Fair Work Amendment (Protecting Vulnerable Workers) Bill 2017

Mr STEPHEN JONES (Whitlam) (11:03): I am delighted to be talking about a serious matter—a matter that has not been discussed enough in this parliament and certainly not in this term—and that is the plight of vulnerable workers in Australian workplaces, in the Australian economy. The Fair Work Amendment (Protecting Vulnerable Workers) Bill 2017 has a long history. In 2005 the ABC Four Corners crew ran an investigation into the exploitation of workers; 7-Eleven, an iconic business, became famous for all the wrong reasons. We heard allegations on that program of dodgy books, blackmail and the systematic underpayment of workers. The workers affected were vulnerable workers, often young students and foreign workers—people on working visas. We discovered that it was not an oversight but a business model. It was not an oversight by the company; it was a business model. And the only reason that 7-Eleven could continue to operate in that way was that their business model that systematically exploited workers ensured that those workers were underpaid thousands and thousands of dollars. It is bad enough that this occurred in an iconic Australian business, but that this problem is so rampant in the Australian economy deserves much more attention in this parliament.

Over the next 10 minutes I will tell stories of systematic abuse of workers in my own region and across the country. As I go through these stories, you will be asking yourself, 'Why was it that, at the very time ABC Four Corners was broadcasting its program about the exploitation of workers, the government's priority was to spend $46 million on a witch-hunt to go after unions instead of spending that same money investing in enforcement and investigative activities to ensure that the most vulnerable workers in our society were protected from this sort of behaviour?' In that passage of events, you see the priorities of the Turnbull government in a nutshell. They had a choice and they chose to spend $46 million going after unions instead of going after employers who are clearly and systematically doing the wrong thing.

This bill increases penalties for serious contraventions of prescribed workplace laws. It increases penalties for employer record-keeping failures. It focuses its attention on franchises and holding companies responsible for underpayments by their franchisees or subsidiaries where they knew or ought reasonably to have known of the contraventions and failed to take reasonable steps to stop them. It expressly prohibits employers from unreasonably requiring their employees to make payments. This is something that was exposed in the Four Corners investigations. Workers were being paid and then required by the employer, the franchisee, to pay that money back to the employer. It was a sham. The bill also gives the Fair Work Ombudsman and employees at the SES level the power to compulsorily question the person as part of an investigation into breaches of the Fair Work Act where a failure to answer questions gives rise to a civil liability.

I want to talk about some stories from my own region. I want to congratulate the Illawarra Mercury and other mastheads within the Fairfax enterprise for a series of investigations that they have been conducting into the systematic exploitation of workers, particularly young workers. The investigation was initiated by a young university student by the name of Ashleigh Mounser. I had the opportunity to speak to her at a May Day function in my electorate last week. She is 22 years of age. After her own exploitation, she started the campaign to find other workers like her in the Illawarra. It resulted in the massive Fairfax investigation finding scores of other workers just like her who had been underpaid—just $10 an hour in one workplace and $15 at another workplace well under the award. There were people like Lucy Vance, a 19-year-old young woman who was paid just $6 an hour at a local restaurant where she should have been paid $17 an hour. There was Rashid Saleem, 22, who worked for free in the promise of a job that would later pay him $16 an hour. Instead he was offered $12 an hour and was let go when he asked questions about the gap. Then there was Kiara Robinson, aged 21. She was not allowed to take time off after being incapacitated after a dental operation to have her wisdom teeth removed. There was Nathan Subanness, 24. In every job he has ever had in the area, he has been underpaid. Hannah Hughes, 23, was paid as little as $12 an hour. She was then bumped up to manager and was significantly underpaid again. Blake Roberts, aged 20, was given an unpaid trial—all too common in some of the restaurants and hospitality businesses around my electorate—and was never called back. The trial shift was actually for a full fortnight. He worked for a fortnight for nothing. There was Lachlan George, aged 21, paid $15 an hour. He should have been on at least $19 an hour. There are scores and scores of examples. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

What is tragic about these examples is that they are not one-offs; they are actually a business model. They are a business model that relies on the exploitation of young and vulnerable workers to give a particular business an edge over another enterprise that is doing the right thing. That is why it is so wrong, because there are two victims of these crimes. There is the worker who is being exploited and there is the business that is trying to do the right thing, but is being run out of town because of these unscrupulous businesses that are breaking the law. You have to ask yourself: why did the coalition government, why did this Prime Minister, spend $45 million going after the people who are trying to protect workers and not a cent investigating these egregious breaches? It is not fair to businesses and it is not fair to the workers.

When we think about vulnerable workers we often think about people in the position of those young workers that I have talked about. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. It is a sad fact that conservatism has a habit of percolating down, from this place, into every business and workplace in the country. An unscrupulous employer will feel encouraged and goaded on to do the wrong thing when the government gives the signal that this is okay by them. I have in mind, literally, hundreds and hundreds of union delegates around the country who, on an unpaid basis, stand there and look after the rights of workers in their workplaces. They sometimes take difficult messages up to an employer, or a manager, on behalf of their workers. And sometimes they have to take a difficult message from the negotiating room back to the workplace, and tell the workers something that they probably do not want to hear but often need to hear. It is a thankless task being a union delegate in this country. Often these are the people who are the first to be targeted when a government such as this gives the green light and says, 'It's not in the law, but it's okay by us.' Every signal that they are getting from this government is: 'It's not in the law, but it's okay by us.'

I reported a couple of days ago to this parliament, and I asked for the parliament's support, about a worker who was in Canberra two days ago, a fellow by the name of Dave McLachlan. Dave went down a coalmine at the age of 16. He has been working in the industry for over 30 years with an unblemished record. He is the sort of worker that politicians love to throw their arms around during an election campaign to get their photo taken with—you know, the hard hat, the high-vis gear and the coal dust on the face. Politicians always love to throw their arm around the shoulder of somebody like Dave, because it is good election shot. Now Dave is asking for their support, because his employer has done the wrong thing. I am here to inform parliament today that, on the evidence, it looks like his employer is systematically doing the wrong thing.

Dave led an imaginative protest in his workplace a little bit over a month ago. His employer had been very tardy in implementing the agreed terms of their enterprise agreement, which included the provision of protective equipment and laundry facilities on site. Anybody who has ever worked in a coalmine knows that you do not come home from work at the end of the day looking like you have just done a shift in the office—rather you are dirty head to toe and smelly. It was a reasonable, and not uncommon, provision within this agreement that laundry facilities be paid for on site. The employer had been very tardy. The union and the workers in the workplace had time and time again given them an opportunity to put this in place.

They decided to put in place an imaginative protest at a meeting before a shift started one day. Without interruption to production, the workers at this site decided to have a very short stop-work meeting. It went for about two or three minutes, I am told. They attended the meeting in their undies to make the point that the employer had done the wrong thing. On the day, nobody mentioned anything about it. In fact, I am told some of the managers on site thought it was a bit of a laugh. Dave was subsequently sacked by the employer on the allegation that he had embarrassed the company and he had done the wrong thing. I think most Australians would look at that protest and think, 'That was pretty funny.' They had been incredibly reasonable and patient with a company who had done the wrong thing. They did not interrupt production to make their point known. In fact, if anyone should have been punished in this circumstance, it was the company or the management for not implementing the agreement—not the union delegate.

Dave, a worker, is asking for the support of the government and the parliament today to ensure that he gets his job back. The Deputy Prime Minister is often heard saying in this place that he is the best friend the coalminers have. Well, Dave, a coalminer, is after a best friend today. He is after the Deputy Prime Minister of this country to pick up the phone to the employer, South32, and say: 'Do the right thing and put this worker back on the job. It's the right thing to do.' If the Deputy Prime Minister really is the best friend that a coalminer has ever had, Dave is a friend in need indeed.

What makes this situation so egregious is that it appears, on the facts of the matter, to be a pattern of behaviour. At this coalmine in the Illawarra, run by South32, Dave is the third union delegate to be sacked in the last two years. That sounds like a pattern of behaviour that is discriminating against somebody because they happen to have the job of being the union delegate in the workplace. I have described Dave as somebody who had an unblemished record in the workplace for over 30 years. I do not know each of his predecessors, but I do know the lodgers involved. I know they are incredibly responsible, they do the right thing by their workforce and they do the right thing by the company. The challenge is on, and this is the question for the employer to answer: is this business going about systematically discriminating against people who were in the position of the union delegate? The facts of the matter look like that is exactly what they have done.

This bill is about protecting vulnerable workers in the workplace. I have talked about young workers who have been systematically exploited, but there is another group of workers who need the backing of the government and the parliament in the workplace today. That is the people, who are volunteers, who take on the thankless job of being the union delegate of the workplace. They do not get paid a cent for it. It is one of the toughest jobs in the workplace. They get grief day in and day out for doing it. They deserve a hell of a lot better than being sacked by unscrupulous employers who do not respect the law and do not respect their position.