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A fair slice? Big business blows up over pay reforms

Unions say 21st-century ‘gig economy’ jobs come with 19th-century pay and conditions.

Unions say 21st-century ‘gig economy’ jobs come with 19th-century pay and conditions. Photo: Getty

Once, Australian workers pushing for minimum pay and conditions had to contend with bayonets.

On Thursday, a new front line emerged: The cost of a pizza on Deliveroo.

Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke made the case for minimum workplace standards for people who deliver passengers or pizza through apps like Uber and Menulog.

Unions say these 21st-century jobs, part of what’s called the “gig economy”, come with 19th-century pay and conditions.

But Mr Burke’s address at the National Press Club, which unveiled broader reforms for closing loopholes that allow workers on contracts to receive lower pay, was attacked by big business.

Standards gone

The government will introduce the Closing Loopholes Bill, which would give the Fair Work Commission the power to set standards for “employee-like” workers.

The law would define an “employee” – as opposed to a contractor – in law, something the courts have taken literally, according to what it says in someone’s contract.

Mr Burke said legal terminology often had little relationship to reality as contracting has taken off and standards have lapsed.

“Years ago, the delivery service used to be Pizza Hut and everybody doing it was an employee,” he said.

“They were all employees – they all had rights. We all accepted this kind of work used to have minimum standards attached. And in the last decade, that’s gone.”

According to the Transport Workers Union, 45 per cent of gig economy workers earn less than the minimum wage.

Earlier research cited by the industrial umpire found nearly three in 10 felt like employees and had to make themselves available at certain hours or face financial penalties. 

Mr Burke said it would curb the worst inequalities and could involve a “tiny bit extra” for people using a delivery service.

“Underpaying people is cheaper. Yeah, it is,” he said. “Slavery is probably cheaper, too.

“We’re talking about some of the lowest-paid people in Australia … I reckon it’s a pretty small price to pay.”

Closing loopholes

The bill will close loopholes allowing the use of contracting and casual work in other industries, like prohibiting companies from using labour-hire firms to offer wages lower than those paid to permanent employees.

The lobby groups for big business, mining and employers issued statements that attacked Mr Burke’s plan.

Jennifer Westacott

Jennifer Westacott says the Business Council warned against the reforms. Photo: AAP

“Any government that’s serious about cost of living would not do this,” Business Council of Australia chief Jennifer Westacott said.

Mining behemoth BHP previously estimated a plan to stop companies from driving down permanent employees’ wages by hiring temporary labour-hire contractors would cost $1.3 billion.

A Senate select committee report found the mining giant used “shelf companies” to hire workers on annual salaries of between $30,000 and $100,000 a year less.

The Minerals Council called for the bill to be pulled and condemned a “quagmire” of red tape.

ACTU secretary Sally McManus said the changes were modest and overdue.

“It will absolutely affect the mining industry. And that’s why they’re yelling and screaming about it,” she said.

“How many people don’t have those basics?

“Like simply, you can’t get a home loan if you’re a casual worker [or] trying to get a rental property … being a casual worker makes them a second-class citizen.”

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