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Read all the latest news from Brendan O'Connor MP


May 01, 2019

RUSSELL ROBERTSON, LABOR CANDIDATE FOR CAPRICORNIA: What we’ve seen again is the scourge of labour hire and it doesn’t matter which multinational company engages in it, it is a race to the bottom as Rowan has touched on, and we’ve seen again the local Member go missing. So when we see a casualisation of the workforce constantly, and it doesn’t matter whether it has been at Blackwater or at Oaky Creek, at Hail Creek we constantly see multinationals try these sort of tactics and they are being called out right here. You’ve seen me constantly talking about how the current LNP Member, Michelle Landry does nothing to try and stop labour hire and casualisation.

So here it is again, a deal done by something like 8 or 9 people in the dead of night. We are seeing no support for these people, wages and conditions slashed - they need to be called out. This is again Michelle Landry and the LNP cosying up to multinationals to slash and cut pay and conditions. It’s not good enough and that’s why I am standing up. If you want to fix dodgy labour hire and casualisation in Capricornia, you need to vote for the ALP. Brendan?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS: Thanks very much Robbo and thanks too for Rowan for explaining what’s happening with respect to BHP. I am here on behalf of Federal Labor to make a commitment to the people of central Queensland, to Rockhampton, indeed to Queensland and the country, that we will, by legislation if elected, restore some balance in workplaces across this country.

What has happened now over a number of years is we have seen increasingly employers game the industrial relations laws to the detriment of workers. Bill Shorten has made clear that this election is a referendum on wages - and it is because everything is going up except peoples wages. But it is also a referendum on job security. It is no good having one in three jobs in Queensland casualised when people need to pay the bills, when people need to pay the mortgage, to pay the rent, to put food on the table, to look after their families.

It’s no good to be employed in a casual job when you are seeking a home loan. In fact banks will deny you a home loan if you’re a labour hire worker. Too often we’ve seen workers missing out, tradies, all sorts of workers missing out because they have precarious work. That’s why, if elected a Shorten Labor Government will introduce a statutory definition confining casual in a way that it was originally intended and make sure that people who have regular hours are given security of employment.

That’s why, if elected, a Shorten Labor Government will make sure that if a labour hire worker is working on a site, they can be paid no less, their conditions and their wages can be no less than a direct employee. That will take away the motive of undermining conditions of employment in workplaces if you can’t cut their conditions. I’ve had too many workers tell me that they wear the same overalls, they work in the same place, they do the same work, they have the same qualifications and yet they're paid hundreds of dollars a week less than the workers they are standing next to who happen to be direct employees.

The idea that a big company can think it can game the industrial relation laws, not to bargain in good faith with its workforce and unions, is reprehensible behaviour. It doesn’t matter who it is, it should not happen and we will make sure that form of gaming will not occur. We’ve already announced that you cannot, if elected Labor will not allow employers to make an agreement with half a dozen workers and try to impose that agreement on hundreds of others. That should be unlawful. That is not good faith bargaining.

So this is a really critical issue for Rockhampton and indeed for the country. We need laws that restore the balance, that make it possible for the workers to get fair outcomes. All that workers want is a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay and they want to share the dividend of economic growth. Profits are rising five times faster than wages and we have people now increasingly not given certainty at work and that leads to enormous anxiety for those workers and their families. And we can do something about it and that’s why I say very clearly, Labor has a set of policies that can redress these issues in workplaces, not just in mining but across all sectors of our economy in order to make sure that we grow economically but also make sure that working people get a fair share and right now that’s not happening.

You’ve just heard from Rowan about what has happened potentially to his workers because of a deal that’s been orchestrated. We already know what’s happening because of the overuse of labour hire workers and the casualisation of the workforce and the anxiety that’s brought. Now the only way we attend to this is changing the laws that allow that to happen and the only party that can be elected and can change those laws is the Australian Labor Party and that’s why we’ve made it very clear that this is a referendum, this election, this is a referendum on wages but also on job security. Happy to take any questions.

JOURNALIST: The agreement that is between BHP and the Fair Work Commission, do you plan on doing overhauls to the Fair Work Commission itself or do you have confidence in its integrity?

O’CONNOR: Well firstly, the Fair Work Commission will be governed by a set of laws. What has happened is the Federal Court of Australia found that a particular provision of those laws would allow employers to act in this manner. Now frankly, when a provision is used in a way that it was not originally intended that is firstly, either allowing employers to unilaterally make an application to terminate agreements, then we say that is unfair, that should not happen. We’ve already proposed a change to the Fair Work Laws to make sure that cannot happen. And if there’s a situation which allows bad faith bargaining that is in this instance trying to get up an agreement with a half a dozen workers to apply it to hundreds of workers, we say that’s utterly unacceptable.

The only way you can bargain in good faith with workers is the people that will be subject to the agreement, bargain and they get to vote on it. You don’t get to impose arrangements on workers who have not had a proper say. And further to that there is insufficient ability to bargain on certain matters. So workers should be able to say not only do we want to bargain for our wages, we want to talk about apprenticeships coming into the workplace. We want to talk about how you might use casual. Casual employment can be used legitimately but it can’t be a mainstay of employment. It should be used to supplement, it should be used to replace permanents who are on leave. It should not become the mainstay of employment and workers should be able to bargain with their employers.

We’re standing outside a company that is an exemplar. It’s a company, a co-op that works with its workforce, it engages with the unions to represent those workers and it gets good outcomes for all. It can be done and what’s really, really outrageous is not only do workers suffer as a result of these unfair practices, good companies who do the right thing by their workers also suffer because if we allow companies to cut labour costs unfairly that puts pressure on good companies who want to treat their workers properly to actually do the same and that’s what race to the bottom means. 

My view is this, that workers have a right to be represented and have a right to be unionised and indeed they have a right to bargain fairly. The bargaining table has to be fair. Right now, with some of the laws, they’re not even at the bargaining table. We have to restore that balance that’s disappeared. It’s not an accident that we’ve got one of the highest forms of casualisation of any labour market in the OECD. It’s not a surprise or an accident, that in Queensland, 29 per cent of workers are casual and others are called independent contractors when they are not independent contractors.

These are not accidents, this happens because of unfair laws and pressure by vested interests to keep people insecure. They believe if workers are insecure, they will beg for work and they’ll take anything. Well, in a relatively rich country like Australia, it’s not fair that workers don’t get their fair share.
See, productivity and profits are rising and wages are flat lining. We’ve got the lowest wage growth on record in this country. Everything is going up in this country, except for wages and one of the reasons for this is that we don’t have fair laws governing workplaces.

JOURNALIST: Mr O’Connor, the big employing sector in our region in Central Queensland is mining. So, coal miners, I guess, under your Industrial Relations policy might get higher wages but by 2030 they might be also out of a job I guess under your climate policy. What would be your reaction to that?

O’CONNOR: I don’t accept that for a minute. We support coal mining and we support coal to be part of our energy mix indefinitely. It is a critical part of the mining sector. Bill Shorten’s made that very clear. Of course, projects have to comply with the law. But, quite frankly, Labor supports, unlike some minor parties, Labor supports coal miners and coal mines. In fact, there’s been multiple projects that have been approved recently, which Labor support. And, what we have said in relation to any project is just comply with the law and that’s fine by us.

I can assure you, as the Shadow Minister for Employment, my job is to make sure people have not only got jobs, but got decent jobs. It’s not fair, if people are employed, but have got no certainty of work or their wages are flat lining. But, so to with the respect to mining, mining is a critical part of our economy. It’s a critical part of our economy in this region and Labor supports the mining sector. We’ve made that very clear. Whatever arguments I’m having, and we have a few, you know with BHP or we disagree on things with Rio Tinto or big companies, one thing we don’t disagree on is that they have a future in this country. As do all of the mining companies, because it’s so critical to the future of this nation.

JOURNALIST: Given those initial reductions targets that you’ve set out to achieve by 2030, do you think you can hand on your heart say that the sector won’t lose jobs?

O’CONNOR: I think what we can say is this: if any project fulfils the obligations under state and federal law, under Labor they will be supported. We will not threaten sovereign risk in this country. We won’t ever tear up a contract that has complied with the law. We will support the projects because it is good for jobs it’s good for our economy. And to that extent I think that’s a consistent position to take.

You can hardly say we don’t care if an application breaks the law. What you can say is we should follow the law, state and federal law. And frankly if a contract has been entered into, if a project has been approved, then no government, no future government should tear up that contract. That would threaten our economy. That would threaten sovereign risk as a nation. It would be irresponsible behaviour. And that’s why we have made it very clear, in terms of our guarantee we won’t go down that path.

All good? Thanks very much everyone for coming.