27 Feb 2018

BRENDAN O'CONNOR, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS: Wage growth in this country is declining, and in fact between August 2016 and August 2017 we saw a decline in the median wage. That is, the average wage for full time workers in this country is in decline in real terms.
So when you hear the Government boast about their record, what they fail to say is that median wages are falling in real terms according to the ABS.
What is also striking is that casual employment is rising. Casual employment in that same period has gone up from 23.5 per cent to over 25 per cent of the workforce - and full time casual males have seen wage growth fall remarkably. In fact, between 2007 and 2012, annual wage growth for casual full time male employees was 4.1 per cent. That was between 2007 and 2012. That 4.1 per cent has fallen to 0.8 per cent. That means that the full time male casual wage growth is half inflation. Half the CPI.
That means that these casuals, as I said - now the casual proportion of the labour market in its entirety is 25 per cent of the labour market. Casual full time male employees are receiving an 0.8 per cent increase, which is of course well below the CPI.
So, when we say to the Government that we’ve got a problem with precarious employment in this country, growing casualisation, and we are attacked for saying that - well just look at the ABS data. The ABS data is clear - casualisation is on the rise, wage growth is falling, and casual full time male employees have been receiving half CPI over a five year period.
Indeed, what we are seeing too is that median wages for all workers are falling in real terms - and that is in itself and indictment on the failure of the Government to either understand, or care for, or have a plan for wage growth in this country.
That’s why when you go around this country, in the suburbs and the regional towns, in the big cities, and talk to those workers, you constantly hear the problem that they have been dealing with cost of living pressures. They have trouble making ends meet in some respects because they are seeing their wages fall in real terms.
Now, after 20 or more years of wage growth in this country, Malcolm Turnbull has presided over the worst wage growth in living memory, in more than at least 20 years - in fact, longer than records have been held by the statisticians. So it is not good enough for the Government to shrug this issue off, because it really is affecting cost of living pressures, and indeed making it harder for households to make ends meet - to pay for the bills, to pay the mortgage, to pay the rent, to put food on the table, to pay for the school shoes. To pay for the things that are necessary for people to have a decent standard of living.
The Government has no plans other than proving $65 billion to multi-national companies and big banks in the belief - in the incredible belief - that we will see it trickle down to workers. That is not happening in the United States, and it won’t happen here. It will just be an unfunded gift to big business which will just, of course, affect our deficit and affect our debt, and indeed will impoverish the services we provide in the form of health and education for people.
It is not funded and it is irresponsible. Look instead at the wage growth in this country. It is collapsing in many areas. The casual full-time male wage has collapsed. The data is there for all to see over the last five years.
Now, I want to make one last comment about the employee who was sacked by the Chief Government Whip as a result of a mistake that employee has made.
Now, we would accept that clearly a mistake was made by sending an email inappropriately, but I just make this point - when a Government that’s in civil war, where you have members of parliament attacking each other publicly and leaking on each other internally and privately, and they choose to sack an employee who sent out an email - it really says something about what they think of workers in this country.
When they use an employee as a scapegoat, and sack that employee for making a mistake - when in fact, it’s factored to weeks for the Deputy Prime Minister of this country to leave after making mistake after mistake, and of course breaching the Ministerial Code of Conduct - there is something wrong.
That an employee in an office is immediately sacked for gross misconduct because an employee has erroneously sent out an email - I just think that’s something that really is of concern, and I think maybe a warning should have been issued. But dismissing a person from employment is a very significant thing to do, and I think that was rather unfair.
Finally, I just wanted to touch on the constant fighting within the government. This is a government with war with itself. This is a government where two parties that make this government are having civil war.
You have the Liberal party leaking information in relation to the former Deputy Prime Minister, and continuing to leak that information. You have a government that has leaked information and disclosed the identity of a woman who made serious allegations of sexual misconduct, and did not want her identity to be exposed, and yet because of the fighting going on within the government, that woman’s privacy has been invaded and her confidence has been shattered by the deliberate leaking of her identity to embarrass the former Deputy Prime Minister.
You do not treat a woman who has made a serious allegation of sexual misconduct in this manner. You certainly do not disclose the identity of a woman who has made these allegations in this way.
Firstly that woman is owed an apology from the Prime Minister no less. Secondly, we say the government needs to acknowledge its misconduct by disclosing the identity of the woman who has made the allegation - because what that says, women are too often in situations where they are harassed or there’s been misconduct towards them, and they seek to make an allegation for that matter to be investigated, and they do so hoping that their identity is not disclosed if they wish it not to be disclosed.
What we’ve seen here is that this woman and her identity have been used in a way that is very unfair to her, and as I say the government should apologise.
This government, of course, is leaking and is continuing to leak against itself. You’ve seen the itinerary of travel of the former Deputy Prime Minister being disclosed to the media. There are of course irreconcilable differences now between the Liberal party and the National party, and then there’s fighting within each party.
There’s fighting between the parties, there’s fighting within the parties. This is a government at war with itself, and that’s why it cannot govern. That’s why it’s not focused on the low wage growth we’ve seen. It’s not focused on those issues that matter to ordinary Australians who expect their government to be concerned about issues they confront in their workplaces, in their communities, across this great nation.

JOURNALIST: Mr O’Connor, does Labor have secret plans to tear up workplace laws, or did Bill Shorten just get a bit carried away at the Queensland rally with the CFMEU?

O’CONNOR: Well, Labor has made very clear we have concerns about the industrial relations laws. You only have to go back to the submission we made some years ago now to the Fair Work Commission because we were concerned about the minimum wage falling as a proportion of median wages in this country.
You only have to look at the speeches I made to the Sydney Institute last year, and to the National Press Club, where I identified a series of problems with the current laws that have shifted the power in the workplace away from workers and towards employers.
You only have to look at the Press Club speech of Bill Shorten, where he made it very clear that Labor - if elected - will be significantly changing laws in order to ensure that working people get a fair share of the dividend.
At the moment we have profits at 20 per cent and wages at 2 per cent. We have, as I have said, casualisation increasing in this country as confirmed by the ABS yesterday.
What Bill Shorten has said at the National Press Club - or for that matter anywhere else - is that there are problems with these laws, and we are going to do something about it in Government.

JOURNALIST: Do you think it’s appropriate for CFMEU unionists to threaten to allegedly rape the children of non-union workers?

O’CONNOR: Look, I think that firstly if that allegation is true it is absolutely contemptible. I have not seen any evidence, other than the allegations made by the company, and I’ve seen the allegations made by Minister Cash and other Ministers who hope it to be true - but I can assure you that that is contemptible and unacceptable if it ever happened - but I don’t know if there is any evidence of that other than an allegation.
I will say this though - when a multi-national comes to this country, and locks out country miners for three months and they just want to get back to their workplace as in the case of Oaky miners - then I think that’s unfortunate. I think it’s unfortunate that, for example, we can’t find a way to resolve long disputes - where in this case the company has locked out country miners for six months.
Now, I am glad to say that yesterday there has been a return to work, and an effort to resolve this matter. But this has allowed a multi-national company - who, by the way, is on the record for not paying any tax - to lock out workers, Australian workers, for six months.
These workers have wanted to go back to work, and they have been out of that workforce for six months because they were locked out. Now, you might want to use union acronyms to describe them, but these are country miners and they were locked out of their workplace for six months, which has affected them, and their families, and their friends, and their community.
Quite frankly that was too long, and it should not have happened. The company and the union and those workers should have been able to resolve that matter. Those workers should not have been locked out for six months.

JOURNALIST: Is it hypocritical of you to cry crocodile tears for Nola Marino’s staffer who was forced to resign over this email, when a little while back Bill Shorten lost one of his staff members who appeared in a black face costume ten years ago?

O’CONNOR: I am just making the point as I see it today, and I think it is quite unfortunate that a worker who was in the government Whip’s office was terminated on the basis of an erroneous email, when in fact Senators and Members of the Liberal Party have been publicly attacking each other, leaking against each other – and the only person to suffer the consequence of that conduct happens to be an employee in the government Whip’s office. I think that is very unfortunate.

JOURNALIST: Under a Shorten Labor Government, how long would it take for wage growth to come back up, for Australians to feel the impact?

O’CONNOR: This will be a priority for a Shorten Labor Government if we are elected. We made it very clear – we are seeing a fall in the minimum wage as a proportion of the median wage. That is a problem. It was not that long ago that the minimum wage was in excess of 60 per cent of the median wage. It’s now down to just over 53 per cent.
Therefore, we are concerned that people are struggling on very low wages, and wage growth is at its lowest. So, our focus is looking at ways we can arrest the decline of the minimum wage as a proportion of the median wage, and to look at collective bargaining to ensure we see better outcomes.
Enterprise agreement wage increases over the last year have fallen from 3.4 per cent to 2.2 per cent. So it’s not just that the awards and the minimum wage are low – enterprise bargaining has faulted, and we will be looking at ways we can ensure that workers get a fair share.
We will announce those policies before the next election. We have already announced a number of policies that go to security of employment. We will have more to say about what we need to do to make sure the workers in this country get a fair share.
We want companies to make profits. We want companies to grow. We want the private sector to do well. But we want workers to share in that dividend.
We think it’s unfair that when profits are at 20 per cent, workers are receiving 2 per cent. We think it’s unfair that when productivity is outstripping wage growth threefold in some industries – that’s not fair, and that never occurred decades ago, but it is occurring under the Turnbull Government - because the Malcolm Turnbull has no understanding or consideration for working people.
He doesn’t understand them. He would not understand what a household budget constraint is. He would not understand it. He has never had to deal with it. That’s fine, he hasn’t. But, if instead of just attacking unions he sat around a table with working people, he might get to understand the difficulties they confront today.
I can’t see that happening soon, quite frankly.

JOURNALIST: Will there be economic modelling done on the policies that Labor put forward?

O’CONNOR: We will be presenting our policies, and as always they will be rigorous, and as always they will go to the PBO, we do that all the time. We have a rigorous process, and that will continue.

JOURNALIST: I was wondering if there was an example of Labor’s solution for wages?

O’CONNOR: As I have said, we need to make sure there is better bargaining capacity. So in relation to collective bargaining, for example, too often we are now seeing employers avoid bargaining collectively – they are terminating enterprise bargaining agreements – that’s why we have seen the lowest number of collective bargaining agreements in the last 20 years happen this year.
So, there is a decline in collective bargaining. We need to find better ways to encourage employers to engage. We also need to discourage them from taking other approaches which are unfair – for instance, terminating enterprise bargaining agreements, or having workers who are not from the same workplace vote on an agreement then impose that agreement on that workplace.
This is happening as we speak. It should not happen. We have already made clear that we will not allow that to happen. We will not make it lawful for them to terminate agreements and revert employees to the award. We will not make it lawful for them to impose an agreement that was not voted on by that group of workers.
We are already looking to change collective bargaining in a way that is fairer – that will lead to better wage outcomes, because there will be more power provided to working people, and the balance will be restored.
Thanks very much.

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