A View from Down Under: Australia's Push on Workers' Rights

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At the start of the 2023, after 17 years working for the Wales TUC, Gareth Hathway moved to Melbourne where he now works as Media Manager for our sister body, the Australian Council of Trade Unions. In a guest blog post he details how Australia’s unions and its Labor Government are driving forward fair work by shutting down loopholes in work regulations.

It was a difficult 2023 for Australian workers.

Supermarket prices shot through the roof whilst retail giants posted profits in the billions. Mortgages and rents skyrocketed. Financial insecurity driven by unreliable work was up. Stolen wages. The labour hire scam was running rampant.

Add to this ten years of the right-wing Coalition Government’s policies to suppress wages. Workers’ wages simply weren’t ready. Real incomes had taken a dive.

It’s a bleak picture where Australia’s workers are once again putting in the work, wearing the pain and footing the bill.

The passing of the Albanese Labor Government’s Closing Loopholes Act (part one of two planned laws) is a big step towards tackling these crises.

Updating Australia’s industrial relations system to reflect the modern workplace is not an attack on businesses. Rather, it is a recognition that some well-resourced big corporations have relentlessly engaged teams of lawyers to identify and apply every possible exception or loophole in the existing regulations.

Here’s how the Act is going to help.

It’s now illegal for employers to intentionally steal wages and pension contributions.

This new Act will criminalise employers who illegally withhold wages - for example, not paying workers for their shifts or overtime.

Failure to pay pension contributions is rife. Approximately 2.8 million people are underpaid a total of $4.7 billion each year.

The criminalisation of wage theft means real uplift to incomes for working families and retirees on fixed incomes where every dollar matters.

Agency workers, or Labour hire workers as they are known in Australia, will now get a fair day’s pay.

Australian workers’ wages are being suppressed by labour hire. Companies like Qantas and BHP have been gaming the system for years by creating wholly owned labour hire firms that only exist to drive down wages for workers.

For example, there have been no new direct cabin crew hires from Qantas since 2008. Cabin crew since then are contracted to various hire companies, most owned by Qantas, to work side by side with directly employed crew. Some of these labour hire cabin crew earn less than half the directly employed crew and miss out on penalty rates, have less job security, and have a harder time with work/life balance as they can get less than 2 hours’ notice of a shift. This loophole is now closed thanks to union campaigning.

These well-known faces of corporate Australia might be the most visible users, but this scam is present across the economy. It is easily replicable and right that it’s been ended.

Workers expect their boss to pay the rates they agreed. The business lobby’s inference that labour hire workers are lesser than their direct counterparts is a smokescreen to justify driving down pay.

As well as protecting the incomes and livelihoods of workers, the Act includes provisions to protect the health and wellbeing of workers on the job.

The handling of silica and silica-related disease will now be part of the functions of the Asbestos Safety Eradication Agency. This means diseases like silicosis from cutting engineered stone products are treated as seriously as asbestosis. Australia has also become the first country in the world to ban engineered stone. The UK workplace health and safety authority, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), considers silica dust “the biggest risk to construction workers after asbestos”. In Australia, as many as 1 in 4 stonemasons are expected to be diagnosed with silicosis, an incurable and fatal lung disease.  Banning this deadly dust will save countless lives.

Workers subjected to family and domestic violence will have protections against employers discriminating against them in the workplace. Last year the Australian Government also introduced 10 days of domestic violence leave to all workers, to ensure they don’t have to choose between their safety and pay.

This legislation is an incredible step forward, but the jobs not done yet. This year we will look to update the laws to ensure gig platform workers gets basic rights. Just like in Wales, too many workers in Australia have no sick leave, no annual leave, and no security and that needs to change.