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Read all the latest news from Brendan O'Connor MP


February 26, 2019

STEVE AUSTIN: Stop Adani Alliance has approached ALP members of parliament about concerns about this giant project. Have they approached you?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS: I don’t recall being approached by anyone on Adani in the last little while, but stakeholders in favour and against the project over some years now have, of course, engaged with Labor politicians and other politicians, which is entirely proper and democratic.

AUSTIN: My concern and the concern of listeners is would you like to see the Adani mine go ahead?

O’CONNOR: Well, the reason we haven’t made a decision is because we are waiting on the facts. And as the Shadow Minister responsible Tony Burke has made very clear, there are environmental and other concerns that need to be satisfied before the matter can be before properly considered. That hasn’t happened yet. We’re not in government-

AUSTIN: Federal Labor doesn’t think those questions have been adequately answered yet?

O’CONNOR: No, we think that there needs to be matters resolved, pursuant to the legislation.

AUSTIN: As federal workplace relations spokesperson, or employment spokesperson for Labor, would it be good to have the jobs associated with the mine, or would it be bad?

O’CONNOR: Obviously if we can increase employment in any industry that’s a good thing. However we have to reconcile competing tensions, that is the need to grow employment and grow our economy, and at the same time take seriously environmental concerns, and that’s why there’s legislation in place for us to do that.
I mean there are coal projects that are underway and they’ve been initiated relatively recently. Not in the Galilee Basin, around the country. And coal will be part of the energy mix of any future Labor Government.

AUSTIN: It will be?

O’CONNOR: Coal will be a part of our fuel or energy mix under a Labor Government and Bill has made that clear many, many times.

AUSTIN: My guest is Brendan O’Connor the Shadow Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. You have promised to protect subcontractors working on government projects left unpaid. How?

O’CONNOR: Well firstly, the Murray Review made clear that one of the major problems we have in particular in the construction industry is the failure for subcontractors to be paid either on time or at all. There are issue around what is being described as phoenixing, where companies are deliberately liquidated and people declare bankruptcy so they don’t have to pay creditors, including workers and subcontractors.

AUSTIN: We already have laws both federal and state to deal with phoenix companies, why haven’t they worked?

O’CONNOR: Firstly I don’t think that the sanctions are significantly high enough, therefore Labor has looked at ensuring that we have sufficient penalties, namely fines and potentially jail time, up to five years jail for directors who deliberately phoenix companies. But on top of that, the announcement that Bill Shorten made today, that Labor made today was to ensure that we have better access to justice for subbies who have not been paid. We want to make sure that the way we set up Commonwealth contracts in the construction industry where there is Commonwealth funding involved, that they are set up in a way to ensure that all the way down the line companies are paid. Too often smaller businesses, subcontractors, miss out or have problems because payments are so late and cash flow is the lifeblood of small businesses in this country as we well know.

AUSTIN: You’ll also be asking the taxpayer to fund the tradie litigation fund for subcontractors to take bosses to court. Why should the taxpayer have to do that?

O’CONNOR: Well we have regulators that actually go after dodgy businesses because when businesses fail, when small businesses and subbies fail because of a lack of payment, workers lose their jobs, taxpayers suffer, the economy suffers. So we need to clean up this situation where too often rogue employers just refuse to pay outright their creditors, in this case subcontractors.

AUSTIN: You’ve also announced project bank accounts if you win office. So basically you’ll be taking money for a big project, putting it in escrow, I think is another way of putting it. So that money will be held in escrow so that someone can get access to it should something go wrong or a company go belly up.

O’CONNOR: I think this announcement will go some way - it won’t fix everything but it will certainly go some way to responding to what is a systemic problem in the construction industry. Too often small businesses are hitting the wall. They haven’t hit the wall because of bad business practice. They’ve just hit the wall because cash flow has stopped.

AUSTIN: My guest is Brendan O’Connor, the Shadow Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. This is ABC Radio Brisbane, Steve Austin is my name. We have a Labor State Government. We’ve had Labor Governments since 1989 except for two little glitches where for a couple of years where we had-

O’CONNOR: Campbell Newman!

AUSTIN: -conservative experiments. And before him we had Joan Sheldon and Rob Borbidge, very briefly. This is a Labor town, in a Labor state where Labor has been the dominant government force setting up the government authorities for decades. Here we are you’re having to announce a special bit of federal legislation, should you win the federal election, to solve a problem that’s occurred under a state Labor government. What are they doing wrong? They’ve had 50 construction companies collapse under their watch, hundreds if not thousands of tradies not paid and you’re having to come in and bring federal legislation in to fix up a problem that State Labor here in Queensland has presided over.

O’CONNOR: Well it’s not a state matter and frankly I don’t want to be disrespectful, it’s not a Queensland matter, it’s an Australian matter. That involves-

AUSTIN: But we’re here in Queensland and you’re visiting Queensland and our problem is here. We have a problem in this State. We have a major problem here.

O’CONNOR: You’ve posited the question as if it’s somehow peculiar to Queensland. It’s a national problem and the federal government, I mean you want to attack the state government you’re talking to me, I’m a federal opposition member of parliament. There’s a responsibility at the federal level to work with states and there’s been a deficiency. And frankly my concern is that not enough is being done in Canberra to have uniform laws to tackle the issues in Queensland and every other state because the problem, if you talk to people in the construction industry Steve, you know they’ll say it’s not just happening in Brisbane it’s happening everywhere, in Melbourne, in Sydney, in Perth and so on.

AUSTIN: Should the Queensland Labor government undertake a commission enquiry into the building and construction industry here. The opposition have committed to do it because we’ve had so many construction companies collapse here in Queensland. The opposition have said yes, we’ll do it. Should state Labor say yes, aright there’s a
problem, we’ll have a commission of enquiry into the building industry.

O’CONNOR: That is up to the Queensland government to consider. Today Bill Shorten and federal Labor have said we want to help, and we want to help by creating a fund and also make sure that we crackdown on pheonixing. So we can play our part, and we are very happy to work with the Queensland government and every state government together in tackling this problem.

AUSTIN: Brendan O’Connor is my guest. Labour hire companies. Late last year, December last year I think at the party conference you announced that you would be requiring labour hire companies, forcing them to pay the same wages of someone on their books when they’re sent to a particular project or job site. How? What are you going to do?

O’CONNOR: Actually it was announced during the Longman by-election, long before the National Conference.

AUSTIN: My apologies.

O’CONNOR: No, no that’s ok. It’s an important policy. It goes to whether we will continue to allow workers standing side by side in a workplace wearing the same uniform doing exactly the same work with the same responsibilities and skills.

AUSTIN: Working for a different employer.
O’CONNOR: And in the same workplace undertaking the same skills with the same responsibilities and qualification and sometimes being paid $300 a week less that is unacceptable. It’s not equitable, it’s not fair.

AUSTIN: So how are you going to force a labour hire company pay the same?

O’CONNOR: Well, we’re going to make sure that they cannot pay less than the host employer’s employees conditions of employment.

AUSTIN: So you’re going to kill off labour hire companies?

O’CONNOR: Well, if labour hire was designed to come in and underpay workers in worksites if that was the motive and that’s the reason to exist for labour hire companies, then really they shouldn’t be in business. Now, I’m told the reason labour hire is around, and I think it is a legitimate form of business and a form of employment is to supplement, to deal with peaks and troughs in demand, to deal with expertise for small and medium enterprises who may not have those skills so you can bring those skills in from outside. But if you’re saying to me that we think you can just employ labour hire as your mainstay and underpay them compared with direct employees in your worksite I say to you it’s un-Australian, unfair and it’s not acceptable.

AUSTIN: Isn’t “underpay” them a loaded term though? They are paying them what’s agreed but they’re employed under a different structure, a different agreement and a different employer. They could be put anywhere.

O’CONNOR: If the employer has engaged with a labour hire company to bring in people to do the same work as their workforce and pay them fundamentally different, Labor thinks that’s unfair. And we’re going to legislate if elected to make sure there’s at least parity and it’s not a novel idea, I’d like to take credit for it Steve.

AUSTIN: You are going to force up the cost of labour, that’s forcing up the cost of labour isn’t it?

O’CONNOR: All the European states, including Britain have a “Same work, same pay” principle, as does Canada. No, we are going to give people a wage rise. We are going to give people who have been underpaid a wage increase.

AUSTIN: So you are going to force up the cost of labour? It will probably kill off labour hire companies, won’t it?

O’CONNOR: When you say we’re going to force, I‘ll tell you what we are going to do. We’ve seen the lowest wage growth in this country for 25 years. Scott Morrison and his former Prime Ministers that he got rid of, have been presiding over the worst wage growth in a quarter of a century. Cost of living pressures of your listeners are getting worse and worse because of the stagnant wages in this country. One of the reasons for that is the abuse and manipulation of arrangements, including often, the underpayment of workers standing side by side with direct employees of a company because they are employed by a labour hire company. You just ask your listeners what they think. I can assure you nine out of ten at the very least will say it’s fair to pay the same if you do the same job at the same workplace.

AUSTIN: My listeners would say that, and everyone is very well aware that there wages are stagnant, but I notice that in the past you have quoted Philip Lowe the Governor of the Reserve Bank who is concerned about the lack of rise in wages but one of the key things he cites and others cite is immigration, skilled labour, in other words allowing people from overseas to come in and take jobs here, something I think the union movement is worried about.

O’CONNOR: A lot of labour hire companies engage temporary visa holders. Funny enough you should mention that because there is a conflation. You have labour hire companies often engaging workers on temporary visas.

AUSTIN: That’s right.

O’CONNOR: Quite often it’s the combination of these things that happen at once. Now do I think that labour hire-

AUSTIN: And that’s why I’m pushing you on this labour hire issue that we’re importing labour that’s forcing down the cost of wages.

O’CONNOR: I will happily talk to you about this for hours if you let me because we will never apologise for making sure that workers get a decent wage in this country particularly when we see people treated so differently in the same workplace, doing the same work. That’s not fair.

AUSTIN: There’s no disputing that. Everyone agrees including the Governor of the Reserve Bank that wages need to rise but the forces that are keeping it down is what I’m asking you about. It’s migration, it’s skilled migration and people coming in doing the work of labour hire companies which you’ve already said that you are going to require them to pay more money, that it’s actually allowing into the country people who are taking local jobs and this is the concern of the local labour movement here isn’t it?

O’CONNOR: As the former Immigration Minister, I’m well aware of temporary visas. I was the one who brought in labour market testing which was opposed-

AUSTIN:…Do you agree that it’s happening?

O’CONNOR: Well let me just finish, opposed vehemently by Scott Morrison. He did not want any labour market testing. He never has believed in it. Labor does believe in it. There’s a Private Members Bill in the Parliament now that Bill Shorten moved and the Shadow Minister, Shayne Neumann, seconded it which was to bring in labour market testing. Why I say that is we do need from time to time temporary labour but it should never be at the expense of local workers. It should never be. Now we have reciprocal arrangements-

AUSTIN: So would you do anything about skilled migration?

O’CONNOR: Yes well as I say we would strengthen labour market testing. We’ve made it clear, you must as an employer if you want a skilled visa applicant demonstrate that there is a legitimate shortage not just go straight to that option. That should be the last port of call. Now where it gets a bit more complicated we have about a million Australians working overseas. And so there are reciprocal arrangements. Genuine students here from overseas do get limited work rights. But if those visas, student or backpacker visas, are being used for the wrong purpose then I think we need to clamp down on that as well.

AUSTIN: Are they being used for the wrong purpose?

O’CONNOR:I think there is a significant proportion of temporary visas being misused and not used for the purpose they were intended. And I think that has, as you say, on occasion put downward pressure on wages and it’s also meant that locals have missed out. I absolutely agree with you, Steve, on that.

AUSTIN: So bottom line, you’ve got to force up the cost of wages for labour hire companies-

O’CONNOR: We’re going to give people a pay rise.

AUSTIN: You’re going to require labour hire companies to consider whether they have someone locally who can be employed in the job rather than someone from overseas?

O’CONNOR: Not just labour hire. Any employer should look local first.

AUSTIN: Any employer? Don’t apply for overseas labour first?

O’CONNOR: No, they should look local first. There might be people already in the market who have limited work rights, but even there I say we should be very careful about the issuing of visas when they are not here for the purpose of what the visa was intended.

AUSTIN: Brendan O’Connor thanks for coming in.

O’CONNOR: Thanks Steve.