee, you'd better hope that you win, because otherwise you'll have the employer's costs awarded against you. And they want to say that's fair arbitration! Casual workers, in my experience, are not well-paid workers. They are, as described, casual workers. Their bargaining rights are somewhat limited compared to those of an employer. So, despite this mealy-mouthed stuff the government want to say about how you have the prospect of going to arbitration and you can go all the way to the Federal Court, they know that's not just a reality, or at least I hope they do. Otherwise it reflects on the mentality of those opposite if they think this is really a prospect in real life.

The other thing this bill does to employees is to make bargaining for better pay even more difficult than it is currently, and where jurisdictions have criminalised wage theft, as many around the country have done, it actually overrides states' jurisdiction in that respect, obviously because of constitutional supremacy. It weakens some ordinary punishments for the crime of wage theft as it stands.

Another thing that's near to my heart, having worked in setting up agreements in industries, particularly in hydrocarbon and oil areas, is that, leading from manufacturing into production, sometimes you will have greenfield sites set up. Instead of having industrial complications, you will try to get a situation where there are some known industrial outcomes for employees. Under their provisions, they can set their greenfield agreements up for a period of eight years. You can set up so there is no pay rise capable of being negotiated throughout the whole period of that greenfield agreement. So it is something that they have failed to take account of—that there's a real situation out there. They have failed to take into account that we're not talking about the top end of the labour market and they've failed to take account of our collective responsibility in looking after people in need.

The reason why we have industrial regulation is to protect those that are in work. The government like to talk about the individual and the individual's ability to go out and negotiate. We heard all that from John Howard onwards. The simple fact is that all these fellows here, including on our side, don't go and individually negotiate their parliamentary salaries. It is all done in one job lot. You can't think that a casual worker can simply go out and take on their employer. You know what will happen? They simply won't get any more shifts. They would be engineered out of the workplace. This is making it harder at that end.

I think most in this place gave speeches genuinely of thanks to all those workers that have helped us through the pandemic—the shop assistants and the truck drivers that ensured the logistics were taken care of and that our shelves were as full as possible. Our cleaners have had an extraordinary responsibility throughout this period. They're just a couple of the types of frontline workers. Clearly there are many others—police, ambulance officers and emergency services workers, of course. But the ones I mentioned earlier—the truck drivers, the shop assistants and the cleaners—are not high-paid workers. But they're the ones who are effectively the targets of this legislation, because they are principally the ones you'll find on casualised employment. It does make a difference to them whether they have a regularised income. It certainly does make a difference to them if they can be permanent.

Under this legislation, after 12 months the employer can offer to transition someone into permanency in their employment—can. But you could be there for 12 months and the employer could take the view, 'It's not reasonable because I don't think your job is going to be in existence in 12 months time.' That at face value could be seen as a reasonable justification not to make that person permanent. That person can't go to a bank and get a loan or a mortgage. It affects not only the stability of the person in employment but the person's ability to further provide ongoing sustenance to their family in terms of living and what secure employment would do in giving security to a family within a community. I ask those opposite just to think about it.

The change to the BOOT test was interesting. They put it in there probably thinking: 'If John Howard could do it, why shouldn't we? Those are our colours. We're members of the Liberal Party, so this is what we do.' It's a bit like the story of the scorpion and frog: halfway across the stream, the scorpion stings the frog. When asked why, the scorpion's view is: 'Well, that's what we do. That's in our nature.' I think to some extent the BOOT test, like Work Choices, was in their nature. However, they should actually go a little bit past ideology and think about why they became Members of Parliament. I would hope that everybody in this place came here to help make their communities a better place and, in doing so, that means looking after people, particularly those in need, those falling through the cracks. That's not what this legislation does. It not only identifies the cracks but widens them and does things to people at the lower end of the employment scales. These are the people who need all of our collective support. Those not just from Labor on our side but those in government should take the responsibility seriously about helping protect people in need.

Quite frankly, we are a community in need at the moment. We are rebuilding and recovering from the worst pandemic in 100 years. We need everybody to find security of employment and be confident that they can spend in our economy and, as a consequence, that will generate other jobs. Let's not make it harder for our own domestic economy by doing things like this. It might fit with the ideology, but it doesn't fit with the economics, it doesn't fit with looking after people. I would've thought collectively in this place that our sworn responsibility is protecting people in need. Consequently, we'll be voting against this legislation.