BILLS;Fair Work Amendment (Protecting Take-Home Pay) Bill 2017;Second Reading – 23 Mar 2017

This Fair Work Amendment (Protecting Take-Home Pay) Bill 2017 before the Senate today is very important because it seeks to protect the take-home pay of some of this nation’s lowest paid workers. I am disappointed that the Senate did not support Labor’s motion to bring this bill on for debate yesterday when they had the opportunity, instead giving priority to the government’s Social Services Legislation Amendment Bill. This bill is very worthy of the support of this chamber. As the Leader of the Labor Party, Mr Bill Shorten, said in the House:

… some issues in this parliament … are complex and … some … are dead simple. This parliament has never had a more straightforward choice than it does today. This parliament can vote with Labor to protect … the take-home pay of … 700,000 of our working Australians … or it can vote to cut wages in retail, hospitality, pharmacy and fast food.

It is just that easy.

I often wonder if those on the other side of the chamber have ever had to rely on penalty rates—not just get them while working a part-time job while living at home but actually rely on them. We are not just talking about students or young people, but 700,000 people. Mothers, fathers, carers and primary breadwinners: these are the people we are talking about. They really do need these penalty rates and the security that those penalty rates offer. They know that the extra rate on Sunday will allow them to pay the gas or electricity bill or to put new tyres on the car. They rely on them to pay for school supplies or new uniforms or to make sure there are a few dollars in the bank account if they ever need to go to the doctor. If those opposite ever had to rely on penalty rates, they would never accept them being cut. If those opposite really understood, they would side with our lowest paid workers and make their lives a little easier. They would vote with Labor to support this bill today.

As a member of Labor’s Fair Work Taskforce I have heard first-hand from some of the Tasmanian people whose lives clearly demonstrate that penalty rates are no luxury. Carol is a receptionist who works 15 hours a week on a three-week rotating cycle. For this she earns $20,000 each year, with the penalty rate component accounting for 25 per cent of that amount. Carol supports a child and a profoundly deaf mother. She did not seek out working those penalty rate times—that is what is required of the job—and sometimes the hours are not convenient for her. But work is hard to get, especially in Tasmania. It took her 62 job applications over 33 weeks to find this position and she wants to hold onto it. Nobody in their right mind would envy Carol or think she was a profit murderer, but her employer once referred to her penalty rates as money ‘supporting her lifestyle’. Penalty rates do not support an extravagant lifestyle; they support Carol’s life. It is people like Carol, often in part-time or casual work at low rates of pay, that Labor is absolutely determined to stand up for. But they are not the only ones negatively impacted by penalty rate cuts.

What is possibly the most disappointing aspect of all of this is that, if these cuts proceed, if those opposite do not support Labor’s bill, then on the exact same day as workers get a pay cut millionaires will get a tax cut. A retail worker on $40,000 will lose up to 10 per cent of their income for the year while someone on $1 million will get an extra $17,000 a year. Tell me if that is fair. It is completely and utterly unfair. Labor does not accept the failed, flawed and sterile view of this country that says you reward the very top and hope that something trickles down to everyone else. If we went out onto the streets of Hobart or Launceston, or Triabunna or Queenstown, or down in the Huon and asked people whether millionaires should get a $17,000 tax cut while our lowest paid workers gets a $4,000 pay cut, people would be utterly outraged. However, this is what is going to happen on 1 July 2017.

It is clear to see that the government’s priorities are utterly wrong. They have looked at what is the right thing to do for the Australian people and then they have completely turned their backs. The last thing this country needs, the last thing Australians need, is a cut to household budgets which are already often stretched to their last dollar. When corporate profits are at a record high and wage growth is at a record low it is not the time to give multinationals a tax cut and workers a pay cut. The unfairness at the heart of the Liberal-Nationals economic plan is in plain sight. This is what it includes: a $50 billion tax cut for multinationals making record profits; a $7.4 billion bonus for big banks jacking up interest rates; tax cuts for millionaires; and a pay cut for working families.

The other policy agendas the government is supporting—things like cutting funding for the arts, watering down race-hate laws and backing away from fully funding Gonski—just show how out of touch they are. Labor will fight this unfairness. A mum working on Sundays in retail does not take any comfort from hearing the Prime Minister shout about Bill Shorten and Labor. One of the things I find really amusing is that those on the other side think that if they shout it somehow makes them more right. I think there is a competition between Senator Cash and Senator Nash about who can be the most theatrical in their shouting. It does make me laugh. Embarrassing as it is to say this, you should watch question time in the Senate just to see the theatrics. They obviously all go to the same theatrical school.

But what that mum working on Sundays in retail wants to hear is what the government will do to protect her penalty rates. A young person working in hospitality who stands to lose $77 a week is not remotely interested in the politics of finger-pointing and blame. Australians facing a cut to their penalty rates just want someone to fight for them. And that is exactly what Labor will do. Those opposite say that we should just accept the decision of the fair work umpire. We absolutely respect the Fair Work Commission but they have made the wrong decision here and we will not stand idly by while working people pay the price.

We would take the government’s point of view much more seriously if it was not tainted by the utter hypocrisy they showed last year when they abolished the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal. Between 2012 and 2016 the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal set pay and conditions for road transport drivers in the road transport industry. It did this by making orders for the people covered by the system, as well as approving road transport collective agreements and dealing with disputes. Some of my current and former Senate colleagues worked very hard to fight for the implementation of the tribunal. In fact, truck drivers and their representatives fought for 20 years for the creation of the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal—and I would like to mention Senator Alex Gallacher and Senator Glenn Sterle in particular for their fight to ensure the tribunal came into force.

The tribunal handed down the Contractor Driver Minimum Payments Road Safety Remuneration Order 2016—which the government was opposed to. So what did the government do? Did they just sit back and accept the result? Did they say, ‘Oh well, we’ll accept the advice of the umpire’? No. They abolished the tribunal in its entirety! They rushed legislation through this place and the other place and scrapped the whole thing. Can you believe that? They refused to ensure truckers are properly paid—which is shown to improve road safety. It is therefore rank hypocrisy for those opposite to call for Labor to just accept this decision of the Fair Work Commission. We know it is a bad decision and an unfair decision. It is bad for workers, it is bad for families, it is bad for the economy—and we on this side of the chamber utterly reject it.

I would just like to take a few moments to talk about the importance of penalty rates to the broader economy. In 2015, research compiled by the McKell Institute, on behalf of the Shop Assistants Union and United Voice, revealed the effects of the partial or complete abolition of penalty rates on workers. I would like to thank these unions—the SDA, who I know do fantastic work in Tasmania protecting the rights of shop workers, and United Voice, who look after bar staff and some early childhood educators, among others—for commissioning this study.

The study estimates that a partial abolition of penalty rates in the retail and hospitality sectors would result in workers in Tasmania losing between $31.5 million and $58.7 million a year and a loss in disposable income of between $15 million and $29.4 million a year to local economies in Tasmania. A full abolition of penalty rates in the retail and hospitality sectors would result in workers in Tasmania losing between $78.9 million and $131.6 million a year and a loss in disposable income of between $38.2 million and $64.1 million a year to local economies in Tasmania. It would be an utter disaster for the Tasmanian economy if there was $131.6 million dollars less in Tasmanian workers’ pockets to spend in their community.

The Catholic Commission for Employment Relations rejected the argument that cutting workers’ penalty rates would result in increased job opportunities. Its executive director, Tony Farley, said back in 2015:

As a major employer, we simply don’t agree with the argument that stripping workers of their take-home pay is going to be good for business or for employment.

He continued, adding:

There’s no evidence whatsoever to support the claims that cutting low-paid workers’ pay even further is going to be beneficial for us as a nation.

People can’t spend money they don’t have and cutting pay ends up hitting businesses between the eyes.

The Catholic Commission for Employment Relations, the ACCER, and the Catholic Commission for Employment Relations, the CCER, also made a submission to the Fair Work Commission’s penalty rates case. They told the FWC that they:

… do not support the PC recommendations to reduce Sunday penalty rates in the hospitality, entertainment, retail, restaurants and cafe industries or to provide greater consistency in weekend rates in those industries where that would result in rate reductions. We do not support the requirement for the FWC to implement the reductions through the award review process.

ACCER and CCER oppose the applications in the Penalty Rates Case to vary specific awards in the retail and hospitality sectors to reduce penalty rates, in particular reductions to Sunday rates. ACCER and CCER reject legislative and other attempts to abolish or reduce weekend penalty rates due to concerns about the negative impact on the incomes of vulnerable workers and the detrimental impact of unsociable working hours on rest, recreation, and family time.

Research by the University of South Australia found that the abolition of penalty rates will actually have a negative effect on businesses themselves. The research found that 62.2 per cent of workers would stop working non-standard hours, if penalty rates or additional pay were not offered. In particular, according to the University of South Australia research, employees with household incomes below $30,000 were less likely to continue working non-standard hours, if penalty rates were not offered. To put it simply: many businesses will be struggling for employees, if penalty rates are cut. The abolition of penalty rates may make it impossible for the business to open at all.

We know that those opposite like to attack unions—sometimes I think it is their reason for living. We know it, everyone that has watched this place for more than five minutes knows it—and they have said a lot during this debate about unions. But their attacks on the union movement have been exceptionally dishonest. Those opposite should be ashamed of their dishonesty, but I presume you would have to have a conscience to be ashamed of your dishonesty.

For over a decade, I was a union official for the Australian Services Union in Tasmania—a very fine union I am proud to support and to say that I was out there working hard to improve pay and conditions for membership. What those opposite haven’t said—and what Senator Williams speaking previously did not speak about—is that when unions negotiate on behalf of workers, it is about making them better off overall. Taking the example of Sunday penalty rates in isolation completely ignores the benefits of the higher base rates of pay and better conditions. But that is what those opposite keep doing.

They love to talk about McDonalds—at McDonalds full-time senior weekly wages are up to $70 better than the award, because of union negotiations. And the EBA also delivers: guaranteed minimum shifts; family violence leave; compassionate leave and study leave. But the cut to penalty rates from the Fair Work Commission is just a pay cut. There is no compensation benefit of lifting the overall rate. The end result will be that people will work the same hours for less pay.

The Prime Minister either does not understand industrial relations or does not care about industrial relations. The Labor party does understand, and we do care about getting industrial relations right. It is the Labor Party and the union movement that have fought to get every employee every right at work they currently hold. I must admit: I have never had an employer come to me to suggest that they will improve the working rights of their workforce. I never once in 12 years of being a union official had the bosses come to me and say, ‘We propose that we will give workers this in exchange for nothing’—never once.

It is the Labor Party and the union movement, as I said, that have fought to get every employee every right at work they currently hold. These include things like—let me remind people—penalty rates, sick pay, holiday pay, paid parental leave, work health and safety regulations. It is all down to the hard work of the union movement. Mr Turnbull and his friends opposite have only ever sought to cut pay and conditions.

I recently asked in this place whether those opposite were unknowing, or unfeeling, of the impacts their changes make on the most vulnerable in our society. I am sad to say that, given their continued and sustained attacks on the least well off in our society, supported by One Nation faction, I can only conclude that those opposite are fully aware of the hurt that these cuts cause, and they simply do not care.

Members of this place have a choice, as I have said, to vote with Labor to protect the take-home pay of working people or they can stand by and allow the harshest pay cut in living memory. You guys have talked the talk; now you have got to walk the walk. But if you go back to your states and say you care about workers—and I say this particularly to the Xenophon team; One Nation is just a faction, as I said, of the Liberal party, so I do not hold any hope that they will change their views—and yet you backed cuts to penalty rates, your words will ring very hollow.

I would like to finish by echoing Bill Shorten’s words in the House:

There is a very clear decision to be made here. You can either vote to save the penalty rates—the Sunday pay rates—of young people, of women, of people in the regions and of workers who depend upon these penalty rates. You can vote to do that, or you can vote to endorse cutting them.

I call upon the Senate to pass Labor’s legislation to protect our lowest-paid workers