Pollies have called on the government to abandon cuts to penalty rates in an amendment that was lost in Parliament by 5 votes

The debate over cuts to penalty rates continues in Parliament, as the Labor Party called on the government to abandon its support of the Fair Work Commission’s decision just a few weeks ago.

This isn’t the first time the issue has come up in Parliament, with Labor having introduced a private members bill—the Fair Work Amendment (Protecting Take Home Pay) Bill 2017—which was knocked back by the Coalition.

Not taking no for an answers, Shadow Minister for Employment and Workplace relations Brendan O’Connor proposed an amendment to the Fair Work Laws Amendment (Proper Use of Workers Benefits) Bill 2017, which was read in the House of Representatives in late October and now sits before the Senate.

The Bill, which was introduced into Parliament by Minister for Employment Michaelia Cash, aims to introduce new laws to deal with governance, financial reporting and disclosure in worker entitlement funds—millions of dollars held in funds for workers’ redundancy pay, sick leave and other employee benefits.

In the House of Representatives, Minister O’Connor proposing the following amendment the second reading of the Bill:

“That, whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House calls on the Government to:

  • Abandon its support of the decision of the Fair Work Commission to cut penalty rates because it will mean nearly 700,000 Australians will have their take home pay cut by up to $77 a week; and
  • legislate to prevent the decision from taking effect to stop Australians from having their penalty rates cut.”

Shadow Assistant Minister for Workplace Relations Lisa Chesters spoke in favour of the amendment, arguing that it “focuses on calls on this government to protect the penalty rates—the penalty rates that have been cut for over 700,000 workers—workers in retail, workers in hospitality, workers in pharmacy.”

Julian Hill MP, Member for Bruce, argued that the “piece de resistance” of the Bill was “to actually cut wages”.

“With regard to the penalty rate for hospitality, fast food, retail and pharmacy awards, fundamentally this is a wage cut for 700,000 workers. You can dress it up however you want; it is a wage cut, a wage cut, a wage cut. It is the thin end of the wedge, as we are already seeing, for millions of others.

“Ethical and human concerns must be taken into account in workplace relations laws. The Australian community has long valued people working unsociable hours.

“They miss family events, they miss time with kids, they miss sports and they miss social events.”

“It is often thankless work—shop workers, shelf packers, cleaners—people who make everyone else’s Sundays relaxed should be valued.

“These are human beings, with families and lives; they are part of society, not just rent or electricity.”

Mr Bruce says the decision is now spreading to other sectors.

“Other awards, other sectors, other workers and other industries are pursuing these pay cuts. We’ve seen the application, already, from the restaurant and catering industry. There’s talk of the hairdressing industry and many others.

“The decision itself is flawed and that’s why we should be prioritising legislation to fix this decision.”

However on the third day of reading the Bill, a vote on the amendment to call on the government to abandon its support of the cuts to penalty rates lost 68-73.

Meanwhile as the Bill enters the Senate, Labor continues to rally on the issue.

Senator Doug Cameron brought up access to penalty rates at a sitting this week.

“I needed my penalty rates to be able to buy my first house,” said Senator Cameron, who is the Shadow Minister for Housing and Homelessness, on Monday.

“My penalty rates and my capacity to have a decent job with a decent union that provided decent rights on the job gave me the capacity to access the first house that I ever bought.

“But this mob want to cut penalty rates. They support cuts to the penalty rates of 700,000 Australian workers, most of whom are the working poor, the real battlers, and those that need their penalty rates to actually put food on the table and a roof over their heads.”