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Read all the latest news from Brendan O'Connor MP


September 14, 2018

SARAH GILLMAN: Let’s catch up with the Shadow Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Brendan O’Connor. He’s in Tasmania today and he will be meeting with some of those plasterers who have walked off the Hospital redevelopment site, and joins us now this morning. Good morning.


GILLMAN:Clinton still are saying say they’ve still got quite a few questions still to be answered about this site. You’re going be meeting with these plasterers. What do you want to know?

O’CONNOR: Well, I think there’s a whole range of questions that are unanswered, and they are quite serious. Firstly, we need to know whether the major contractor of site John Holland has breached the building code by not notifying the ABCC of breaches. We’re concerned that there’s breaches by the subcontractor Accuracy Interiors in bringing overseas and interstate workers into Hobart and not paying them pursuant to the right employment conditions, because there seems to be breaches.

We know, of course, that many of these workers haven’t been paid up to nine weeks, which is of course unlawful. And there are questions for the Federal Government in terms of the misuse of temporary visas and student visas and other forms of visas that may be misused and abused here.

There seems to be questions around exploitation of those workers on temporary visas, in that they are vulnerable and they have been treated abysmally. There are questions as to why local workers and companies were not provided opportunities to actually win this contract or a contract like this to provide labour on this very important site for Hobart.
The fact that we’ve got a site in the CBD of the capital city of Tasmania, and yet we are requiring so many people from interstate and indeed from overseas on temporary visas I think is something that should be examined.
And finally, the Master Builders Association who were acting as the provider of so-called induction clearly have questions to answer. Firstly they were charging each worker $99 a head, and even though they suggested they needed induction time of 4-6 hours, some were getting less than an hour. They had no translators at the inductions, even though overwhelmingly most of these workers, the plasterers that is, don’t speak English.
The fact that the inductions were not held on site - when in fact you cannot in the building industry have a proper induction without having the induction, or part of the induction on site. And whether in fact the Master Builders Association are also in breach of the Building Code, the 2016 Building Code.

And then there are questions as to whether breaches have occurred to the state building code, as Clinton just referred to, insofar as whether there’s been sufficient apprentices and trainees as part of the tendering process. That goes back to John Holland, and in fact whether their tendering process was compliant and consistent with federal and state laws.

GILLMAN: The union, the CFMEU say that a lot of these workers were brought in by a labour hire company, and may have been on some sort of ABN or sub-contract themselves. That means a lot of them have not been covered by things such as workers compensation-

O’CONNOR: There are so many questions here, and you are absolutely right to raise that. If in fact there has been a use of what’s called ‘sham contracting’ – that is pretending that a worker is not a worker, but indeed an independent contractor, and therefore prevents the employer from having to pay workers compensation, and shifts the cost to the worker by setting up a sham contracting arrangement – that needs to be looked at as well.
But frankly, this is a significant example of what we are seeing in the labour market across the country, too often. When you see it in sites in the CBD of a city like Hobart, and in areas that actually have union presence, you only wonder what could be happening in areas which are further away from cities where there is very little union presence.

GILLMAN: Why then, in that context, because I want to move on to a couple of other things, has Labor decided this week to support the Government enabling legislation for the transpacific trade agreement? Because, the unions, the ACTU, the electrical union and so on have said that this will make it easier for foreign workers to come into the country.

O’CONNOR: We have grave reservations about any of the negotiations that have been conducted by this Government in respect to bilateral and multilateral trade agreements, and that’s why we have made very clear that we will be looking to the case of most recent agreement that has been put forward by the Government to renegotiate labour mobility and ISDS clauses, which we will be doing. It’s a commitment we have made already-

GILLMAN: Is that based on you getting into government though?

O’CONNOR: -and in fact that is exactly what the New Zealand Prime Minister did recently, where she managed to renegotiate that and remove some of the provisions that were not acceptable to her Government.
We see problems with some of those. The question of a multilateral agreement that actually involves all of the region – including progressive governments like that of Canada and New Zealand – is not one that you can easily just turn your back on. But, you can be assured of this – we will be absolutely vigilant in examining the way in which temporary visas have been used in this country to put downward pressure on wages by exploiting those visa applicants and displacing local workers.

The unemployment figures came out yesterday for August. Unemployment amongst young people has gone up. One of the reasons we have one of the highest unemployment levels of young people in the OECD is we have an overuse, a misuse in some areas of student and holiday maker visas. They're not coming here to have a holiday and they are not coming too often to study, of course there are legitimate students here and they deserve rights to work, but there are too many examples where these visas are being used to bring in cheap labour rather than for the purpose they were designed.
We have to make sure we get that right, and in fact we know, what I have been told at least and advised, is that there were student visa applicants on this site, working of course in excess of twenty hours - which means they're in breach of those visas. The federal Minister responsible should be examining how that can happen.

GILLMAN: It's not just about visa workers here on visas either though, it's the whole labour hire area I guess, and we've been talking about it. Just last month the Federal Court upheld an appeal in the case, Workpac Vs Skene. This was a worker who worked for two years for a labour hire company in Queensland I think, and he was on a regular shift for over twelve months, two years, fly in fly out, twelve hours a day. He was employed as a casual, and the court found that he wasn't a casual.

Just yesterday, the Australian Industry Group representing a lot of the employers has called on Parliament to immediately or urgently amend legislation so that it won't cost thousands of employers millions of dollars. Will Labor support that?

O'CONNOR: Well, we will look at the decision - but it is a very significant decision, and it doesn't surprise me that the court has questioned the whole use of casualisation in this country. That's why before the last election, so more than three years ago, Bill Shorten and I announced that we would be putting in a statutory definition of "casual" in the Fair Work Act in order to clarify what it is to be casual, and prevent the ongoing application of casual in such a way as to deem it for those who should be defined as permanent.
That's why Bill Shorten and I only two months ago announced that if there are labour hire companies working in workplaces and having employees working in those workplaces, those workers must be paid no less than the direct employees they stand next to when they work in the same work.

So, same work same pay for labour hire workers is a policy of Labor, and redefining "casual" in the law so that it is used in a way that it was originally intended.
I think the reason why we have such a major problem now arising out of this Federal Court decision is that there's been almost a subjective test. If an employer says you are casual, then somehow the employee believes, well, they must be casual even when they are working regular hours - ongoing for years on some occasions.
This decision provides us an opportunity to draw a proper line between permanent work and that of a precarious nature. Casual employment is a legitimate form of employment, but it should not be applied to people who are working on-going who need secure work.

GILLMAN: As you say some people opt to get that to work as a casual because of the loading and so on. Yesterday we saw in the Senate a motion passed urging the Government to intervene in a re-organisation of forecasters at the Bureau of Meteorology. Your Labor colleagues here have supported it, that was a Greens motion. Do you think that the Federal Government should intervene?

O’CONNOR: Sorry, with respect to?

GILLMAN: Directly to prevent forecasting jobs going to Melbourne or to being centralised?

O’CONNOR: You're talking about the public sector jobs you mean? Well, clearly people should be where they are best able to serve the needs of the nation. If you need public sector workers in frontline as you do, in human services and other Commonwealth work, then of course they have to where they are needed.
As to whether you ought to shift people out of Canberra to other parts of the country, well there needs to be a cost-analysis made.
I will just make the point going back to what we started on- this is a very big site, taxpayers money is being spent on building this hospital, Federal and State money and yet we’ve got a myriad of major problems that need to be properly examined.

Now, our fear is that the Federal Government will just sweep this under the carpet. I know that John Hollands and others are looking to pay these workers their entitlements, the unpaid wages but that‘s not good enough. This is such a disaster in terms of visa breaches, underpayments, misuse, sham contracting, there needs to be a broader examination by the Government, and if need be, by the Federal Parliament to get to the bottom of these problems, because if we can continue to allow this to happen it’s going to get worse and worse around the country.

GILLMAN: Good to see you thanks for coming in.

O’CONNOR: Thanks very much.