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Speech on workers' rights and challenges in the transport sector

On Tuesday 14 November 2023, I made a speech in Federal Parliament on workers' rights and challenges in the transport sector. You can watch the full speech here or read the transcript below.



The Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Closing Loopholes) Bill 2023 contains some good things, like criminalising wage theft, which is something the Greens have been calling for for some time now. The bill attempts to rein in labour hire to a limited extent so that it can't be used to sidestep enterprise bargaining agreements. The bill creates a new category to cover gig workers and give them some basic protections that have been missing for that sector. The provisions to criminalise wage theft are very welcome and long overdue, but they need to be equally applied to the payment of super, which is part of the wage.

I have to say that one of the biggest problems for workers in Australia today—the sheer amount of unpaid overtime expected—is simply not addressed in this bill. With the development of technology and the advent of remote work workers are more available than ever—24/7. This is only going to get worse unless we have a legislated right to disconnect that mandates contact with workers only in working hours, except of course in emergencies.

This raises the broader question of how much time we actually spend at work and how little time we have left for ourselves, our families and our communities. Australians are working too much. We're working too much overtime. We're on our work emails after hours. We're staying back late. Each Australian works six weeks of unpaid overtime per year. It's quite bizarre that we won the 40-hour week 75 years ago and, instead of reducing the work week further as technology progressed, we're actually working more hours a day now than back in the 1950s. In 1930 the great economist John Maynard Keynes said that we'd be working 15-hour weeks by now, but 1.4 million Australians are now working 50-hour weeks.

It's about time we started fighting for a four-day week. It may seem like a radical step, but so did the eight-hour day. A four-day week would transform our lives as significantly as the eight-hour day—more time for family, more time for friends, more time for doing the things that make life meaningful, more time for the beach, more time for community organisations and activities, and more time to raise kids. In fact, organisations across the world are already trialling a four-day work week and reporting huge mental health benefits, fewer sick days and increased overall productivity. Sounds great, doesn't it? Let's do it in Australia too. Since the recent Senate inquiry into care and work, the four-day week has received cross-party support. The federal government could be leading this charge by trialling a four-day work week in the public sector here. But it's clear from the small-target approach of this government that, if we're going to win a four-day week, we're going to need to fight for it, and that also means the union movement putting it front and centre.

This closing loopholes bill was an opportunity to address the power gap, that chasm, between the power of workers and employers in this country, ever widening since the neoliberal reforms of the eighties and nineties. Unfortunately, this bill is a failure on that score. That gap, that loophole, has not closed; it has widened. Why? Big corporations now effectively run Australia, and workers get crumbs. Why won't the Labor government address one of the key ways to fix that imbalance: restoring a real right to strike? Since this right was effectively removed, wage growth has steadily fallen behind productivity growth. Union density has fallen dramatically, down to an abysmal 12 per cent. So, while it's technically possible to go on strike in this country, unions and workers have to leap through so many hoops to do so. Thanks to laws implemented by both coalition and Labor governments, most just don't even bother. Other types of actions, like solidarity strikes, are completely illegal in this country.

Where has this led us? The other day, economist Alan Kohler, hardly a radical socialist, showed that, since the mid-seventies, workers' share of national income has declined from 62 per cent to 52 per cent despite corporate profits doubling. Corporate profits in this country are so high they're contributing significantly to inflation, causing even more pain for workers. Coles and Woolies are posting billions in profits while everyday Australians struggle to afford basic essentials.

The big banks are profiting off the pain of rising interest rates. The Commonwealth Bank posted a $10 billion profit, and ANZ posted a $7.4 billion profit. Meanwhile, locals in my electorate have told me that they're cutting back on basic essentials just to afford their skyrocketing mortgage payments. Fossil fuel corporations are exploiting our natural resources, shipping billions in profits overseas and making the climate crisis worse—and, by the way, climate-change-caused natural disasters have also been contributing to inflation. This is disastrous on so many levels. Meanwhile, many Australians can barely afford their energy bills, unable to cool their homes as we face the looming prospect of one of the hottest summers in recorded history.

How do we fix all this? How do we rein in corporate power? Part of the solution is to kick corporations out of this place, out of politics. Ban their donations and restrict their lobbying. The other part is restoring to workers a real right to strike so they can show big corporations they can't just keep exploiting us all.

ExxonMobil: $15 billion income; no tax paid. Qantas: $9 billion income; no tax paid. Shell: $9 billion income; no tax payable. Santos: $4.7 billion income. Australia's largest carbon emitter, AGL: $15 billion income; no tax paid. Singapore Telecom Australia, Singtel, the parent company of Optus—which is hardly an Australian hero right now, and who we've just now discovered contributed to the Optus meltdown last week—made $8 billion in income and paid not a single cent in income tax. That's all in the recent tax data release. Come on, people. One in three big corporations don't pay income tax, and corporate profits are hitting new highs.

Meanwhile, people's wages are going backwards and we're in a cost-of-living crisis. Families are struggling to put food on the table this holiday season. The RBA has just predicted that everyday people won't have the same purchasing power as they did before the pandemic until 2038—that's right: 15 years away. While these massive corporations make record profits, pay no tax and exploit workers, what's our government actually doing?

As the transport spokesperson for the Greens, I've chatted with many transport workers about their conditions and their pay. It's absolutely clear from their stories that far-reaching reform is necessary—far more than the piecemeal changes proposed in this bill. A real right to strike needs to be restored. Workers are currently reliant on this sort of government legislation to maintain the most basic conditions. Workers shouldn't have to wait for a friendly government in Canberra for a decent wage. They should be able to fight for those conditions themselves, backed by an empowered union unafraid to strike for fear of being fined.

In light of that, let's talk about Qantas—a prime example of many failures, including that of worker protection. It's a credit to the Transport Workers Union for pushing so strongly on the labour-hire provisions in this bill, but we shouldn't pretend this reform alone will restore the rights of the workers of Qantas and its subsidiaries. Recently, the High Court ruled Qantas' outsourcing of 1,700 ground workers during the pandemic was illegal. That's a great win for those workers and their union, but Qantas is required only to compensate those workers for lost wages. Those workers won't get their jobs back and they won't be compensated for their time fighting for that decision. Some words from the judgement summary are:

At the time of the outsourcing decision the affected employees were prohibited from organising or engaging in protected industrial action under the Act because the affected Qantas employees' enterprise agreement had not reached its nominal expiry date and the affected QGS employees were practically unable to take protected industrial action.

That means there was no way for those affected workers and their colleagues to go on strike and fight back against what turned out to be illegal outsourcing. This 'closing loopholes' legislation doesn't close that one.

Qantas has clearly shown it has absolutely no compunction about undermining workers' rights in its relentless pursuit of profits and in blatant defiance of the law. They've got a new CEO there, but that's no reason to believe Qantas management won't continue to exploit loopholes in labour laws. Qantas workers and others need their rights to bargain and fight back restored. They shouldn't have to wait for governments and the intervention of the courts for this. It's not just Qantas, either: Virgin Australia expects their employees to work on what can only be described as poverty wages. The Guardian reported yesterday that Virgin employees are raising serious safety concerns due to being overworked, often having to hold down a second or third job just to get by. Virgin have responded with a below-inflation pay offer.

Other workers are also suffering very badly from dreadful conditions. When Uber and other rideshare apps appeared in Australia, it disrupted the existing taxi industry to devastating effect. To drive a taxi in Australia you need a taxi licence. These cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and many workers spend their entire lives paying them back. The introduction of unregulated rideshare companies means that many of these licences just aren't even worth the paper that they're printed on. The response to this by state governments has been completely inconsistent and inadequate. In Queensland, complaints by workers have been ignored, leaving workers at the mercy of a market in which taxi workers face intense scrutiny and are heavily regulated, while Uber and other rideshare companies' unregulated and exploitative gig-work platforms operate free of those constraints.

Without employment protections, gig workers suffer too, subject to low pay, poor safety conditions and long variable working hours. Two in three full-time gig workers earn less than minimum wage. Forty-five per cent of these workers struggle to afford groceries and household bills because they're paid by the minute, and only for driving or delivery time. This is appalling. Companies like Uber profit hugely off these workers' misery. The federal government needs to step in here to protect the workers, not the profits of these corporations. It's failure to do so in this 'closing loopholes' legislation leaves those loopholes gaping.

These problems aren't just confined to private corporations. Public sector workers have suffered decades of spending cuts and the undermining of their condition. The public sector is certainly no longer the benchmark of model employers. Poor work conditions have far-reaching effects beyond the workplace. I've been hearing from workers at the Civil Aviation Safety Authority who were recently able to strike for just half a day over what they say are unsafe staffing levels. They weren't concerned about themselves; they were concerned about our safety, the safety of the travelling public.

We all suffer the consequences of bad workplaces, not just the workers. The gutting of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority has meant that almost 40 per cent of workers are overworked and 65 per cent of the strikers agreed that this impacted the quality of safety assessments. Their work is highly technical and it's hugely risky if key workers are fatigued. The Civil Aviation Safety Authority should lead the charge in addressing these safety concerns, yet it's clear that senior management there is asleep at the wheel with the number of technical staff declining significantly over the last decade which is, frankly, exposing all of us to risk. Clearly a thorough review of the standards within CASA is urgently needed to make sure that workers are given the tools and supported to do their jobs safely for the safety of everyone, because I, for one, do not want to wait for another Lockhart River tragedy for something to be actually done. Thank you.

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