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Tag Archives: Fair Work Act

Insecure work inquiry forthcoming: Tony Burke

With ever-growing concerns among those in Australia’s union movement over rising levels of casual work and under-employment, a Senate inquiry on insecure work will take place in 2021, shadow industrial relations minister Tony Burke announced on Friday.

This inquiry has been announced days after industrial relations reforms measures in the way of proposed legislation announced by the Morrison government and Attorney-General Christian Porter, Burke’s counterpart in industrial reforms matters, was seen by Labor to offer precious little if anything in the way of easing the levels of insecure work.

And as the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has come out to assail the proposed “WorkChoices 2.0” legislation as resulting the cutting of workers’ pay and conditions in addition to avoiding scrutiny of insecure work issues, Burke says that Labor shares the ACTU’s concerns about putting more people into more permanent working positions.

“Some Australians like the flexibility of casual or gig work. But Labor wants to see more people in secure work, with good reliable pay and the highest of safety standards,” he said in announcing the inquiry.

“Insecure work is the pandemic that will stay with us – long after the COVID-19 threat has passed,” added Tony Sheldon, the Senator from New South Wales and former national secretary of the Transport Workers Union who will be chairing the inquiry.

Sheldon hinted that those working in the gig economy – from food delivery drivers and riders, and those operating ride-share services, to any form of temporary contract workers, freelancers, consultants and independent contractors and professionals – would be examined towards reaching more permanent employment solutions for their sectors as well as that of the entire workforce.

The recent deaths of five food delivery riders in Sydney’s CBD since the end of September has also hastened the need to bring the issues of gig economy jobs within the spheres of insecure work as a whole into focus alongside the need to regulate the nature of that type of work, said Sheldon.

“It is not acceptable that an underclass of work has been spawned where workers are denied the basic rights and minimum protections all Australians deserve,” said Sheldon.

In October, in Victoria, the Victorian Council on Social Services (VCOSS) drew links – centred around the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic – between those whose employment was defined as being of an insecure nature and workers’ declining states of health and well-being.

“… our industrial relations framework has not kept pace with changes to the labour market, and neither has government policy,” the report stated at its outset.

Specific to those in the gig economy, the VCOSS report stated: “A safe workforce is a healthy workforce. COVID-19 has highlighted the heightened financial vulnerability of workers in the care sector, a lack of coordination and consistency in training, entitlements and protections, and the fragility of support systems in maintaining consistent, quality care

“Workers engaged in the gig economy, who work across multiple platforms or a mixture of platform and more traditional employment types, have no access, or limited access to sick leave and other entitlements. Wages vary across platforms, and time and travel costs between shifts are not compensated. Health, safety and workers compensation arrangements depend on a worker’s employment status.”

Shadow industrial relations minister Tony Burke, who announced the inquiry (Photo from abc.net.au)

Burke said the inquiry is set to commence under Sheldon’s chairmanship when Parliament returns from its summer break in February, and its investigations stemming from it could take up a majority of the year ahead of a final reporting date of November 2021.

Those investigations may include personal security areas such as in income and housing, as well as dignity in retirement, affecting roughly four million Australians lacking the benefits and entitlements tied to permanent employment.

“If the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us anything it’s that insecure work is not just a threat to the wellbeing of individuals – it’s a threat to the wellbeing of our society,” said Burke.

Meanwhile, Wes Lambert, the chief executive officer of the Restaurant and Catering Association (R&CA), said in October that the lack of legislative definitions over what constitutes a gig economy worker was an area which required addressing.

Lambert, stating the R&CA’s position on the heels of a deadline for submissions into a State of Victoria’s own inquiry on the status of the gig economy and insecure work, said that his organisation seeks to operate within the rules and standards to suit gig economy workers – as long as all parties knew what was expected of them.

“[The] R&CA expressly does not condone sham contracting arrangements, or any other such arrangement deliberately intended to undermine employees,” said Lambert.

“However, [the] R&CA submits that the current laws and workplace protections are not fit for the purpose in the 21st century, particularly as the world of work continues to change in the current and post-pandemic climate.

Lambert added that without any clear definitions in any current amendments of the Fair Work Act (2009), members of his industry sectors could run wild and rampant with interpretations as to what makes up gig economy participants.

“Such an arrangement, in the R&CA’s view, would create opportunities for unintentional mis-classifications resulting in disparate inconsistencies.

“More interestingly, if an employer can prove that they were not aware that the employee was not a contractor, and they were not reckless, they would not be in breach of the Act, nor be subject to any civil penalties,” he said.

So while an industry organisation such as the B&CA views and supports investigations around what next year’s Senate inquiry is trying to achieve, Sheldon says that the practice of insecure work is far from restricted to industries such as hospitality and tourism alone.

“Insecure work is not just found in food delivery and ride-sharing – it is expanding across the economy including the mining, retail, hospitality, health and aged care, university and information technology sectors,” Sheldon said.

“This inquiry comes at a critical time for our economy and for the future of work,” he added.

 

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ACTU advocating justice calls for on-the-job deaths

Responding to revelations surrounding of an increase of workers killed in workplace-related accidents last year, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has called for a national set of legislation aimed at punishing those who fail to keep their workplaces safe to acceptable standards.

An ACTU delegation of union officials and family members who have lost loved ones at their worksites spoke out in front of the Federal Senate Courtyard in Canberra on Thursday, and highlighted the fact that 183 workers were killed on Australian worksites and places of business in 2019, an increase of 37 deaths viewed as unavoidable by them as well as WorkSafe compared to 2018.

That rise marked the first of its kind in year-to-year statistics since 2007, said the ACTU.

Moreover, the ACTU sought to remind everyone that these aren’t just statistics – these are actual people who lost their lives at work due to accidents, and how their families, friends and loved ones have been impacted by such losses of life.

“Everyone should feel safe at work. No worker is expendable. Everyone has a right to go home to their families at the end of every day,” said Liam O’Brien, the ACTU’s assistant secretary.

Elsewhere, in Victoria alone, the state’s WorkSafe organisation reported on November 20 that with the electrocution death of a 29-year-old country farm hand in Gerang Gerung, located near Dimboola in the state’s central regions between Horsham and Warracknabeal, approximately 340 kilometres northwest of Melbourne, the state’s 2020 workplace-related fatalities toll has risen to 61, a rise of two from 2019 to date.

The state’s increase rate in workplace-related fatalities over the previous 365 days had been as high as five, when in late October, a 71-year-old worker at a northern Geelong folding bed manufacturing factory got his clothes tangled in machinery.

“I can’t begin to imagine the pain felt by the families who have lost a loved one at work. I don’t want any families to suffer that type of trauma,” said Jill Hennessey, the state’s Attorney-General, when Spring Street passed a workplace manslaughter law last year.

“We promised we’d make workplace manslaughter a criminal offence and that’s exactly what we’ve done – because there is nothing more important than every worker coming home safe every day,” added Hennessey, who was the minister for workplace safety for the Andrews Labor government at the time of the law’s passage that she was responsible for.

 

ACTU assistant secretary Liam O’Brien, calling for action from the Morrison government on workplace deaths (Photo from the ACTU)

 

Under this legislation, in the state of Victoria, workplace manslaughter is deemed a criminal offence, with employers who negligently cause a workplace death are due to face fines of up to $16.5 million and individuals potentially facing up to 20 years in jail.

Similar laws are also being introduced in Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory – and O’Brien and the ACTU have called for the Morrison government to step up and introduce similar legislation nationally.

“We hope that politicians on all sides will understand the importance of committing to tougher workplace health and safety laws – especially when hearing that there has been an increase of fatalities since 2018,” he said.

“The Morrison government must take action to ensure that no matter where a worker is killed their family can expect these deaths to be thoroughly investigated and employers are held to account,” added O’Brien.

Victoria Trades Hall has worked together with WorkSafe Victoria to ensure that if a worksite death does occur, that actions such as the offering of counselling, leave, and bereavement are available to all co-workers, affected family members and friends.

“Dealing with grief takes time. It is a normal response to death, trauma and loss. People need support at different times and in different ways. What happens in a workplace following a death can be a very important part of the process,” Luke Hilakari, VTH secretary, wrote in a guide to enable businesses’ occupational health and safety representatives deal with such incidents in a case-by-case basis.

Currently, the biggest industry increases in workplace fatalities have occurred in the construction industry, followed by public administration and safety, and then agriculture. As of 2018, each of these industries had suffered a rate of fatalities at a higher rate than their respective prior five-year averages.

The casualisation of labour forces on job sites, aided and abetted by a move from the Morrison government last year to amend the Fair Work Act (2009) to require union officials to pre-register within 24 hours before setting foot on a job site, is said to be a contributing factor to the increase of workplace-related fatalities.

Sally McManus, the ACTU’s secretary, disclosed on Thursday that in the recently-concluded industrial relations reform negotiations, that proposed changes to the Greenfields laws under the Fair Work Act that would have enhanced workers’ protections on site were voted down by some business groups, which McManus identified as the mining and resource lobby.

“These construction projects rely on FIFO workforces, who both live and work on site. They have been plagued with problems related to mental health, with a high number of suicides,” said McManus.

“If there is no means for workers on these sites to address problems as they arise, and they are denied the right all other workers have to renegotiate their working conditions, they must as a minimum have access to the Fair Work Commission to resolve issues so we do not see an intensification of the pre-exiting issues.

“Unfortunately, the mining and resource employers rejected this reasonable and sensible offer and pushed for agreements being doubled in length, expanding the scope so even construction sites in cities are covered and locking workers out of any fair means to resolving issues as they arise,” McManus added.

Lowering the numbers of workplace fatalities should involve issues surrounding fairness, as well as that as compassion towards enhancing policies around OH&S issues, according to O’Brien.

“You cannot hear the harrowing stories of these loved ones left behind and not want to commit to stronger laws protecting Australians in their workplaces,” he said.

“Every year hundreds die in workplaces and their families deserve justice,” added O’Brien.

 

 

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