12 September 2023

Safe and fair working conditions are one of the foundations of our Australian working life. These conditions give workers and their families a sense of security, hope for the future and the basis on which to build a productive and meaningful life. Labor governments have always understood this. It was Labor that introduced enterprise bargaining, outlawed sex discrimination in the workplace, passed the Fair Work Act and removed the WorkChoices program, and passed the secure jobs, better pay legislation. Labor governments continue to enshrine safe and fair working conditions as the cornerstone of industrial relations policy, and that's what this legislation, the Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Closing Loopholes) Bill 2023, is all about. It continues this proud tradition because what we know is that fair working conditions are not set in concrete. They can be easily eroded. They can be buffeted by a changing economy, new and different work practices, technological change and the pressure of consumer expectations.

We have all seen this happening over the past decade with an increasing reliance on the casual workforce, labour hire, gig workers and independent contractors. With these changes we have a growing insecure workforce whose conditions are not always safe and not always fair. I understand and the Albanese government understands that businesses need to make a profit and workers need to be secure and safe in their workplace. One should never be at the expense of the other. There must always be balance in our industrial relations system, to deliver for both businesses and workers. That is how we improve productivity. That is how we get better outcomes for businesses and for workers. But at the moment we know this balance is not right. So far this year, 91 workers have been fatally injured in the workplace, and that is 91 too many. We know that some employers are intentionally underpaying staff and taking advantage of labour hire so that people doing the same job are paid different wages, and we know that some businesses are taking advantage of casual workers.

The Albanese government recognises that the vast majority of businesses are doing the right thing. They value their employees, they care for them and they pay them accordingly. This legislation is about protecting workers from those unscrupulous employers who exploit loopholes and who put the success of their business above the welfare and conditions of their workers. Such unscrupulous behaviour has a detrimental effect on all workers. Take casuals, for example. If we want casuals to have a pathway to secure work, we need to close the loopholes in our industrial relations system. I note that casual employment does suit many Australians and plays an important role in our workplaces, but when someone is called casual on their pay slip or their contract, and yet is rostered like a permanent worker, then there's a clear loophole. A worker like this should be able to choose secure employment if they want it. The ability to treat someone as a casual, against their wishes, when they are working like a permanent worker, is simply unfair.

Under this bill, a casual will still be defined as someone who does not have a firm commitment to continuing, indefinite work, but now employees will be able to notify their employer that they wish to be made permanent if they believe they no longer meet the 'casual' definition. To provide certainty to business, casual employees will remain casual unless they actively choose otherwise, and, where an employee chooses to become permanent, no back pay will accrue. Our government acknowledges that most casuals who are eligible won't convert. Most will prefer to keep their loading. But those casuals who are supporting a household are more likely to choose security, because we know their rent isn't casual; their bills aren't casual.

If we want enterprise agreements to determine minimum rates of pay at a workplace, as they should, we need to close the loopholes. If we want gig workers and those in road transport to have safe work conditions, which they deserve, we need to close the loopholes. And, if we want labour hire workers to be paid fairly and equitably, we need to close the loopholes. On this point, I understand there is a legitimate role for labour hire in Australia. Because of the inherent insecurity, labour hire workers are usually paid higher rates of pay, and those cases are completely unaffected by this legislation. But, when a business agrees to rates of pay in an enterprise agreement and then asks labour hire workers to work for less, this is a labour hire loophole, and this bill will close it. As far as wage theft is concerned, it is already a crime for a worker to steal from an employer, yet it's not a crime an employer to steal from a worker. Through this bill, we will close that loophole.

Our nation's workers have waited for far too long for these changes. Now they have a government that is ready to stand up, to act, and to ensure our IR system is fit for purpose for the challenges posed by rapid technological transformation. Over the last decade, and especially through the COVID pandemic, we have seen enormous growth in preference for jobs that have flexibility and that have security. This reflects the changes in our modern workplace, and the increasing demands on workers juggling a range of different responsibilities in their lives. They want flexibility and they want security. But, since 2008, the number of jobs that have both high security and high flexibility has increased by only five per cent, despite rapidly rising demand. Unfortunately, the fastest category of growth in the Australian labour market has been jobs with low flexibility and low security. These jobs have increased by 29 per cent since 2008.

Our modern workforce want security and flexibility to manage their lives, to care for their families and to enjoy everything that our nation has to offer. But it is a challenge. It is often giving them jobs that offer neither security or flexibility. This bill is about changing that reality. It accepts that flexible work practices are required in the gig economy but it adds basic standards and reasonable, fair protections. We know that the gig economy has grown to cover passenger transport, food delivery, health care and many other industries. It should be noted that it has created many benefits for workers, including flexible job opportunities. But it is time to ensure that all gig work is secure, safe work.

It's not only in Australia that this IR reform is occurring. Countries including France, Britain and Canada, and several states in the United States, have already changed their laws to provide more rights to gig economy workers and create new categories of employment for dependent contractors. Like many of our friends around the world, the Albanese Labor government is committed to modernising workplace laws to deliver jobs that are flexible, secure and safe. In the gig economy, this means ensuring workers are entitled to appropriate minimum standards and protections. This means taking jobs that already have flexibility and retrofitting security into them. As the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations has said, 21st-century technology must not mean 19th-century working conditions.

Those in the union movement and my colleagues on this side of the House come from a proud tradition, stretching back hundreds of years, of building a fair workplace, fighting for the eight-hour day, providing people with decent pay that can support them and their families, and ensuring safe, secure workplaces. But the technological changes that are arriving with the gig economy threaten to wipe away centuries of progress, to take us back to an era where there was no holiday pay, no minimum pay and limited protections and safety standards.

Unlike the former coalition government, who cast a blind eye to this challenge, the Labor government and the minister for workplace relations are proactive in reforming workplace relations across our nation. This approach is already reaping rewards for workers, who are now able to access 10 days family violence leave. The gender pay gap has also reduced, while we have seen a 15 per cent pay increase for aged-care workers, along with an increase in the minimum wage.

I'd like to take a moment to acknowledge the work of the unions—particularly the ACTU and Sally McManus, and the TWU—businesses and community groups, who have all been consulted and have contributed to the development of this legislation. I commend their proactive commitment to seeing its introduction in this place.

This legislation underpins the Albanese Labor government's commitment to continuing our mission to enshrine safe and fair working conditions and practices into industrial relations policy. This bill puts flexibility, security and fairness at the centre of IR policy. It closes loopholes that exploit workers and recognises and supports the vast number of businesses that are doing the right thing and valuing their workers.

In closing, with this bill we continue the mission of all Labor governments who came before us, to make sure that safe and fair working conditions remain enshrined as foundations of our Australian way of life. I commend this bill to the House and I urge all in this parliament to support it, because, when we support it, we are supporting all working Australians.