Finance Work Dennis Atkins: Morrison government’s labour law reforms will make a bad system worse

Dennis Atkins: Morrison government’s labour law reforms will make a bad system worse

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The disconnect between what’s happening in and around Melbourne, where the coronavirus is well and truly out of control, and Canberra, where the federal government’s response has settled into what you’d find in a book-keeper’s manual, is stark and shocking.

While a lot of what’s happening in Victoria will become clearer as an official inquiry unfolds and existing processes are reviewed, it’s obvious that casual and insecure work is a major problem in not controlling the spread of the virus.

In Victoria, some of the people who have experienced outbreaks of infections include casual workers moving from workplace to workplace without any regularity or certainty.

These include security guards, nurses, hospital orderlies and other manual labourers, retail and hospitality workers and those working in high risk facilities such as aged care.

The all too apparent human toll of this insecurity is not enough to deter the Morrison Government from its determination to further deregulate the labour market.

We don’t know for sure if the casual nature of much of this work is a driving force in exposing particular people to their risk of infection. However, for many this is piece-work where people can go from job to job without much notice – the high probability being that they would go without if they did not take up opportunities as they arise.

The other problem we’ve seen from this grim social reality is that some people feel they cannot follow the rules – those identified by Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, for example, who go about ”normal business” despite feeling unwell or having been tested and awaiting results.

Daniel Andrews is the only leader to ease casual workers’ COVID anguish. Photo: AAP

This includes people still going to work, going to the shops and carrying on with everyday activities. Much of this happens because many do not have sick leave or feel they might lose their jobs if they take time off.

It is the dangerous side of insecure work, and that danger has never been more graphically on display than during this deadly pandemic.

Australian unions have been warning of the dangers individuals face if there is no available leave for people at risk of infection or having contracted the virus but still waiting for official notice of their test results.

When casual workers get sick their bank accounts get even sicker. Photo: Getty

The first call for the federal government to consider paying pandemic leave came in April, but the request remains unanswered, except for the emergency provisions introduced by the Andrews Government in Victoria during the second lockdown of metropolitan Melbourne and Mitchell Shire.

However, even the emergency payments in Victoria are not enough to overcome the insecurity many people feel in a modern working environment often dominated by “gig” engagement, the continual erosion of penalty rates and labour-hire employers who think nothing of stripping away conditions.

Despite these flashing red lights, the Morrison Government is single-minded in its pursuit of greater workplace relations flexibility.

Job creation is Josh Frydenberg’s stated goal, but what sort of jobs? Photo: TND

When pressed on the government’s future policy agenda this week, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg pointed immediately to injecting greater flexibility into the labour market. This would be the “first cab off the rank”, he said.

At the National Press Club on Friday, the Treasurer said the one and vital question about the industrial relations system was whether any changes or new measures would create “more jobs or less”.

JobKeeper’s demise

What he didn’t consider was the more crucial question: what kind of jobs will they be?

The government is supported in its reform drive by business lobbyists, led by the Business Council, the Australian Industry Group and the Master Builders Association, which all say the need for further labour market flexibility and industrial law reform is greater than ever as supports such as JobKeeper are withdrawn.

Unions say businesses returning to profitability should not be allowed to change duties, change hours and change the location of staff without having to make a sustainable case and offer genuine protections.

The Labor Opposition, which supported temporary changes to these conditions, say they would not continue to back any proposals that leave workers worse off.

The enthusiasm for greater workplace flexibility – a constant goal of the Coalition for a generation – is blind to the human and social costs of the existing insecurity which places enormous pressures on low-paid and socially marginalised people.

The government should look at fixing the problems in the current industrial relations system rather than setting the conditions for even worse circumstances in the future.