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The value of the worker

  • 25 February 2021
'It's the value of the work, not the worker.' So said a government backbencher to me last week while I was speaking to him about the omnibus industrial relations (IR) Bill that has just passed the House of Representatives. 

He went on to argue that his friend owns a bakery in a regional town and for him to make money and ‘keep the town supplied with bread and pastries’ he should be allowed to strike an agreement with his workers, who are all casuals, and mostly teenagers and women, for a flat $10 per hour.

‘It’s about the value of the work that they are doing — it’s pretty unskilled work, and that’s all it’s worth — isn’t it better that they’re earning something, rather than nothing, and for the community to enjoy fresh bread and cakes with their coffee?’ 

He went on to tell me that his friend had been using this arrangement for years, until one teenager had the audacity to check out his entitlements with Fair Work Australia. The consequence was that the business was found to have owed significant money to current and former employees, ‘and how is that fair, when he’s creating and keeping jobs in that town?’ 

Such are the arguments we are hearing from those in support of the Amendments to the Fair Work Act, as part of the post COVID-19 economic recovery. The Bill is based on the assumption that our economic recovery is dependent on further degrading the rights and incomes of working people and entrenching casualisation of our workforce. 

The legislation is seeking key changes — the better off overall test (BOOT) has been withdrawn. I believe it was the furphy that was never going to be agreed and was there to give the government ballast in its negotiations. The other schedules have serious consequences for working men and women in Australia.

'Fair and just employment terms and conditions remain constant in our social contract between government and society — as we work together for the common good.'

First, the Bill seeks to retrospectively legalise the unlawful use of ‘permanent casuals’ such as the exploited casual workers in the bakery and it expands the legal definition of a casual employee, which then makes it harder for them to access conversion to a permanent job. I have always believed that retrospective legislation has many unintended consequences, but this amendment has far-reaching impacts for long term casual workers, such as their capacity for borrowing, their superannuation