Apr 8, 2020

Bills – Coronavirus Economic Response Package Bills package – Second Reading – Wednesday, 8 April 2020

Mr ALBANESE (GrayndlerLeader of the Opposition) (11:44): I move, as an amendment to the amendment moved by the member or Rankin:

That the following words be added after paragraph (2):

“(3) notes that casual workers deserve to be treated with the same respect as every other worker who faces losing their job because of this pandemic; and

(4) calls on the Government to provide the JobKeeper payment to the 1.1 million casual workers who have worked for their employer for less than a year”.

Labor is taking a constructive approach. When the government has made the right decisions, we have supported them. But bipartisanship isn’t the same as unilateralism. Just as we have to keep our minds and our hearts open, we owe it to our fellow Australians to keep our eyes open as well. Where we have seen gaps, we’ve offered constructive suggestions. We’re looking for outcomes, not arguments. It is what the Australian people expect of us. They were tired of conflict long before this pandemic. This is a time of great anxiety for Australians. We owe it to them to rise to the occasion, to provide reassurance and to light the path ahead. The last thing we want to do is look back and say we could have done more and should have done more.

It is good that the government has taken up our suggestions on issues like evictions, telehealth, financial help for students and a range of other issues. We are also pleased that the government accepted our suggestion to help thousands of working people by increasing from $48,000 to $79,000 the wage their partner could earn before their COVID-19 assistance payments cut out. We welcome the government’s $750 a week wage subsidy, which it rejected when Labor first raised the idea. This is definitely a case of ‘better late than never’.

This is a national crisis and, above all, we want the government to get the policy settings right. Our nation simply cannot afford the alternative. In a crisis of this scale, it is ‘all hands on deck’. This is not the time for ‘politics as usual’. It is pleasing that the government recognise that and have been taking actions that are counter to their longstanding rhetoric. But we have to get this right. Labor remains concerned that about 1.1 million casual workers will miss out on wage subsidies simply because they have worked for their current employer for less than a year. They are among our most vulnerable workers. In the modern workforce, many workers defined as casual who have been stood down have expectations and financial commitments based upon that regular work and income.

This morning, at a press conference in the upstairs area where we are now gathering and practising social distancing, I asked whether the cameraman filming that press conference was a casual. Most people working in those sorts of jobs are; they call them ‘stringers’. In this case, he was operating a camera for all of the networks and broadcasting out live. It’s the case wherever you go. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have a job; it’s that the nature of the job means that they are defined as casual. But they are in precisely the same circumstances as someone who is a permanent worker for a single company. They have mortgages and rent to pay. They have families to look after. They have bills to pay. They deserve respect.

It is the labour market change that has caused so many people to be defined as casual. There may well be a debate arising out of this crisis—and certainly we will be advocating one—about security of work. This crisis has been a real reminder about people doing essentially the same tasks but having different conditions imposed upon them. It’s not that long ago that the government minister was saying that people who are casuals ‘have savings because they get extra wages’. To make a statement like that shows how out of touch the government was just weeks ago. It’s pleasing that the government has been hit by reality on a range of issues, but this remains one where they need to actually get it; they need to go and talk to people who are in those circumstances. And they don’t have to go outside this building to do it; they can do it in this building. They can talk to people who we work with every day whose job is defined as casual and who are deserving of support. They face the same financial struggle as everyone else. They should be supported to keep their jobs and connections to employers when this crisis is over. We want to talk to the government in good faith about how we can broaden this assistance, because the casualisation of the workforce means that many Australians who want full-time work can’t get it. They are forced into casual work, and they shouldn’t be penalised for it.

This bill extends the JobKeeper payment to casuals who have been employed with their employer, as at 1 March 2020, on a regular or systemic basis for a period of over 12 months. This means that more than one million casual workers will not be eligible for the JobKeeper payment because they have been with their current employer for less than a year. Missing out are casuals in important professions—sectors such as teaching, health, disability and the allied industries. There are casuals from our regions who are ineligible for the JobKeeper program, including those regions most affected by COVID-19 due to its impact on the tourism, fishing and agricultural sectors. I’m very familiar with the tourism sector, having been the shadow minister for a number of years. It is dominated by people who are defined as casuals. These are people who have been hit by the bushfire crisis and COVID-19, and now the government is cutting loose and treating them as somehow less worthy of support than others who are working in similar professions or similar hours but are just defined differently. It’s not fair, and that is not the Australian way.

Those who miss out predominantly will be women. There are more women, as a percentage of the workforce, defined as casual. It’s the nature of those professions as well. There are also older workers needing to supplement their pension incomes and younger workers just commencing their working careers. My son is a casual worker. That’s what you do at that period of time. You do that in your life, working your way through school or university or TAFE.

But there are other concerns with the measure. By restricting the JobKeeper payment to casuals who have been with the employer for over 12 months, we may be guilty of reducing the dynamism of the labour market. We want to be building an economy where workers are mobile and able to better seek out the most dynamic firms and opportunities; we want firms that, despite COVID-19, are encountering labour supply shortages to be able to confidently attract workers; and we want firms to continue to seek out the best available labour to ensure they are at their productive frontier. Dynamic firms and dynamic labour are something that both Treasury and the RBA have pointed out as missing. Prior to COVID-19 we knew that Australia was at a low productivity ebb. We had already seen two quarters of productivity going backwards. Essentially, we were in a productivity recession prior to the bushfires and prior to COVID-19. We can’t afford to go back even further.

So, as important as providing wage subsidies is to getting through COVID-19, we need to ensure that measures taken today do not throw sand in the cogs of the recovery by placing artificial restrictions on labour mobility. The limits on the JobKeeper payment going to casuals who have been with an employer for under 12 months is not good for business. It means that firms would be disadvantaged by employing labour that has only just become available, such as recent graduates, school leavers or, indeed, recently retired older workers. It means that good firms that have recruited wisely and undertaken the necessary training and probationary period for the worker are penalised if this has all been completed in a period of less than 12 months. For these firms, their connection to the employee is not time based. It is developed through the careful process of searching for the employee, taking them on, training them and having a probation period. Labor’s opposition to the 12-month limit is not only about equity; it is about efficiency. We want to ensure that firms that have invested in their workers get to nominate them for JobKeeper. We want workers who have moved between employers for better opportunities and to have their skills uplifted are not penalised for doing so.

Labor also urges the government to provide better support for casual staff in schools, TAFE and universities, all of which have been affected. Hundreds of thousands of school and university staff will not be eligible for this JobKeeper payment. Teachers have been here for us during this crisis, and the government should be there for them.

This is all consistent with the approach being taken in other areas, an approach designed to maintain connections between employers and their employees. That’s the fundamental thing that we’re trying to do here, which is the consensus across this parliament. If we get it right, it means that our recovery will be faster when this is over, and I urge the government to adopt the approach that we are advocating. We don’t do so in any partisan way. We do so in the spirit of bipartisanship, trying to advocate improvements to the scheme that has just been moved by the Treasurer. If they do so, their legislation will be stronger for it and our economy will be stronger for it, as well as individuals being stronger for it.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Zimmerman ): Is the amendment seconded?

Ms Catherine King: I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Thank you. The original question was that these bills now be read a second time. To this the honourable member for Rankin moved as an amendment that all words after ‘That’ be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The Leader of the Opposition has now moved an amendment to the amendment, adding words. The question now is that the amendment moved by the honourable member for Grayndler to the amendment moved by the honourable member for Rankin be agreed to.