SUBJECTS: Closing the labour hire loophole, record employment figures, inflation impacts, migration policies, skills shortages, vocational training.
THE HON DAN REPACHOLI MP, MEMBER FOR HUNTER: Good afternoon, all. Here today with Minister Tony Burke. I’ve been lucky to take him around and show him a few things around the Hunter. He’s gone to MTW mine site today and he’s here to say a few words around IR laws. So I’d like to pass over to Minister Burke.
THE HON TONY BURKE MP, MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS, MINISTER FOR THE ARTS: Thanks very much, Dan. Great to be back in the Hunter and great to have gone out today to the – out to a mine site with Dan Repacholi to be able to talk both about local jobs and to be able to talk about the legislation that I’ll be introducing to the Parliament in the next two to three months which will be to close the labour hire loophole.
Before I go on to that, I’ll just say a few things about the labour force statistics that have just come out today. It’s now the case that for the entire life of this Government we have kept unemployment between the 3.4 to 3.7 range. The slight softening that’s come out today is consistent with the projections that were put in the Budget papers by Jim Chalmers.
There is a very exciting story that’s starting to emerge for women in employment in Australia over the life of the Government now. The decline in female unemployment has now declined down to 3.3 per cent. That is the lowest number since 1973 for female unemployment.
We’ve had growth in female full-time employment as well, so now for nine of the last 10 months there has been a growth in full-time employment for women as well. We haven’t had a situation where the number of women in work has been higher. We’ve never had a situation where the number of women in full-time work has been higher either.
And as you look at the different policies that we’ve been putting through, both last year in the Security Jobs, Better Pay, the actions that myself and that Katy Gallagher have been taking in order to close the gender pay gap, you can see that we’re starting to see this come through in more women returning to the workforce as well.
The chance to talk to people on mine sites today, particularly out at Mount Thorley, was really powerful. It was put to me by one worker – and I hadn’t thought about it in these terms – but mining is basically the only industry in Australia where casuals can be paid less per hour than permanent workers. This is because of the labour hire loophole.
The labour hire loophole where a rate of pay gets set at a workplace and an employer is able to just evade those rates of pay by using labour hire workers to do the exact same job on the exact same shift but being paid as casuals instead of permanent, so they lose the security and they get a lower rate of pay as well.
We’re going through the consultation now to design the legislation and working with both industry and working with unions, but the Government will be introducing legislation in the next two to three months with one very simple objective – and that is to close the loopholes that undercut wages. Our intention is that this year the labour hire loophole gets closed.
SPEAKER: Any questions?
JOURNALIST: Just going to the unemployment figures that have come out, the 3.7 per cent it’s risen to and an estimated 4,300 jobs have been lost. Were you expecting that?
BURKE: We predicted in the Budget that we were expecting there to be over the coming months a softening of the labour market. Let’s remember the 3.7 per cent figure that we’ve got today is the same number that we had in January. So these numbers do have a capacity to bounce around, but certainly a slight softening in the labour market was predicted in the Budget.
These are still the best unemployment figures that have ever – that we’ve ever seen in the first year of a new government. The unemployment figures that we have are still historically really strong figures for the economy, really strong figures for people looking for work.
JOURNALIST: What do you think it means for economic growth, this new figure that we have?
BURKE: Well, what it has shown is that we’ve been able to get wages moving, get wages moving while at the same time taking action on prices, such as Jim Chalmers and Katy Gallagher have taken in the Budget, and at the same time as that keep unemployment at what has been historic lows. So, that range that we’ve had between 3.4 and 3.7 during the life of this Government are still figures that, you know, you look over the last 50 years, this has still been an extraordinary time of low unemployment.
JOURNALIST: And how do you think it will impact interest rates?
BURKE: The overall issues for inflation have been driven by a few different issues. But, importantly, they’ve been driven by a combination of supply constraints and problems with supply chains and also international factors. They’ve been the predominant issues. Against that, what the Government has done is to make sure in respect to inflation that where we can put downward pressure on prices we’ve done it. We’ve done that with respect to energy. We’ve done it with respect to cheaper medicines. We’ve done it with respect to cheaper child care. So wherever we can act in a way that puts downward pressure on prices, that’s exactly what we’re doing.
JOURNALIST: The Coalition says 1.5 million migrants the next five years will be poorly managed and have knock-on effects on housing, inflation, the economy. How do you think it will impact the jobs market?
BURKE: The Opposition have had every position with respect to immigration. They have said that we haven’t acted quickly enough. They’ve then said that the numbers that were in the Budget they’re not happy with. They won’t acknowledge that the projections for the number of people in Australia are actually lower than what they were under their last budget. So in terms of what the opposition says, their arguments will bounce around and they’ll contradict themselves as many times as they try to contradict us.
What is true is that business is still crying out for workers. We still need to see how we can better match the people who are looking for work with the jobs available. And there’s a whole lot of work that can be done there. But there are still some skills shortages that will require people to come from overseas, and with the immigration numbers, some of those can be deceptive. We need to remember that overseas students are returning to Australia to complete their courses. So normally you’ve just got people arriving for their first year and people leaving when they finish maybe after their third year. Because people en masse went back home during the lockdown period of the pandemic, all of those people are returning at a similar time, and that does mean the net overseas migration figures can be a bit deceptive, and the Opposition has been playing that game.
JOURNALIST: So wages growth is at 3.7 per cent, but inflation is at 7 per cent. How do we close that gap?
BURKE: Well, the actions that we’ve been taking to put downward pressure on prices are a huge part of that, and also our legislation to get wages moving that we put through last year – Secure Jobs, Better Pay – is starting to make an impact now. The Government participating in the Annual Wage Review is part of making sure that we get wages moving, and the legislation that I’ll introduce later this year to close loopholes, in particular that labour hire loophole that many people in the Hunter are affected by, that legislation is all part of the story of making sure that as inflation starts to moderate we get wages in front of inflation again.
JOURNALIST: Talking of the skills shortages, is there anything being done in the coming months, near future, about trying to transition people away from coal jobs in a better way? We know that there’s quite a shortage of expected trades over the next 10 or so years in a lot of these renewable sectors.
BURKE: Look, I wouldn’t put it in the terms that you did. Certainly we’re doing a lot of work in making sure that people are skilled up for employment. There’s Jobs and Skills Australia that has now been established. The legislation finally establishing it, I had presumed was going to go through with everyone’s support, but the Liberal and National parties of all the things to vote against voted against the creation of Jobs and Skills Australia. Part of the inflation story has been that we haven’t been training people with the skills that we need for the jobs that are available. That’s part of the reason why Australia has had to lean on immigration – because we weren’t training people where we needed to. Establishing Jobs and Skills Australia is about making sure we train people for the jobs that we need instead of the lazy approach that we’d seen for a decade.
JOURNALIST: I suppose so for either yourself or Dan, would you like to see more people transition these skills in the Hunter obviously with us moving away from coal?
REPACHOLI: So let’s put it straight right now: we’re not moving away from coal. Coal-fired power stations are coming to the end of their life. As we all know, that’s happening all around Australia. But whilst people want to buy our coal we’ll continue selling our coal to that export market. So to say that we’re moving away from coal, that is not the case. But what we need to do is make sure we have safe, secure employment in this region, and we need to make sure that we have training available for people as they’re coming out of those coal-fired power stations into other areas of the workforce. We need to make sure they have options available, and options available for everyone else in this area too. It’s not just for those – there’s people that want to move from the wine industry. There’s people that want to move from cafes. There’s people that want to retrain in so many different ways. And this is what a Labor government is doing – we’re giving them the opportunities to be able to do that.
JOURNALIST: I suppose trades and skills are generally [indistinct] whether it be are renewable sectors or coal. Do you think that there’s enough incentives current there to upskill more people in the trades [indistinct] trade shortage [indistinct]?
REPACHOLI: We committed to 180,000 free TAFE positions in the election campaign. We’ve delivered that, and now we’ve committed to 300,000 more free TAFE positions in a whole different area of working titles. So trades are definitely looked after in those services. So we are doing a hell of a lot here to make sure that we are setting up ourselves here in the Hunter and Australia for a better future to make sure that we have the trades and have the safe, secure employment that we need.
JOURNALIST: And what would you see – like to see done over the next year or years in order to shore up some of those trades? What that sort of be continuing with funding, similar funding?
REPACHOLI: So continue the funding that we have, make sure our TAFE system is going well, make sure that people are aware of these trades that they can go into. We need to start showing schools again that trades are a good thing to go to. I’m a tradesperson. I left school in year 9 to go become a tradie. Tradies are cool. We need to make sure that schools are showing that again. Not everyone’s built to go to university. Not everyone wants to go to university. So we need to start with schools and really start pushing from there.
JOURNALIST: Do you think that there’s anything holding people back from going in and learning a trade at the moment?
REPACHOLI: There’s definitely – there’s nothing holding back. We’ve got the best conditions to go do this now. We’ve got 180,000 free TAFE positions and 300,000 more. So if that doesn’t say come and be a tradie, I don’t know what does.
JOURNALIST: Minister, could you just tell us a bit more about what you’ve been doing today on site and what you’re hearing from the workers on the ground?
BURKE: Out at the mine the workers were really generous with their time and the conversations – like, part of what you do as a tour, part of what you see – and I’ve been to lots of mines over the years, but I have to say the enormity and the size of what I saw today was pretty extraordinary.
But it was those small, little conversations that you have with workers where you get those extra bits of information. And for me I’ve been talking about – and Dan’s been talking about same job, same pay for a long time. But when you chat to a worker, you’re not sure – you know, you don’t get to hand pick based on who’s going to be passionate about issues – whoever turns up turns up.
It was chilling just someone saying, “You know, how come in this industry casuals get paid less? The whole concept of being a casual is that you’re meant to get a loading. Why is it here you lose your security and you get a pay cut, and somehow that’s all okay? And we all vote for an enterprise agreement and the person I’m working beside doing the exact same job as me is not getting the benefit of it, so not getting the same benefit.”
So it was those concepts and, like, for the conversations that I had, people like their jobs, they’re proud of their jobs, proud of – you know, I’ve seen trucks before, it looks like office blocks were being driven around – and, you know, people were proud of the work that they’re doing and the scale of the site.
But people also just want it to be fair and are very conscious that if there’s a loophole that’s allowing the person beside them to be on conditions that are so inferior to their own, that’s not fair. They want it fixed and they know now they’ve got a Labor government that’s intending to close that loophole this year.
JOURNALIST: So the consultation paper that was put out last month, what is the time line for this Bill?
BURKE: Consultation is happening now. There’s meetings being led by my department. Obviously I have meetings with all the different groups all the time, but my department is leading a formal process of consultation. I expect where we’re at at the moment will be the consultation will continue for the next few weeks and then we’ll be very much in the writing phase of legislation. That will take a bit of time. I’m hopeful that come August, when Parliament returns in August, I’m very hopeful that that’s the point where I’m presenting a bill to the Parliament to close those loopholes. Thanks very much.