13 September 2023

Closing Labour Loopholes

Ms WELLS (Lilley—Minister for Aged Care and Minister for Sport) (18:04): The election of the Albanese Labor government was a watershed moment for Australian workers. We promised to build a better, fairer future and we are delivering. Just over one year into an Albanese government, wages are growing at their fastest rate in a decade, with the average full-time worker approximately $3,700 better off than they were 12 months ago. We've created half a million jobs, 85 percent of which are full-time, the strongest jobs growth for the first year of any Australian government. We increased the minimum award wage for aged-care workers by 15 per cent, the largest increase in history. We introduced 10 days paid domestic violence leave so that no-one is forced to choose between being safe and being paid. The gender pay gap has fallen to 13 per cent, the lowest ever level in Australia.

This progress is great news for most Australians who need secure work and strong wages to combat the cost-of-living pressures. But too many people are not receiving the full benefit of these changes because of unfair loopholes that allow their pay and conditions to be undercut by their employer. Over one-third of workers are stuck in insecure or non-standard forms of work, directly impacting their ability to provide for their families or to plan for the future. That changes with the Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Closing Loopholes) Bill 2023. This bill closes the loopholes and provides certainty, fairness and a level playing field for workers and businesses. It delivers on our promise to get wages moving with four key elements: (1) cracking down on the labour hire loophole that's used to undercut pay and conditions; (2) criminalising wage theft; (3) properly defining casual work so that casual workers are not being exploited; and (4) making sure gig workers are not getting ripped off.

In my electorate of Lilley, we saw the life shattering impact of insecure work firsthand during COVID. Northsiders who were casuals, contract workers, gig economy workers and labour hire workers suddenly saw their hours slashed or taken away altogether overnight. They instantly fell through the trap door with no annual leave, no sick leave, no holiday pay and no family leave. As a result, the line outside of Centrelink in Nundah and in Chermside went around the block. Today, the Albanese government is standing up for those workers who are stuck being defined as 'casual' but are working regular hours and want to become permanent employees. This bill introduces a fair and objective definition to determine when an employee can be classified as casual. Casual employees will be able to seek permanent employment through two pathways: through the new employee choice pathway or through the existing casual conversion pathway. This choice could help 850,000 workers, who will have the option to become permanent workers and receive greater access to leave entitlements and more financial security. This choice also empowers workers to remain casual if it suits their needs or lifestyle.

This bill also delivers on our commitment to make sure workers with the same job get the same pay. Labour hire has legitimate uses in providing surge and specialist workforces. In aged care, the Australian government provides temporary surge staffing to assist providers that are unable to fill the critical skills because of staff testing positive to COVID-19. But, unfortunately, some employers are deliberately exploiting labour hire loopholes to undercut their workers, bringing in a labour hire workforce with fewer rights and lower pay. The most egregious example of this in recent memory happened under the Morrison government's watch. In 2020, Qantas outsourced the jobs of 2,000 ground crew, many of whom lived in my electorate of Lilley and worked at the Brisbane Airport. In a bitter blow, the workers who were let go were told that they could reapply for their jobs as contractors but, of course, for less pay. Chris, a father of three living in my electorate, was one of the 2,000 Qantas ground crew who was made redundant by Qantas. He had worked for Qantas for 17 years. His dad worked for Qantas for 10 years. Aviation was in Chris's blood. But, because of these unfair loopholes, Chris was made redundant and ended up stacking supermarket shelves in order to support his family.

Today, the High Court has delivered justice for Chris and the thousands who have been put through hell over the past three years. Now, the High Court has unanimously dismissed Qantas's appeal, clearing the way for workers who had adverse action taken against them to seek compensation. While this is a sweet moment of vindication, and one long awaited for those workers and the unions who fought for them, now is the time to legislate to stop the race to the bottom that has been waved through by the coalition over the past nine years.

This bill amends the Fair Work Act to protect workers like Chris and to take away some of the incentive to outsource jobs. It gives powers to the Fair Work Commission to make orders that labour hire employees be paid at least the wages in a host enterprise agreement, unless it is not fair and reasonable in the circumstances. Sensible exemptions will apply for small-business employers, and a default three-month exemption will apply to avoid impacting labour hire arrangements for surge work, like we have in aged care, or temporary replacements.

Australians have seen countless examples of dodgy bosses ripping off their workers, emboldened by the deliberate policy decisions made by consecutive Liberal-National governments. Under the previous coalition government's watch, the suburb of Nundah, in my electorate of Lilley, had the highest reported number of wage-theft complaints to the Fair Work Ombudsman. Chermside workers were being ripped off and forced to forfeit part of their wages for food and drinks.

In 2019, the now Prime Minister and I met with workers in my electorate of Lilley who had been victims of wage theft, Sulu and Kulwinder. We listened and learned about how wage theft disproportionately affects vulnerable workers—especially migrant workers, young people and women. I came back to this place and called on the government to criminalise wage theft. But, instead of helping these vulnerable workers, the coalition saw a house on fire—and took out the fire alarm, with their Work Choices 2.0 bill.

The underpayment of wages continues in workplaces across Australia, from small businesses to billion-dollar companies, leaving workers out of pocket. In Queensland, we got sick of waiting for the slew of federal coalition governments to act, and our state government criminalised wage theft in 2020. But those who aren't blessed to live in the glorious kingdom of Queensland do deserve protection as well. They need a national wage-theft system to end the rip-offs.

If a worker steals cash from the till or if a worker steals stock, it is a criminal offence, and fair enough. But, in many parts of Australia, if a boss steals from their worker's pay packet, it is not. That stops with this bill. This bill delivers on the promise the now Prime Minister and I made to Sulu and Kulwinder—to criminalise wage-theft across the country.

Now, there's been a lot of public discourse about the consequences of this bill, with the coalition accusing us of 'making a bad situation worse'. They have called the legislation 'radical'. But, as the Minister for Aged Care, I have seen firsthand the profound impact that improving the pay and conditions of your workers can have on an industry that is in a bad situation. Requiring 24/7 nursing in aged care, and supporting pay rises for aged-care workers—policies which sought to lift the standard of care and improve the pay and conditions of aged-care workers—were also ridiculed by the coalition, for 'making a bad situation worse'. But, in the past year, there has been a reduction in the numbers of pressure injuries, a reduction in the numbers of physical restraints, a reduction in the numbers of significant unplanned weight losses, a reduction in the numbers of falls, a reduction in polypharmacy and a reduction in the use of antipsychotics in aged care.

This week I spoke to the service manager, Sharon, at UnitingCare in Weston Creek, who said that her staff-satisfaction surveys are skyrocketing, and she has workers coming back to the aged-care sector. That is what happens when you value and respect a workforce.

At the election, voters elected a government who would work for them—who would stop the race to the bottom on wages and conditions and make sure they got a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. This bill delivers on that commitment and will help create a better, fairer future for workers. I thank the House.