10 Jan 2018

MATT BEVAN: Shadow Minister Brendan O’Connor joins us now from Melbourne. Good morning Brendan.

BEVAN: Now Australian businesses think this is a bad idea, the Fair Work Commission has dismissed it as recently as July. Isn’t it time the unions give up on this?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS: JOURNALIST: Well it’s up to the unions what they do. Before the last election Federal Labor committed to assessing the definition of casual and indeed looking at whether we need a statutory definition in order to ensure that it’s used for the purpose it was originally intended.

Now the reality is the labour market is changing dramatically. It’s not just the use of casual, it’s the growing nature of sham contracting, so people being called independent contractors when they are employees. The use of labour hire. Other forms of employment are making up a much greater proportion of the workforce to the point where people are precariously employed unnecessarily.  

We still need casuals, don’t get me wrong. We need casual workers as a composition of the workforce, but there are many manifestations of work today that are undermining the security of employment and we are assessing the definition of casual. We made that commitment before the last election.

BEVAN: Ok, but this proposal from the ACTU is specifically about casual workers. At the time when the Fair Work Commission dismissed the idea of automatic permanency, you said that it didn’t go far enough. Do you agree with the unions that casual workers should instead be able to request permanency after six months and that employers should not be able to refuse that request?

O’CONNOR: Well, I said we’d be happy to look at the conversion from casual to permanent, sit down with employer groups and unions to do that. It’s not just about conversion, it’s about whether people are casual or are permanent and what’s happened in some areas of the labour market is that people are being employed indefinitely on what they are being told is a casual job, yet in fact it would have been deemed a permanent form of employment a decade ago.

And because of the nature of labour market transforming rapidly we are seeing digital platforms selling labour. Where once it was seen to be just an employee in a permanent job is now seen to be an independent contractor and people are being paid in some instances half the minimum wage per hour because of those digital platforms.

So, for example, a delivery driver who would have been paid at least the minimum wage is now being paid half that on the basis that they are a business. That, in our view, undermines their rights at work and it certainly cuts their wages.

And we need to examine all of these manifestations that are occurring in the labour market if it means people’s wages are falling and indeed where people are unnecessarily precariously employed.

BEVAN: Ok, so the AIG says that the widely recognised definition of a casual is an employee engaged as a casual and paid the 25 per cent loading. Are you saying that short term and so-called sham contractors could be wrapped into that definition of casual work?

O’CONNOR: No, but it’s interesting. When you talk to workers, when they talk about being casual, quite often they might be in some other form of employment that is not specifically casual, but they feel precariously employed. So it’s a question as to what forms of employment exist in the labour market and where are people being unfairly treated.

There is a need for casual, and there are people who would want to work in casual work, that’s true. But too often people are working without any minimum hours, they are not able to get a home loan or a car loan because the banks won’t give them a loan because they don’t have any certainty of employment even though they have worked for a very long period. That is a problem.

It is also the case that quite often people are technically permanent but they have no capacity to access a court to have that determined and their employer is telling them that they are casual.

So it’s a question of making the lines clearer where possible. I’ve always made clear that we’d talk to employer groups about this. But we will not allow the workforce to become increasingly precariously employed.

One of the reasons we have the lowest wage in this country for 20 years is because of the precarious nature of work that’s growing.

BEVAN: Ok. Over the last 20 years you say the definitions may have been variable over those 20 years but overall the rate of casual has been stable at around about 20-25 per cent. During those 20 years you were in government for six of them and passed major industrial relations changes. Why didn’t you solve this problem then?

O’CONNOR: We’d like to solve things entirely, that would be lovely to be able to do. A couple of things about that – firstly our first job was to get rid of the most anti-worker legislation in our history by repealing WorkChoices and introducing, by the way through negotiation, the Fair Work Act, which was not everything we wanted but it was what we were able to do through the Senate.

Secondly, the labour market even since we were in office, but certainly over the passed 20 years has transformed rapidly because of technological disruption and offshoring and robotics, there are new challenges to respond to and we’re looking at the labour market of 2017, not 1996 or 2007 and even in that short period, Matt, the labour marking is transforming. You’d know it yourself in media, it is moving rapidly and people’s forms of employment are changing.

We must deal with what we have now not look back and say why didn’t we do everything and see the future a decade ago.

BEVAN: You’ve said you’d consider these proposals from the ACTU, but the trap of casual work has been a problem for a long time. Here on RN we’ve been talking about it for at least six years, surely as the employment spokesperson for the Labor party, the former Minister for Small Business, the brother of National Secretary of the CFMEU and a former union Secretary yourself, you’ve already considered this problem.

O’CONNOR: I don’t know what my familial connections mean, but can I say, I gave an address to the Press Club this year where I made very clear,  we are not looking to create laws that go back to the past, we’re looking to legislate, if elected, to cater for the new labour market. It’s transforming, as you would know. Uberisation of the labour market is occurring and this disruption is probably faster than any disruption we’ve seen. It means, yes we need to embrace technology, because we can’t turn our back on it, but we need to ensure in doing so it serves society rather than us serve technology and in doing that we have to ensure that people are not exploited. It’s no use saying just because now we have a digital platform to buy and sell labour, all of a sudden that labour can actually be paid half the minimum wage. That’s going backwards if we allow that. But you can be assured of this, the current government, in the view of Labor, would allow this to happen and indeed continue to see the exploitation of workers because they have no regard for their interests.

BEVAN: What I’m asking, I guess, is in no way is this a new problem and I just don’t understand why it still needs more consideration from the Labor Party considering it’s been a problem for some time, surely you’ve already considered it?

O’CONNOR: I don’t know how many times I have to answer the same question, the labour market of today is not anything like it was -

BEVAN: No, no, I’m not saying like it was when you were in in Government but you know this is not a new problem, it has been around for a number of years at least - 

O’CONNOR: OK, well you know what, if the media took more interest in what we committed to doing in 2016 we would have had this interview two years ago. We made a commitment to redefine casual before the 2016 election and announced that in 2015. For some reason I’m talking to you today between Christmas day and New Year’s because it has just become an interest of the media. I’ve been talking about this issue for years. I’m glad we are having this interview so we can explain what our concerns are.

On top of the concerns I’ve already touched on too, Matt there is also an increasing number of temporary employment through visas. Twenty five years ago temporary work visas for overseas workers was less than 1 per cent of the labour market, it is now heading to 5 and 10 per cent of the labour market.

That means more people precariously employed and on occasion being employed before we even look to employ local workers. So there are many things that have occurred that we need to redress, there’s no one single way to fix that. It’s about dealing with forms of employment to ensure people get a chance in their working life of having some sense of security, whether you’re a Professor or a labourer if you ask the question of those workers what is of most concern to them, they will say, job security.

BEVAN: Brendan O’Connor thanks very much for joining us this morning.

O’CONNOR: Thanks Matt, cheers.

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