BILLS - Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Closing Loopholes) Bill 2023 - Second Reading

 BILLS - Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Closing Loopholes) Bill 2023 - Second Reading Main Image

12 September 2023

Our economy, our society and our nation rely on our workers, and they in turn rely on strong government backing to support and protect them. That's why I am proud to stand here with my colleagues and speak in support of the Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Closing Loopholes) Bill 2023, which is incredibly important. I'd like to thank the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations for his tireless efforts in this space protecting the most vulnerable people in our society. Australians expect and are used to having safe and fair working conditions. In the last decade, many working conditions have changed, and our industrial relations policies have not kept pace with that change. It's very important that we have legislation that underpins our strong workforce and helps ensure that hundreds of thousands of mums, dads, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters go to work and come home safely each day. This expectation, however, is grounded in the strong and tireless efforts of workers, labour advocates and governments fighting for these entitlements and protections.

This bill covers many things, from closing the labour hire loophole to tackling wage theft and covering greater protections for workers, particularly in the digital labour and transport industries. We've all seen how our workforce has changed with the use of things like Uber and with labour hire companies taking over many roles in things like construction and mining, and our legislation and our worker supports have not kept up with these changes. This bill covers many things, from closing the labour hire loophole to tackling wage theft and covering greater protections for workers, particularly in the digital labour and transport industries. For too long, certain workers have been missing out on greater workforce protections and supports due to loopholes, which have been exploited by unscrupulous companies and individuals, that allow pay and conditions to be undercut. This sometimes affects people on very low incomes in insecure jobs, and it is shameful.

We know that stealing from the till, forging cheques or robbing a bank is criminal, and people get prosecuted for it. Yet companies and people that steal wages are left untouched by the criminal justice system. This bill will change that. The minister noted in his second reading speech that this bill would make this behaviour criminally punishable, as an employer convicted of wage theft could face up to 10 years imprisonment. I know the vast majority of employers do the right thing, but when they don't they need to be held accountable. We'll also make sure with this legislation that the penalty for wage theft is greater by granting courts the ability to impose fines of up to three times the amount of wage underpayment in both civil and criminal contexts, thereby ensuring that penalties are proportionate to the scale of the misconduct. Whether it's underpaying their wages or their superannuation contributions, it is wrong that these loopholes are even there in the first place, and they must be closed.

I would like to thank the strong men and women from the union movement for their tireless advocacy in addressing issues with these loopholes. Particularly, I'd like to thank Gerard Hayes of the Health Services Union; Paul Farrow of the AWU, our great local councillor; Richard Olsen and Michael Kaine of the TWU; and Sally McManus of the ACTU. They've worked tirelessly on this. Without their efforts and the efforts of their members, workers would be much worse off.

Casual labour hire workers, particularly those who are or have been on this in the longer term, have missed out on serious workplace and workforce protections and benefits while doing the same work and job as other workers who may be part time or full time. The ramifications of this are significant and must be addressed, which this bill will do. This is a major issue for those workers who are injured, who are often not called back to work and are replaced by another worker sent by the labour hire provider in their place. Without protections, these injured workers struggle to gain additional employment, and they do not receive the same workplace protections as those with fixed work arrangements. This is particularly true in the gig economy. We've seen that with injured delivery drivers and with injured short-term workers in the construction industry left destitute by the lack of protections.

I should note that it's not that the labour hire providers are always in the wrong. Some do protect their workers. Those people who do the right thing will not be affected by this legislation. If an employer or business asks a labour hire worker to do the same job as non-labour hire workers but for less, then that is a labour hire loophole, and this bill, very importantly, will close it.

It's very difficult for workers without permanency to obtain leases for things such as cars—even leases for houses these days, in the rental crisis that we're seeing in Sydney and around the country—refrigerators, televisions and stoves. It's very difficult for people in non-continuing work to be able to get leases for this sort of equipment, and this bill will help close that loophole. One member of my staff recently informed me of a period in their life when they were a casual worker whilst at university and needed to obtain a loan to purchase a car to get to and from work—my work. However, as they were on a casual contract, the only loan they could get and secure was one with a sky-high interest rate, which they had no choice but to accept. We've changed that for people like them, but it was a big loophole that they found very difficult to overcome. As they put it, no car equalled no job, and the financial risk was deemed worth it to secure ongoing employment.

This scenario plays out every day around our country and is a very real stress that too many Australians have had to unfairly endure. That is why this bill is so important. We are seeking to reduce such experiences and help more Australians get into stable and long-term employment. Some people may not want regular employment. They may want to work intermittently on a casual or part-time basis—no problem with that. This is about individual choice and helping people secure permanent work when they need it. Why should workers, especially those engaged in long-term jobs, be ostracised from the benefits of permanent, part- or full-time work and have their labour efforts milked by those who seek to make greedy gains off them? We know that some companies and some people have exploited that, and it's very important that this loophole is closed, which is what this legislation is about. It is about closing loopholes.

It's well known that there is a direct link between low rates of pay and safety issues at work. And, tragically, we've seen a number of workers lose their lives in places like the construction industry, which is a dangerous industry, and the mining industry, which is a dangerous industry. Even food delivery services can be quite a dangerous occupation. Recently, whilst visiting central Sydney, I saw a food delivery driver knocked off his bike by a motor vehicle. He fractured his leg, but his main concern, as we stopped to help him, was that he wouldn't be able to work, would therefore lose his income and wouldn't have any way of paying for a roof over his own head. That's a tragic situation in a country like Australia—a wealthy country like Australia. So that needs to change. Even more at risk are those working in other parts of the gig economy, as they're more likely to be pressured into working longer hours, taking more risks—and we certainly see that in the mining and construction industry—and feeling pressured to take on more work due to their real fears of not having any long-term, permanent paid employment.

Some days ago, the family of Burak Dogan called for this parliament to pass this bill. Burak was a 30-year-old Turkish student and Uber Eats driver who was killed in April 2020 between jobs, when he was hit by a truck in Sydney. So this is reality. This does happen, and this bill is extremely important in closing this loophole and providing some safety net features for those in the lowest-paid employment. For Burak and his family, obviously his death insurance and workers compensation were not covered under existing legislation, meaning that the benefits and funeral expenses could not be claimed. That's terrible. It really should not happen in a country like Australia. This is wrong on many levels, and it means that already grieving family and friends are often left with additional stresses and trauma to deal with during such troubling times, including sometimes transporting bodies overseas to their families.

In my view, what has been happening—and it's a term that is bandied around—is really un-Australian. We need to do much better, and this legislation is very important in supporting that. It's why, as I mentioned earlier, that so many Australians expect safe and robust working conditions to protect them, their children, their employment prospects and their family. Without strong protections, our workforce and our economy would be greatly at risk, not the other way around like those members opposite wish to project. It is important that even the lowest paid in our community get those protections that we all expect. Unfortunately, for the last decade we've had a laissez faire approach to protecting the lowest paid workers in the country. That approach is not appropriate. We have too many resources and too many people doing extremely well in this country to let those who are most disadvantaged pay the costs for this.

We're working to ensure that this bill provides the Fair Work Commission with the powers to include employee-like reforms of work which will allow it to better protect people in the new forms of work, such as the gig economy workers and workers who work in some of the most dangerous conditions, from exploitation and dangerous working conditions. This will be done through the commission's ability to set minimum standards for thousands of workers in places such as the digital platform, where we are seeing more and more people, even in my own field of health care, being involved in work which can often be unseen and sometimes, up until now, unprotected. It will reduce unsafe practices and deter both employers and employees from taking chances with risky behaviour. The race to the bottom by those wishing to exploit and abuse Australian workers must and will stop. It has gone on for far too long.

In relation to this, this bill will help ensure that employees who are experiencing family and domestic violence will not be discriminated against in the workforce, which shockingly can and does occur even in this day and age. We've seen it happen. This legislation acknowledges that far too many Australians, often women, have had to face dreadful decisions and choices about losing their jobs or putting up with violence in their relationships, and this government has worked extraordinarily hard to make sure that they are protected, and this legislation will further close loopholes in that regard. For far too long we've seen women severely injured from domestic violence. Unfortunately, a woman a week dies because of domestic violence in this country. We have to change that. There is no other answer other than to protect these workers. It's not right, and this bill ensures that workers are not penalised in any way if they disclose that they are or have been experiencing family and domestic violence. This builds on our government's work from earlier this year when we introduced 10 days paid family and domestic violence leave, which saves lives, helps victims and protects our workforce.

It is for these reasons that I am very proud to support this bill and to defend Australian workers from exploitation and from being neglected. I again thank the minister and his team for their efforts. The minister has worked extraordinarily hard and extraordinarily long to try to make sure that workers are protected, and I congratulate him on this bill. I congratulate my colleagues and those in the union movement and the labour movement who have worked incredibly hard to look at these protections in a very methodical and practical way. This bill allows people from my electorate of Macarthur and around the country to now have the option of secure work with secure protections for their working lives. I'm very proud to be part of a government that believes in the philosophy of this bill and closing these terrible loopholes that have allowed very poor people to be exploited.