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Speech: Fair Work Amendment (Pay Protection) Bill 2017: Second Reading

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 5 Apr 2017

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (15:41): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to table an explanatory memorandum relating to the bill.

Leave granted.

Senator RHIANNON: I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

The attack on the wages of our lowest paid people in this country is relentless.

The people who collect our trolleys at Coles and Woolworths, and those who flip our burgers at Hungry Jack's or McDonald's or who fry the chicken at KFC are getting paid less than the legal minimum. They certainly have been for a number of years, and this needs to be fixed.

There is a loophole in the Fair Work Act 2009 that says if you are on an enterprise agreement you cannot be paid less than the legal minimum in the award, but that provision only applies to your nine-to-five working hours on Monday to Friday. The protection does not apply to people who work on weekends or at nights and, as a result, hundreds of thousands of workers—mostly young workers—are getting paid very low wages and have been underpaid by these very large corporations over many years because of substandard deals that have been approved by the Fair Work Commission. On one estimate today these young people are being underpaid one million dollars a day. One million dollars a day is going to corporations such as Coles, Woolworths, Hungry Jack's, KFC and McDonald's instead of being paid to those people who are working late at nights and during weekends. This Bill will fix this, because every 18- or 19-year-old who is out there doing a job in a fast-food restaurant or supermarket should be paid the legal minimum. They know that without being paid the legal minimum it is hard to make ends meet, and I think that every parent who has a child working at one of these institutions would be horrified to know that they are not getting paid the minimum award rate.

Now, with the aftermath of the Fair Work Commission's decision to cut penalty rates for people working in retail, hospitality, pharmaceuticals and fast-food industries, we need to take further legislative action. Before the last election the Greens were the only party that committed to legislating to protect weekend rates of pay. We did so because weekend rates are an integral part of people's rights at work, with hundreds of thousands of Australians depending on weekend rates to make ends meet. Young people in particular depend on weekend rates to support themselves while they study. Young people are already facing unaffordable housing, insecure work and low levels of student assistance, so cutting weekend rates will place them under immense pressure.

It is time that people have certainty about the future of their weekend rates. It is time to ensure that the law protects people's weekend rates. And that is what the Australian Greens are doing with the introduction by Mr Bandt in the other place of the Fair Work Amendment (Protecting Weekend Pay and Penalty Rates) Bill 2017 which will override the recent decision of the Fair Work Commission to cut weekend rates.

Australia is not America, and that is a good thing, because in Australia we believe that people who spend their time working deserve a minimum wage, and minimum rights and conditions. We believe that having a job should not come at any cost—that there is a limit to what can be traded away. And we believe that, no matter where in you live in Australia, you deserve the same minimum wage, rights and conditions at work.

That is why we have national employment standards set out and protected by national legislation. Here in Australia we have a proud history of a strong labour union movement that exists to protect people's rights at work. The labour movement has fought to secure the weekend and an eight-hour working day, and they have ensured those working outside of these hours are fairly compensated through higher pay rates. We have unions who, time after time, have rallied together and fought the conservatives' attempts to cut the conditions that Australian workers deserve, and that step up when conservative governments try to tip the balance against ordinary working people.

I am proud to be part of a party that always puts people's rights at work ahead of big business interests. The Greens always have and always will protect people's rights at work. But what is clear is that our system has failed some of our lowest-paid workers in Australia. In our fast food companies and supermarket giants, workplace agreements have been struck that leave workers, some of our lowest-paid workers, worse off.

Thanks to a small number of dedicated individuals, it has been revealed that at some of Australia's largest businesses—Coles and Woolworths, Domino's, McDonald's, Hungry Jack's and KFC—workers have been underpaid hundreds of millions of dollars a year. The deal struck with Coles saw the company paying night and weekend penalty rates lower than the award, leaving many workers out of pocket overall, with estimates that the underpayment is worth between $70 million to $100 million a year.

Woolworths, Australia's largest employer, has an almost identical agreement to Coles, suggesting many of its workers have also been underpaid. McDonald's workers are even worse off. It is likely that hundreds of thousands of workers have been underpaid at McDonald's. In 2013, McDonald's negotiated an agreement with the Shop, Distributive and Allied (SDA) Employees' Association under which some McDonald's employees are paid nearly one-third less than the award. McDonald's workers seem to be out of pocket by at least $50 million a year, including some young workers who earn just shy of $10 an hour.

Fairfax Media estimates that Woolworths, Hungry Jack's and KFC together have short-changed workers by about a billion dollars over five years. As part of its investigation, Fairfax Media spoke to a young woman, Brigid Forrester, who until recently, worked up to four shifts a week at a McDonald's store in Perth, including Sunday evenings from 4 pm to 10 pm, and she was not paid penalty rates. One 19-year-old in South Australia was paid $19,000 for their year's work at McDonald's when they should have received $25,000 under the award.

A separate investigation by Fairfax discovered that, despite rising profits, widespread underpayments in wages were occurring at Domino's who struck an enterprise bargaining agreement allowing them not to pay penalty rates for years.

These are not corporations that are short of a quid. Last year, Woolworths had $58 billion in sales and Coles food and liquor sales alone brought in $32.6 billion. In 2013, McDonald's was estimated to have a turnover of $4 billion. At a very minimum these companies can afford to pay the basic legal minimum wage set out in the award to people working late at night or on weekends.

I think that most people in this country would be shocked to know that the people sitting behind the counter at these large corporations, which are meant to be regulated by federal law and where there are meant to be people looking after their interests, can be paid less than the award.

The Government side of politics has taken donations from these corporations. So have the Labor Party. But I am hoping that in this Parliament, instead of saying that it is okay for 18- or 19-year-olds to get less than the award, that this will be a wake-up call for this Parliament—that this Bill can get consensus across the Parliament to close this loophole. As I said, we have a provision in the Act that says agreements cannot go below the award for the ordinary 38 hours. Let's extend that to cover night-time work and weekend work as well.

I want to acknowledge a number of people who have uncovered this scandal which is going on in some of our biggest employers. Josh Cullinan, in his spare time, has personally investigated and compiled evidence of this gross underpayment of employees. His work should be acknowledged. As should the reporters Ben Schneiders, Royce Millar, Nick Toscano, Adele Ferguson, Mario Christodoulou and other members of the Fairfax Media team for their incredible work in further investigating and exposing these underpayments. I also want to acknowledge the workers who are working for these companies Duncan Hart, Penny Vickers and Michael Johnstone, who have taken it upon themselves to fight for their rights at work, and the rights of tens of thousands of their colleagues. And there is Siobhan Kelly, a lawyer who successfully ran the appeal case against Coles with Duncan and Josh, against teams of lawyers.

hen this Parliament sees wrongdoing by unscrupulous employers, we should stand up to it. When this Parliament sees young workers working around the clock and getting paid less than the legal minimum set out in our legislation we should do something about. The Greens will. We have brought a Bill to this parliament. When Fairfax Media, Four Corners and Michael Fraser revealed the rampant worker exploitation at 7-Eleven, we brought that to Parliament too. When the Fair Work Commission decided to cut penalty rates, we brought that to Parliament as well. We had those cases heard in front of a Senate inquiry and we have legislation in front of Parliament to fix that.

It comes down to a fundamental point, one that I think everyone here should be able to agree with: an 18 year-old working nights at McDonald's should not be getting paid less than the legal minimum wage set out in the award. Otherwise, what are awards for? Why do we have federal legislation setting out minimum wages and conditions if someone is able to undercut it? They should not be able to undercut it. That is what a legal minimum is. If the law allows deals to be done that underpay our lowest-paid workers, then the law needs to be fixed.

This Bill will close that loophole in our national employment laws that unscrupulous big business employers have exploited to strike deals with organisations like the SDA that result in some of our low-paid workers being drastically underpaid. It provides a simple yet important reform. It extends protections for employees covered by an enterprise agreement to require employers to pay a base rate of pay, full rate of pay and any casual loading that is no less than the relevant award or national minimum wage order. This amendment will apply to existing agreements and to those that are yet to come into effect.

I would ask everyone here in this place—every member of parliament—to ask themselves this: if their 17-, 18- or 19-year-old daughter went off to work at one of these large institutions, would they like them to be paid less than the minimum award rate of pay? Do they think it is fair that their son or daughter could be paid less than the minimum award? If they do not think that is fair then it is not fair for everyone else who relies on these awards to make ends meet. We should fix it, we have the capacity to fix it and that is why I commend this Bill to the Senate.

I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.

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