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Second reading speech, Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia’s Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021, 17 March 2021

It’s my great pleasure to rise and speak on the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia’s Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021.

I was disappointed to hear the contribution of Senator Gallacher, who made a number of sweeping statements, many of which were incorrect, with no credibility. Unfortunately, it reflects the sad fact that Labor doesn’t seem to understand that strong businesses equal more jobs and greater opportunities for Australian workers. I just want to put on the record that I can only imagine, if the member for Maribyrnong, Mr Shorten, had been elected prime minister in 2019 with his plan to impose $387 billion of more taxes on Australians, what that would have done to this country. So I reject very strongly the sweeping, discredited statements made by Senator Gallacher which do not, in any way, represent the truth of the work of our government, the Morrison government, in backing jobs and our economic recovery at this very important time.

It is the case that COVID-19 has derailed our economy and forced hundreds of thousands of Australians into the bleakness of unemployment or being stood down. Despite the darkness of 2020—the lockdowns, the mass closures of businesses, the isolation from our friends and families—one small glimmer of hope remained: that all of this would eventually pass and that we would emerge, once again, a stronger and more resilient nation than before. Already we have seen huge rebounds in our economic recovery, led by Prime Minister Morrison and the many hardworking members of our government. There are few better indications that this hope has been vindicated than this bill, which manifests the government’s commitment to ensuring Australians get back to work quickly and fairly.

This bill makes a number of balanced and sensible changes to the Fair Work Act which will stimulate jobs growth and boost the economy. It provides much-needed certainty to businesses and employees by clearly defining what it means to be a casual employee, and it gives eligible casual employees a pathway to permanent full-time or part-time jobs that are guaranteed by statute. The bill gives casual employees the best of both worlds. If they wish to remain casually employed, they can do so and take advantage of the flexibility of casual work. However—this is probably a key issue which Senator Gallacher overlooked—if they wish to transition to full-time or part-time work, they can do that too and take advantage of the stability of these forms of work. In this way the bill gives casual employees concrete rights which respect their employment choices, but it also gives employers the kind of certainty and transparency they need when negotiating agreements with prospective employees. The bill also introduces greater flexibility into awards in sectors of the economy hardest hit by the pandemic: the retail and hospitality industries. Many businesses in these industries have emerged in the wake of the pandemic battered and bruised but are still fighting hard to keep the employees they have and take on new ones. This government is committed to helping these hard-working Australians re-establish themselves in our economy. In keeping with this commitment, the bill adapts the government’s successful JobKeeper flexibilities concerning duties and location of work, which helped save thousands upon thousands of jobs during the pandemic. They remain available for employers and employees to whom key awards apply across the hard-hit retail and hospitality sectors. The bill also allows employers and part-time employees in these sectors, which together employ over a third of all casual employees, to work together to agree on additional hours of work for part-time employees who want them. This will help to increase working hours and wages. It will also encourage employers to offer more permanent and secure roles with benefits including paid sick leave, over traditionally more flexible forms of employment like casual roles.

The bill simplifies and expedites enterprise bargaining by requiring that these agreements be finalised, as far as practicable, within 21 working days. This means employers can get on with creating jobs and employees can enter the workforce more quickly, easily and fairly. Enterprise agreements pay, on average, 69 per cent more per week than award wages. That is an average of $542 more per week. This shows that the government is serious, not just about getting Australians back to work but also about getting them better working conditions.

A big part of the government’s plan for Australia’s economic recovery is securing investment for greenfields agreements involved in large-scale projects valued at over $500 million, or between $250 million and $500 million if they are major projects of national or regional significance. The bill enables the Fair Work Commission to approve greenfields agreements for longer-term major projects by allowing the nominal expiry date to go up to eight years. In this way, the bill ensures that there will be certainty for investors in these large-scale projects, and this will help to create jobs and drive wage growth. In other words, employers and large-scale projects cannot be held to ransom by protracted and uncertain EBA negotiations, which put jobs at risk. The bill also protects workers on these projects by guaranteeing that any longer-term greenfields agreements will include annual pay increases for the nominal life of the agreement. Of course, this government proposes these changes with its eyes wide open. We all know that some businesses—including universities, I might add—have in the past underpaid their workers. In light of this, the bill introduces stronger protections for employees by instituting tougher penalties and orders to deter noncompliance.

These are incredibly important measures. They include a new criminal offence for dishonest and systematic underpayments of one or more employees, with a maximum penalty of four years imprisonment, automatic director disqualification for five years and/or a $1.1 million fine, or $5.55 million for a body corporate. The measures also include increasing maximum civil penalties for underpayments, sham contracting and failure to comply with a regulator compliance notice; increasing penalties available under infringement notices; and prohibiting employers from advertising jobs with pay rates below the relevant national minimum wage. The measures also include clarifying that the courts can make adverse publicity orders where appropriate. The bill encourages businesses to proactively identify and self-disclose and to rectify underpayments more quickly and efficiently to ensure that employees are repaid as soon as possible.

This is a good bill. It is good for the economy. It is good for employers. It is good for employees. This bill and these changes to our law are good for all Australians. It is a bill that takes the economic recovery of this country seriously and tackles the challenges of casual employment for both employers and employees head-on. It complements the government’s other economic measures, such as the $9 billion of tax cuts that have already gone into the pockets of hardworking Australians. It is a bill that implements changes to the law that will see our economy restored and our hopes fulfilled. I commend this bill to the Senate.

17 March 2021

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