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Interview - Laura Jayes, Sky News

The Hon Tony Burke MP

Interview – Laura Jayes, Sky News

LAURA JAYES, HOST: Welcome back. You’re watching AM Agenda. Joining me live now is the Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke. Thanks so much for your time. It’s been a while since we’ve had you on the program, so welcome back. 


JAYES: First of all, let me ask you at the outset – glad to have you – should people have the right to work from home, Mr Burke? 

BURKE: There’s situations where it’s mutual benefit for the employer and the employee. Where you’ve got those common interests, then of course you should do it. It’s obviously not something that you can have as an automatic thing that everybody does. I think it obviously doesn’t work in a whole lot of work situations. 

JAYES: Yep. 

BURKE: But what you want to make sure is that where you’ve got those common interests, that you don’t end up with barriers in the award system that prevent something that the employer and the employee both want to happen from being able to progress. 

JAYES: What kind of barriers? What are you talking about here? Because I think you just stated the obvious – that that flexibility is there right now. Employers and employees are negotiating this weekly, aren’t they? 

BURKE: In the award review the Fair Work Commission have said – like, I asked them to look at a series of issues, they’ve specifically pulled out that they’re wanting submissions on this. That would be on the basis that you can have situations sometimes where for rostering rules or whatever the rules might be, that apply to a particular award, you can end up with circumstances where the flexibility that employees and employers want might not be there. That’s what they’re looking at. That’s what they’re checking through. 

But we can both list off a range of examples of jobs that you can’t do from home that you can only do when you’re physically there. 

JAYES: Yep – yours and mine, for example. They’re good examples of not being able to work from home, although during COVID it was a different story. But I guess the concern here is, Tony Burke, that you have in regulation all these things like the right to work from home, where it’s already being negotiated anyway. So the Fair Work Commission is asking for submissions. Are you going to make a submission in favour of this being, I guess, more stringent in regulation? And what are those circumstances in which this would be required? 

BURKE: Can I say, the thinking and the conversations that I’ve been having with my department so far have very much been in the reverse to what you’ve described – not in terms of it being required but in terms of where there is common interests to make sure that there aren’t barriers in the way. So, it’s actually the exact opposite of that. 

JAYES: But what do you mean by that? I just don’t really know what you mean. Barriers to working from home? 

BURKE: Okay – 

JAYES: – I mean, if an employee needs someone in the office to do their job or in a shopfront, where’s the Fair Work Commission, what is their role here? 

BURKE: If I give you an example of the sort of barrier, I’ll give it in a different example. 

JAYES: Okay. 

BURKE: You can have situations where there can be rostering that somebody wants to do, for example, that isn’t allowed through the award, that there can be rules that don’t quite fit with how somebody wants to be able to work.

What the Commission is looking through is to see whether or not there are, in fact, those sorts of barriers, some rules, that prevent people from being able to do some of their work at home. And if that’s the case, then that would get in the way of where you’ve got mutual benefit, common interests between employees and employers. 

In terms of wanting to assert that somebody has a unilateral right to choose the place that they work, that’s not something myself and the department have been talking about at this stage.

JAYES: Okay. So this is all kind of being weighted in the favour of the employee. You can understand why businesses are pretty nervous at the moment? 

BURKE: What I’ve described just now is where you’ve got common interests. There’s plenty of examples of working from home working for common interests for employers and employees. Plenty of examples where it has been a way of improving productivity. Often for businesses sometimes it means they’re not paying for the same amount of desk space at their own premises, which can be a significant benefit for some employers. So there’s, you know, some call centre type work, for example – 

JAYES: But that’s the minority. That’s in the minority, isn’t it? 

BURKE: I don’t think any of us know the answer to that. I think what’s happened in terms of the – 

JAYES: The Fair Work Commission is about to make a pretty important decision on this. We should pretty much know the answer to that, shouldn’t we? 

BURKE: Well, I think that’s why they’ve asked for submissions, Laura. You ask for submissions when you want information to come in. 

JAYES: Yeah. 

BURKE: We’ve had a huge disruption in the workplace during lockdowns. A huge disruption. On the other side of that a whole lot of practical ways of working that we had thought might be impossible, we’re now starting to see ways of that operating effectively. So, it makes sense that the Fair Work Commission is saying, “Okay, let’s check and work through on submissions how that fits in with the award system of minimum standards that we currently have.” 

And in terms of them dealing with those sorts of flexibilities we’ve had the different points where you get business wariness of different policy proposals. I think what we saw yesterday with the wages data just shows really clearly that a whole lot of the predictions of gloom and fear aren’t what’s being seen in reality. In reality we’re seeing inflation moderate, we’re seeing wages improve. 

Those wage rises, interestingly were largely driven – not solely, but largely driven – by improvement in workplace agreements. The exact sort of improvement that the business community have always said is a driver of productivity. 

JAYES: Yes, but productivity needs more than just the slight increase that we’ve seen, and there is no evidence – or I’m asking you: is there evidence that working from home makes our economy overall more productive? 

BURKE: There’s certainly examples of much improved productivity in some workplaces by people having a mix of office work and working from home. There’s no doubt about that, and there’s plenty of businesses that will attest to that. That’s why a whole lot of businesses have encouraged the mixture between the two. Going entirely one way can create some problems. There are some benefits from people having that personal interaction in terms of building teams as well. But there’s no end of businesses that will point to having that mixture in a way that five years ago would have been unthinkable and saying their businesses are running much more effectively as a result.

JAYES: Well, you mentioned call centres, for example, people working from home. Aren’t you concerned that if more people are working from home, doing jobs like that, wouldn’t Australian businesses just start hiring overseas if people aren’t going into the office? What would be the incentive to hire an Australian? 

BURKE: I think the productivity of the Australian workforce is something that I’ll always defend. 

JAYES: Yeah. 

BURKE: The risk of people going overseas on things like call centres is not new. That risk has been there for a very long time, and I don’t think there’s been a single business where the reason they didn’t make that decision was because they were desperate for paying for office space in Australia. I think the benefits of having somebody who knows the country talking to a customer, that sort of familiarity is something that customers feel, it’s something that a whole a lot of businesses know is worth investing in. Whether someone’s making that call from a warehouse environment with heavy air-conditioning flowing through or whether they’re making that call from their home I don’t think is really the key market difference for any business. 

JAYES: Okay, well, let’s not get hung up on the call centre example. I guess overall my proposition to you is if people aren’t going into the office and they’re working from home, what would stop big Australian companies – big and small – to start looking more for overseas workers, some which would be cheaper to hire? 

BURKE: As I say, that incentive is there no matter where people are working from. That incentive and that option for business is there no matter what. There’s no end of examples of businesses where for them people working anywhere other than the premises is impractical and not the right thing for them. There’s plenty of those examples, and that’s why when you refer to it being a right, I’m very wary of that. 

But there are certainly also lots of circumstances where businesses are finding that if they give that extra level of flexibility. In terms of the loyalty from their own staff they get an improvement. In terms of the productivity and investment that staff are willing to make into that job, they get an improvement. And in terms of from the workers’ perspective, they cut out the travel time, they’ve got a whole lot of other benefits in their life that have come as a result, and they know that the employer is cooperating with that. 

I think in my portfolio, because it’s always the conflict that makes the news when the conflict is there, we forget that most workplace situations are ones where you’ve got agreement and where you’ve got common interests. 

JAYES: That’s right, and this is the whole point, Tony Burke –

BURKE: And that’s why I’m completely supportive of the – 

JAYES: – why the Fair Work Commission needs to actually, you know, enforce this or whether you need parliament to enforce rules like the right to disconnect. We just had Dai Le on the program. You know, she sounded pretty exasperated. This doesn’t relate to any of her constituents. That’s the way she put it to me. 

BURKE: Okay, look, I think we’ve gone to two completely different issues, Laura. The first issue is on the concept of working from home. 

JAYES: Yeah. 

BURKE: On that one, I’m not proposing legislation –  


BURKE: – and I’ve described the circumstances where potentially there can be barriers potentially within an award. 

JAYES: But will you be making a submission? 

BURKE: As I say, at the moment – the final decision on that’s not made – but at the moment the discussions with the department that I’ve had have been whether there are barriers that would get in the way of work from home where it’s viewed as being in a common interest. 

JAYES: But it sounds like you would make a submission in support to the Fair Work Commission? 

BURKE: Well, all submissions are submissions to the Fair Work Commission, where if there’s information the Government can provide that we think is helpful we provide it. 

Right to disconnect is something different, though. Right to disconnect is something where there are examples of employers getting way over the top with this, and in getting way over the top with this. And in getting way over the top with constantly contacting people – 

JAYES: Okay, can you please give me an example? Because no-one has given a good one so far. 

BURKE: You have somebody who works for a bank who is expected to constantly be responding to any of the customers that they might have, even outside of their work hours, when those particular inquiries could easily wait until somebody was back on the Monday. Somebody who works at a law firm in a modest level area –

JAYES: Okay, is someone demanding? Is someone demanding that they answer –

BURKE: Sorry, can I – that’s right. That’s the concept. There’s nothing wrong with emails being sent to somebody. 

JAYES: That’s the concept. No, that’s right. You don’t have to answer them. I think about political staffers as well, Minister Burke. And a lot of this is very hypocritical. We know that political staffers, anyone who works in Parliament House, they’re answering emails from early in the morning till late at night. So are you – you know, are you practising this in your office? Is every government office doing the same thing? 

BURKE: Okay, Laura, you’ve just used a big word in terms of the allegation that you’ve made on that, so let me explain. Every member of political staff has a choice as to whether they are paid an allowance in lieu of extra overtime or not. I’ve got some people on my staff who are not paid that allowance. They are never expected to monitor outside of hours. If you are paid an allowance to monitor outside of hours, then of course that is part of your work. 

But the whole concept of disconnecting. You were saying, I think there was – with respect – a misunderstanding as to the final amendment that went through. Because the final amendment that went through was not forbidding employers on reaching out; it was about if a worker who is not paid an allowance decides that they are not going to respond until they’re back within paid time, can they be punished for that? And the law now says they can’t be punished for that. 

This principle actually says nothing more than in Australia you are meant to be paid when you are working. If you’re already paid an allowance, there is nothing hypocritical about that because you are paid to be working. But if you are not paid an allowance, if you’re someone on a modest income who is just paid work between 9 and 3, and you’re expected to be constantly on your phone working way outside those hours, there is a word for times in history where people have been expected to work without payment. That should not be something that happens in Australia –  

JAYES: Yeah. 

BURKE: – and where there’s a little bit of give and take, no-one complains about that. But there are workers, like the ones that I started to describe before, where they are employed – and paid – under very strict hours and then are expected to work outside of those without an additional allowance. 

In Australia, when you’re working, you should be paid. 

JAYES: What else have you got planned in this space? 

BURKE: Look, the big issue that we’ve been wanting to advance for a long time was to get wages moving again in Australia. That’s been a fundamental that became – 

JAYES: And productivity? 

BURKE: – one of the key issues in the election campaign. 

JAYES: Okay. 

BURKE: To make sure that we’re delivering productivity we need to remember this is not only about workers; productivity is also something about your supply lines. It’s also something about dealing with issues like I’ve referred to recently and the Treasurer referred to again yesterday about non-compete clauses, about making sure that people can go to the more productive job when it’s available. Working through all of those concepts. 

The thing that I think people are rightly sick of hearing is an argument that the key to productivity is somehow to hold back wages, the key to productivity somehow is to pay people less. A nation like Australia should be able to have a better answer to productivity than to say it’s always going to be the workers’ fault. 

We had a decade where wages virtually flatlined in Australia, and now after the legal changes that have been highly contested, finally yesterday we started to see annual figures where wages are getting in front of inflation again. 

It’s been too long where people have been held back, and at the moment that started to happen, some of the business community were saying, “Oh, no, need to be careful now because inflation might become the workers’ fault.” 

For heaven’s sake! Workers getting blamed for productivity. Workers getting blamed for inflation. The buck can’t always be blamed at people on modest incomes who are just trying to make ends meet. 

JAYES: No, but business employ people, right? They’re the ones – 

BURKE: Yeah, they do. 

JAYES: They’re the ones that create wages. And it is a privilege to have a job, wouldn’t you agree? 

BURKE: I’m the Employment Minister. I want every Australian who wants a job to have a job. I want them to value their job. But also I don’t see workers as being in some sort of landlord-serf relationship. I do believe workers have rights. 

JAYES: You’ve tipped the balance, though, since you’ve been Minister. Was that your intention? 

BURKE: Yeah, we have. I wanted to correct the balance. When wages flatlined for 10 years, it’s pretty hard to argue the balance is right. 

JAYES: Yeah. But, no, you made this an employees market. 

BURKE: When wages start to get in front of inflation, when wages start to get in front – 

JAYES: I mean, what’s the concern then for businesses in you know, you tipped the balance. You said that was your intention to do, but, I mean – 

BURKE: Yeah. 

JAYES: – for businesses down the track then get too nervous to employ people. 

BURKE: Businesses need to employ people. People need to have jobs. There’s a natural relationship here. But the fact that wages flatlined for nearly a decade wasn’t by accident. The previous government had low wage growth – as you know, you were in on the interview where Mattias said in an interview to you – 

JAYES: Let’s go. No, come on. 

BURKE: That’s right. 

JAYES: You’ve used that time and time again. I’m not sure it’s correct. But, look, Tony Burke, I’m getting in a lot of trouble here because – 

BURKE: Well, can I just say, Laura, Laura – 

JAYES: Yes, quickly. 

BURKE: Whether you say it’s correct in the interview or not, it is what happened. For ten years wages did flatline, and with the change of the laws that we’ve made, wages are now moving again. 

JAYES: Okay. We will talk again. And let’s make it sooner rather than later so we don’t have to go for 12, 14 minutes. 

BURKE: Thank you. 

JAYES: We’ll speak soon. Thanks so much. 

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