27 November 2019
"Ensuring Integrity" Bill 2019
I rise to speak today because, as a Labor senator and as a person who believes in the fundamental principle that workers have a right to choose their representatives and to defend and protect their workplace rights, it is my responsibility to add my name to the chorus of voices of working Australians who oppose the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill 2019. Make no mistake: this bill is bad for workers, it is bad for unions and it is bad for Australia, because, at its heart, this bill is just another Liberal attack on workers and their representatives.
In the first 'ensuring integrity' bill, which was considered and rejected by the 45th Parliament, the Liberals sought to bring in dangerous and extreme measures that were, by design, intended to weaken the union movement. This parliament was right to reject that bill, and we should be rejecting the version in front of us now, because, ultimately, the original bill, with all of its damaging intent, is back, and the Liberals are back to their favourite stomping ground of attacking Australian workers and attacking our unions. This bill, like its predecessor, is draconian, it is antidemocratic and it is unnecessary. Despite its name, this legislation has absolutely nothing to do with ensuring integrity, but everything to do with ideology and opportunism and this government's pathological hatred of unions and the workers that they seek to represent and protect. It's an attack on the union movement, an attack on union officials and an attack on volunteers. It's an attack on Australian workers. It's an attack on freedom of association and it is an attack on democracy itself.
And what will it ensure? It will ensure less safe workplaces. It will ensure more wage and super theft. It will ensure a less effective union movement—more preoccupied with getting its paperwork right than doing the job which has delivered better wages and conditions for workers in Australia for well over a century. This bill will not ensure wage growth for Australian workers and it will do nothing for our economy. In this current economic climate, it beggars belief that the Liberals are prioritising attacking Australian workers over fixing the economy. They are back to pursuing their ideological agenda at the expense of practical industrial relations reforms that would actually improve the lives of working people in Australia.
In recent years we have seen example after example of employers ripping off their workers. There's 7-Eleven, where operators at 11 stores across the country were found to have underpaid and exploited vulnerable workers. Subsequent investigations found that this exploitation was systematic and came from the top. The franchisor had set up the franchising arrangements in such a way that it was impossible for the stores to make a profit unless they underpaid their staff. Another example is Domino's pizza where, in a class-action law suit, the company was accused of underpaying staff for weekend and afterhours work for 4½ years. And then there's Michael Hill jewellers, who are reported to have stolen an unbelievable $25 million from their workforce over a period of six years.
Each of those examples tells us why we need our unions—and they are not the only examples of workers being systematically ripped off across Australia. Across our country, far too many workers are seeing the most basic entitlement from their labour, their pay, under attack. It's happening in industries from transport to manufacturing and from the retail sector to cafes. But this bill won't help those workers. This bill does not seek to go after dodgy employers. It is not about tackling stagnant wages, wage theft of worker exploitation. It's not about the issues that working people are talking about and are worried about. It's not about easing cost-of-living pressures for Australian families. It's about attacking the union movement. It's about attacking Australian workers at a time when they need our support in this place the most.
Countless examples of the real-world problems in our workplaces are provided to us regularly by the Office of the Fair Work Ombudsman, who says that the flood of companies rushing to declare that they have underpaid their workers has become a torrent. Just recently, reports of Woolworths' systematic wage theft of nearly 6,000 employees by as much as $300 million shocked Australia. But this was just one example that, when combined with other cases across the nation, adds up to $40 million in unpaid wages being handed back to Australian workers in the last year alone. This $40 million was taken unfairly from over 17,000 workers, with the workplace watchdog confirming that fast-food restaurants and cafes are a key priority, with a series of high-profile wage theft scandals plaguing the industry in recent years. According to the Fair Work Ombudsman, there have already been 22 separate large underpayments reported this year. These, of course, are just the cases that we know about.
What is clear as day, what we do know, is that these issues aren't a priority for this government. Working Australians and their families aren't a priority for them either. Workers in the sharing economy know this all too well. More and more workers are joining the sharing economy, and while, of course, there are opportunities in this emerging sector, currently there are also far too many workers facing exploitative conditions and unfair sackings. For example, a case recently brought to public attention by the Transport Workers Union was that of a food delivery driver from Adelaide who was allegedly sacked for delivering food 10 minutes late. The existing unfair dismissal laws do not currently apply, because of a workplace structure loophole that sees drivers as contractors and not employees. These workers are not covered by workers compensation laws, unfair dismissal laws or even the minimum wage. These are the kinds of issues that demand action from this parliament, not this antiworkers bill that will threaten the pay and conditions of even more workers.
As I was saying in my remarks this morning, these workers are not covered by workers compensation laws, they're not covered by unfair dismissal laws, they're not covered by the minimum wage. These are the kinds of issues that demand action from us here, in this parliament, in the Senate, not this anti-workers bill that threatens the pay and conditions of even more workers. As my colleague Senator Sheldon has so powerfully and convincingly argued, governments and parliaments must start leading, with effective market design and regulation, rather than chasing ineffective versions of neither. But we don't see this government taking the action that is so clearly needed to support and to protect working people. We don't see legislation to tackle the other structural challenges of our time—challenges like stagnant wages, worker exploitation, or regulation and protection for the sharing economy—and we don't see action to combat the challenges presented by the disruption of artificial intelligence and automation in industries like retail, and in warehousing. These challenges are causing new and unprecedented threats to the security and safety of work.
Instead of supporting unions and workers, the government gives us this bill again—a rehashed bill that represents another politically motivated attack on workers' ability to organise and run their own unions, to determine who leads them and to determine how they can best provide representation, advocacy, support and advice. These attacks on workers are in the Liberals' DNA. Remember this bill came from the party who brought us Work Choices. Work Choices was an attack on employees' individual rights in the workplace and, as we all know, it was a policy that was comprehensively rejected by the Australian people in 2007. After the 2007 election, all we heard from the other side, from the Liberals, was that Work Choices is dead. They told us they'd listened. They told us they'd heard the message from working Australians, who rightly demanded their rights at work be protected. But here we are again, with a third-term Liberal government, and we get the ensuring integrity bill because, after all, going after Australian workers through Work Choices was ultimately unsuccessful. They failed in the end, so now they're going after the union movement itself.
Australia is a nation built on the values of fairness. That includes fair wages, and it includes a safety net for those who are unable to work. The Labor Party fought hard against the Howard government's heartless attempt to unravel these values, and we're fighting hard now because—make no mistake—the Liberals are ideologically bent on attacking workers' pay and conditions, which is just incredibly rich coming from a Prime Minister who continues to parrot that we are a nation where, if you have a go, you get a go. Well, apparently not, if you're a working Australian or you're a union official trying to represent them. Labor will not support a bill that makes it harder for workers to get a fair pay rise. We will not support a bill that could leave workers without the representatives who protect them from wage theft, from super theft and from dangerous workplaces. Workers should get to choose who represents them, not the Prime Minister.
The government is running the claim that this bill has been revised to more closely align these reforms with their corporate equivalents, but this bill remains far more extensive and extreme in the regulation of unions than anything in the corporate world. These laws will make it possible for government ministers and disgruntled employers to shut down unions and to deny working people their right to choose their own representatives. This bill is about silencing working people and making it harder for all working Australians to win pay rises and better conditions.
Fundamentally, this bill fails the fairness test. It would not apply to businesses. It would not apply to banks, despite the serious unethical conduct that was on full display for us all to see during the royal commission—the royal commission that they didn't want, mind you, that they fought against, that they voted against and that we pursued. This won't apply to politicians either. It also fails the commonsense test. If these laws applied equally to corporations, we would see banks, multinational pizza chains and the restaurants of celebrity chefs closed down for breaking workplace laws or we would see their top executives sacked, but this is not being proposed. What is proposed is an outrageous double standard for unions.
The only people who would benefit from these laws are the Morrison government and unethical employers. As stated before, the work to rein in unethical employers is ever increasing. We hear that the Fair Work Ombudsman will seek further funding as its work balloons, but instead the government seeks to give more power to the Registered Organisations Commission, a body thoroughly politicised and discredited over its role in the Australian Workers Union raid scandal. The Registered Organisations Commission should not be further empowered by this bill. It should not be given new ways of interfering in the affairs of Australian workers. We maintain that allegations of serious breaches by officers of registered organisations should be dealt with by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission. Treating companies and registered organisations the same, or at least similarly, should extend to using the same regulator.
But this isn't about common sense. It's not about legislative reform to improve workers' pay, conditions or rights at work. It's an attack on unions; it's an attack on workers; and it is an attack on fairness. And if there's one thing we can be certain of, it is that it is not the only attack coming. Already we have seen from government backbenchers hints that their next target may well be workers' superannuation. At a time when we should be working to address the super gap between men and women, when we should be finding ways to bring women's super up to the levels of their male counterparts, some coalition MPs and some coalition senators seem to think that the solution should be to slash super entitlements for everyone. We must be under no illusions about this government's agenda. They are not here for workers. They are not here for fairness at work. Inequality is on the rise globally, as we see the failure of trickle-down economics to bring the benefits so widely and hopefully promised. Instead, we've seen the bargaining power of ordinary Australians steadily reduced. And their share of national wealth has been steadily dropping, only to be claimed by the top one per cent.
In this climate we need our unions. Unions are a critical thread in the fabric of a fair society. They are needed to ensure workers get the fair pay and the fair go that they deserve. Unions shouldn't be singled out for draconian controls and penalties because they have shown and they have uncovered that some businesses have chosen to do the wrong thing. I reiterate: some businesses—because, of course, not all businesses do the wrong thing. Most people in the corporate world are good people with good intentions, who care about their fellow Australians. But we can be under no illusion that all businesses operate in this way. There are some businesses in Australia behaving badly—behaving appallingly, even.
Last week it was reported that an Australian bank had broken money-laundering laws 23 million times and allegedly contributed to the spread of child sexual exploitation material. And the response we got from the Prime Minister? 'It's a matter for the board.' Yet the same Prime Minister wants the power to expel union leaders and even shut down entire unions for minor paperwork breaches. As my colleague Senator Farrell brought to the Senate's attention during question time yesterday, when the government introduced the ensuring integrity bill, the minister claimed that it was to establish corporate equivalence with unions. But how can there be corporate equivalence if 23 million breaches of the law are 'a matter for the board' if you're a bank but three breaches of paperwork can get you deregistered if you're a union? Why is it that there is one rule for banking executives and another for working Australians when it comes to this government?
Further reports indicate that, in some cases, certain businesses are considering the possible costs of getting caught stealing wages or ignoring dangerous workplaces and they are choosing to behave illegally, because they have determined the benefits of doing so outweigh the potential costs. If there is industrial relations legislation and reform to be made by this parliament, it is legislation that addresses these issues. It is legislation that deals with the regulatory loopholes in the gig and sharing economy. It is legislation that focuses on improving conditions for workers, not taking their rights away.
Across Australia, unions are working to sustain Australians in safe, secure and meaningful jobs. From manufacturing to road transport and from retail to cafes and restaurants, unions are standing up for the rights of working Australians. In contrast, the legislation in front of us is the legislation of a government with no plan to support working Australians and their families—because this government has no plan for our country. It has no plan to deal with low wages and rising prices. It has no plan to deal with increasing underemployment and unemployment—a huge issue in my state. It has no plan to deal with the many working Australians in insecure work—hamstrung by stagnant wages. And it has no plan to deal with the unacceptable rates of poverty and inequality in Australia—again, a huge issue in my state of South Australia. The cost of essentials is skyrocketing, electricity prices are increasing and child care has become unaffordable under this government. Australians are worried about the economy, but the Prime Minister and the Liberals just pretend there is no problem, which is not surprising from a government that just makes policy decision after policy decision which make it harder for struggling Australians to make ends meet. But Australians deserve better. Working people deserve better.
This bill represents just another example of this Liberal government failing working Australians. It is an attack on unions and, therefore, on the workers who depend on them. It's absolutely mind-blowing that this government would rather protect dodgy employers than stand up for everyday working Australians. Are everyday working Australians not part of the Prime Minister's 'quiet Australians'? He claims to stand up for the issues that affect us all, but does that not include the issues affecting over 500,000 sales workers, 200,000 truck drivers, 279,000 registered nurses or 165,000 primary school teachers? These are the working Australians our unions represent. These are the people unions fight for. They are working Australians that need this government to protect their rights and working conditions and to always be working towards delivering them better pay and better conditions at work. But this legislation shows us plain as day that this government is absolutely out of touch with the needs of working people. Worse than that, it shows us that they are out of touch and they simply don't even care.
Labor does not accept the premise of the bill. We didn't accept it the first time around and we certainly don't accept it now, because we cannot possibly support a bill that will make it harder for people to get a fair pay rise and that leaves workers without the representatives that will protect them from wage theft and dangerous workplaces. We don't support this government pursuing its ideological opposition to unions and working people at the expense of genuine reform that would improve the lives of Australian workers and their families. This bill has no redeeming features whatsoever, and the Senate should be rejecting it in its entirety. It affects the day-to-day operation of every single union. It changes everything, and none of it for the better. This bill is not only undemocratic and draconian; it is simply unnecessary. It is ideological, it is flawed, it will achieve nothing for working Australians and it will undermine our workers, our unions and our democracy.
I urge my fellow senators: join Labor. Join our fight for working Australians. Fight back against them and their ideological obsession with taking rights away from Australian working people. They don't care about working Australians. They never have; they never will. This is the first step on a slippery slope back to Work Choices, back to coming after your super. We have to fight against it. We have to vote against it. I urge the entire Senate to join Labor, stand up for working Australians, stand up for the people that we represent out there, stand up for the people in my state of South Australia and oppose this legislation, because it's disgraceful.
27 November 2019