Corporate tactics to exploit legal loopholes and undercut minimum pay and conditions could come under fresh political scrutiny, with support for a wide-ranging Senate inquiry now gaining momentum.
It has been confirmed Labor, the Greens and crossbench senator Jacqui Lambie will back calls for a sweeping inquiry into big corporations’ evasion of Australian workplace laws
It comes amid mounting concern over deteriorating workplace standards in Australia, including underpayments, the exploitation of temporary foreign workers and the misuse of contracting and labour-hire arrangements.
A Senate inquiry was coming from ordinary workers in factories, shops, offices and service providers, where “powerless and voiceless Australians spend their working lives, our of sight from the political and corporate elite”
The latest incident to spark widespread union outcry has centred on Carlton & United’s Melbourne brewery, where dozens of long-serving maintenance workers were laid off and invited to reapply for their old jobs with a new contractor on inferior pay and conditions.
Thosands of workers rally in Melbourne’s CBD to show their support for sacked CUB workers
Thosands of workers rally in Melbourne’s CBD to show their support for sacked CUB workers Photo: Joe Armao
On Thursday, thousands of protesters converged on central Melbourne – marching the length of the CBD and blocking traffic at several key intersections – in support of the 55 out-of-work electricians and fitters from the brewery.
Chris Brown, one of the former maintenance workers, said their treatment had been appalling. “I was working at CUB under another contractor for seven years. I was a permanent maintenance worker there,” he said. “We’ve had our livelihoods taken away and we’ve been treated like pieces of rubbish.”
Labor says the CUB dispute has “shone a light” on important workplace issues.
Labor says the CUB dispute has “shone a light” on important workplace issues. Photo: Joe Armao
It emerged last month that the new maintenance company’s non-union wage deal that applied to CUB Abbotsford had been signed in Perth by just three casual employees two years ago.
“There is something very wrong with Australia’s Fair Work Act, when three casuals can sign an agreement which takes away wages and conditions from 55 hard-working, full-time employees,” Senator Lambie said. “I support scrutiny of this injustice by a Senate inquiry.”
The proposed Senate inquiry’s terms of reference are likely to include examining the “incidence and trends” of corporate tactics to evade Fair Work laws through the use of labour hire arrangements and national agreements, and how these are contributing to nationally low wages growth.
It would also recommend amendments to “plug the loopholes” in the legislation.
Labor Senator Gavin Marshall, the new chair of the Senate’s education and employment committee, said he was confident of securing enough support for the wide-ranging inquiry, which now hinges on the backing of either the Xenophon or One Nation parties.
“It is being driven in a big way by the CUB dispute, which I think has shone a light on some very important issues,” Mr Marshall said. “There are a number of employment arrangements and unintended consequences of the Fair Work Act that I think it’s certainly time the Senate had a good look at it.”
Greens industrial relations spokesman Adam Bandt said there were serious holes in the Fair Work Act, and the Greens supported the inquiry. “The Greens want to see strong protections for workers that corporations can’t contract out of using tricky legal devices,” he said.
A CUB spokeswoman said trade unions’ accusations that CUB had sacked the maintenance workers was wrong, because they were not direct employees.
“Anyone losing their job is not an issue to be taken lightly – that’s why the former contractor and their people were given six months’ notice of the end of the contract and people were paid redundancies by their employer,” she said.
Pay rates for the new contract positions advertised ranged from $70,000 to $120,000 before overtime, according to CUB. “We believe this dispute is about unions wanting to enforce their power over an external company and the wages being offered.”
Electrical Trades Union state secretary Troy Gray said demand for a Senate inquiry was coming from ordinary workers in factories, shops, offices and service providers, where “powerless and voiceless Australians spend their working lives, our of sight from the political and corporate elite”.
“It’s taken the example of the CUB sacked workers to harness [the] pervasive fear and fury workers in Australia feel today, about the license given to employers to treat them as disposable,” he said.