Read all the latest news from Brendan O'Connor MP
Read all the latest news from Brendan O'Connor MP
I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land upon which we meet and pay my respects to their elders past and present.
Thank you for the invitation to come here to talk to this remarkable union.
This union has a remarkable history. If you look through the history of Australia this union has been there from the beginning, in fact prior to the federation of Australia, so it is always a privilege to attend an AWU conference.
We do so just on the eve of an election.
On Monday, you had the Labor leader, your former national Secretary, talk to you about what matters to this country: about what matters to working people; what matters to your members; and what matters to Labor because, frankly, this election really could go two ways.
People say we are favourites to win, but frankly it’s a two-horse race and anything can happen.
If we see the return of the current government we will see more of the same.
More of the same from a government that wants to use, for example, the power of the state and taxpayers’ money to destroy the union movement.
There are so many examples of the government seeking to do that over the last five years. Commencing with the introduction of the Royal Commission into every union in Australia, many of whom were mentioned in the terms of reference.
They were targeting the unions because unions represent the most important social and political movement in Australia - working people.
They remarkably summonsed three Labor leaders, and two former Prime Ministers, to two Royal Commissions in their first term for the sole purpose of trying to destroy the union movement and trying to traduce the reputation of the Labor Party and federal Labor. But we got through it.
Then, after the 2016 election, the current government established the Registered Organisations Commission - as you well know.
At the time we said that body, if created, would be used in a partisan way to attack working people. What happened once that body was created?
Well, you know better than anybody in this country that you had your offices raided by the Australian Federal Police on behalf of the ROC. Those raids were leaked to the media - which by the way is a criminal offence - and it was committed by most likely two cabinet ministerial offices. And it may have been under the direction of the Minister.
Once it was disclosed that staffers had unlawfully leaked that information, under the Westminster system, the Ministers should have resigned.
I want to pay tribute to this union in standing up to that pressure. To Dan and to the officials and the staff, all of you, for standing up to the pressure of the power of the state seeking to use its powers in an absolutely reprehensible way.
Further to that, more facts have been established through the court decision. It was substantiated that your offices were involved in, effectively, a conspiracy between ministerial offices and a statutory body that was used in a partisan way. I really want to applaud this union for standing up in this way.
Most often your fights are in workplaces, but sometimes you’ve got to fight away from home, and you did. You stood up, and as a result, whilst the minister is still there, she has no shred of credibility. They hide her. She’s under some sort of witness protection program where you don’t get to see her. She holds press conferences provided the media are not showing up. She only uses social media at the moment – although we did see her the other day saying she’s going to protect tradies! The fact is, her reputation has been destroyed, and should be because her behaviour was outrageous.
I wanted to talk quickly about some other things. I know you’ve had a very important democratic debate about the future of this union. I’m a little stuck for time because I’ve got to get to Adelaide, but I’d never miss this for the world and I want to leave you some time to ask some questions.
I want to go through a couple of things that really matter to Labor.
We got rid of WorkChoices when last in government but we didn’t do enough.
Yes, we had the Global Financial Crisis, but we should have done more.
Further to that, the labour market has changed in the last ten years, making it even more difficult for unions to organise, and more difficult to get decent conditions.
If I was going to put it under two headings I would say the two key issues for Labor is job security and wage growth.
Job security is increasingly undermined by employers and, indeed by the current federal government, and wages have been stagnant for five years.
We've seen the lowest wage growth in this country on record.
Profits since the election of the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison Government have grown fivefold to that of wages. There's not one panacea to fix this, we need to do a lot of things to arrest the decline in wages.
For that reason we'll start by restoring penalty rates for up to 700,000 hardworking Australians in retail and hospitality who had them ripped away on July 1 2017, July 1 2018 and will have them cut again on July 1 this year if we're not elected to stop that.
Not only will we restore those penalty rates, we will introduce legislation, which we previously sought to do in a Private Member's Bill, to make sure that other penalties in other awards are not able to be taken away without bargaining which makes you better off overall.
What happened with that decision is not right, and so restoring penalty rates is the first thing we'd do.
The second thing we'd look to do is lift the minimum wage to a living wage. People are working full time and they are living below the poverty line. That's not acceptable. In a relatively wealthy country, how can it be that people are struggling so acutely to make ends meet because they cannot afford the bills.
Everything is going up in this country except wages, everything. Energy prices, health costs, every household bill. There are major challenges for people and it's just getting harder.
We want to make sure that unions and workers can bargain fairly. We need to change the bargaining arrangements so that we restore the balance.
Right now, there are too many ways for an employer to avoid their obligations. Before we even get to the bargaining architecture, the first thing we need to do is remove industrial loopholes. The ability, for example, to call people casual when they are not casual.
We need to define "casual" and use it as it was originally intended. Employers should not be able to deem a worker casual because they say they are. We need a statutory, objective definition so we're clear about who are permanent and who are not. We need to provide workers with an opportunity to request to be permanent too once they've been in the workplace for some time.
The Federal Court recently found that a worker should not have been deemed to be casual because they had a permanent roster.
We need to make sure that we stop the ability of employers to threaten terminating enterprise agreements in this country. Stop them hanging over the threat over the heads of the bargaining delegates and officials saying, “if you don't agree with us, we're going to seek an application to terminate your enterprise agreement”.
Now I just spoke to Lance at Port Kembla - it's happened there. It's happened in every sector of our economy, every part of the labour market, every industry and profession. It's happened in universities where they want to terminate collective agreements. It's happened in construction. It's happened in so many areas, and indeed many areas that you represent workers.
That should not be allowed to happen. We've already announced that we would change the law, or seek to change the law. It will be a significant priority to make sure we don't allow employers to hang that over the heads of their workforce.
We also don't believe that you should be able to strike an agreement with workers that are not at a workplace and then impose that agreement on others - which is happening.
A situation where five casuals in Perth are asked to sign up to an agreement, which is then imposed on a workforce in Melbourne or Sydney or Brisbane, is just ridiculous. An agreement struck with an employer must involve directly those workers who will be under it. That is absolutely vital if we're going to restore balance in the workplace.
There are so many other things we want to do.
We want to stop independent contracting being abused. There are genuine independent contractors, but what has happened is employers are shifting workers into what they say is an independent contracting arrangement but in actual fact they really an employee. By doing this the employer is shifting workers compensation and other costs to that worker and providing no protection whatsoever.
It should be the case that you are deemed to be a worker unless it's clear that you have a genuine independent role as a contractor. That has to change and if that doesn’t change then we’re going to see that continue particularly with the emergence of the gig economy.
Do you know that we have people now selling and buying labour over an app, and because it’s sold over an app, they think that they can call on contractors and pay them $7 an hour - nearly one third of the lowest statutory minimum wage in this country. That is reprehensible and it should be outlawed.
We need to do more to go after companies who systemically steal wages.
Look at 7-Eleven as the most obvious example. In that case, and this is just a conservative estimate, workers lost $150 million. The fine that could be imposed on the franchisor was one million dollars. There’s a business model for you isn’t it? One million dollars to make $150 million.
We have a policy to impose fines up to three times the debt for intentional underpayment of wages. I can assure you $450 million will change the culture of big business, not $1 million. With that fine they won’t be think about undermining workers’ wages of forcing franchisees to put pressure on their workforce. We have to deal with sanctions against employers and directors to hold them to account because at the moment that hasn’t sufficiently happened.
We need a bigger arbitral role for the Commission. Protracted, intractable disputes, should involve the independent umpire with some teeth. Right now, you go the Commission and there is no ability for the Commission to compel a multi-national company who’s locked out their workforce to do anything. The dispute goes on sometimes for months and months and months. We need the Commission to have the power to bring that to heel. We’ve got multi-national companies, some of whom haven’t paid any tax, locking out Australian workers in this country and there’s nothing the Commission can do about that. We need to change that.
We also need to provide an arbitral role for those workplaces that haven’t got an Enterprise Agreement so they can have a first contract. This happens in Canada and ensures that the employer can’t just sit on its hands and not bargain in good faith. We need to compel employers. We’ve got a situation where bargaining and bargaining agreements are falling in this country because employers are either seeking to terminate or refuse to bargain in good faith.
This fight is a very significant fight. Not just for who you represent or for those workers who come after, because really you could not get such a polarised position between the two major parties on issues when it comes to industrial relations.
They have no plan to look after job security or indeed wages, and for that reason it’s critical that we do well this election. The only time Labor does well is when we work closely with the union movement and work together.
So I want to thank you very much. The added advantage of this union, I think, is that you will have in the office of Prime Ministership, a former national Secretary who understands working people and who understands the aspirations of your members. I imagine to be an AWU member and have the possibility of having one of your national leaders becoming Prime Minister must be a proud moment.
That’s just icing on the cake. The most important thing is that we introduce policies that restore some balance to tackle inequality and we stop giving everything to the big end of town.
Our policies are for the many, not the few.
The other mob is divided and dysfunctional. They haven’t got a clue and have a callous disregard for working people having to use taxpayers’ money through powers of the state to attack workers, particularly if they’re organised.
They were gleeful when the car makers left because it was an organised shop - that’s how bad these people are and we have to get rid of them.
With your help we can do that.
Thanks very much.