Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Closing Loopholes) Bill 2023

The measures in the Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Closing Loopholes) Bill 2023 will cost every Australian in one way or another, and it is, in spite of what we’ve heard, radical change. As we heard the CEO of the Minerals Council of Australia, Tania Constable, say at the Minerals Council dinner:

“Let’s not sugarcoat it. These industrial relations changes are some of the most extreme interventionist workplace changes that have ever been proposed in Australia.”

As I said, the measures will cost all Australians in one form or another. Already it has been estimated that it will cost Australians at least $9 billion. That’s $9 billion, and that’s just the first rough calculation. It is extraordinary that the government are quite happy that that’s exactly what these laws will do. They’ve admitted it.

Australians are paying increased costs for everyday goods and services that they rely on currently, and we know that the government is intent on making those same Australians pay at least another $9 billion or more. At a time when the cost-of-living, the cost of doing business, energy costs, inflation and staff and housing shortages are such critical issues for Australians, there is no doubt this extra $9 billion—at least, and I think that’s the tip of the iceberg—will have detrimental impacts with potential disruptions in the labour market itself, particularly in resource intense states like Western Australia. We have no doubt that there will be major impacts.

We know the minister can make further changes with a stroke of his pen in at least 32 instances throughout this bill. It concerns me greatly that it will be a legal nightmare for small business owners and employers generally. It is a very incredibly complex bill. You try being that small business trying to make your way through these 800-odd pages and asking, ‘How does this affect me and my workplace and my business?’ It is complex. It is incredibly complex. It significantly increases red tape, and it is costly in spite of what those opposite think.

It is a direct attack on tradies and other independent contractors on labour hire, the WA resources and mining sector, the gig economy, casual employment as well as casual employees—for instance in the IT area—and the specialists who may have to take a 20 per cent cut in their income as a result of this bill. It’s actually an attack on their choices and their employment options that they choose, that are right for them and work for them in that business or sector.

It’s the same with casual employment. It inevitably means fewer opportunities, particularly in small to medium businesses, for our young people and for those in rural and regional Australia who rely on these particular jobs. For smaller businesses in particular it means fewer opportunities for older people, who we are trying to get to come back into work and continue to work on terms that suit them as well. It’s a two-way street. It certainly will not help employees who specifically want to work and do casual work and get that 25 per cent casual rate. In so many instances in my electorate, I see the impact of the great relationships between employers and employees. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship built around what suits both. It’s not just a one-way street. It suits both of those parties. Well, there are going to be fewer of those jobs available.

This bill will give unprecedented right of entry to the unions to go into businesses, and particularly some of our smaller businesses. These businesses won’t have rights when, without notice, the union can arrive on their doorstep. These businesses will have no choice but to do as they’re told, and unfortunately I see this as a strategy that embeds conflict in our workplaces where we’ve currently got employees and employers working together to get done what needs doing and people being remunerated for the work that they do. I meet so many employers who work so closely with their employees and are incredibly grateful that those people work with them, because they cannot achieve for that business without their really good employees, and to have that approach that separates the two is appalling.

I understand that this could also affect the disability sector in regional and rural areas. Again, we’re trying desperately to provide the best possible outcomes and support for people in our areas, and we’ve already got our regional and rural pharmacies really struggling from cuts to their incomes. Now, given that some of these people are the small businesses who employ over 15 people—it’s not really clear whether this legislation is just for small businesses under 15 employees or what; it’s hard to tell from what’s in this—those same businesses who actually employ over 15 people could well now have a union delegate walking into their pharmacies. Many of these small businesses employ so many local people, in flexible arrangements which are designed to suit both.

I’m really concerned about the impact this will have on our wonderful small businesses—the courageous people who mortgage their homes just to have a go, the ones who offer other Australians jobs. That’s what they do, and this bill treats them almost as if they were the enemy instead of being the people who employ other Australians. They’re already so badly affected by the higher and higher costs of doing business, whether it’s energy, input costs, inflation, business interest rates or higher insurance premiums, just for a start. These are the same businesses that can’t afford a dedicated HR person to go through all of these laws and say, ‘What do we have to do as a small business?’ Those people don’t even know what’s hit them yet. I am really concerned for them.

If a small-business employer can’t afford to retain all or some of their workers because of measures in this bill, workers will lose their jobs. There isn’t a never-ending bucket in these small businesses. Some work on very fine profit margins. I know a number of businesspeople and small-business people who work and pay their employees instead of themselves, so I shake my head at anything that adds to the problems for those businesses. It is really tough in many small businesses right now. They do not need this other layer of complexity and concern right at this moment. As I said, it is not clear at all who in small business will be impacted by what’s in this bill. Who will be covered? Who won’t be covered?

Dairy businesses, employing certain numbers of people who are milking cows and doing all sorts of other jobs on that farm, like rearing calves; vegetables, fruit, horticulture and viticulture small businesses; the cropping and shearing space—these are all the small businesses in rural and regional Australia that could well have the AWU at their gates with no notice, turning up at a farmhouse where the business is run out of the farmer’s home. Labor members may not have set foot on a farm and may think that we all have separate offices that we run our businesses out of. No; it’s our homes. So a delegate, if he or she has a suspicion—no actual evidence—can actually demand entry.

Delegates will have a virtual proxy law enforcement role where the employer, be they a farmer, a small business owner or a major employer, doesn’t have rights in this space. They can come into our homes and demand to inspect any work, any process or any object. They can interview any person. They can demand to inspect or copy any records or documents, including those on computers, and take samples of goods and substances. In the process, they can subject members of that family to interrogation. And can you imagine the amount of personal information that sits on those computers, given that they’re part and parcel of how we operate? Who will have access to this, and what are the responsibilities of those people as to the information they have access to and what they actually do with it? That small-business owner or farmer has no right of refusal or legal representation at that time. I see this as a really gross, ugly invasion and trampling of individual rights in a country that is supposed to be a democracy.

There’s another really serious issue here, because we, the farmers, are clearly targets. Minister Burke said so last week in question time when he actually accused us, the farmers of this country, of wage theft. He also expressed his contempt for the NFF. So, unfortunately, we need to expect that the unions will be knocking on our doors as a result of this. This is coming from a minister who, in this bill, has given himself extraordinary powers. The constant change potential, the uncertainty that that creates for business—I think he can unilaterally and independently change the regulations in at least 32 cases. That happens without parliamentary scrutiny or debate. Who knows what’s going to be changed next?

The government also needs to clarify for our farmers: is it our biosecurity on our properties that we work so hard to protect—we guard it jealously, and what we do is extraordinary—which has priority? Which has priority: our biosecurity and those gates that we have with the notice that says, ‘You must contact us before you come on’? Who has rights? What right has priority: that of biosecurity on our property or those who choose to turn up because they have a suspicion that something’s happening on our properties? We’ve seen the threat of foot-andmouth disease, so I wonder: where does biosecurity sit in relation to this bill when you’re talking about farmers? I also have some serious concerns that I’ll be closely watching around what happens in the transport and logistics space. I will keep a close eye on what happens here.

Another sector that will be under the pump will be the building and construction industry, especially, I suspect, residential construction sectors. There are thousands—I think 400,000—contracted independent tradies in that sector. At a time when we’re seeing building and construction companies going into administration at a rate we’ve not seen before in our history, this increases the complexity and cost of construction. I’m already aware of builders in the South West who’ve historically delivered fixed-price contracts, and they’ve actually delivered them in spite of the fact that it has cost them to do so. They’ve had to absorb those additional inflationary costs in their own business, so they’re already not making profits. We’re going to find out very quickly what ‘same job, same pay’ actually means in this space and how that interacts with tier 1 and tier 2 type contracts and the current arrangements that exist for delivering major projects.

We’ve got a whole lot of different subbies working on various parts of the work at any given time, and they have to come and go because the weather changes. The job itself changes when something doesn’t turn up on time or there’s a shortage, as we’ve seen, in the logistics and supply chains. There are any number of hold-ups and changes that have to be made as a project is being built, and flexibility is the absolute key. Labour hire and subbies are necessities on these sites. I think we need to be measuring how much this bill and the measures in it will add to construction costs not just on major projects but also for new homeowners building their first, new or other home and what that will do across the board for the cost of compliance. I think there are some really significant potential impacts from this bill.

We’ve even seen our sporting codes expressing concerns about what it’s going to do to the arrangements they have to keep their sporting codes operating. That’s just another one that we keep hearing about. I think we certainly need to keep a very close eye on what the numbers are in traineeships and apprenticeships and how the measures in this bill will impact on the decisions that employers will make in this space.

Like most members in this House, I have some very good businesses in my patch. I think they have a right to be very concerned about the judgements that are being made in this bill—that these businesses are not caring and are not actually providing extraordinary opportunities for the people who work with them and for them, nor the remuneration that those people receive for the work that they do. That relationship between employer and employee is so critical, and anything that interferes with that in a detrimental way should be of concern to everybody in this place. As we see so frequently, when I talk to my employers, especially those who right now can’t even get employees, they are desperate. They just need people who can come and work with them and for them. When the employers do find them and they do come and they do their best, the employers are incredibly grateful for that work. They train the employees, and they put time and effort into getting these people to where they need them to be. We need to be fostering that type of relationship in everything that happens in this House, and anything that comes between those relationships is of great concern to me.