Release type: Transcript


Interview - 6PR Mornings with Gary Adshead


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

GARY ADSHEAD, HOST: All right, next subject comes up. There's a couple of things that we're going to be talking about in a minute but first of all, of course, you've seen after a campaign by the ACTU, the union, and people who have been affected by silicosis, this in some way invisible disease, and you sort of hark back to the days of asbestosis and mesothelioma where people were being affected without realising it, back in the day when they were dealing with asbestos, there is now a ban agreed to by the Feds and the state ministers in relation to engineered stonework like the bench tops that you've probably got in your house. I don't know, you tell me. 133 882. 

We'll get into that first up with the Industrial Relations Minister Tony Burke who joins me on the line. G'day, Tony. 


ADSHEAD: Yeah, look, obviously there were some people who have had the effects of silicosis who put themselves forward and said, "This has got to stop". Is it something that was comfortable for you to look at given how widespread silicosis is and also how widespread the use of this product is? 

BURKE: Can I just start by letting people know if you've already got one of these products in your home they're not dangerous once they're installed. If you've got something in your home, obviously, don't cut it, don't drill into it, and if you want to remove it at any point make sure you get that done professionally. But just to have these in your home once they're installed, I don't want people to panic about them because once they're installed they're okay. 

But the challenge has been that when they're being installed – in too many occasions they've been cut and the dust as they're cut goes into people's lungs. I think the example you gave, Gary, is really strong with a comparison to asbestos. But the big difference here is when people contracted asbestosis it was very often in their 60s. When people are getting silicosis it's often in their 20s and 30s, and the rates of silicosis for people who have been installing these bench tops have just been off the charts. 

I met in Opposition with some of the people who'd contracted silicosis just by going to work, and I'll never forget one of them saying to me, he said, "The doctor said to me, 'I don't want you to panic but do you have your affairs in order?'" Just hearing that accounted to you by somebody who was in his 30s himself just really hits you. 

You've got to be sensible about it. You've got to do things in an orderly way. There are businesses that will have this product in stock, and you've got to think how do we sensibly work through to this conclusion? But we need to be working to a destination where a product that is causing people to contract an incurable disease, that we stop using it. 

ADSHEAD: It must be    

BURKE: And that's why I was really sorry, you go. 

ADSHEAD: I was going to say, Minister, it must have really helped though when organisations like Bunnings and IKEA said that they would phase it out? 

BURKE: And good on them I've got to say. And it did, because sometimes on this sort of regulation    


BURKE: As a government you've got all the evidence in front of you but you're thinking hang on, is it only the unions calling for this, which is important having the voices of workers heard in that way, but sometimes you can feel like every employer group is just pushing in the other direction. Whereas on this occasion you had Bunnings, you had IKEA, you had some of the big construction firms – once the report was released – just say, "We need to phase out of this product".  

I think that certainly, it didn't necessarily change the decision that Ministers were making but I think it gave everyone a lot of confidence that the report that had been done from SafeWork Australia could only be read one way. Which was, I think we all know that with asbestos Australia took a long time to act and there was years and years of campaigning where it looked like things were going nowhere and you had the behaviour of James Hardie and others. Whereas this time you had a lot of businesses saying, "We've seen the report, we've seen the evidence. We're on board for a ban here".  

That's why I couldn't have been happier when it went round state by state, because I chaired the meeting yesterday. 


BURKE: The way it happens is I call each state by the name of the state and then the Minister lets us know which way they're voting, and every single vote, Liberal or Labor Government, was unanimous yesterday. 

ADSHEAD: Okay. One question that's being asked though is where will you stop? Because of course silica related issues are not just in the engineered stone industry. You're just talking about cutting bricks and in quartz and in granite and so on, that there are people who would still be subjected to potential silicosis working every day. 

BURKE: Yeah, and this is where you have the reaction to like every bit of tunnelling that's done has silicosis risk, jackhammering. 


BURKE: There's silicosis risk everywhere. The silicosis risk of installing these particular bench tops was just off the charts. 

ADSHEAD: Right. 

BURKE: So, with work health and safety you're always working on the range of what are the areas where there's no problem at all? What are the areas where you need really tight safety rules, and what are the extreme ones where you need to look at a ban? 

The ban is there for engineered stone and we'll meet in March to work out exactly how the phasing of that works. But most jurisdictions are working on 1 July as the critical date. 

The second thing that you then look at is for the things that you don't ban, how do you have strict enough rules to make sure that people are still safe going to work? Because there's lots of illnesses that we'll all cop during life, but nobody should get sick simply because they went to work. 

So, there'll be other products where some of it will be PPE, some of it will be issues of making sure items are wet when they're being cut. There'll be a series of different responses, but we ultimately want everyone to be safe and you can't ban everything that is silica related, because it's too much of the planet. 


BURKE: There'll be very tough rules that come in to just abide by a really simply principle, which is no one should contract incurable illness because they went to work. 

ADSHEAD: All right. Well after the break I'm actually going to be talking to Kyle Goodwin who is one of the former stonemasons and campaigners in this area, so we'll get his reaction to this news. 

BURKE: I'm glad you've got him on. He's effectively been the Bernie Banton of this campaign. 

ADSHEAD: Yeah, yeah, exactly. 

BURKE: He really has been. 

ADSHEAD: He seems like a decent, hard working bloke who's been struck down in his 30s, so we'll get into that. 

Hey, from your point of view, you know, look, I'll say it, certainly the local newspaper over here, the Kerry Stokes newspaper, absolutely has been slamming your Same Job, Same Pay provisions and they've sort of been taking the corporate line of BHP and others that say that the sky will fall, it'll be the end of the world if you get this through. 

One of the criticisms has been that you did a "sneaky deal" with the Greens to get through a certain tranche of these changes in industrial relations. How have you been dealing with that? 

BURKE: Look, I read the West Australian, so I've been seeing all the articles as they've come through. The truth is when I introduced the Bill I said I wanted to get it through this year and there was a procedural game that was run in the Senate, led by Senator Cash, one of your own from WA, and that was to keep delaying the date at which the committee was allowed to report. 

Those sort of political games will be played and there's nothing I can do about that. But I've always made clear I wanted to find a pathway. I wanted to be able to get the whole Bill through and I'd announced that right from the start. 

It turned out with the Senate crossbench I couldn't get the whole thing through straight away, there were some sections that some of the crossbench wanted a few more months to work through. But effectively the measures where from the evidence they'd heard at the Senate inquiry they thought it was all fair enough to put through, they did it. 

It was not an easy negotiation, I'll tell you, and people like Jacqui Lambie and David Pocock, they really need to be persuaded. But can I tell you on the labour hire loophole part of it and banning wage theft, the evidence that came up just made it really clear that these are forms of underpayment that don't happen at most workplaces. Most workers get paid properly, but they happened enough that we needed to change the law to close those loopholes. 

ADSHEAD: Do you think though that you have   some of the criticism is that you've taken away sort of a worker's individual rights to negotiate through a labour hire company, you know, a wage and made it all in one sort of stream, it makes it difficult for companies to sort of operate the different levels that they need to? 

BURKE: No, I don't believe that at all. I'm glad you put it to me. First of all, I've never met a worker who wants to negotiate to be underpaid. Never met that worker and I've never had a worker come to me and say, "I need the right to be under paid".  

But secondly, most businesses that use labour hire, and when I've been an employer over the years before I was in Parliament I used labour hire at different points. The labour hire workers in most industries get paid more because they don't have the security. But there's a few places in the country, Qantas has been one, and some of the mining operations, principally in the Hunter and Central Queensland, less so the mining operations in Western Australia, but there's been some mining operations, and as I say in aviation, where an enterprise agreement is agreed to with good rates of pay, and then labour hire is used not to fill gaps or a surge but it actually is a way of paying less than the rates they just agreed to. 

That's not what labour hire's for. Labour hire's not there for the purpose of under cutting a rate of pay. Labour hire is there for flexibility, for specialists, for surge, and we've protected all of that. But it simply means that once you've got an enterprise agreement in place, labour hire can't be used as a mechanism to try to undercut rates of pay that have been agreed to. 

Can I tell you some of these rates where it's being used to under pay people, there's some workers I've met who are paid up to $30,000 a year less than the people they're working side by side with, with the same level of experience, embedded in the same crew. Completely indistinguishable from each other, other than the fact that one's employed by a company with a different ABN and that's provided an excuse for a complete under cutting of the rate of pay. 

ADSHEAD: Right. Now next year, of course, you'll have to try to get this other tranche through which is looking at casual workers and the gig economy. 

BURKE: Yeah. 

ADSHEAD: Because in some ways, you know, I think we all know that the people that ride around on bikes to deliver us food are putting their own lives at risk, you know, constantly, and probably not being paid a lot. Is that in some way, I don't know, more significant to you, that you need to get that sorted out? 

BURKE: I am really passionate about the gig economy one, I've got to say, because I don't want us to be a country where you have to rely on tips to make ends meet. There are some parts of the world where that's their system. If you travel overseas sometimes you go to countries where unless you tip, people don't get paid properly. I don't want that to be how Australia works. 

In the gig economy at the moment we've got a system where effectively there are no minimum rates at all, like none, and so people can always be undercut right to the bottom. 

Now in those industries rates go up and down at different times of day, so at a lot of times of day, this will make no difference because there are sometimes of day when people are already being paid properly. But it'll just mean we'll get some minimum standards. And if there's a minimum standard for every other job in the country, I don't see why we have no minimum standards for someone on a bicycle putting themselves at risk trying to get something to our door. 

ADSHEAD: All right. Well on that then are you confident that you can negotiate your way through there? Because what the criticism has been, is that by getting involved in it as a government you are taking away a business's right to sort of run its business in a way that suits or fits with their requirements, like casual workers as opposed to making them full time workers. How confident are you on this one? 

BURKE: I'm always hopeful with the Senate but I know that to say you reckon you can get there always tempts fate with the Senate. I'm working really well with the Senate crossbench, I'm very hopeful we get to a majority. 

I think that there are two sorts of workers who next year's legislation reaches who I really want to be able to help. One's the people who will have no minimum standards at all. They won't get all the minimum standards of an employee, but I want them to have some minimum standards, and it'll do that. 

The second group is the group of casuals where most casuals want to be casual, but there are some people who are working completely predictable shifts who could be rostered the exact same way, it would make no difference to the employer, who want to be transferred from casual to permanent. It's not students. Students tend to want the casual rate of pay and the full flexibility. But if you're someone supporting a household, try getting a mortgage if you go to the bank and you say, "The only job I've got is casual." 


BURKE: They're the sort of people, it's less than 5 per cent of the casual workforce but they're real, they're there, they want to be able to convert and I think we should give them some rights to be able to do that. 

ADSHEAD: All right. I'll watch and see with interest whether you can get that second tranche through. I do appreciate you joining us today, Minister. 

BURKE: No, really appreciate the chance to be able to talk to you and your listeners, Gary. Thank you and have a good Christmas. 

ADSHEAD: And you. Tony Burke, Industrial Relations Minister.