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

Tuesday, 12 September 2023

Mr PITT: I rise to speak on the Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Closing Loopholes) Bill 2023, a bill for which the coalition has been allowed just over a week to prepare to speak on what are significant changes to fair work legislation. There are hundreds of pages, in fact, adding to the already hundreds of pages which employers in this country have to wade through to try and ensure that they are not making any mistakes, any breaches or any errors when it comes to employment in this country. This bill makes things even more complicated. In fact, 15 minutes is nowhere near enough time to cover all of the elements, so I’ll stick to only a few in the time that’s allotted to me.

The first thing I want to go to is Leader of the House, Minister Burke, and his claims about wage theft. We have seen the minister come to the dispatch box and it’s been worthy of Hollywood, with his lip quivering while he is shaking with indignation and absolute outrage! The quotes have been something like this: ‘How is it possible that it’s a crime for an employee to steal from an employer, but it’s not a crime for an employer to steal from an employee?’ I sit here as a former employer and I find that outrageous because, last time I checked, it is illegal and it is unlawful. Wage theft can’t be done legally. It just can’t. Given the contribution from the minister and how strongly he’s pursued this line, whether in question time or elsewhere, I thought maybe I’d got this wrong and I’d better check. This is probably the only occasion this will happen; I took the advice of the Leader of the Greens and I googled it. I googled: is wage theft a crime in Australia? Guess what? It popped up with all of these answers that said, ‘Yes, it is.’ I thought: ‘A good member of parliament won’t just rely on Google. I should go and ask some others for some advice.’ So I did. We went to the Parliamentary Library. We asked the Parliamentary Library: is wage theft by an employer considered a crime? It answered, ‘Yes.’ How about that? There’s potential under both general criminal laws and specific wage theft offences in Victoria and Queensland. In fact, most states and territories have general criminal legislation that could be applied to underpayment of wages.

Given my background of a trade and in engineering, I like belts and braces. This time I thought I should go for the third confirmation. So I went and checked on the Queensland governments website. This is from the Office of Industrial Relations. Under the heading ‘Wage theft and wage recovery information for workers’ it says:

Wage theft is a criminal offence in Queensland.

How about that! It also says:

Employers engaging in deliberate wage theft from their employees face the risk of up to 10 years imprisonment.

That sounds like a pretty big penalty to me.

So I think Minister Burke should reconsider what he’s contributing to this House. Perhaps it was a mistake. Maybe he just accidentally misled the House. Maybe it’s just untrue. Maybe he didn’t do the research. I don’t know. But I think the minister should reconsider the way that he’s positioned this legislation because it is already unlawful to commit wage theft in this country.

The minister’s got form when it comes to blaming the coalition for all sorts of things. In the debate on this bill, we have seen him rail against the former coalition’s government’s nine years when apparently we didn’t do anything. I thought I’d check some of that, too. And guess what? That’s not right either. In terms of wage theft and people who are treating their employees incorrectly—and I know because I was heavily involved in the establishment of this—there’s this thing called Taskforce Cadena. Taskforce Cadena, according to the Parliamentary Library, does a whole pile of things, particularly around horticulture and where there are individuals who are maybe using illegal workers and not paying them the correct rates, who are robbing them. Did they do any work in the period of the last coalition government? According to the Parliamentary Library, yes, they did. I want to show a couple of examples because I want to demonstrate just how misleading the proposition has been from the minister.

Here’s one from October 2015, with compliance operations targeting five karaoke bars in Melbourne and Perth. Almost $11,000 was recovered for 19 employees who were short-changed their minimum wages. In December 2016, there was a compliance operation targeting labour hire intermediaries and employers suspected of exploiting foreign workers in the agricultural industry in the far south-east of Melbourne. They seized more than $400,000 in cash. They sound like pretty strong activities in terms of attacking those who are doing the wrong thing by their employees. For the last example, in December 2017, there was a successful criminal prosecution under Taskforce Cadena resulting in execution of warrants in May and June at a citrus packing plant in New South Wales and a residence in Melbourne. A 59-year-old man pleaded guilty to 12 counts of employment related offences. He was convicted on all charges and fined $100,000. So the proposition being put forward by Minister Burke appears incorrect.

So what are the real reasons? Why are they making these changes? Let’s look at what others have said. We have seen contributions from representatives from the Business Council, the mining council and a number of others. Stakeholder comments go along the lines of:

The Albanese Government’s latest industrial relations legislation changes are some of the most extreme, interventionist workplace changes … ever … proposed in Australia.

So says Tania Constable of the MCA. The ACCI chief executive, Andrew McKellar, said:

“The only winners in this are union chiefs. The only loophole this bad legislation is looking to close is that of plummeting union membership …

And who is going to pay the price for that? In an unfortunate turn of events, it will be employers in this country. It will be those who are struggling with the cost of living already. It will be those individuals who quite simply can’t make the bills for the week because the cost of everything will go up.

We have already established that it is a crime to steal your employees’ wages, and, in fact, there have been prosecutions already. We’ve demonstrated where that has already happened. So what are the reasons for these changes? You can only say, as has been outlined by those who represent employers, it’s about doing what unions want. The changes around casual employment in particular makes something which shouldn’t be that difficult so incredibly complex. How can those businesses who are not large businesses, who do not employ industrial relations specialists, actually meet the requirements of the legislation? I mean if we look at some of the descriptors, there are now 15 factors proposed to determine if you’re casual.

The claims from the minister that the coalition government didn’t do anything about this—we did. We made changes in government that every 12 months every employee has the opportunity to go from casual to part-time work if that is what they elect to do. Now, there are many people out there who choose to work casually because it suits them. It suits their lifestyle; it works better for them. They like the higher rates of pay, which include—while I’ve got the opportunity—an allowance to cover their holiday pay and all of the other things that come with permanence in employment, but it’s something they want to do.

What’s it really about? It is about union delegates’ power. A new workplace right to protect them against employers that refuse to deal with them, can you imagine it—mislead them, hinder them, obstruct their rights in the workplace. As a former employer, the best thing you can do in terms of your business is have the best staff you can find, pay them well, give them the opportunity to shine, because they are absolutely what your business is about, and without them you don’t survive. There are bad eggs out there—there is no doubt about it—but it’s not as many as those opposite are making it out to be. The idea is that we will have to include powers for a union delegate to roll in basically unannounced because they have ‘a suspicion’, if I recall the definition correctly, and demand to see wages. They can kick the doors in. Seriously, if unions want more membership, they quite simply should do a better job. They should represent their workers in a way which means more individuals will sign up with them. You can’t simply legislate for people to become members of a union because of the laws that have been put forward in this place.

I don’t want to take up too much time in the House because I know we’ve got other business to cover, but quite simply this is not what it’s about. We need simplified workplace laws in this country. We need to make it easier for people to employ, because the more Australians that are in employment, the better our country is and the more opportunities we have for individuals to start their own businesses. Can you imagine someone starting up trying to comply with some of this legislation? It is hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages that they simply can’t get across on top of all of their other workload including running a business, making wages, paying their bills and paying their employees.

It is not as easy as those opposite put forward to run a business in Australia. It really isn’t. I can tell you, as someone who’s had many sleepless night about whether I’d make wages the next week, who has cut my own salary and income to make sure that I do because that’s what’s required, there are not that many employers out there doing the wrong thing—and in the market where the unemployment rate is under four per cent, even more so. So let’s call this out for what it is: it is about paying off union bosses and providing more union powers. We have already demonstrated it is not about wage theft, because that is covered already and exists. It is not about what those opposite put forward. It is quite simply about paying off those individuals who want to meet a union agenda. There is a long list of demands.

When we have an environment in which the economy has high inflation, where interest rates are increasing, where unemployment is under four per cent, where mortgages are out of control, where real wages are going backwards, what is the solution from the Labor government? Their solution is to make employment harder, to make it more difficult for individuals to employ more people, to make it more complex. I’m yet to see it—maybe it’s in there—but how on earth is Fair Work going to manage all of these additional responsibilities in terms of what they have to sign off, whether it’s in a dispute or not? It is going to be a mess, and I can understand why employers are up in arms. I understand why they are going to go out and campaign against this Labor government, because these changes are wrong. They are the wrong direction for the country. They are the wrong direction for employers. They are the wrong direction for employees. Quite simply, not every employee in this country can be a union member. Not every single one wants to work in a big company with big unions and big IR and big problems. Many of them are quite happy to work for medium-sized businesses. They’re quite happy to be part of family businesses. They’re quite happy to contribute and continue to work, as long as they are paying their bills and putting a roof over their head. This Labor government is making that harder, not easier, and we need to see change.

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