Prime Minister Gillard's address to the ACTU Community Summit on 'Creating Secure Jobs and a Better Society'

PM_ACTU.jpgThe topic you are here to discuss, creating secure jobs, has moved to the centre of national debate this week.

For Labor people, that’s a development we welcome.

We want more jobs and more secure jobs for all Australians.

We want more skills, more apprenticeships, more training for young Australians.

We want more Australian workers to fill the skilled jobs our economy creates.

This is exactly what the Australian people expect the Australian Government to stand for.  It is exactly what I will fight for.

For this Labor Government, it’s a debate we are ready to have.

Here, we are particularly discussing the two million Australians whose jobs are not secure today.

Who don’t know how many hours they’ll work next week or next month – who can’t save or plan to get ahead – whose opportunities in life are restricted and whose family’s future is constrained, simply by the conditions of their employment.

Cleaners, drivers, labourers, bar staff, wait staff.

People who earn around 85 per cent of the average wage of Australians for the hours they work – $4 to $5 an hour less than most people.

Who as your own inquiry found, have fewer entitlements, are more likely to have poor English skills, who find it harder to get a home loan or a car loan and have less super for retirement.

Of course, it’s obvious that many Australians benefit from casual work and that many businesses create wealth and opportunity through its use.

Hardly anyone hasn’t had a casual job in his or her youth.

Of the million women who go out to work every week with flexible rosters, a good number do so knowing that they can pass up a shift if they need to and that they can work a few extra hours when they want.

And there are people on contracts who are succeeding in a dynamic economy and very glad to be their own boss.

Yet for all that, the evidence is clear: that is not the whole picture and indeed it is only half of the picture.

It is a plain fact that most of the two million working Australians with insecure jobs deserve a greater opportunity to get ahead in life – and this Government has a plan to give them that chance.

All our work to keep our economy strong benefits the insecure millions very directly.

Making sure their employer can offer more hours, making sure they have the qualifications to get a better job, making sure they can keep more of their take home pay, protecting their rights at work.

We will also continue to take specific steps to improve the job security and working conditions of people who remain in insecure work.

That is why today I can announce a new policy to improve the living standards and the working conditions of the insecure millions.

We will insert a new modern awards objective in the Fair Work Act to protect penalty rates.

We will ensure that penalty rates, overtime, shift work loading and public holiday pay are definite, formal considerations for the Fair Work Commission when it sets award rates and conditions.

We will make it clear in law that there needs to be additional remuneration for employees who work shift work, unsocial, irregular, unpredictable hours or on weekends and public holidays.

It is particularly good to see that some of the hard working people who will benefit from these changes are with us today.

Australian Labor is politically, organisationally, spiritually, even literally, the party of work.

We always govern for jobs: we govern to create jobs and to support jobs, we govern to make jobs better paid and more secure, we govern to spread the opportunity for a job to every Australian who is willing to take their chance.

This Labor Government has been defined above all by what we have achieved for Australians who work.

Since we came to office at the end of 2007, through the worst global economic circumstances in over eighty years, we have created 850,000 new Australian jobs.

When almost every other developed country went down the opposite path, we secured the financial system, stimulated the economy, invested in infrastructure, protected our skills base and we have grown the economy and grown employment.

This is so important for the Australian people.

We tore up Work Choices and I wrote the Fair Work Act and today we are taking more steps to improve the working conditions of Australians.

More flexibility for families dealing with modern pressures, more protection for penalty rates, plus lower taxes and higher take-home pay. 

When working people around the world have lost so much and when austerity measures overseas have hit so many so hard, Australians have more rights at work than before.

We have given more people skills than ever before and preserved the skilled base of our economy in tough times.

Economic downturns can destroy skill formation for years, leading to skills shortages during the recovery and long-term joblessness even during periods of sustained growth.

In the early 1990s recession, apprenticeship starts in Australia fell by one third in two years – and they took thirteen years to recover to pre-recession levels.  In Government, we learned this lesson.

When the GFC hit, we had a drop in training starts – down nearly one fifth in 2008-2009.  This time though, it took just two years for us to bounce back.

In fact by 2011, 146,000 more students undertook vocational educational training and studies than in 2007.

There were 100,000 more apprentices and trainees – and around 35,000 more people with university degrees added a vocational qualification to their skills.

By doing all this we have spread opportunity to more Australians than ever before.

Because of these decisions, more people got their first job or got a higher paying job; more people have been the first person in their family to get a trade or to go to university; more people have become their own boss.

Now none of this was an accident.

This Labor Government has made the decisions and delivered the plans to create jobs, improve working conditions, give more people more skills and spread opportunity.

There were other paths our nation could go down and those were paths many other nations followed.

That was true of the work of the past five and a half years and it will be true of the years to come.  No one owes us a living and nothing is guaranteed.

Especially when our economy is entering a complex period – and when the opportunities of the Asian Century are so great.

The immediate economic context is demanding.

The peak of the investment phase of the mining boom over the next year or two will see growth in mining and resource jobs slow down.

The weakness of the global economy, close-to-zero interest rates in other developed nations, all this is holding our dollar high, making our exports more expensive and making it harder for our exporters to employ Australians.

The long-term economic outlook is exhilarating.

The centre of gravity of global consumption moves East by over 100 miles every year; by 2025 it will reach central India.

That’s also the year when Asia becomes home to most of the world's middle class – a new market of around two and a half billion middle class consumers on our doorstop.

The world economy is coming our way, fast.

But there is no law, no promise, that Australia will remain strong, fair and smart.

The intersection of these pressures on our economy today with these possibilities for our economy in coming years is the point at which the real choice confronts us.

Our nation has a choice – a choice between two quite different futures.

The Asian markets will grow, with or without Australia being ready to sell the goods and services they want. 

Some would let a few Australian firms prosper while many fall behind.

They’d be content to see a few highly competitive or specialised sectors hang on while big employers in manufacturing and services, education and tourism are all hollowed out by currency and cost pressures.

The Asian producers will need our minerals and resources, and some big extraction projects will long continue. 

Some will argue against getting a good return on them for all Australians and argue against making sure the projects deliver training and jobs for young Australians, for indigenous Australians, for Australians in the regions and towns where too few jobs are created today.

Some would cut training to our young people and let the standards of our schools fall behind, then allow employers to import more temporary workers to fill the gaps.

And they’d ask the great bulk of working Australians who don’t compete on skills to compete on wages and conditions, as they did in the past, under Work Choices.

They’d argue work should just be more “flexible” – in other words, less secure – making it simpler to cut people’s hours or to lay them off and allowing their wages to fall to compete on price if the dollar stays high.

Big business and government could agree it’s easier and cheaper – no doubt they’d say, “more efficient” – to share the new opportunities with a few Australians and let the rest take care of themselves.

That is one way – but it’s not my way, it’s not Labor’s way and I don’t believe it’s Australia’s way either.

The things we have done together have built a remarkable nation: 51st in global population – 12th in global wealth – one of the most equal economies and mobile societies in the world. 

With that strength, we stand ready to seize unprecedented national opportunities in the decades to come.

I see a very different future for our country.

In the coming century, we can be one of the winners in Asia. 

But Australia can only truly be among the winners if all our people, especially our young people, get to be among the winners too.

If we get that right – if we keep good jobs growing and if we keep the economy strong – then the rewards are rich for us.

In the coming decade, Australia can have new infrastructure including the NBN, a world-leading education for our children, insurance for disability and better health care; we can be a nation where challenges for modern families and modern society are acted on and understood.

By 2025, our school system can be in the top five in the world, our innovation system can be in the top ten in the world, ten of our universities can be in the world’s top 100, our economy can reach the world’s top ten for income per person.

In the coming century, we can still be a nation where people are confident their children will have more opportunities than they did, as a result of their hard work.

That is the vision – that is the goal.

That is also the heart of the public debate about the abuse of section 457 visas for temporary workers from overseas.

I offer absolutely no apology for putting the opportunities of Australian working people first, front and centre, wherever they were born.

I have absolutely no doubt our policy approach to temporary foreign work is good economics and good social policy.

The purpose of the 457 program speaks for itself – subclass 457 (Temporary Work (Skilled)) Visa – that is the policy objective, that’s what it says on the packet.

Or as Innes Willox, the Chief Executive of the Australian Industry Group itself, said just last week: 457s are a gap-filler for our skills-poor economy at times and places of highest need.

Yet that is simply not what is happening today and that is why we must fix it.

The widely held assumption that the typical person on a 457 visa is performing urgently needed work for economic expansion in remote Australia – on a project where a tough combination of specialist skills and extreme conditions make labour impossible to come by – is just not supported by the facts.

107,000 people work in Australia as temporary overseas workers. Indeed of those 107,000 people, barely one-sixth is employed in mining and resources.

In fact, while the overall program has rapidly grown, new applications for temporary overseas work in mining have fallen nearly 17 per cent compared to the same period last year.

And increasingly there is a shift in these workers from those with higher skills, degrees and advanced trades, to lower skills.

So, let the facts speak for themselves.

Fact: temporary overseas work is growing much faster than employment is growing.

Temporary overseas worker numbers are up 20 per cent compared with the same time last year. Employment growth in the same period is around 1 per cent.

That in itself is evidence of a problem: the number of people coming here to fill short-term gaps should not be growing twenty times faster than employment overall.

Fact: there is clear evidence that in some growing sectors, importing workers on 457 visas is a substitute for spreading important economic opportunity to Australian working people.

Outside the resource states of Queensland and Western Australia, the single largest sector for temporary overseas work isn’t mining – or even construction – it is information technology. One in twenty temporary overseas workers in Australia is doing IT work in New South Wales alone.

It is just not acceptable that information technology jobs, the quintessential jobs of the future, the very opportunities being created by the digital economy, precisely where the big picture is for our kids, should be such a big area of imported skills.

An occupation where we have brought in 5,800 temporary workers in just seven months – compared to just 4,500 Australian IT undergraduate student completions in 2011.

Fact: the areas where temporary work from overseas is growing show that this is work for which we can and should train young Australians.

The number of applications in Accommodation and Food Services has almost doubled compared to the same period last year, now exceeding five thousand. Applications in Retail were up 80 per cent to just under two and a half thousand.

These are plainly areas where the two million Australians in insecure work or the 660,000 Australians who are unemployed could be trained and could find secure, skilled work.

Most striking of all is the widespread use of temporary skilled labour in hospitals and health. 

There are nearly as many visas in the health sector today as there are in construction: fully twelve thousand seven hundred temporary workers from overseas have ongoing employment in the health and social care industry in Australia.

This in a stable, steadily-growing, predominantly public-sector industry which every advanced society has to staff as part of a balanced workforce.

If nursing or medicine is a gap to be filled – if health is an area of skill shortage today – the responsibility is no one’s but the previous Federal Government and their Ministers for Education and for Health.

It is absurd to rely on temporary overseas labour to fill ongoing skilled work in public hospitals while contracted local labour cleans those same hospitals in the middle of the night for around twenty dollars an hour.

That is an absolutely damning failure of long-term national economic policy.

We don’t want to be a nation which can’t care for its own sick and can’t provide jobs for its own kids.

Just as it is deeply dangerous for conservative State Governments to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from their training systems, for thousands of young people to be locked out of training, while a conservative Federal opposition offers business the solution of more temporary workers from overseas to fill the hole this creates.

I will fight to keep Australia from going down that path.

That is not the future we want for Australia.

That’s why this Labor Government is putting in place a package of reforms to ensure that temporary skilled workers only come from overseas when there is genuinely no local worker who can fill the job.

I want temporary overseas skilled work to be dealt with as a policy issue about jobs, wages and working conditions – not just immigration management.

So the measures announced by Minister O’Connor in recent days are all designed to ensure that temporary skilled work from overseas serves its proper purpose in our economy.

Employers must demonstrate that they are not nominating positions where a genuine shortage does not exist.

The English language requirements for certain positions have been raised.

The enforceability of existing training requirements for businesses that use the program will be strengthened.

The market salary exemption will rise from $180,000 to $250,000.

On-hire arrangements of 457 visa workers will be restricted.

Compliance and enforcement powers will be beefed up to stop employers who have routinely abused the 457 system.

Stakeholders will be consulted to ensure market rate provisions more effectively protect local employment.

Naturally we will work with business to make sure genuine skill shortages can be addressed, but we will not allow Australian workers to be denied the opportunity to fill Australian jobs.

Labor’s policy on Australian jobs is to put Australian workers first.

If there are local workers – Australians in insecure work, unemployed Australians, young Australians – who can do these jobs then they should get that chance.

The Australian people expect this to be our approach and they are right.

Our vision is for our nation to be one of the winners in Asia. 

We can only do that if we stick to a plan for jobs.

We can only do that if we stay strong, fair and smart.

We can only do that if all our people, especially our young people, get to be among the winners too.