WEDNESDAY, 16 MARCH 2016
SUBJECT/S: Labor’s plan to crack down on worker exploitation; Chaos in the Turnbull Liberal Government; Scott Morrison retreating from income tax cuts; Safe Schools program; Michael Lawler.
BRENDAN O’CONNOR, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS: Good morning everyone. We're here today to talk about what is becoming an increasing problem in this country, worker exploitation. Labor's been very concerned about this issue and for that reason, only yesterday, we introduced into the Senate a proposed bill that would respond to what is wide spread exploitation of workers in this country. Too many young people are being exploited by rogue employers. Too many workers are being exploited and in fact as a result of that not only is that unfair to workers in this country but it really is unfair to those employers who are doing the right thing. Who want to do the right thing but because of the efforts by unscrupulous employers, because there has been no action whatsoever by the current Federal Government we're seeing this wide spread intentional exploitation occur.
There's been some very significant examples as we've seen in the media and I actually pay tribute to many of the media outlets who have been exposing some of these stories – ABC Four Corners, Fairfax and other media outlets have done a great job. But unfortunately there's been no response by the Federal Government and that's why Bill Shorten and I announced with Lisa Chesters on the 1st of February this year a response to crack down on unscrupulous employers. To make sure there are sufficient penalties to apply for those that are intentionally underpaying workers. To make sure that we do not allow sham contracting in this country, where people pretend that workers are not workers but indeed there so called independent contractors when they not in order to shift the costs of workers compensation and other costs to those workers. And also we are going to look to pursue those companies that phoenix - that is to get out of their debts to employees they seek to liquidate a company only to start another company and start the exploitation again after managing to rid themselves of that debt. We are going to pursue people who actually act in that manner. We want the Government to match us on this issue because it's too important for it to be left to argument. It should be something that is legislated in the Parliament.
Today to really, I think, dramatise the significance of these things we're going to hear real stories from workers who have been exploited. They'll tell their story as you'll hear in a minute. Bharat and Samarah, from Sydney and from Newcastle in the case of Bharat and Queensland in the case of Samarah, about what has happened to them and there are other workers here today who have been telling Bill Shorten and I about what's happened to them. And they are speaking on behalf of tens of thousands, if not more, workers in this country that need some support, some support from Government in order to stop this practice. Because without a response by Government, we will not see an end to this, and we'll see these stories continue. And that is why Labor will stand up for these workers. And I also want to pay tribute to United Voice and the SDA that are here today that represent those workers because it's absolutely vital that they have a voice and I'm happy to say today you are going to hear two voices. Speaking on behalf of those workers and telling their story. So who's first? Samarah.
SAMARAH WILSON: Hi, my name is Samarah Wilson and I know what it's like to be personally exploited and coerced by my employer. About 12 months ago, I was working happily at the Capalaba Sports Club in Queensland. That was until my employer told every casual that they were being outsourced on to a labour hire company called Hospitality Act, which is a subsidiary of AWX. During this process we were being moved off the award and on to a new certified agreement. If we agreed to sign this agreement, we were effectively signing away our rights to receive penalty rates for weekends, night and public holidays. That meant a pay cut of $5,000 for me. I'm a full-time student and I work nights and weekends to put for myself through university, to put fuel in my car and buy my next books. So, the penalty rates are really important to me. It didn't think what was happening was fair, just or I didn't even know why they were doing what they were doing. And I refused to sign the agreement and I lost my job. We had 72 hours to decide whether we were going to take it on and within that time I was unemployed.
Penalty rates are not a luxury. They are what put food on the table, fuel in people's cars. These are some of Australia's lowest paid workers, and they don't deserve and they can't afford to be treated this way. Employers have been given too much power. It's a casualised industry, hospitality, especially, and it means that they don't know when their next pay is going to come. So they are vulnerable in that regards and employers are taking that opportunity and labour hire companies to exploit workers to their advantage, to the detriment of the workers. I am very pleased that the Labor Government has taken a stand and has said that they're going to make sure that this doesn't happen because it's an all too common story. So I thank the Labor Government and something needs to be done, all workers need to be protected and they need to feel secure in their employment. So thank you.
BHARAT KHANNA: Good morning, my name is Bharat and I'm an ex- 7-Eleven employee and I was removed because when I asked for my full pay, the employer said to me to straight away just walk out. I was working as a manager. I was handling a store, I was working more than 60 hours an attending uni full-time. So it was a hard time for me and when I asked for my rights he just asked me to walk out. During that time I thought somebody has to take a stand against this because it's been happening for more than a decade, I would say. So I took the help of SDA, they hired me and they provide me with an opportunity to work for them, so my basic job was to visit all the local 7-Eleven stores in the Newcastle and the Central Coast region where I use to visit on a regular basis, interact with the staff and if the franchisee was there I would work out. What I find out was that 100 per cent everybody was exploited in the past. Currently they were paid as per the pay rate but behind the story was totally different. They were asked to withdraw the money from the ATM and give it back to the franchisee. This way they had no proof but there were certain instances where a staff was transferring the payback amount in the franchisees bank account. Later on the bank - the franchisee realised yes, that this is some kind of proof and he could get into trouble and he asked the staff not to do that. But eventually the staff said 'no I will still do that' and eventually he lost the job. So people straight away don't get their pay slips so every week the amount is changing in the bank account, they don't know if they are getting paid properly or not. When they go and the franchisee the answer is always no. (inaudible) with no breaks so I request the Government that they should take a stand because every year you get a lot of new international students coming into this country and I would say that the image of Australia is at stake because when I was back home and planning to come to this beautiful country and do my higher education and the stories which I heard was that you have to work 20 hours, you would be paid as for the period but after coming here and realise I was finding trying to find job for the first three months, wherever I was went the pay was like $10, $10, $10, $11. But what I realised is that this is how things work out in this country and eventually I had to start working. What I would request the Government to take action. I really thank the Labor Party for taking a stand against it. Thank you.
BILL SHORTEN, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Following Brendan's opening remarks, listening to those two workers tell their stories reveals a picture of Australia, an underbelly which Mr Turnbull likes to pretend doesn't exist. It is not an exciting time if you work in hospitality, or at 7-Eleven, you're casualised and you're getting ripped off. It is not right that young women like Samarah, impressively articulate, strong enough in an unfair and unequal bargaining situation to say no. She won't just accept thousands of dollars of pay cut without a fight. We heard from Bharat about the 7-Eleven incident.
I congratulate the media for their championing the issues of workers caught up, guest workers, temporary visa holders being exploited and what we are hearing today is that there's nothing less than a systemic underclass of Australian workers, people working in Australia, casualised, insecure in work, lacking in bargaining power, and the Liberal Government and Mr Turnbull have nothing to say to stand up for hundreds of thousands of people who are getting ripped off.
There's over a million Australians who regularly record that they are underemployed, that they're seeking more work, more permanence. So these stories today highlight to me and to my Labor team that a Government should stand up for all Australians, that they should stand up for people in insecure work, for the underclass of Australian workers who we like to think don't exist but in fact it is really happening in front of us.
That's why I'm calling upon Mr Turnbull to end the chaos in his Government. Today in the Senate, Mr Turnbull and the Greens political party have an opportunity to vote for legislation being proposed on behalf of Labor by Senator Cameron. Labor's put forward policies in many areas. But we think it's very important that the voices you just heard don't get squashed by unfair employment relationships.
A Labor Government, if elected, will ensure that the Fair Work Ombudsman has more power to chase up and stand up for people who are getting ripped off. A Labor Government will ensure that we crack down on sham contracting, the dodgy commercial arrangements which see people treated as businesses and contractors when in fact they are just employees.
We want to increase the penalties against employers, who are ripping off their workers. And I think also again after what we heard today it's really important to stress that we stand up for temporary overseas visa holders in this country. If you are a temporary worker from overseas, you have fewer than any rights - than the rights of Australian workers. You are not in a bargaining position. I think it takes real courage for international students and others to stand up in a foreign country where they're paying for their higher education and to stand up and say we will actually - we don't deserve to be ripped off. So Labor has concrete plans to stand up for insecure workers, for casualised workers and we acknowledge here to the work of the unions, such as United Voice and the SDA and many other unions.
Mr Turnbull loves to talk about unions but never has anything nice to say about them. Mr Turnbull loves to talk about it's an exciting time to be an Australian but he never has anything to say about low paid workers, people in insecure employment. But this is symptomatic of the greater chaos engulfing the Government. It is time for Mr Turnbull to stop the chaos and start governing.
Mr Turnbull's got some important decisions to make today. Is he on the side of millions of Australians who are in low paid and insecure work and he can show that he is by voting for our legislation in the Senate. Mr Turnbull has to make a decision today also. Is he on the side of his Education Minister or is he going to bow to the incessant, relentless demands of the far right of the Liberal Party and scrap the Safe Schools program? Mr Turnbull has to make some decisions today about tax cuts. For the last six months, his hapless beleaguered Treasurer has promised and promised tax cuts, a new age of tax cuts, we find out late last night that the Government is walking away from tax cuts. It's Mr Morrison's final humiliation.
How can anyone trust what he says on anything if he can't even deliver tax cuts? And also, if Mr Turnbull is in the mood to stop the chaos and start governing, stop playing games with the date of the Budget, no more weasel words, no more waffle words, just say that the Budget is on May 10 and if Mr Turnbull is feeling really bold and excited about governing, he might even tell us the date of the election so we can all get on with the business of governing Australia in the interests of all Australians. Happy to take any questions that people have.
JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten, what do you make of the agreement between Unions ACT and the ACT Government that effectively gives the unions the decision whether or not a company should be doing business with the Territory Government?
SHORTEN: First of all as you appreciate, I am not running for Chief Minister of the ACT. I understand these practices have been in place for a decade. I understand that the Government wants to make sure and they can speak for themselves, they want to make sure that contracts that are given to companies with records of good safety and not exploiting workers. I will also say we just heard from two workers, 7-Eleven which has been a national scandal which the Government has been suspiciously silent on, and we've also heard what was happening at the Capalaba Sports Club in Queensland and how hospitality workers are getting ripped off. We need to make sure that taxpayer money doesn't go to companies that exploit their workers.
JOURNALIST: Just on income tax cuts, do you think income tax cuts are needed?
SHORTEN: Well it would be great to be able to lower the rate of income - the marginal rate of taxation in this country, of course it would. But when you give a tax cut, that's foregone revenue to the Budget. Now, the Government made big promises, I mean they promised a lot really since Mr Turnbull and Mr Morrison replaced Mr Abbott and Mr Hockey. Remember there was going to be new economic leadership, well we don't talk about that much anymore do we. That was Mr Turnbull's own test that he set for himself.
Now what this Government said is that oh we'll give tax cuts. But what they've been doing is ruling changes to the taxation system off the table. They almost have a Pavlovian response to the Labor Party when we offer up a new idea they immediately rush out and complain and froth at the mouth and say it's a terrible idea. Mr Morrison and half of the frontbench, or maybe a third of the frontbench, have bagged the idea of increasing tobacco excise. Now we see that they're thinking about doing it. You cannot afford to give income tax cuts if you can't find the money in the Budget.
The Labor Party has almost this year had role reversal with the Government. The Government's acting more like the Opposition, negative about everything, and the Opposition, we've got positive plans for the future. We are taking on the issue of Budget repair. We have outlined measures which will improve the Budget bottom line over the next decade by over $100 billion. Labor's the one who are taking up the issues of housing affordability and the sustainability of negative gearing tax concessions in the future. That will help repair the Budget. Labor's making room in a prospective Labor administration, in our Budget to be able to properly fund our schools so every child in every school gets every opportunity. So we can actually keep alive the community standard and the dream of Medicare which is universe al health care, where it's your Medicare Card not your credit card that determines the level of care. This Government is at sea on its taxation policies. We are no clearer today than we were six months ago about Mr Turnbull's plans for the economy, Mr Morrison's plans for tax cuts. This Government is in such a mess they can't even guarantee what day the Budget will be on and they seem to think the most important issue in Australia is deciding which Saturday in July or August to hold an election. Well I've got news for Mr Turnbull, start governing, stop the chaos in your ranks.
JOURNALIST: With the Safe Schools program, would it had have more credibility if it had looked at more than five schools, went over more than two weeks and actually looked at the website links as opposed to just the official material?
SHORTEN: We haven't heard the report in all of the details. It sounds like you are very well informed about it. But I have had the opportunity to speak with Latrobe University. The idea behind Safe Schools is that children who are grappling with their sexuality, who are dealing with the toughest issues teenagers can, in terms of bullying, that Safe Schools would provide resources for schools to be able to help students. It's a voluntary scheme. Schools opt in to the Safe Schools program. Who is Mr Turnbull or indeed, the tin foil hat brigade up in the Liberal right wing in the Senate, to start second guessing school councils, school, principals and the administrators? I remember when I went to school, it was the case that periodically kids would be bullied and one of the issues which they could be bullied on, was grappling with issues of sexuality. Now, I don't want to see that happen. So I do believe that we need to stand up and say that we will help support kids be able to go to school in safe environments. I tell you what, if it's matter of trusting, Mr Turnbull or Senator Bernardi or some of the others like that Mr Christensen from Dawson, or the teachers of Australia, I would pick the teachers of Australia with the welfare of my kids. Again, Mr Turnbull is going to have to show some leadership. He is going to have to decide does he back his Education Minister or does he back the lunar right of the party? Because you can't do both. Is he going to back kids and teachers or is he going to back the Senators of the right wing of the Liberal Party to whom he seems continually hostage.
JOURNALIST: There seems to be moves towards a parliamentary inquiry, or at least backbenchers want a parliamentary inquiry into this. Would you support that?
SHORTEN: Let's call it as it is. This Government has stopped governing. Is the biggest thing on the mind of this Government investigating websites and whether or not schools should be signing up to a voluntary program which helps them provide resources against bullying? Is that really what the Turnbull Government has shrunk into? Some sort of moral majority debate where some people in the Liberal Party are obsessing about this issue. Why doesn't the Liberal Party want to have an inquiry into jobs? What has happened to their tax white paper, their tax green paper, their tax statement? Why can't the Liberal Party even tell us the date of the Budget or the date of the election? Why won't the Liberal Party support the legislation that Labor has today in the Senate to prevent the exploitation of workers? We heard very articulate people there and I got to know the media gallery over the last 2.5 years. You were talk taking it in, I could appreciate that. These are real people in our streets and suburbs getting ripped off. This is not some ideological debate. This is just the real world. People deserve better. They deserve a better safety net. Only Labor can be trusted to protect the conditions of working Australians.
JOURNALIST: Just to clarify your earlier answer on tax cuts. Are you still weighing up what tax cuts you might or might not take to the election?
SHORTEN: The question I got asked is do you like income tax cuts? Yeah, I would like to reduce the marginal rate of taxation but you can't do that unless there is room in the Budget. And if you want to create room in the Budget, be it for tax cuts, be it for funding schools or hospitals, be it for Budget repair, be it for making sure that we have proper jobs programs and that we have the ability to support renewable energy and climate change, you need room in the Budget. There's only one political party in Australia who is doing the hard work of providing positive plans for Australia. That is the Labor Party. It's my team who has been working on do you look at negative gearing tax concessions? We would ring-fence and look after anyone who currently is invested under the current laws, they're fine. We would still allow it for new housing, we just wouldn't existing housing going forward. We would reduce the capital gains discount rate from 50 per cent to 25 per cent. We will crack down on multinationals and make sure they pay their fair share and we would stop Government waste. We would get rid of the Abbott-Turnbull pollution slush fund where they pay large polluters to achieve poor environmental results. We wouldn't waste money on a $160 million taxpayer funded opinion poll on marriage equality when we would actually trust the parliamentarians to vote according to their conscience. And we wouldn't have the $1.4 billion boondoggle that was negotiated between Mr Turnbull and the National Party in return for the National Party allowing or acquiescing to Mr Turnbull removing Mr Abbott. We would find money, we will make hard decisions, we will take on public debates. If we're going to have a Budget which is sustainable, which doesn't lead to greater and greater debt and deficit which the Liberals have clearly given up managing then you need to make hard decisions. There is only one party in Australia right now, in Australian politics making hard decisions - it's Labor Party, the party I lead.
JOURNALIST: Have you had a chance to look at the Michael Lawler report and do you think that he should receive his pension?
SHORTEN: I will let Brendan answer that. I haven't had a chance to look at the report yet.
O'CONNOR: Can I say firstly in relation to the report we support the conclusions by the former Justice of the Federal Court. In that there were grounds for Mr Lawler to be dismissed. We have also, in doing so, there are a number of matters that have arisen, including the conclusion by the report that vindicates the conduct of the Fair Work Commission and in particular, the handling of the matter by President Ross and I think that's an important matter given some of the issues that arose and some of the remarks by the Government on that matter. As for any further entitlements, I will be writing to Minister Cash asking her to outline exactly the details arising out of the resignation of Vice-President Lawler. I think it's very important that we know the answers to that. So I think we firstly need to know the Government's position in a very senior officer of the Fair Work Commission officer resigning. We don't know those details, we have had the report tabled. In general, we support the report and we think that good work has been done by the former Justice, Peter Heerey. But we would like to know now what details were determined by the Government when Vice-President Lawler presented his resignation to the Government. We need to know that. And when we know that, we will have further to say.
JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten, just briefly clarify your answer on the ACT Government. So you endorse the idea of acquiring the Government to consult with the unions on procurement policies?
SHORTEN: No, what I said is that I am not running for Chief Minister. It's a Territory matter. I also explained my understanding that these arrangements have been in place for 10 years and that I understand while you are handing taxpayer money to contracting companies you want to make sure they are not exploiting their workers. You want to make sure they treat their people safely.
To finish up this press conference, let me conclude where we started. We were privileged to hear two people who have stood up for their working conditions. The conservatives and some in the Liberal Party and Mr Turnbull, like to pretend that the need for a strong safety net, the need to stand up for penalty rates is a thing of the past. But what you saw is a 2016 examples, not 1916 or 1816. We saw examples from this year and last year, where you have had individuals thrust into a situation of exploitation. It's not easy standing up to your employer when you are one out when you are given very little time to sign a contract to back yourself against the system. So these people need a Government in Australia who is on the side of all people, not just vested interests and big business. What we saw today is two people, real people from the real worlds asking Mr Turnbull to start governing and stop the chaos. Mr Turnbull has got a chance today. Not just about clearing up his position on tax cuts. Not just about confirming the date of the Budget, not just about trying to sort out who is right wing of his Liberal party or who his Education Minister who he supports. Mr Turnbull has an important task today - will you please stand up for millions of Australians who are under employed, millions of Australians who are in casualised work. There are people getting ripped off right now by business, by the unscrupulous elements of business. Mr Turnbull needs to stand up for all Australians not just the top end of town.
See you in Parliament.