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Read all the latest news from Brendan O'Connor MP


January 23, 2019

JACQUIE MACKAY: Good morning to you Mr O’Connor, welcome back to central Queensland.


MACKAY: First of all, I’m interested in Labor’s suggestion of changing the Fair Work Act and strengthening the powers of the Fair Work Commission. What would that involve?

O’CONNOR: Well, we think the balance of power in workplaces has shifted too far away from workers, and that’s why, in part, we’re seeing the lowest wage growth in recent history - for at least 20 years. And what that means is people are having trouble paying the bills, paying for the mortgage, paying the rent, putting petrol in the car and food on the table and so on. And we need to make sure we have a wages policy that lifts wages. One of the things we need to do therefore is to ensure that enterprise bargaining, or multi-employer bargaining can work and that we have conditions of employment where people are getting their fair share. What we are seeing is profits going up but wages flatlining. Productivity in many sectors of the economy is improving, yet there’s been no correspondent wage increase. Understandably middle class and working class families are finding it unfair that they are not getting their fair share of the dividend. They see the company profits and yet they don’t see wages increasing. We need to do something about that and we seek to do that if we are elected.

MACKAY: So in terms of what the Fair Work Commission isn’t able to achieve at the moment, what aren’t they doing?

O’CONNOR: There’s a series of things. Firstly we need to ensure that people cannot be unfairly treated at work. We need to make sure, for example, we have announced a policy that would mean if you are a labour hire worker you need to be paid no less than the direct employee. Too often in this region you see workers standing side by side with other workers, wearing sometimes the same uniform but yet being paid $200 a week less. That should not happen and it won’t happen under a Labor government if elected because we are going to say you can’t treat people differently.

We want to see a tightening to the definition of casual. Too many people are employed unnecessarily as casual. We do accept that casualisation is a legitimate form of employment, but we’re going to introduce a statutory definition of casual so it is used for the purpose it was originally intended to provide relief to deal with fluctuating hours, but not to become the mainstay of employment, which has happened in too many workplaces. You only have to go outside and walk down the street and talk to people about the concerns they have for their jobs and the jobs of their children, where people don’t have any security of work. That means they are not accessing loans, they can’t get a home loan, they can’t even get a car loan because they are being defined as casual, and that is, we think, unfair.

MACKAY: Going to that issue of the multi-employer bargaining, in what industries would that be particularly important do you think?

O’CONNOR: The Fair Work Act already now has a low paid bargaining stream but unfortunately it has not worked. So for the ten years it’s been in the provision has failed to lift the wages of aged care workers, of childcare workers, of security guards – industries where people are not able to successfully collectively bargain. We’ve seen wages really fall in real terms. The fact that we have women in particular that are caring for children, indeed educating our children in preschool childcare centres and being paid so low is an indictment on our society and we need to do better.

So those types of occupations should be the first port of call for us in terms of looking at multi-employer bargaining. Indeed the low paid bargaining stream was currently supposed to do that. But frankly it failed and we need to fix that. We would like to see wages lifted and we want to see minimum standards lifted. One of the reasons why our economy is anaemic, why the fact that consumer and business confidence is down is because people don’t have purchasing power. So, household savings are being eaten into, we’ve had the highest household debt in this nation than we’ve had for decades. One of the reasons for that, the compelling reason, is low wage growth.

We need to have a better bargaining system, a better industrial relations framework, and we don’t see any answers being provided by the current government, whether that be the Prime Minister or the current minister for industrial relations who’s soon to leave the Parliament.

MACKAY: Twenty to nine on ABC Capricornia, the Shadow Minister For Employment, Workplace Relations Brendan O’Connor is in Rockhampton this morning. So, you mentioned labour hire, that’s very much in your sights too, so by saying that workers who are at a site that do the same job should get the same pay. Will that see labour hire companies effectively killed off do you think?

O’CONNOR: Well I think there is a legitimate use for labour hire. Labour hire was there to supplement labour of companies, particularly seasonal or fluctuations in demand. They also provided expertise in the past to small and medium enterprises where small and medium enterprises are not able to permanently employ particular forms of work, particular expertise. They might need supplemented labour. So there is a legitimate form of labour hire, and if labour hire workers are paid the same, and have the same conditions of employment there is a use. But if it’s used purely for the purpose of undercutting the employment conditions of the host employer and they want to pay people differently for doing the same work, then frankly, yes we are going to see an end to that.

We are going to negotiate how we transition that, but this is not – people have argued that this is a radical policy. This operates in Europe, it operates in Britain, it operates in Canada, and it operates in that way to stop a race to the bottom with wages. That’s unfortunately what seems to be happening with labour hire, and there’s many stories in Rockhampton and Yeppoon. I was at the town hall meeting with Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese in Yeppoon last night and people raised this concern. We hear it over and over again wherever we go across the country and it’s something we want to attend to.

On top of that we want to remove - I mean, we’ve got further cuts to penalty rates. We have 10,000 people in this electorate that have had their penalty rates cut. They’re low paid, hardworking Queenslanders and they don’t deserve their wages to be cut at a time of the lowest wage growth in 25 years. So we will be restoring penalty rates as they were on the 30th of June 2017. So we want to make sure that we fix that as well.

MACKAY: You were in Gladstone yesterday as well as Yeppoon. What will you be doing around the Rockhampton area today. Is there any particular policy initiatives that you are launching?

O’CONNOR: Well, Bill’s moving onto Mackay. He’s still on the bus. He’s been going up the Bruce Highway and he’s been on the bus for the entire time, which is a great thing. Of course, we’ve made announcements on the Rocky ring road yesterday, also further upgrades to the highway. The great announcement in Gladstone was about the hydrogen hub, it will make it the hydrogen capital of Australia which will create thousands of jobs. It’s a new energy source. It will provide and supply energy to economies like Japan and Korea which are transitioning their economy that are going to rely heavily on this new source of energy. It’s a great opportunity for the region. I’m actually having to head back south unfortunately but I’ll be back up because this is a great part of Australia and I’ve come up here many times and I think one of the problems is Queensland has the highest casualisation rate in Australia. The ABS figures were that it’s about 29 per cent. So we have a problem in the country but we have actually a particular problem in Queensland about precarious work so I will be coming back here. You can be assured of that.

MACKAY: I know one last issue that I’d like to raise with you too is that you’re looking at increasing penalties for phoenixing. How big of an issue do you feel that this is in, you know, maybe in particular the building industry?

O’CONNOR: In particular the building industry, but not just the building industry. You know there’s a question mark around a company in my own Electorate. Just before Christmas, they laid off 150 workers, some of whom had worked for the company for more than 25 years. They didn’t provide them with their entitlements. They raided their super and I have been told that they may be trying to set up a new company. Now that is just reprehensible, it’s morally repugnant apart from it being unlawful, but there’s been not enough legal response to prosecute people who act in that manner.

In the construction industry we’ve seen phoenixing happening time and time again where creditors, in particular workers, lose their wages, lose their entitlements because the company is closed down and then the directors of that company start up a new company. So, yes, we’ve announced greater sanctions against directors who act in that manner, higher penalties, and we believe that people should go to jail for such conduct. And Andrew Leigh and myself have been looking at what else we can do to stop that conduct and stop that behaviour. It’s unfair on everybody. Not just workers, there are other creditors too, other companies who lose out on money because of this terrible-

MACKAY: The subcontractors.

O’CONNOR: The subcontractors. So the small businesses get screwed. Workers get ripped off. It’s terrible and we need to do more and yes we will be enacting legislation to seek to prosecute and penalise directors who operate in that manner.

MACKAY: But before I let you go too. I’m asking politicians who come into the studio to place their bets on what they think will be the date of the election and you are playing for the 2006 Boyer Lecture which is all about stability. So we felt that that was a good thing to win for any politician. What’s the date of the election do you think?

O’CONNOR: Well look, I think the money’s on May 11th. I’d probably pick May 18th. They’re the two dates that have been most often commented upon but you know what, whenever the election is on whether it’s March, April, or May, Bill Shorten and Labor are ready. We’re united and stable and we’ve got a plan for Australia’s future and we present ourselves to the electorate here and across electorates around the country and hope to do well.

MACKAY: I’ll put you down for May 11th because Larissa Waters has already said May 18th.

O’CONNOR: Okay, I’ll take May 11th. I hope it’s earlier but I’ll take May 11th.

MACKAY: Thanks for playing this morning on ABC Capricornia.

O’CONNOR: Not at all.