Release type: Transcript


Speech TWU Delegates Conference


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

 E&OE Transcript
TWU Delegates Conference
26 AUGUST 2022

SUBJECTS: Workplace laws; bargaining; labour hire; Fair Work Commission powers; workplace conditions; gig economy; Jobs and Skills Summit; Secure Australian Jobs plan.

TONY BURKE, MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS: Thanks very much, Michael for the intro. To Tony Matthews, Richard Olsen and acknowledgments of traditional owners and elders past and present. 

I want to start by paying tribute to yourselves as union delegates. In Parliament, we’ll have big debates this year while we’re working our way through what the laws are going to be in Australian workplaces, and every word we say and every page of every leaf of pieces of legislation that we vote on can be meaningless unless you’re there, because laws don’t matter unless they’re enforced. Rights don’t matter unless people know they have them, and the only way that reaches the workplace is the role of the union delegate.

When I first started working years ago, I was a union delegate in the 90s, but ended up working as an organiser to the same union. But I tell you when I was in organising, you worked out really quickly the difference between the workplace where you had good delegates and a workplace where you don’t. And there was meant to be the same laws – meant to be the same laws in every workplace. But you make it real. You make it real; you make it happen; you make sure that whatever rights those laws put in place, actually reach people on the ground. And, so, the moment, any question to the TWU, I try to do everything to make sure that I’m there. When I was told this was a meeting of delegates, nothing is going to stop me. 

I just want to give you a really simple example. There’s legislation – the first bit of leg that I introduced as Workplace Relations Minister is the family and domestic violence leg. It’s world leading. But before that world leading legislation, where do you reckon it started? It started in 2010 with a union delegate – a union delegate in Victoria who went above and beyond to support a colleague dealing with family and domestic violence at work. So, when Parliament returns, I will be seeking to introduce it. I’ll make sure this year we’ll get that law through. But it began with the work that union delegates do day in day out, and the work that you do can be challenging. 

It’s important to have moments like this when you know you’ve got that solidarity and wellbeing in the same room, but often it is yourself and the member who you’re trying to help and there can be moments where it can feel a little bit lonely and you remind yourself of that team that you are a part of in the extraordinary work of the Transport Workers’ Union. 

There’s a lot of talk at the moment that happens where people talk about productivity. And productivity is really important, but it’s also, if people are going to be productive, they have to be safe – they have to be safe at work and in safe workplaces, and to be secure and to be supported. That’s all part of what you do. So, first point: thank you for what you do. 

Work has fundamentally changed. Workplaces have fundamentally changed. You’ve all seen the changes that have happened in the way you work. But in a time that so much has happened throughout our workforces and throughout our workplaces, our workplace laws haven’t changed. So, we’ve just gone through a period of nearly a decade where the previous Government – and they were upfront about this; they weren’t transparent on a whole lot of things, but they were transparent on this one – they said that they wanted low wages to be a deliberate design feature of how they managed the economy. They deliberately wanted to keep wages down, and they succeeded. We now need to bring the workplace laws up to date with a government that deliberately wants to get wages moving. 

Wages need to keep pace with the cost of living and living standards should be going forwards, not backwards. People should be able to perform their jobs in safe and fair conditions. None of this is radical. None of this is extreme, but these are all things that are not being seen in Australia at the moment. The economists will tell you, “Well, look when unemployment goes down, wages will start going up.” So, for 10 years they said wages couldn’t go up because inflation was low, and that’s under the same, wages can’t go up because inflation was high. It was all meant to be automatically fixed with low unemployment. Well, we now have the lowest unemployment we’ve had since the 70s and wages are at 2.6 – wages are still running really low. When we think about how far the cost of living, if you think in life you want your wages to get in front of us – at the moment wages are 2.6, inflation is 6.1. That’s what is happening in every household’s bank account around Australia at the moment. And that pressure that low unemployment should be pushing wages up, yet that pressure’s there, but it’s pushing that hydraulic pressure through heights that have got leaks in them. And, so, the pressure happened to lower unemployment, but the wages, they’re just not going up the way they should be. They’re not going up the way they need to. And it’s happening for a few reasons, and there are a few things that we need to do to be able to change it. 

The first thing we need to change, and we changed this the moment we won office, was to make sure we use the official processes of tradition. The second thing we need to do is to stop – plug the loopholes and plug those leaks in the system. And the third thing we’re going to need to do is to get bargaining moving. On that first thing, about how do you use the system as it is, you would have seen there was a lot of fuss made when the now Prime Minister Anthony Albanese during the election campaign was asked whether he wanted a minimum wage, in particular, to be able to keep up with the cost of living and he answered, “Absolutely”. He was criticised for saying that this must have been a gaffe. It was conviction. It is conviction. And the first act we took when we met as a new cabinet, the first action, was to the put the submission to the annual wage review, which then came back for the first time in a very long time, with a substantial wage increase for the lowest paid, 5.2 per cent. 

We’ll keep using the Fair Work Commission to be able to advocate for pay rises. We’re using it at the moment for cases for aged care workers. There’s work we’ll be doing about pay equity as well, that we’ll be using the commission for. But we then need to plug the leaks that are in the system, those leaks that are preventing the whole system from working. The first of those are the loopholes – the loopholes that allow pay to be undercut. Labour hire has a legitimate role whether it’s for a service workforce, where it’s a highly specialised workforce that you don’t always need – there always has been and always will be a place for labour hire. It should never be the role of labour hire to undercut the rate of pay at a workplace. 

So, we’ve started a consultation now on the same job, same pay. You know our principle. You know our commitment there. But I want to talk in a bit more detail about one of the other leaks that’s there, one of the other loopholes that should have been cut – should have been shut down a long time ago, it should have been – never was under the previous Government. And let me explain just how bad the problem got. It should be the easiest question that a Prime Minister of Australia is ever asked, but it was the hardest when the previous PM was asked, and it was this question: should every Australian worker be paid less than the minimum wage? Now, that shouldn’t have been a hard question, but the response was always, “Oh, yeah, it’s complicated.” And there is no example worse of where people are being undercut from minimum standards in Australia than what’s been happening with the gig economy. And I want to go on in this in a bit of detail, but let me just explain some of the concepts first.

First of all, the gig economy is streaming across the economy. So, you were the first to deal with it, with the ride-share platforms and the food delivery platforms. But it’s now in a series of other parts of the economy, and effectively what they have done is they have managed to define someone just beyond the boundaries of being considered an employee and they lose all their rights. So, what the Fair Work Commission asks – the first question they would ask is – are you the employee? And if you’re an employee then you have a whole lot of rights. If you’re not an employee, all those rights fall off the cliff. And what we want to do is turn that cliff into a ramp so that if you’re not an employee, you’re really like an employee. Okay, on a platform, some of the conditions are going to be different, rostering won’t work in the normal way, but there have to be some minimum standards, and the commission can then assign what those minimum standards will be. What will that mean? It will mean that if you’re used to using the food delivery on your phone or used to using where you’re getting a lift in different ways, it will still be there, but we won’t become a nation where you have to rely on tips to make ends meet. 

Let me just go through some of the detail here. The former Government pushed down wages and conditions as a deliberate design feature in the economy. They stood by and watched the prevalence of gig work grow and explode, including in essential frontline sectors, so not just in areas you cover; it’s now in the care economy, it’s now in the NDIS, it’s now in security. But they did nothing to put in place any kind of minimum standards for these workers. They didn’t even think these workers should get the minimum wage, and all too often gig workers are underpaid and exploited because the law hasn’t kept up with these new forms of work. 

Now, it will come as no surprise to any of you, but recent research from Melbourne Uni shows many workers in the gig economy are dissatisfied – surprise, surprise – with the low pay and the lack of a career pathway – feelings of isolation, fear for their personal safety and their wellbeing. The former Government didn’t fix this loophole because they wanted this loophole. If low wages are what you want, then a system that undercuts minimum standards is rolled gold opportunity. If you want to get wages moving, we have to stop systems that undercut minimum standards. The former Government wanted to take us backwards. The new government wants to move us forward. 

I’m working to modernise our workplace laws based on three clear principles here: secure jobs, fair pay and a fairer system. And there’s three ways we’re working to fix this. I mentioned before we’re taking action through structures to support our lowest-paid workers. We’re moving to get bargaining moving through the Jobs and Skills Summit that will be on in Canberra next week. But then we have to close those loopholes that allow wages and conditions to go backwards. We acknowledge there are legitimate reasons where there’ll always be casual work. There’ll always be labour hire in some form; there’ll always be some fixed term contracts. There’s a place for technology and for the platforms. I use the platforms in different ways – most of us in the room probably do. But what we won’t tolerate are the rorts and abuses of these forms of employment. We’ll close the loopholes which allow wages and conditions to be undercut 

The recent agreement, world leading agreement, between the Transport Workers’ Union and Uber is an extraordinary step in the right direction. I want to congratulate the TWU. You’ve affected the workers here and around the world.

Government knows, though, that more has to be done to close these gaps in the current workplace relations system to create a framework that is fairer with more secure jobs and better pay. That’s why we ensure workers in the gig economy and in road transport are entitled to minimum standards and protections. So, to the extent that you’re like an employee in the work that you do, the Fair Work Commission will be able to determine the appropriate minimum pay and conditions for work. 

Consultation on this with the platforms starts today. They’re meeting with my department today. I want to make this clear – and it’s been made clear to them – we’re not consulting on whether or not we act. That decision has been made. 

There will be new responsibility given to the Fair Work Commission. The consultation process is about how we do that, because I know that Australians want the technology without the exploitation. There are plenty of places in the world where people have jobs where you can only make ends meet with tips and Australia should never be that the country. 

Now, the consultation we’re starting today is with the gig companies that people are more likely to have on their own phones. But the need to do this goes further than transport and food delivery. Gig work drives down wages and has been spreading like a cancer through the economy, extending into the care economy, into aged care, the NDIS, into industries like security. Gig work must not become the equivalent of a get out of jail-free card in a Monopoly game where businesses are able to avoid the minimum standards that Australians hold dear. Twenty first century technology must not mean 19th century working conditions. 

The consultation continues with the unions and employers on all of these reforms through a separate process to the jobs and skill summit. It will be broad ranging and include all relevant unions, including scope and coverage of the standards, the Fair Work Commission process, and the definition of employee and employee alike. In fact, today in the meetings that are happening with a range of on demand platform operators to discuss the matters, unions will have separate meetings with the department very shortly to conduct similar consultation, and discussions with industry and unions will continue over the second half of this year, with further consultations to convene in September shortly after the summit. 

Some of the issues we need to work through: What kinds of fair minimum standards are needed for these workers and why? What benefits will fair minimum standards have for workers and employers in the sector? How can a new process in the Fair Work Commission be designed to deliver minimum standards? And how can the Commission’s new functions be future proofed to best take account of new forms of work and business practices? This idea of giving a flexible power to the Commission was developed really closely in consultation with Michael Kaine and, it’s on the experience around the world. What’s happened in some parts of the world is that part of this has evolved and we’ve said we’ll just expand the definition of “employee” to include the platforms that are already doing it. And they can always change their algorithm faster than we can legislate, so they need to change how they operate to avoid the new definition. The whole idea of this is to give the Commission as much flexibility as the platforms have, so if they try to evade, the Commission can follow them and chase them to make sure no matter how the new rules are being applied, no matter what the platforms respond with, the Commission makes sure that minimum standards are followed wherever they go. 

On the 1st and 2nd of September, the jobs summit will take place. The summit’s a key to bringing people together to discuss concrete ideas, to reinvigorate bargaining and to deliver safe and fair workplaces. Any option that will bring workplace laws up to date where the Government wants to get wages moving will be raised and we’ll be looking closely at. Our Secure Australian Jobs plan is ambitious, but it’s a deliverable blueprint to give workers a better deal and a better future. I’m committed to delivering on our workplace relations election commitments quickly, in a matter of months, not years. These reforms can’t wait. 

It’s an honour to be here talking with you. I’m letting you know what I feel is my job and what I’m intending to deliver through Parliament in the months to come. But it’s only going to make a difference on the ground because I’m confident that there is a delegate network out there of members and delegates like yourselves who are committed to making sure, just like we are, that no one’s held back and no one’s left behind.