ABC ILLAWARRA DRIVE
THURSDAY, 21 MAY 2020
SUBJECTS: Federal Court ruling on casual workers, super early access scheme, JobKeeper.
LINDSAY MCDOUGALL, HOST: Stephen Jones, the Member for Whitlam, Shadow Assistant Treasurer and Shadow Minister for Financial Services and joins me now. Hello Mr Jones.
STEPHEN JONES, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: G’day Lindsay, good to be with you. I’ve got to say this brings back a lot of memories, I spent a lot of years my life as an industrial lawyer dealing with these issues, so it’s good to be talking about them this afternoon.
MCDOUGALL: So, is a long-term casual traditionally paid sick leave, annual leave, these sort of things?
JONES: There’s there's two parts to this case and viewed separately none of them are particularly astounding. The first is, it's also worthwhile understanding who this guy was and what he was doing. He was a going for a mining contractor. He'd been working consistently for four years for the one employer, doing the same job. And I think most people say your work for four years consistently doing one job, you're not a casual, you might be something else, but you're not a casual and there was nothing remarkable about the court deciding that he wasn't a casual, he was a permanent employee. The question then comes as to well, how do you treat all the things that have been paid to him and what is owed to him? And they came up with a second unremarkable decision and that was that you couldn't offset all the things that have been paid to him in the past to reduce the liabilities for paying annual leave another entitlements. Viewed separately, there's nothing unremarkable about that as well.
MCDOUGALL: Does it set a precedent though? This is what people are saying, that there could be backpay owing, in fact worst case scenario someone says a billion dollars in back pay owing.
JONES: I think that's probably a very extreme claim. I welcome the decision for this reason; I think we need to have a conversation about casual employment in this country and its really been brought to the fore in the COVID crisis. We've seen hundreds of thousands of workers, nearly one in four Australian workers, is on some form of precarious employment contract. They have been the shock absorbers as the economy slowed down and they've been the ones who have borne the majority of the risk. Now the Government, seeing all of this, has thought; well that's a huge problem, we're going to have to treat the long-term casuals a little bit differently. And they got access to the JobKeeper arrangements and I think that is the beginning of an acknowledgement that everything hasn't been going okay, that is the beginning of an acknowledgement that we've got to have a different way of dealing with long-term casual employment and it can't be shifting all of the risk off the employer and onto the employee. We need to have a different arrangement for those people and I think this court decision brings that into focus.
MCDOUGALL: Because they worked for at the same company for longer than 12 months the casuals were available to apply for JobKeeper. So that sort of does set a new idea in place. So what about, as the Illawarra Business Chamber is calling for, a change the Fair Work Act, a reduction in the loading for people like that, so they're not, as some media are reporting, potentially double dipping.
JONES: I don’t think the knee-jerk reaction should be to reduce an employees or a group of employees entitlements. I think a long cold hard look at what's going on here needs to occur. I'd actually support a thoroughgoing inquiry into precarious employment, casual employment in this country. What it means, how it's affecting workers and businesses and what the best way of getting the balance right. I don't think we've got the balance right at the moment. That somebody can be working for four, or five, or six years with the one employer pretty consistently and still be called a casual, I don't think that's right or fair. So we’ve got to find a way of dealing with this which meets the needs of both parties.
MCDOUGALL: Well, one of the big employers right here in Wollongong is of course the university and the Premier Gladys Berejiklian is saying she's considering easing border restrictions on international students. She has been in talks with the federal government. Ideas of putting foreign students who've come back from overseas in two weeks of hotel quarantine. This would help save regional universities that rely on foreign students, according to the Premier. What do you think of the speed that we're moving on this?
JONES: I want it to be safe. I obviously want the benefits, both cultural and economic, that foreign students bring to the region and to the country. So I'd like to see those restrictions lifted as soon as it is safe for us to do that. But I also think it's worthwhile us was taking a step back for a moment and looking at whether some of our universities are over-reliant on the income and the revenue that foreign students bring and whether that has not left us vulnerable to the sorts of shocks that we've seen through the COVID crisis. And whether we're over-reliant on foreign students full-stop, or whether we were over-reliant on foreign students from one or two countries, I think we need to have a look at that. It makes a big difference to this local region, I know economically.
MCDOUGALL: In the short-term who should pay for the quarantine locally? Do you think should be the Government or the University of Wollongong should pay?
JONES: My instinct would be to say that this is something to the university should bear the cost of, given that they are, in the first instance, getting the benefit of the international student. Whether they seek to then pass that on to the student is something that they could consider. But my instinct would be to deal with it in that fashion, but it there may be a case for sharing the cost across state and the university as well.
MCDOUGALL: I’m speaking to Stephen Jones MP for Whitlam and Shadow Assistant Treasurer. You've been tweeting, in fact quite a few things, today. But one of the things you've been tweeting about is the many thousands of people withdrawing from super accounts and how the stimulus that has been provided by private citizens withdrawing from the super accounts is equal to that of the JobKeeper and JobSeeker combined. 13.5 billion or million, I can't remember. But should the Government have done more to allow people to keep their super intact?
JONES: To your intro, it's not thousands, it's 7.1 million people. That's half the workforce who have applied to get early access to their superannuation. 13.2 billion dollars, which is as much as the JobKeeper and the additional bonus payments or stimulus statements combined. So what this means is that individuals have been dipping into their retirement savings to prop the economy up and to prop their household budgets up before government assistance has come in. I can absolutely understand why a lot of individuals are doing that, but it's a big problem because it means we're all going to be paying more for those people more reliant on the pension down the track and have basically denuded their retirement income. So that is a huge problem that hasn't been discussed and I'm very, very worried about. I'm also worried about the fact that some people have been preyed upon by dodgy gambling outfits and other things as well. So there's a whole bunch fraud. There's a whole bunch of problems with the arrangement.
MCDOUGALL: But Labor Leader Anthony Albanese has said that he doesn't believe the JobSeeker allowance should be kept at its current rate of $1,100 a fortnight, which is still under minimum wage of about $1,500 a fortnight. So where should the government assistance lie, do you think?
JONES: We're talking about JobSeeker. Let's use the old language that people are most familiar with, that's the old Newstart. It shouldn't go back to 40 bucks a day. It's just not sustainable. If it wasn't sustainable when we had eight hundred thousand Australians on it, I don't see how it's going to be sustainable when we’ve got north of a million Australians who are relying on it. They should be listening to the submissions that have been made by ACOSS on this. Probably not sustainable at the current levels but certainly we can't go back to $40 a day. JobKeeper, I'd like to say something about that too, Lindsay, it’s due fall off a cliff in September/October this year. On nobody's estimate is everything going to have returned back to normal by then. So I think we need to have a transition to look at what we can do to continue to support businesses and workers so that that's just not immediately snapped back and there's no support there.
MCDOUGALL: Alright, Stephen Jones MP for Whitlam, Shadow Assistant Treasurer, Shadow Minister for Financial Services. Thank you for speaking to us today.
JONES: Great to be with you.