Jennifer Westacott interview with Laura Jayes, AM Agenda, Sky News

05 September 2023

Event: Jennifer Westacott interview with Laura Jayes, AM Agenda, Sky News
Speakers: Laura Jayes, host, AM Agenda; Jennifer Westacott, chief executive, Business Council of Australia
Topics: Gig economy; industrial relations; Same Job, Same Pay; productivity; casual employment


Laura Jayes, host, AM Agenda: Joining me now is the head of the BCA. Jennifer Westacott. Good to see you, Jennifer. Look, we've seen it a few little backflips over the last 24 hours or so. Does any of this alleviate the concerns you had?

Jennifer Westacott, chief executive, Business Council of Australia: Well, we have seen some changes that the government's made that are quite sensible. But overall, Laura, this package is still unworkable. It's unnecessary, people don't want it, there's no evidence for it. It's costly. The government's own figures show that this will be an enormous cost. And that will hit the bottom line of every household in Australia. It's risky, the economy is going to go through a downturn. We'll see that tomorrow in the national accounts. So why would you make it harder to employ people, it's going to bring a lot of conflict into the system. So, you look at the number of times in the legislation that people are going to go off to the Fair Work Commission, these expanded union powers, that's going to drive conflict which impedes productivity, which is about people working collaboratively. And then finally process, there’s 800 pages, a 500-page explanatory memorandum. We do not believe the bill can be supported in its current form. But we certainly hope the Senate takes a comprehensive process. There is some good things here. Particularly things like dealing with underpayment and things like that, domestic violence. But overall, this is not workable. The Senate really needs to do a comprehensive process here.

Laura: That is going to hopefully happen over the next 12 months. But still, there doesn't seem to be any attempt from Tony Burke or the government to pare back what they want to do with casual work. Last week, when we spoke to you, you warned about the profound effects this might have, nothing's been done in that space to alleviate your concerns, has there?

Jennifer: No, not at all. And I just want to pick up this 12-month issue. It's only the labour hire part of the bill that has the delayed 12-months, and I want to come back to that because the rest of it is quite misleading, I want to come back to that because it is very important. But on casuals, as you and I talked about last week, these are legitimate forms of employment. Around 23-24 per cent of people get that 25 per cent loading. Lots of people choose to work casually. Without going into all the enormous complexity in the bill about casuals, which I think small business particularly is going to really struggle to work around and get their heads around. I was reading it last night really kind of bewildered by some of it. The bottom line is this, it will be very difficult to give people predictable hours. Let's just unpack that for a minute. That's bad for workers. Because what's the employers’ choice, right? I don't put people on, I don't do stuff, I don't expand, I put a limited number of people on permanent part time. Or I don't give you any kind of predictability in your work hours, which a lot of people want. They want that extra shift. They want to know when they’re doing it, the kids are working at Maccas. They want that routine working around their study. Employers, I think will be advised constantly not to hire casual workers. And this is hugely important at a time when people want to get those extra hours for cost of living. It's a very important stream of work for many people. I just do not know what we're trying to solve here. We're going to have a two-tier system, some employees are applying after six months, employers having to offer after 12. I just don't know what we're trying to do when we already have a system determined by a piece of legislation off a high court decision that gives employers an obligation to offer people permanent work. I don't know what we're trying to do here. On the 12 months, if I may come back to that. This is about labour hire. It's not about the whole Bill. But very importantly, yesterday, the government introduced anti-avoidance procedures that are effective from the time the legislation is put into the house. Never mind whether it's passed or not, that prevent companies and businesses changing any of their practices without going into all the technicalities of it. So, the idea that this has been put off for 12 months is simply misleading.

Laura: Just on the casual work as well. As you say, you don't know what the government is trying to solve here. As we kind of want that flexibility in our lives. It seems like these are changes that are kind of trapped in a in a bygone era. But also on casual work, if an employee is forced to do this, couldn't they essentially still gain the system make casuals permanent to get are paying them penalty rates?

Jennifer: We don't know how the penalty rate system is going to apply either to the gig staff or how it's going to work in here. And again, there's a 500-page memorandum and most of these big questions are still not answered. But I think the main problem for casuals will be if you are basically going to be in breach of the classification of a casual. In other words, if you're offering people any kind of predictable work, and you're seem to be in breach of that provision, then you've really got a few choices. You either don't hire casuals. You hire some people permanently or you say, for example, to Laura, I'm sorry, I can't tell you when your hours are going to be. Now that's not good for you, for people working. And I just don't know what we're trying to fix here. I think it’s about union representation. It's about a philosophical view about casuals, this myth that there's this kind of big, casualisation in the workforce. The numbers haven't changed for 20 years. I just think we're adding tremendous complexity here. Also, the six-month provision. So, an employee will be able to ask to be made permanent after six months. Now, if you think about hospitality, you've got that October to April period. Now, that does not indicate a pattern of work, because over the winter break, people might actually have their hours reduced, and so on. So, it's going to create this tremendous rigidity, particularly for small business.

Laura: There's no provision there for seasonal work, as you say. I want to hone in on this $9 billion figure as well, because that's not your figure. That's not businesses’ figure. This is from the government's own estimates here. And I want to go back to what is the biggest problem in this country, it is productivity. Do you think anything in this bill, does anything to enhance productivity?

Jennifer: Absolutely not, quite the opposite. Productivity, as we talked about, comes when people create value, doing things differently. It comes from cooperative workplaces. So basically,  you are going to have a system that puts an old-fashioned kind of system of a commission telling people how to employ people, whether it's gig workers, casual workers, labour hire, it puts a whole lot of friction, so people can't do things quickly. It restricts the way people are going to be employed. It adds tremendous confusion. And my big concern, Laura, is that will add conflict. And the way to get productivity is people working together on a cooperative basis. Let's do this differently. Let's apply this technology. Let's train people differently. If you've got everything stuck in the Fair Work Commission, you've got these expanded union powers that I think will create a lot of workplace conflict. How do you drive cooperative, collaborative, productive workplaces? And why is that important? Well, it's important because that drives wage growth. I think we're staring into now, a long period of declining wages. We saw yesterday, the profit figures, albeit profits were up very high in the back of commodity prices and low interest rates. But no one in Australia should think profits going down in a record way yesterday is a good thing. Because that's straight into superannuation assets, that straight into mums and dads who own shares and companies who can rely on those dividends. No one should think that's a good story. And then tomorrow, we'll see the economy starting to really slow. So why would you do stuff that works against productivity at a time when people are really doing it tough on cost of living? They need those extra hours for casual work. They don't need that cost across the economy. And why would you make stuff hard?

Laura: Yes, Jennifer hope this is not our last interview, but it might be our last interview in your capacity, as the head of the BCA. What are you most proud of over the years as you leave this role? And what's the unfinished business? That's itching at you a little bit?

Jennifer: Well, I'm most proud of the fact that we as an organisation have really continued to be the light carrier for good economic policy. And that was evident when we put out that big document last week. We have been really the people who have said you must continue to drive economic reform. And we have made that case that that's really about workers and wages and ordinary people. I'm really proud that we've leant into social issues, particularly for disadvantaged people, particularly indigenous people, particularly young, long term unemployed people. I'm super proud of what we did in COVID. In the bushfires, we mobilised the business community. I think we kept parts of the economy really going. We worked quite constructively with governments. And I'm really proud that we've laid a member organisation where you've got to always judge your KPIs about if the members like you. We've had record numbers of members over the last few years. So really proud of those things. You don't win every battle that you take on. But I'm really proud that we've been that constant source of advice about national interest, and the Prime Minister, I think if he was sitting here would say the BCA has always spoken in the national interest. What's my message? My message is we are sleepwalking into lower living standards, lower productivity, lower wages, a weaker economy and a more vulnerable economy. Unless we do the kinds of reforms that we put in that document. We didn't put that document out just for fun. We put it out because we're extremely worried about where our economy, where our country is going over the long term. And if we don't take those decisions now it'll be too late to reverse the tide.

Laura: Okay, no more 500-page explanatory memorandums bedtime reading, I've got a few novels to recommend to you, Jennifer Westacott, after Friday. Just before I let you go, Alan Joyce is obviously the high-profile story today we thought this was always coming. Is this a good thing for Qantas given Qantas is one of your members?

Jennifer: Look, this matter is for Qantas, but clearly leadership's a tough gig. And Alan's made a decision today, which is obviously a tough decision. But he's made it to protect the companies interests, and I wish him well.

Laura: Jennifer Westcott, thanks so much for your time, and we will see you soon.

Jennifer: That's great. And thanks for all the fantastic times, conversations we've had together. It's been a real delight. Thank you very much.


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