MONDAY, 1 FEBRUARY 2016
SUBJECT/S: Labor’s plan to tackle serious cases of worker exploitation; Queensland Nickel workers; the Liberals’ royal commission; Liberals’ plan to introduce a 15 per cent increase to the GST; Jay Weatherill; Christopher Pyne and Wyatt Roy interviewed by the AFP; sale of Liberal Party headquarters
LISA CHESTERS, CHAIR, LABOR’S FAIR WORK TASKFORCE: Lisa Chesters, I’m the chair of Labor’s Fair Work Taskforce and I’m here today with the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, and our Shadow Minister for industrial relations and employment, Brendan O’Connor. And we’re also joined today with some workers, workers who have some terrible stories of worker exploitation, and they are just a handful of many workers around the country who have a terrible story to tell about how they’ve been treated by their employers. And that’s why today’s great Labor announcement is so critical and important. And with that I’ll hand over to Bill Shorten to outline Labor’s policy announcement today.
BILL SHORTEN, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Good morning everyone, and thanks Lisa. Lisa chairs our Taskforce looking at this issue of the exploitation of workers and the plight of the low-paid and people in insecure work. Also addressing you this morning will be Brendan O'Connor, my shadow spokesperson on industrial relations, to outline further detail of the announcement. The reason why I and Labor are talking to Australians today is because too many of our fellow Australians are being ripped off when they go to work. Some people in our society say that we've hit the world of the perfect workplace, there's no more role for regulation or entitlements for workers. The truth is that in 2015, last year, and indeed I'm sure in the start of this year, we have a diabolical situation where literally tens of thousands of our fellow Australians are being underpaid, are being misused in terms of the Tax Act by some unscrupulous employers. We have 732,000 temporary visa migrant workers, temporary workers in Australia, many of them are subject to exploitation. We've got lot of small businesses and indeed big businesses who are doing the right thing, who are being undercut by the unfair competition of some employers ripping off their workers. Even in the last 12 months we've seen household names embroiled in scandals where workers are being ripped off. The 7-Eleven scandal. A major scandal which brings shame upon this country because literally hundreds and hundreds of guest workers are being ripped off. We have the allegations of sham contracting at Myer where we see household names being caught up in sham contracting by some unscrupulous employers and of course there's Pizza Hut where we hear allegations and reports of drivers being paid $6 or $7 an hour. It's not good enough. The Fair Work Ombudsman last year recovered literally tens of millions of dollars in unpaid money, workers' entitlements legitimately earned by 11,000 workers who were underpaid. This morning I've had the privilege of meeting some of our younger workers. Younger workers are particularly, but not uniquely prone to exploitation. Young people go to work and they are full of enthusiasm. They want to do the right thing. It is completely abhorrent when an employer takes advantage of a young person, their enthusiasm to learn, to contribute to work, and rips them off. And as a parent, it is an unacceptable situation that we have an inadequate set of safeguards for workers' entitlements. In a moment Brendan O'Connor is going to outline our sensible changes and consultation about these sensible changes. Let me put it in black and white, let me put it straight: I do not want to live in a country where people are paid $6 an hour. Too many of our fellow Australians, tens of thousands of Australians, are getting ripped off at work, are losing entitlements and I want it to stop. The Labor Party can be trusted to stand up on the question of workers entitlements. The Liberal Party, their own industrial relations policy is to complain about unions and to talk about reducing workers' entitlements. The Labor Party wants balance in the workplace. When workers get ripped off, good businesses suffer as much as workers. Labor is committed to a level playing field and one rule for all and we will stand up for all of those millions of Australians concerned about underpayment, who are concerned about not having enough hours at work. Labor's on the side of good jobs in the future. I'll ask Brendan to speak now, thank you.
BRENDAN O’CONNOR, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS: Thanks, Bill. As Bill as outlined, today is about providing reforms that will ensure that employers do not act in a way that hurts Australian workers. What we've seen in the last couple of years is some outrageous examples of exploitation of workers in this country. We've seen not just backyard operators but indeed companies with household names associated with widespread levels of exploitation and yet to date the Government has been silent. Labor today is proposing a set of laws, if elected, that will protect the interests of working people, that will protect the interests of those workers who are currently being exploited and in doing so, will protect the interests of the majority of employers who do the right thing.
Most employers in this country do the right thing but they're being undermined by the capacity of rogue employers to treat their workforce badly, to deprive them of their income. To actually deny them their right of a decent wage. And we need to do something because clearly Malcolm Turnbull is all talk and will do nothing. That's why today we'll announce a set of reforms that, if enacted, will stamp out widespread systemic rorting of workers.
Firstly, we will increase the penalties, increase civil penalties for serious systemic underpayment of wages. We've seen too much of that lately. By increasing those civil penalties on corporations, we will see that act as a significant deterrent to these things and ensure that it will happen - it won't happen again or certainly fall very sharply. Secondly, we want to see that there are clearer laws in relation to sham contracting or independent contractors. There are many, many genuine independent contractors in this country doing a fine job but we also know that some employers seek to deprive employees of income by pretending that their employees are indeed businesses or contractors. And that’s what has led to some workers getting $6 an hour, almost one-third of the minimum wage in this country, and we need to stamp that out. Sham contracting deprives workers of sick leave, of annual leave, indeed makes them pay their own workers' compensation. It is a terrible situation and it has to stop and it will stop by Labor introducing a reasonable test that's clear for employers and workers so there's a clear line between a genuine independent contractor going about their business and an employee who deserves to be paid a full wage and deserves to have workers' compensation provided by their employer. That's absolutely vital and if the rogue employer continues to pretend that its employee is indeed a contractor or an independent contractor, then there will be more significant penalties for such intentional systemic behaviour.
We're also looking to pursue companies which are seeking to phoenix, in other words, seeking to liquidate a company, strip its assets and not pay its workforce their wages. Now can I say when last in government, Labor introduced changes that allowed us to pursue directors for superannuation that had not been paid where there was an intentional liquidation to deprive those workers and other creditors of indeed their money. This will ensure that phoenixing in this country will be outlawed in a way that's effective and, may I say, the Government's own Productivity Commission Report has made clear that the current phoenixing laws are ineffective and yet, to date, the Prime Minister and Minister for Employment has not said a word about what they will do to stamp out this practice.
Bill has talked about the exploitation of the more than 700,000 workers, many of whom get exploited in the workplace who are on temporary work visas. Again, we need to do more there. It is a perverse incentive that allows some employers to employ workers who do not have a permit or indeed to breach their permit because they have no redress if they are underpaid. Well, we need to make sure that there is no incentive for an employer to employ a person without a permit or work in conditions beyond their permit just so that they can be assured that they're immune from prosecution and we will stamp that practice out, again, something that the Productivity Commission itself has referred to and yet the Government has remained silent on.
And we will also ensure for those many hundreds of thousands of workers from overseas that they will be provided more information before starting work so that they know where to go. Let's remember if you exploit an overseas worker and cut their wages, that has an immediate impact on other employers doing the right thing and it has a consequential impact on Australian workers who are working in the same marketplace. It's exploitation to the overseas worker, it has a direct adverse impact on Australian workers too and it must be stamped out and stamp it out we will. These reforms, in combination, will ensure that the widespread exploitation we've seen in this country will be stamped out and I should also add, finally, that for the most egregious conduct, such conduct that may just fall short of modern-day slavery offences or labour trafficking offences, Labor will consider criminal offences for intentional and outrageous conduct by employers but we will be consulting with employer bodies, employers, workers and unions about these penalties.
But let's be very clear, Labor believes, in the main, you must ensure that such matters are dealt with within the industrial relations laws but there are occasions where you need to look at criminal sanctions. We'll look at that. It would have to be an exceptional case but I make it very clear now, we will consult with affected parties as to the nature of such penalties if they're to be imposed. Bill, thanks very much for your full support here. This is such an important reform. It is something the Government should be dealing with. To date, all thy have done is kill off the car industry, attack the maritime industry, go after penalty rates and go after penalty rates at a time when wage growth in this country is at its lowest in 20 years. It's a shameful record of this regard towards workers in this country. These reforms should be supported by the government, they should be introduced this term, but if they are not, a Shorten Labor Government will introduce them. It will only be because of a Shorten Labor Government that we have decent laws protecting workers in this country.
SHORTEN: Thanks Brendan, are there questions about this announcement?
JOURNALIST: On the case of sham contractors, would it apply in the matter of say Queensland Nickel and Clive Palmer?
SHORTEN: Well, when we talk about Queensland Nickel, Labor's first concern is to see the business survive as a going concern. We will do all that we can to make sure that Townsville and the surrounding areas doesn’t suffer a massive loss of jobs. But some people have already lost their jobs and the entitlements are there. We would expect administrator to fully examine the employment practices to make sure that not only people's entitlements are paid but there's been no breach of labour laws. But your question highlights, I think, a real problem in Australia: we don't have sufficient protection right now against sham contracting. There are a lot of legitimate independent contractors and they're being undermined by some people who basically rip off and exploit workers, be they visa workers or our own Australian workers and pretend they're a contractor when effectively they're not. Labor wants to remedy a big hole in the current industrial relations framework which has been revealed by well-documented problems in the last couple of years and I must acknowledge the work of Four Corners and Fairfax here for exposing the 7-Eleven scandal, working with unions. The truth of the matter is though inequality is at a 75 year high in Australia, it's at a75 year high. We have over a million Australians who are either recorded as having insecure work or not enough hours of work or they'd like to be doing more work than they are and we have real wages growth, really down at the bottom and the lowest it's been in 20 plus years. In that climate, what we see is the rip-off of Australian workers. It is a real problem. And I do not for the life of me understand why the Liberal Party, whenever they talk about industrial relations, it's about undermining entitlements or the protection of workers and I never see them get fired up on behalf of the low paid, the casual, the insecure, the people being ripped off.
JOURNALIST: Just to be clear, will your measures apply in the Queensland Nickel case?
SHORTEN: It's a hypothetical. We need to understand the issues of the workers' entitlements at Queensland Nickel. Labor first and foremost wants to see jobs protected in Townsville. We believe that these jobs should be done in Australia, not overseas. We want to see the company trade through. But I have no doubt that if Labor's sensible measures are implemented by the Turnbull Government, we will see a level playing field for contractors, for workers and for the vast majority of employers who are trying to do the right thing and are getting undermined by the cheats and those who would rob from their work force.
JOURNALIST: Do you accept that unions have to clean up their act in this area as well?
SHORTEN: Clean up their act in terms of what do you mean?
JOURNALIST: In this area, like, should they be doing more? It seems to be all about demonising employers, do you think that they’ve failed in this respect?
SHORTEN: Let me be clear - I'm not demonising employers, I’m demonising crooks. Let me be clear, I'm not saying that most employers are doing the wrong thing. I'm actually saying though that what makes Australia a special country is that we have a reasonable safety net. Labor wants cooperative relations between employees and employers in the workplace. That's what we stand for. My whole working record has demonstrated I'm committed to building good relationships. But you can't build a steady future for Australian jobs, a steady future for our children going into the workplace in the future, when you have tens of thousands of people being ripped off. There's a real problem here. Mr Turnbull and his Liberals never talk about it. We've got some marvellous young people at this press conference who have been ripped off. Now when you see it happening not once or twice but tens of thousands of times to literally tens and tens of millions of dollars, enough is enough. I don't want Australia to be a Southern Hemisphere version of the United States where people are working for $6 or $7 an hour – you can't make a living. I don't want people to be going to work and basically still being poor. So in terms of the compliance regime, I wish the Federal Government would talk more about the low paid workers. All the Federal Government wants to do for low paid workers is give them a 15 per cent GST on everything, cut their Medicare safety net and on the way through, do nothing to protect their entitlements.
JOURNALIST: Would you accept any changes to industrial relations reform suggested by the royal commission given that it did uncover corruption?
SHORTEN: Most certainly, the royal commission did discover some serious and unacceptable examples of poor behaviour and of stealing from workers and obtaining unfair benefits. Absolutely. Labor has got no time for that. I believe in making sure that workers get the best quality representation, that's something I've always done my whole life. In terms of the Government's agenda though, one thing I don't understand about their agenda is: why don't they just simply believe in one rule for all? Why do they want the whole construction sector governed by a different set of rules to every other worker? I don't understand why the Government, if they want to have good industrial relations, is allowing Australian seafarers to lose their jobs to floating tax havens tying up at our wharfs where we see lower paid foreign seafarers, in many cases risking exploitation, being rewarded. Foreign tax havens. When you’ve got a foreign flag on a ship replacing Australian ships it's quite often because that foreign flagged ship can avail themselves of tax havens in the West Indies or anywhere else and somehow the Australian Government is waving goodbye to Australian jobs. Not good enough Mr Turnbull.
JOURNALIST: Do you agree with Stephen Conroy that Jay Weatherill should go to an election arguing for an increase in the GST?
SHORTEN: I agree with the Australian people that a 15 per cent GST on everything is wrong, wrong, wrong. When Labor belled the cat on this when Mr Turnbull raised the issue and said we must have a debate, a 15 per cent GST has got to be in the mix, and Scott Morrison said the same thing about a 15 per cent tax on everything seems like a good idea, I said then that Labor would oppose, oppose, oppose a 15 per cent price rise – a 15 per cent tax rise on everything. Now today we see more and more evidence showing that Australians aren't buying the snake oil of Mr Turnbull and his Liberals who want to put a 15 per cent tax on everything so they can hand a tax cut to big business. What on earth are Mr Turnbull and his Liberals thinking? They want to put a 15 per cent tax on everything, and then they want to hand that money taken from working people, from middle class and working class families and hand it back to big business.
JOURNALIST: Nearly 40 per cent of people in that poll did support the GST increase. Doesn't it show that people are open to this idea?
SHORTEN: I have to say that when you say "nearly 40 per cent did like it", it does open the question that nearly 60 per cent gave it the thumbs down. Anyway, people are entitled to think what they want. What I will do is I will stand up for working people. Today, Brendan, Lisa and I are making it clear that we're on the side of low paid workers, that we will fight for workers' entitlements. For us it's not just some sort of announcement. For us, it's about the way we view Australia. Australia works best when the middle class and the working class people are getting a fair go with a strong safety net. And just as we will stand up for the rights and entitlements of millions of low paid Australians, we will stand up for millions of Australians and oppose a 15 per cent GST. Who on earth thinks it's a good idea to slug the pensioners? To slug older Australians? To slug people going to work every day, with a 15 per cent price rise? We're on the right side of history because we understand how real people are battling to make ends meet. That's why be it Medicare, be it opposing a 15 per cent GST, be it well-funded schools for all people, or indeed standing up for low paid workers, Labor is the party you can trust.
JOURNALIST: Are you surprised that that figure returns so high, 37 per cent, given that the Government hasn't outlined any compensation package?
SHORTEN: I'm surprised you think that 37 per cent of people is good news for the Government. But anyway, polls come, they go. What really matters is what's happening around the kitchen tables of Australia. I understand that at the grocery checkout, I reckon you’d get 100 per cent out of 100 per cent of people saying they don't want to pay 15 per cent on GST. You go to a doctor's clinic, they don't even want to put up with the cuts that are now happening to imaging and pathology which will see the cost of getting basic medical testing go up. Ask people in the medical surgery if they want to pay 15 per cent. Ask parents who are paying the back to school costs of their kids going back to school, do they want to pay 15 per cent on their educational costs? No way! A 15 per cent GST is a lazy tax. It will kill confidence in the High Street. Ask any small business in any shopping centre in Australia, does a 15 per cent tax on everything, is it going to boost confidence or will it see a reduction in jobs?
JOURNALIST: What do you make of reports that Christopher Pyne and Wyatt Roy have been interviewed by the AFP relating to the Mal Brough scandal?
SHORTEN: I think it is long overdue for Christopher Pyne and Wyatt Roy to come clean on their role in the Peter Slipper/Mal Brough scandal.
JOURNALIST: And just finally, there’s a bit of political history here in Melbourne possibly under the hammer, 103 Exhibition Street – previously your opponents' headquarters. What do you make of that being up for sale?
SHORTEN: Well it was very controversial how the Liberals purchased that building back in the late 70s, and it think that some of the scandals that engulfed the Liberal Party then saw the election of the Cain government in 1982. It's up to the Liberal Party how they manage their finances but they haven't had a good time, when that building was first bought or indeed more recently with the scandals over their Victorian State director. For me, it's all about the people of Australia. Today, Labor has said we will stand up for low paid workers, for casual workers, for the temporary visa workers, we will protect Australian jobs by making sure there's a strong safety net and we will do so in Parliament this week and we will stand up against a 15 per cent GST. That argument's been around for as long as 103 Exhibition Street and that argument, we will defeat.
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