Release type: Transcript


Interview - ABC AM with Sabra Lane


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


Subjects: Closing Loopholes Bill, criminalising wage theft, closing the labour hire loophole, the upcoming referendum.

SABRA LANE, HOST: Tony Burke is the Federal Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. He joins us now. Mr Burke, in a broad overview of this, you've got business saying the changes are bad, unions are saying they don't go far enough. Will average Australian workers notice any difference?

TONY BURKE MP, MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS, MINISTER FOR THE ARTS: Most businesses don't use the loopholes. This is something where there is a subset of workers who will notice a really significant difference. But for most workers around Australia, the work that we're already doing in getting wages moving is the main thing for them. Most employers don't undercut enterprise agreements. Most employers, if you're a casual and you're wanting to be able to convert to permanent work, they do it cooperatively. Most employers don't engage in wage theft. For each of these issues, we're talking about loopholes that a minority of employers use. But I'll tell you what, for those workers who are disadvantaged because they're unlucky enough to be with an employer who does use these loopholes, for those workers, today makes a real difference for their working lives.

LANE: So, what you're saying is most average Australian workers won't notice any difference.

BURKE: That's right. For most workers, the changes we made last year were the big ones in terms of getting wages moving. This year, you've just got a minority of employers that are exploiting a number of loopholes. It's bad for their workers. It's also bad for the other businesses that have to compete with them.

LANE: You've softened the changes that you'd planned for labour hire, so, workers who are brought in for short term contracts at a workplace to get the same pay as if they'd been hired directly by the business, you've made small businesses exempt. Why?

BURKE: The simple reason here, if you start with the principle, this rule only applies to where you have an enterprise agreement anyway, most small businesses don't. There'll be some that do, most don't. Certainly, those that do, odds on they're not using the loophole. I've never heard of a small business using that loophole. So, just for simplicity and to deal with the issues that you played earlier from COSBOA, the simplest thing is just to say to small business, “This one doesn't apply to you”, because there was a fear campaign going around that somehow this would impact on small business. It wasn't going to. So, better off on that one just to do the carve out up front.

LANE: The changes mean that bosses who deliberately underpay staff could be gaoled. How many bosses recently might have been gaoled if these laws had been in place?

BURKE: Well, I'm not a court. 

LANE: No, no, but you'd have some idea.

BURKE: If you look at the examples where it would be deliberate. Examples that we've seen of workers – after their pay goes into their bank account – of being marched across to an ATM to withdraw their pay to hand back to the employer. I reckon there's a fair case there that we’re talking about intentional wage theft. That was what we saw on TV with the 7-Eleven cases. Importantly, not only was there not a serious penalty there, even the fines were absurdly low – you had across the different franchises involved in that particular underpayment, it was $173 million in underpayment --

LANE: Sure, but to the basis -

BURKE: -- and the fine was less than $2 million.

LANE: You must have some idea how many employers could have been up for a gaol term under these changes if they'd been in place.

BURKE: I've given you an example. It's not something that we quantify. One of the problems here is a whole lot of this never gets found. A whole lot of this, if it does get found, gets found years and years later. I think it's the case whenever someone brings in a criminal penalty, it's always difficult to quantify how many people would be involved. But I'll tell you what, even for the ones you didn't know about, it certainly focuses the mind when people know this isn't something where, worst case scenario, you just have to pay the money back. It is just as much a criminal offence – if these laws go through – for the worker to steal from the employer as it is for the employer to steal for the worker. The double standard ends with today's legislation.

LANE: The Coalition won't pass these laws. Do you have support from the crossbench, independent MPs and the Greens to get this through Parliament?

BURKE: We've had good consultation with all of those groups, but no one's locked in. They have to look at the legislation. Almost certainly there'll be a Senate inquiry process that people will want to wait ‘til the end of. People in the Senate -- the Opposition only needed to hear the title of the Bill, that it was closing loopholes and they knew they were against it.

LANE: Sure.

BURKE: But for the crossbench, they'll conduct their due diligence. We'll have constructive conversations and I'm very hopeful that there'll be enough goodwill to be able to close these loopholes this year.

LANE: On the referendum, the Voice to Parliament, currently the support is not with the Government. Today's Newspoll of public opinion says a majority of voters are against it. How will you turn that around?

BURKE: By continuing to explain that recognition through a Voice will deliver results. We need to remember, this idea came after governments of both sides said to First Nations people, “Tell us what would make recognition meaningful”. And people came back simply saying, “Well, it's meaningful if there's also a commitment through the Australian people that you will listen. That would make it meaningful”. So we'll continue to be out there campaigning. I'm very confident on this and I also think that Peter Dutton has underestimated the goodwill of a whole lot of Liberal voters here as well. There's a generosity in the Australian people and as people come closer to the date, focus their minds, look at the proposal – we see something where there's nothing to lose and everything to gain.

LANE: Tony Burke, thanks for talking to AM this morning.

BURKE: Pleasure to talk.