Doorstop interview – Parliament House Canberra
TONY BURKE MP, MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS, MINISTER FOR THE ARTS: A good day for Australia’s casuals. What we’ve announced today is a right that most casuals won’t take up. There’s roughly two and a half million casuals in Australia and just under a third of them work regular hours. Some of those 850,000 workers are in situations where they would rather have a level of security than have the casual loading. Most people would rather keep the full flexibility and keep the casual loading and nothing will change for them. But what the legislation I introduce later this year will do – well, two things.
One, it’ll create a right where those casuals who are getting permanent hours can go to the employer and can say these hours are permanent, I would like to be able to convert. Secondly, we will go to a proper definition of casual to what it was before the Coalition government legislated a couple of years ago. That’s a definition, that was a practical definition that looked at whether or not you were in fact working as a casual or whether in fact you were working permanent hours.
We’ve ended up with a situation where the contracts of what was looked at, where at the moment you can be working a full-time roster for a year and you still get classed as a casual. There’ll be some people with those sorts of hours who want to stay where they are, nothing will change for them. But for people who want security, this gives them a way to be able to do it. Let’s face it, if you’re a student you probably want to keep the casual hours. If you’re supporting a household, your rent’s not casual, your bills aren’t casual, paying for the groceries or other members of the household, none of those expenses are casual. If you want the security of a securer job, this legislation will give you a pathway to get it.
JOURNALIST: What are permanent hours? How many hours do you have to work in a week to be classified as permanent? And how long until someone is doing those hours can they then move on to the permanent role?
BURKE: First of all, in terms of the number of hours, industry by industry have different rules as to how many hours you have to have to qualify as a part timer, for example. But as I say, there are examples of people working full time hours who are currently classed as casuals, some of whom would like to convert. The concept we’re looking at is to keep the 12 month rule that’s already there, where it’s after 12 months that an employer makes an offer, they’d have to make an offer under the new definition. The other thing we’re looking at is for a worker every six months if they believe – also no more regularly than every six months – if they believe they are in fact working permanent hours and they would like to convert to be able to make the application.
JOURNALIST: So, minimum six months, just confirming that.
BURKE: That’s the principle.
JOURNALIST: Are you confident you could get the business community on side for this?
BURKE: The business community, in terms of some of the things that they feared and had been making noises about in recent months and years are not in the Government’s proposal. The concept of huge back pay claims and things like that, none of that’s on the table. What’s on the table, though? Business, I’m not going to put words in their mouth, but a lot of the business groups would prefer the current definition, and I get that the current definition gives all the power to the employer. If you put in a contract at the start that someone’s a casual, that’s the end of the story.
I want to go back to what the definition always was before, a couple of years ago, and that’s a practical definition where effectively you ask what’s really going on. If you are working a regular shift that doesn’t change and you and the employer know that’s the shift and you would like to say I’d rather switch out the loading and get leave instead so that I know my hours are locked in and so that if a child’s sick, I can take a day off without wondering whether or not I’ll be able to pay the bills that week. That’s something that should be available for Australian workers.
JOURNALIST: Would this act as a disincentive, though, for businesses to hire casuals if they think, oh, well, I’m going to have to put them as full time, and all they wanted was a casual worker?
BURKE: The reality is, for business, there may be some jobs that they now make available as permanent jobs, which they wouldn’t have otherwise. That’s a good thing. If they’re offering more secure employment, we welcome that. The other thing, though, is the number of people who even businesses say they expect to take up this offer is a very small proportion of the number of casuals who are working regular shifts. That said, it doesn’t have to be for the majority of casuals, even if it is only a small number of casuals who want to make the switch. If you’re supporting a household and you want security, and this legislation will give you security, then the Government’s doing the right thing.
JOURNALIST: Some parts of the business community have argued that this will add additional costs to their operations. What’s your response to that claim?
BURKE: I don’t see in a million years how this can add costs to business, because instead of paying the loading, you pay leave. You never pay both, you pay one or the other, and they’re calculated to offset each other. The difference for employers is this: if they have workers who really need secure work and they’re not offering it, under this process, by giving people secure jobs, you get a more loyal workforce, you get a workforce that appreciates the security that’s been given to them and that can only be good for business and productivity.
JOURNALIST: You’re confident there wouldn’t be any further High Court challenges? I mean, obviously to get the legislation through it’s through. But it wouldn’t face any legal stumbles?
BURKE: This law was actually changed by the Parliament, so there were High Court cases running at the time and aspects on the fringes of it were dealt with by the High Court. But effectively this change occurred because of an action of the Parliament. The moment that happened, when I was in Opposition, I stood up and said, if we win government, we would undo that change. That’s something that we intend to do this year.
JOURNALIST: Do you see or foresee another fight between the government and businesses? The same as, like same job, same pay, TV ads and that kind of thing?
BURKE: On the scale of issues, I think some of the other issues are ones that business have certainly argued more loudly about. But this is — and so I don’t want to skate over it. The change we’re proposing is a shift in improving the rights of workers. At the moment, whether you are a casual or a permanent is entirely in the hands of the employer. Even if you are effectively working permanent hours and would like to switch. The situation now will be if you’d like to switch and you’re working permanent hours, the pathway will be open for you.
JOURNALIST: Have you come up with a definition or it’s just fair and objective?
BURKE: The definition has been worked up by the Department and it goes to issues in terms of what the firm advanced commitment, having a look at what both parties, both the employer and the employee, have a reasonable expectation of. But rather than go through the legalese, I tend to describe it as the what’s really going on test. If what’s really going on is that someone’s working permanent hours, then you should have a pathway to be able to change that to a permanent job, if that’s what you want.
JOURNALIST: How soon can we expect this to be introduced? You said later this year. Is there any more specific time frame you can provide?
BURKE: No, you’re always in the hands of the drafters, so — the hope of every minister in this building when you’re getting something drafted is it’ll be ready as soon as possible. There’s still consultation happening. Certainly, when Parliament returns for the next couple of weeks, it won’t be ready then, but I’m hoping it’ll be ready pretty soon after that.
JOURNALIST: And you touched on this briefly, “bills aren’t casual”, so I just want to know if you can briefly again, what are the benefits of someone who is working full time hours moving into a permanent role?
BURKE: If you move into a permanent role, it means that if your child’s sick, you’ve got access to leave. It means if you’re not sick enough to work, you’re not wondering, oh, I can’t afford to take a day off, I’ll have to turn up anyway. I’ve met casuals who wanted to be permanent workers who had not taken annual leave for more than ten years. Now, that’s just not fair. It needs to be changed. We’ll change it this year.
JOURNALIST: Great. Thank you.