28 Dec 2017

BRENDAN O'CONNOR, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS: Thanks for coming today. I’m here to respond to the issue of increasing casualisation in the labour market. People spend years in employment and yet do not have minimum hours of work, they do not have any security of employment whatsoever. So it is true something needs to be done.

When the Reserve Bank Governor and others indicated their concerns about the fall in real wages, one of the contributions to the fall in real wages is the fact that people do not feel confident enough to ask for a wage rise because they do not have permanent work. They’re fearful that if they ask for more wages or more work, they may not have any work at all. It’s that precarious nature of work that is making it difficult.

We are almost in January where many workers have a chance to spend time with loved ones - going to the cricket, going to the beach - spending time with their families. Many workers, quite rightly, are getting paid to have a holiday - a holiday they have earned through their hard work. There are too many Australian workers who do not get paid holidays any more. That’s happening increasingly. So it’s very difficult for people to take paid leave because they are casual workers.

So yes, we need to have a component of casualisation in the labour market - it deals with peaks and troughs, it fills permanent work when required, but it should not be the mainstay of Australian employment. It should not be the primary employment for workers in the labour market through their working life. It should be something that might happen for younger people when they are going to university or getting a trade. It might well be people at school. It may well be people connected with the labour market and happy with that arrangement.  But the overwhelming number of Australian workers need a level of security.

They have a full time family and they need a full time job. They have a permanent mortgage - well for possibly 30 years - they need some sense of security at work.

For that reason federal Labor has made clear that we are going to look at the definition of casual in order to ensure it is used for what it was originally intended to be used for. That is for the work that i have just indicated - peaks and troughs, work which is replacing permanents, but not for people who are working indefinitely year in and year out and being deemed by their employers as being casual. That is not what we think is reasonable.

It really does undermine a person’s sense of security and indeed the capacity of people as i said earlier to get a loan, or just to get paid leave in January to go to the cricket or go to the beach.

JOURNALIST: Will Labor change the definition of casual?

O’CONNOR: Well we will examine the definition. But what we do know is it’s not fair for people to be working indefinitely for years and be deemed to be casual by their employer. Now, technically, it may well be they case that you can run and go to a court and have that determined that you are not casual, but who can afford to access a court to overturn the view of an employer when the employer is saying the person is casual. We need to have a clearer definition. That is why Labor has considered placing it in the legislation – a statutory definition. It will be confined for the purposes it was originally intended.

I have made clear that we will talk to employers and unions and others about the definition. But I think most people understand what casual meant, once, well i think we need to make sure it doesn’t become the first option for employers or the only option for some employers and the mainstay of employment for Australian workers. That is unreasonable. It will affect the quality of life of Australian workers and their families if we allow workers to have no minimum hours of work  and no capacity to say that they have a permanent job.

JOURNALIST: Will Labor allow for conversion from casual to permanent work?

O’CONNOR: We are examining the conversion. We do believe that employers get an opportunity to employ people, and see if that works in their workplace - we accept that.

Whether the time frame is correct, we’re willing to engage with employers and unions about what is the right time of conversion. There are some jobs that clearly aren’t casual, as there are some jobs that are casual - they are seasonal, they might be filling in for permanent workers. There are some that I think stand out.  Then there is a grey area in between. I’d like to make sure we get it right.

What you won’t see from the Turnbull Government is  any concern about the precarious nature of work. You will not see the Turnbull Government or Minister Cash lift a finger to deal with the casualisation of this country. Too often people are working as their main job in what they are told is casual, and they cannot find any sense of security. That means they can’t get a car loan, they often can’t get a loan for a car let alone a house. This creates anxiety and one of the reasons why people are not asking for a wage increase and one of the reasons why wages are falling in real terms in this country at this time – the lowest wage growth in 20 years – is because increasingly jobs are casual. They are not permanent full time, they are not permanent part time, and that is making it very difficult for working people to ask for a raise.

JOURNALIST: Do you agree with government placing Jobs and Growth with Keep Australians Working?

O’CONNOR: It was an insult to use the term ‘growth’ when it came to wage growth. As I just said, wage growth is at its lowest in more than 20 years. I understand they want a new slogan. This government is all about slogans. They really don’t need patronising slogans. They need a government that says, we should make sure that wages are keeping up with prices. We should not be seeing wages falling in real terms as they are. We’d like the government to explore why wages growth is at its lowest in 20 years, and why are people confronted with only casual work when in fact they have permanent families? They need some sense of security in their workplace. They need opportunities at work so they can get a car or home loan, but too often you see that is not happening.

So as for the slogan that Minister Cash has recently publicised, that in fact was actually a spiel from a Labor policy, which was responding to the Global Financial Crisis in 2009. It is in fact a direct lift from Labor’s response to the Global Financial Crisis where we went around the country looking to ensure that people were connected to the labour market and in fact we supported and ensured that 200,000 jobs were saved during that period. It’s just a borrowed phrase. But phrases mean nothing if the policies aren’t there and if workers cannot find any sense of security. Too often the only option they have is casual employment and that is just not good enough.

As I say a lot of people today are getting ready to go to the MCG in Melbourne for the cricket - they’re workers who deserve their holiday and they have a paid holiday.

What we are seeing over time is fewer and fewer workers getting paid holidays because all they have on offer in the labour market is casual work and that simply is not good enough and it’s not fair.

JOURNALIST: Can you guarantee Labor will maintain real wage growth?

O’CONNOR: Well I can tell you what, when Labor was in office even during the Global Financial Crisis, wage growth continued. As I say in the period that we were las tin office, wage growth exceeded CPI - there was real wage growth as a result. What I have made very clear is the labour market is currently being gamed by some employers, not all, but too often we are seeing enterprise agreements being terminated without any negotiation. We are seeing misuse of labour hire and the misuse of independent contracting. We are seeing so many workers being paid well below the hourly rate in this country, and yet the Government has been so slow to respond to the 7-Eleven like scandals that are across the labour market. We need to do better and I guarantee this - we will be putting policies in place that will tackle widespread exploitation in the labour market and will ensure that workers have a voice in their workplaces to say that I deserve to be going forward, not backwards when it comes to wages.


O’CONNOR: I think it’ a huge issue. I think it’s one of the most significant matters. We are a strong nation. We’ve had a good economy. This government inherited a good economy and yet wages have been falling at a rate that we haven’t seen before in recent memory. In fact it’s the lowest wages growth in more than 20 years and that’s happened at a time when there has been some slight improvement to the employment numbers. That can only say that the nexus between productivity and wages growth is broken. Profits are rising in many companies and yet wages are falling. This is an indictment on the Turnbull Government. It shows a Prime Minister absolutely out of touch with working people in this country. He has done nothing to respond to falling wages across the nation. As a result we don’t expect to see more from this Prime Minister or this Government in the new year, but Labor will continue to hold the Government to account and call upon them to improve this. One of the ways they could help fix that is to introduce policies to make sure that people are provided casual jobs only if the job is a casual job. At the moment it seems to me that the definition is being broadened and the application of causal is so wide as to ensure that too often the only job available to Australian workers is in fact a casual job, which does not provide any security for that worker or his or her family.

JOURNALIST: The AIG has said change to the definition of casual will be bad for jobs?

O’CONNOR: Well look some advocates would like to see no permanent work. They’d like to see everyone easy to hire and easy to fire where you just get to sack people at their whim and employ someone the next day. I don’t ascribe to that - i think one of the reasons Australia has had such a good standard of living and good quality of life for most of the citizenry is because we have had decent laws in place protecting the interests of working people when they went to work.  What has happened recently is too often the definition of casual has been broadened and now applies to people who have been working indefinitely for years in the same workplace and yet they have no sense of security. They can’t guarantee that they have minimum hours. These are real problems that everyday workers confront. And if the government was concerned for workers sense of security and for families wellbeing they would work with Labor to ensure that we apply casual for the purpose it was originally intended, not for every job on offer in the labour market.

JOURNALIST: Minister Cash said jobs will be front and centre at the next election. Do you agree with the Minister that this issue will be front and centre?

O’CONNOR: Well, Michaelia Cash is still under investigation by the Australian Federal Police. Minister Cash is dealing with a criminal act that seems to have occurred in her office, by her providing information to the media about a police raid on the AWU office.

Minister Cash has refused to answer questions about her conduct in relation to that criminal offence. So yes, Minister Cash will be centre stage in the new year as Labor continues to ensure she is held to account for the conduct of her office and indeed her own involvement in providing the media information about a police raid. If that police raid was genuine and about dealing with a serious civil matter then it was outrageous that the office was allowed to tip off the media in relation to the raid. So, Minister Cash will definitely be centre stage, but it will be, I imagine, her having to deal with the ongoing investigation about her office’s role, and her role in dealing with the tip off to the media about the AFP raids on the AWU offices.


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