BILLS; Fair Work Laws Amendment (Proper Use of Worker Benefits) Bill 2017; Second Reading

October 25, 2017

Mr HAYES (FowlerChief Opposition Whip) (11:20): From the outset, I should say that I oppose this Fair Work Laws Amendment (Proper Use of Worker Benefits) Bill 2017 but that I support the member for Gorton's amendment. In doing so, I want to talk a little about penalty rates. I know they have taken up a fair bit of airtime in this parliament this year, with the decision of the Fair Work Commission to move to cut penalty rates, effectively for some 700,000 low-paid workers in the hospitality and retail industry.

Unlike in the United States—fortunately, we haven't gone down that path of having to rely on tips—these are people who work for a wage and who work on Sundays. For most of us who can afford to go out and enjoy ourselves on a Sunday or go to a restaurant, we don't even mind paying the Sunday surcharge. By the way—the restaurants I've been to lately still have the Sunday surcharge on even though they have cut penalty rates for their employees under the award. This government had the opportunity to join with the opposition in the private member's bill from the Leader of the Opposition, the member for Maribyrnong, to prevent that from occurring.

It's not just what these workers have had their wages cut by this year; it's going to be what they have their wages cut by again in 2019 and then in 2020. Effectively, these workers will not get a pay rise for some four years. Now, they're not the sorts of workers enjoying the same benefits as we do in this parliament. They don't have a parliamentary allowance and they don't have many other things. They are working on minimum wages; this decision only applies to those workers on minimum wage agreements, therefore, the cut in penalty rates for them is very real. It's what makes the difference for many in being able to put food on the table and it's those little benefits for those who are supporting families and catering for kids in school activities. These are the things that make a difference. People don't just work on Sunday because they feel like they want to work on Sunday or because they've got nothing else to do! They work on Sunday because they know it's the industry and they know they have to do it.

And we know it doesn't stop there. This was the start in enterprise negotiations around the country. Employers are starting to lock on to this; they see this as a negotiable area to try to have workers trade off penalty rates. This was the green light given to them by this government that it's fair game now to try to negotiate with your workers to give away penalty rates.

It's a slippery slope. Working conditions were struck to ensure that workers had a fair and equitable outcome—that they were able to maintain a reasonable standard of living, clearly not to get rich under, for the labour they put in. And yet this government salivated at the notion that we could see a cut in penalty rates and, effectively, a real cut in wages as a consequence. This comes at a time when we have record low growth in wages. It's probably the lowest growth in living memory in wage growth. It has flatlined, it has plateaued: it's not moving—that is, for those at the lower end of the scale.

For those at the top end, we see what is written in the Fairfax media about what happens in the Murdoch press, and we see in the Murdoch press what's happening in the Fairfax media. We know that at the top end of the scale they're getting big contracts. The top five per cent of our workers are doing pretty healthily. They are commanding huge salaries. They're not being held back by restraint. Also, this government is going to give them more through tax breaks. I would have thought it was important for those of us on both sides to look after those who have a pretty constrained voice—people who work for only award rates of pay, people who actually do it tough out there. I think that what goes with the privilege of being in this parliament is the responsibility of looking after people at the lower end of the spectrum.

I know the big attack by this government is on the construction industry. It doesn't take much to get the Prime Minister to rattle off the acronym CFMEU. I accept there can be excesses, and we don't rail against having proper regulation covering both registered unions and registered employer organisations. There is no question about that, as long as it's appropriate. But the construction industry is one of the most dangerous industries in the country. I've got three kids. My eldest, my daughter, is a high-school teacher. My two sons, Nicholas and Jonathan, both work in the construction industry. I know—and it's not what gets spoken about in crib sheds or toolbox meetings—what happens on various job sites.

A couple of years ago my son Nicholas was working in a fly-in fly-out operation in Western Australia. I got a call from him late at night to say, 'Dad, I'm coming home.' The bloke he was working with had been crushed to death. I'm not asserting that anything was associated with that other than a workplace accident, but I thought at the time that if there had been another set of eyes looking at safety—if I had been that man's family, I would have been pretty keen to see that everyone was focused on safety, including those in the union movement that are paid for by employer and employee funds to have occupational health and safety inspectors on site. I know what sort of impact that had on my son, who is an electrician. This man was working with my son and having morning tea with him, but he wasn't around at lunch time. There is a touch of irony to it in that two weeks ago I was talking to Nicholas, who was working on another job, this time in New South Wales, and one of the formworkers fell through the formwork. He was working with his father, who found him unconscious. A couple of weeks later, the kid's still in a coma.

These things happen; they're not just things that you trot out in parliament when you need something to augment an argument. We know these things are real. Those on the other side know they're real. It's not just us in Labor representing blue-collar workers—God knows those opposite have a lot of blue-collar workers in their electorates—who depend on us to make decisions for their welfare. I can't understand how those opposite have locked themselves into a position based on trickle-down economics.

Like many in this place, the other day I attended the launch of a publication by NETWORK, a Catholic social justice organisation, entitled An Economy that Works for All. Its introduction is by Frank Brennan and it is authored by Joe Zabar. I thought I should read it if I have time. Its introduction refers to the social justice statement of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference entitled Everyone's Business: Developing an Inclusive and Sustainable Economy. The Catholic Bishops Conference focused on the distribution of wealth and not only its creation but its use in our economy. I thought it was interesting, because trickle-down economics got a mention. The Catholic Bishops Conference agreed with Pope Francis that trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world have not been proven. That seems to be echoed by many credible economists. They go on to say that, in the 26 years since the last statement they made on this issue, economic growth has been insufficient to assume that the poorest Australians can enjoy a dignified and at least frugal existence. They're talking about the people we should be representing—people at the lower end of the scale; people who do not have bargaining positions; people who are price takers, not price makers. The price makers are the CEOs up the top on multi-million-dollar salaries. These are the people on the bottom earning very low rates of pay, minimum wages, who rely on things called penalty rates.

It's not surprising, I suppose, that this bill is being advanced by the same people who brought us Work Choices. I know, when I look around the room, that not everyone here was in the parliament when Work Choices was introduced under the Howard government. Work Choices was very significant and will go down in Australian history as the first time in Australia that it was legal to pay people below the award rates of pay. Those of us who were around know there were many debates about this. But it wasn't until after the 2007 election, which John Howard lost to the Rudd government, that members opposite who were around at that stage said: 'Chris, we always thought that you guys were just playing a union line. We just didn't think it was true or that it was possible.' It wasn't until they started getting knocked-up and harangued in their own electorates, not simply by blue-collar trade unionists or CFMEU officials but by mums and dads and grandparents who were concerned about what was happening to their kids, that they started taking it seriously. It was no longer just playing with ideology; it was playing with the future of families. People railed against it and they threw a government out because of it.

There is a track record here. This is the same government that abolished the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal. Significantly, the tribunal was about setting rates of pay so truck drivers weren't doctoring their log books and cutting corners but taking their rests, with the genuine view of cutting accidents on our roads and protecting our communities. The government railed against the tribunal and abolished it, and the only reason was that they got a decision they didn't like. They've shown that, even if it's an independent tribunal that does something they don't like, they've got the answer: 'We'll abolish it.' That's precisely what they did.

The government's notion of mounting attacks on the trade union movement doesn't do them any good. They've got to understand that unions are not businesses. Unions are creatures of culture. They're in existence to do one thing—look after workers and workers' conditions. If we didn't have to look after workers' conditions, there probably wouldn't be unions here. But that's why they're here—to prosecute issues on behalf of workers. We're here in this Commonwealth parliament effectively as a union, a union in this parliament. We're here to look after the welfare of mums and dads out there. We're here to look after the interests of all in this country, not simply the corporates, who the government have rushed to give a $65 billion tax cut to in the vague belief that trickle-down economics will have people enjoying unrestrained wealth in this country. There is a concept that pigs might fly. I wouldn't suggest you believe in it, Madam Deputy Speaker Wicks, but obviously your Prime Minister does.

Why is the attack always on the lowest paid; the people at the most vulnerable end of the scale; the people who do not have a great bargaining position; the people who look to us in this parliament to defend them, defend their families and defend their way of life? What the government are putting through with their raft of anti-union legislation doesn't behove even a Liberal government; as a matter of fact, it makes a sham of the name 'Liberal', quite frankly. And this is at a time when in the United States, according to TheAustralian Financial Review, Donald Trump—and he's a person I don't often quote in this place—is talking about tax hikes for the rich, saying they might have to pay more and, if they do, they will. That's not the notion of trickle-down economics. He's going in a slightly different direction, whereas your position is to tax the low-paid and give tax cuts to the rich. It might be different if we were all relying on shares or corporate handouts. If we're going to do our jobs—and we intend to—we will always look after workers and workers' rights, and we will support those organisations that make that their core activity as well.