Release type: Op-Ed


Closing loopholes so workers don’t have to choose between their safety and their pay


The Hon Tony Burke MP
Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations
Minister for the Arts

As Workplace Relations Minister I believe in this fundamental principle: workers should never have to choose between their safety and their pay.

That’s why the first piece of legislation I introduced as Minister was for ten days of paid family and domestic violence leave, including for casual workers.

Violence doesn’t discriminate and neither should the law.

Last year’s Secure Jobs, Better Pay legislation attracted a whole lot of publicity. But in all that reporting, not a lot of attention was paid to the workplace health and safety elements.

Prohibiting sexual harassment at work. Introducing world-leading compensation reforms for ACT and Commonwealth firefighters with work-related cancers. Setting up the National Construction Industry Forum to ensure safety in the building and construction industry.

All of these reforms were aimed at making sure workers don’t have to choose between their safety and their pay – passed with support of the crossbench last year.

A little earlier this year I introduced the next stage of the Government’s workplace relations reform: the Closing Loopholes legislation.

It’s aimed at closing the loopholes that undermine pay, security and safety for workers.

The legislation contains four main elements – making wage theft a crime, introducing minimum standards to make sure gig workers aren’t ripped off, closing the loophole that’s used to undercut the pay and conditions of labour hire workers and properly defining casual work so casuals aren’t exploited.

It will also criminalise industrial manslaughter, set minimum standards in the road transport industry, introduce better support for first responders diagnosed with PTSD, include silica-related diseases and safety within the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency as well as strengthen family and domestic violence protections for workers.

The legislation was only introduced last month but already we’re facing calls to split the Bill.

Some have argued we should split off the workplace health and safety elements – specifically elements like the silica measures, protections for victims of family and domestic violence and the PTSD support for first responders – to get them through this year.

But the rest of the Bill is also about safety.

The criminalisation of industrial manslaughter is about ensuring that employers take workplace safety seriously.

Closing the labour hire loophole is a safety measure too.

A few years ago I met with Brodie, a miner from Rockhampton. He explained to me that because he and his colleagues were on labour hire they were afraid to raise safety issues in the workplace. Why? Because the labour hire workers who raised safety issues were often never seen on site again. They were forced to choose between their safety and their pay.

Introducing minimum standards for gig workers is a safety measure.

In the past few years 13 food delivery riders, that we know of, have died on our roads.

Why? Because they’re in a race to the bottom, with no minimum standards. 

The only way they can make ends meet is to run red lights, weave through traffic, speed and create a new lane next to the parked cars – knowing that at any moment if someone opens a car door, the rider will end up lying on the road rather than riding on it. They’re forced to choose between their safety and their pay.

On top of that, as I recently heard one ambulance officer explain: they’re the first on the scene when gig workers are killed. 

What’s the point of protecting them from PTSD if we don’t make the changes to the system to make it less likely that they’ll have to turn up to the very scenes that are contributing to PTSD?

Criminalising wage theft and stopping the exploitation of casual workers are also safety measures.

Businesses that cut corners on wages don’t stop at wages. Businesses that cut corners, cut corners. Businesses that are willing to break the law, break the law – whether it’s in regards to wages and rostering, or health and safety. 

Some of those asking us to split the Bill have the best of intentions. They have legitimate concerns about safety in workplaces around the country. I get that. 

But others – who have never supported any of these measures before – are now asking us to split the Bill as well. Not because they’re concerned with safety, but because they don’t want to give more rights to workers.

That’s why they’re calling for delay. 

The Government doesn’t want to see any of this delayed – we want to deliver wages, security and safety.

That way workers won’t have to choose between their safety and their pay.