Leading faith groups say reform plans must be revisited
Catholic organisations are urging the Federal Government to urgently pause or revise its proposed changes to labour laws they say will hurt vulnerable workers.
They say that the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2020 will increase already high levels of job insecurity and do nothing to improve conditions for low-paid and casual workers.
Amid fears over increased casualisation of the workforce exacerbated by COVID-19 and the growing ‘gig’ economy, recent Australian Bureau of Statistics figures report that 22 per cent of all employees are casual with no paid leave entitlements, while 48 per cent of employees working less than full-time hours are casual with no paid leave entitlements.
In a submission to the Federal Parliament last week, the St Vincent de Paul Society national council president Claire Victory expressed concern about the timing of the Bill, given that the final report from a Senate inquiry into unlawful underpayment of employees’ remuneration is not due until 24 June.
“The Federal Government must urgently consider significant labour market reform to ensure vulnerable workers have access to meaningful, long-term employment in the wake of the pandemic.” -Claire Victory
“In its current form, the Fair Work Bill strongly favours big business at the expense of already vulnerable workers and does nothing to restore job security, improve workers’ pay and conditions or address wage stagnation,” Ms Victory said.
“The Federal Government must urgently consider significant labour market reform to ensure vulnerable workers have access to meaningful, long-term employment in the wake of the pandemic.
Vanishing permanent work a concern
“The Society is particularly concerned about the increasing casualisation of the workforce and what this means for job security and workers’ rights. Low-income workers in retail, transport, aged care, cleaning and security services (including in hotel quarantine) are often paid at or below the minimum rate, employed on a casual basis with no leave entitlements, and forced to take on extra jobs to make ends meet.”
Catholic Religious Australia said that the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated pre-existing weaknesses in the Australian economy including the increasing casualisation of the workforce.
CRA president Peter Carroll FMS said that the “increasing vulnerability, instability and stress caused by the casualisation of workers impacts on individuals but also on society as a whole”.
“It’s detrimental to the quality of family life and impacts mental health,” he said. “It reduces consumer confidence, spending and borrowing because of the lack of security in work and income, which in turn affects the economy.”
In its submission, Catholic Social Services Australia said that flexibility already exists for businesses to employ staff on a casual basis when necessary. “This Bill goes further than providing adequate flexibility for business, it encourages business to engage staff on a casual basis,” it said.
“It strips workers and their families of the security of part-time and full-time jobs, and gives them little hope of a permanent position in the future.”
Economic inequality already ‘out of control’
Bishop Terry Brady, a member of the Australian bishops’ commission for social justice, told The Catholic Weekly he supported calls to halt the bill until it was certain it would not increase inequality which is already “getting out of control”.
“We need to very careful, because it is too easy to slip into a mentality that justifies making use of what is essentially slave labour” -Bishop Terry Brady
“We need to very careful, because it is too easy to slip into a mentality that justifies making use of what is essentially slave labour,” Bishop Brady said.
“And that can be fruit pickers in rural areas, but we also see people in executive positions being forced into contract work who miss a sense of permanency, or who are pushed aside if they don’t adjust quickly to a place. It’s not only about wages but also about respect for the individual and this can also be a problem anywhere, including in the Church.”
Labour law experts have also voiced strong opposition to the Government’s plan, saying it will have the ultimate effect of driving wages down at a time when consumer confidence is needed the most in the wake of the pandemic.
Fair Work Commission president Iain Ross and the Australian Council of Trade Unions also oppose elements of the proposed workplace reforms. But industrial relations minister Christian Porter says the changes will not disadvantage workers.
The Bill will go to a vote in federal parliament next month.