SUBJECTS: National Construction Industry Forum, closing the labour hire loophole, workplace relations reform, casuals, wage theft, gig economy, Referendum campaign, wellbeing budget, shooting in Greenacre.
ANDREW CLENNELL, HOST: Let's go live now to Workplace Relations Minister and Leader of the House, Tony Burke. Tony Burke, thanks for joining us this Sunday morning. You've announced this National Construction Industry Forum today. This was part of a deal to get David Pocock over the line of abolishing the ABCC. Tell us a bit about how this will work.
TONY BURKE MP, MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS, MINISTER FOR THE ARTS: This actually came from the Jobs and Skills Summit, so it was well before the vote on that, before I'd introduced that legislation. Effectively, what we're trying to do is start the process of cultural change within the construction industry. The nature of this body is simply to start to work out where are the issues where we can bring people together. Some people have already raised that there might be prospects with respect to apprentices, there might be prospects with respect to timing of payments and issues like that. But we just want to start a different sort of conversation.
For a long time the conversation was basically to add to everything that could possibly be an offence, right to the point where we got stickers and flags as offences, and then to just have a punishment, constant campaigns. And then even at the last election, after all the years that they'd had that sort of approach, the previous government was still saying it hadn't worked and they needed to double penalties even further. We're trying to stop pushing people into their corners and start bringing people together and say, “OK, what are the areas where we might be able to get agreement and let's start working together”. It'll take a long time to change culture. I'm not pretending that establishing this meeting is the instant switch, but it is a change in direction and a change in approach.
CLENNELL: Alright. A suggestion has been made to me that you are potentially taking a suite of IR reform suggestions for a discussion at Cabinet on Tuesday. Do I have correct mail there?
BURKE: I'm not talking about Cabinet. But can I also say that most Cabinet speculation about timing that I've read over the last twelve months has been wrong.
CLENNELL: Well, let's talk --
BURKE: It is the case that the Government will be introducing a suite of industrial relations changes later this year. All of which are aimed at closing various loopholes.
CLENNELL: Well, let's talk about same job, same Pay. Business groups are complaining this sets up a system where someone who's been in a job for two months has the same pay and benefits as an experienced hand who was shone through in five to ten years in a job. Is that fair enough criticism?
BURKE: I'm really glad you put that to me. I can categorically rule that out. I know that's been the subject of the entire advertising campaign. Business have been told privately and publicly that that is not what the Government's doing. It's a policy idea that I'd never heard of until I saw the ads, and the moment I saw the ads, I thought it was a terrible idea. They've continued running the ads. That's up to business how they want to campaign, I get that. But what I'm wanting to close is the labour hire loophole. What I'm wanting to close is a loophole where an employer has already agreed that for a particular worker with a particular level of experience, there should be a minimum rate of pay – and then labour hire is used to undercut the rate of pay that they just agreed to. That's the loophole that I want to close.
CLENNELL: Alright, well, let's look at some of the other reforms you might be considering. Two years ago, we had a High Court decision that defined casuals as workers who got a 25% loading and did not get holiday pay. Is one of the reforms that you're considering that you might redefine the definition of a casual?
BURKE: I want to go back to the definition that we all had before two years ago, and that's something that we took to the election campaign and something that I'm wanting to address this year in the legislation.
Effectively, most casuals will prefer to keep the loading and not have leave, particularly if you're students, particularly if you're doing it just for extra money. Or if you're somebody – students are a classic example of this – where you might want much more than four weeks leave, where you just want to be able to say, “I've got an exam, I want to block out my hours, I'm not going to be available. Permanent work doesn't work for me”. But there are some people, and it is a minority, but there are some people who now work casual, who are trying to hold up the expenses for an entire household. For those people, some of them would rather, if they're working completely regular hours, as though they were a permanent, would rather switch to being a permanent, lose the loading, but actually, on an ongoing basis, have the guarantee of the hours and have the guarantee of leave if they're sick or if they're caring for it. We’re wanting to create that right.
CLENNELL: That would be a significant change, basically, overturning that High Court ruling. Couldn't this cost the economy billions? I think at the time that that High Court decision was made, a figure of $39 billion was bandied about.
BURKE: That's because that decision involved this concept where if you apply to change, and you do change, you also get backpay for years going back. What we're saying is, if you want to apply to switch from being a casual to a permanent because you are working permanent hours anyway, then from the time you change, you no longer get the loading. You just change to being a permanent from then on. There'll be some people where security is their top priority. We've got more people now working multiple jobs than we've had at any other time in Australia's history, and we want those people who really need job security to have a pathway to be able to get it. But because you're swapping from going to loading to leave, there's actually zero cost to the economy, but a huge change in job security for people who need it.
CLENNELL: OK, what other IR reforms are you looking at? Are you looking at union right of entry and perhaps having employers pay union delegates at large workplaces to be delegates?
BURKE: The concept that we've been consulting about is we're wanting to act on wage theft. One of my great frustrations here is you look at the wage underpayment claims that have hit the media and Sky's often been at the forefront of reporting them. Over those last few years, there's been a common trait to a whole lot of those underpayment claims, and that is they've been going for years and years and years. If we can have a situation where you've got somebody at the workplace who's trained in those people's rights, and we can uncover that earlier and not have these situations where workers have been underpaid for years, but we actually get problems fixed early with people who are already employees at the workplace, that's a really good outcome.
So, we're consulting on how we might be able and the issues that you've raised are part of that consultation, but consulting on how we can have some sensible reforms so that those underpayment claims get discovered earlier. The main thing that I want with what we're doing with wage theft isn't to get criminal convictions. I just want people to be paid properly, and the current system hasn't been delivering that in way too many situations.
CLENNELL: Alright, we've had what might be described now as a number of pro union reforms from you. You would call them pro worker reforms in your time as Minister, the abolition of the ABCC, the introduction of multi employer bargaining, the same job, same pay bill. Now, you've confirmed you're looking at changes on casuals and on the payment of union delegates. You could be criticised for implementing a bit of a union wishlist here, couldn't you, Mr Burke?
BURKE: What I'm implementing unashamedly is the end of low wages being a deliberate design feature for the Australian Government. To do that you needed to do a few things. You needed to use the Commission, and that's why we argued for the pay rise for aged care workers and why the minimum wage has been going up. You've got to change the law with bargaining, which we did last year, to make sure that people can organise to be able to get better rates of pay. A whole lot of companies that had stopped bargaining for years are back at the table now, constructively negotiating as a result of last year's changes.
But then you've also got to make sure you don't have loopholes that undercut everything you've just done. Two of the big loopholes are – the first one, that labour hire loophole that I referred to, most companies don't use it, but there are some companies with enterprise agreements that are well above the award, that are getting workers in at less than the rate of pay they've agreed to. The other loophole, of course, is increasingly with the gig economy. We've got people who might be delivering pizza to your home or something like that, who aren't being guaranteed even the minimum wage or the award rate for what they work. We're not wanting to turn those people into employees, but we do want to make sure that where you've got these loopholes at undercut rates of pay, we close them and that's the objective.
CLENNELL: Alright, just briefly on this, I'm going to move to other topics in a second, but Sally McManus, the ACTU leader, she must be very happy with your time as a Minister so far, is she?
BURKE: I think the thing that makes everybody happy, including Sally, including me, is seeing that wages are in fact moving. We're seeing it work. And you look at the Wage Price Index now --
CLENNELL: Mr Burke, aren't wages moving because, like in NSW, we have unemployment of 2.9%? If that's not going to get wages moving, I don't know what is.
BURKE: It's a combination of things like what we've done with respect to the Annual Wage Review has made a real impact. A couple of weeks ago, people got a wage increase that finally now is actually in front of the latest inflation figures we've got. We're getting through the process now of wages -- of people being able to make ends meet, particularly at the lower end of the income scale, and that's a good thing. That doesn't happen without a government arguing for it. I'm also the Minister for Employment, so I'm obviously very happy about what we've been getting with the unemployment numbers and what we've been doing there, so I'm working on both ends of that. But we said that these changes would get wages moving and it's happening.
CLENNELL: Alright. The campaign for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. Polls show it faltering. Would you agree with that? And the fact the PM indicated on Sky this week he'd prefer a short campaign, does that indicate it might struggle to succeed.
BURKE: The issue of the short campaign is basically we've got a lot of issues that we're needing to be able to deal with. You've spent most of this interview on a whole lot of the ones that are affecting working people around Australia. But the referendum is a really important issue. I'm voting ‘Yes’ because I want to close the gap and I'm convinced that this will make a difference in closing the gap. But it's not the only issue the Government's dealing with and that lends itself towards a short, sharp campaign.
CLENNELL: Finally, Jim Chalmers came out with his long awaited, wellbeing budget on Friday, a set of data which has since been criticised as out of date. He talked about it being Measuring What Matters. Sounds a bit like Alexander Downer's the things that matter. It was a bit underwhelming, wasn't it?
BURKE: The significance with any data set is how it moves over time. You were never going to get at the first release of data -- you're always going to get some data sets that need to be measured over time, but where it won't be as recent. As Jim said, this is a brand new thing that we're doing, but it's about making sure that over time, we can see how you get shifts in these issues. So, it's a significant thing that we're now doing this and following through on a whole lot of issues that will have impacts on how we measure issues like job security as well.
Can I just say before you go, because I'm only coming in now because you said last question, but Sky News have been reporting a shooting in Greenacre. That's actually the suburb next door to where we're broadcasting from here. Can I just encourage anybody who knows anything, including dash cam footage, please call Crime Stoppers – 1800 333 000 with any information that you have. We want to be able to keep the community safe.
CLENNELL: I appreciate that. Tony Burke, thank you and thanks so much for your time this morning.
BURKE: Thanks, Andrew. Always good to talk.