Jennifer Westacott interview with Thomas Oriti, ABC NewsRadio

06 July 2023

Event: Jennifer Westacott, interview with Thomas Oriti, Breakfast, ABC NewsRadio
Speakers: Thomas Oriti host, ABC NewsRadio; Jennifer Westacott chief executive, Business Council of Australia
Topics: Casual workers; casual loading; industrial relations; skills; migration


Thomas Oriti host, ABC NewsRadio: I am joined by chief executive of the Business Council of Australia, Jennifer Westacott. Jennifer, good morning. Thank you for your time.

Jennifer Westacott chief executive, Business Council of Australia: Good morning, you are welcome.

Thomas: What worries business groups over this proposal?

Jennifer: Well, first of all, we don't know what regular pattern is going to look like. Is that going to be two months? Is that going to be two days a week? How long for? There is already a provision now that if you've been working a regular pattern of work after 12 months, your employer is obligated to offer you some kind of permanent work. What we are particularly concerned about is that this is an important choice for many people, nearly a quarter of the workforce. People get a loading as a result of that, overwhelmingly, people get a loading. Importantly, this is just a big opportunity, particularly for young people, who want their first job. Particularly for people who want to get extra hours, particularly during this cost-of-living crisis, and people who just want to work more flexibly because they're looking after kids, they're studying at university. We're very concerned that this is going to restrict those opportunities for people at a time when people are really feeling the pinch from cost-of-living.

Thomas: Would it though? I mean, they’re not being forced to. The government has already committed that that would always be voluntary for casuals if they want to convert, it's their choice. They don't have to do it.

Jennifer: Well, we are yet to see legislation on this. But there's clearly an intent by the government to reduce the amount of casual work. We're very concerned about that, because we believe that these changes are not necessary. We believe the government has not made a case, they have not identified the problem they're trying to solve. The level of casual work has not changed for 25 years. As I said, this is a very important avenue for many people to work flexibly, to get access to their first job. We're not sure what problem we're trying to fix here.

Thomas: Isn’t the problem that they don't have certainty, that they'd want job security? Isn't that one of the problems?

Jennifer: Well, that may be. But here's the important thing, since the legislation was introduced in 2021 which gave people that option to convert, very few people have taken it up. So, when we survey people, many people, particularly women, value flexibility over more permanent and more regulated hours. But again, what's the problem we're trying to fix here? Why are we doing this at a time when people want to get extra hours? The other thing I'm really concerned about, and I don't think anyone's really thought this through. If I'm an employer, say I am a small business working in an area where my business goes up and down based on seasonal things. Say I am in a tourist area. And I'm forced to make you permanent if I give you regular hours of work, why would I do that? Why wouldn’t I say to you, look, I can't give you regular hours of work, I can't do that negotiation with you. So therefore, we'll just have to work it out as we go or you won't actually have predictable shifts. That would be a disastrous thing.

Thomas: Yes, particularly people with seasonal work sure. But as you pointed out, and you're right, there are laws that currently offer casual employees that pathway to permanent employment. But you're also right that actually very few casual workers have opted to trade in that flexibility. If they're not doing it, what's the big issue then if the rates are low? What's the actual tangible impact on a business in transitioning a casual worker to a permanent worker?

Jennifer: Well, there's a couple of impacts. The first thing is the one I've just gone through; that people will be reluctant to give people any kind of regular work because they're suddenly forced to make people permanent. Secondly, for a small business, so again, we don't know what people are defining as regular. We don't know the period they're defining it for. But a small business is going to have to be constantly reassessing people. Now, many small businesses are operating off the smell of an oily rag, they don't have time to be checking, checking, checking. What they need to be doing is growing their business, training their staff, looking after their staff. Thirdly, the government may well say this is voluntary, but we are yet to see a piece of legislation that reinforces that voluntary principle. What we're concerned about is that the Fair Work Commission will be called to come in and step in and compel people to be made permanent, in which case we're eradicating this important avenue for many workers. We are not sure what we're trying to solve here.

Thomas: Sure, I take your point. But the Fair Work Ombudsman has said that the employer has to agree with it. I mean, the employer and the employee both have to agree to this, if a casual employee changes to full-time or part-time employment. So, is there a chance when we talk about the low rate of this happening, is there a chance that workers do want it but it's been knocked back? I mean it does seem as though that the power is still in the hands of the employer here?

Jennifer: Well, yes and no, I mean, people are not electing to take it up. Many people just choose this form of work and it's a legitimate form of work. As I said, people get, overwhelmingly people get a loading in recognition that they don't get holiday pay and things like that. As you ask those questions, I say to myself, what is the problem we're trying to fix here? If we are going to restrict the amount of casual work, we're going to cut off employment opportunities for women with children, for students at university and for young people trying to get their first job. Or people at the moment who are just trying to get a few hours. So, what we want to see is the government tell us what is the problem we're trying to fix, and then a piece of legislation that builds in that flexibility that you are talking about.

Thomas:  So, you're saying, just to clarify, sorry to interrupt, but you're saying that they don't have to go permanent, right. The employee doesn't have to go permanent. But you're worried that they won't be taken on in the first place if an employer is worried that they might have to make them permanent?

Jennifer: That's correct. Or you won't be able to negotiate a commonsense negotiation of, I'm going to work Monday to Friday, four to six or whatever. That's what we're worried about, that we're going to see this reluctance to give people regular work because people are concerned that they're going to be forced to make people permanent. We're worried that this whole thing is an attempt to reduce the amount of casual work available in the economy. That's a bad thing for many people. It's a bad thing for business. But mostly, it's a bad thing for workers. We're just trying to work through what is it we're trying to solve for here, given we've got a piece of legislation that gives people that right to convert and very few people have taken it up.

Thomas: Okay, just on the issue of loading though. The Employment Relations Minister, Tony Burke, we've spoken with Tony Burke's spokesman this morning, telling ABC NewsRadio this, this is a quote here I am just going to read it out to you: “No worker will be forced to give up their loading under our proposals. Changes will simply close a loophole that lets some employers exploit casual workers.” That's from the spokesman for Tony Burke this morning, given to us. What's he talking about here? What's this loophole that employers are using to exploit casual workers?

Jennifer: Exactly, what is the loophole? I mean, people use this expression exploitation. Well, what is the loophole that people are trying to close? We've already got a piece of legislation, after two court decisions, that say people have the right to convert to permanent work. They have an obligation to be offered it after a regular pattern of work. So, what is the loophole that people are exploiting? What's the evidence that people are exploiting it? How widespread is that? So that we don't go off on a path of restricting the amount of casual work available in the economy which will be very, very bad for many people, many people who are doing it tough at the moment and need to get a few extra hours.

Thomas: Once again, I mean the government obviously making clear it's someone's choice to go on it. Yeah, you're saying it's cyclical that means they might not get the work in the first place?

Jennifer: Let’s see the legislation. Again, this is part of the problem here, people propose things but we don't see the detail of it, we don't see these safeguards that you're talking about being put in. We're very concerned that the whole objective here is to reduce the amount of casual work available, and that is a bad thing for many people in Australia.

Thomas: Can I just ask you about another issue today while I've got you there Jennifer Westacott. There’s a federal government commissioned review of the migration system, and it shows it in 2022, the backlog of parent visa applications had ballooned to 120,000. So, I'm talking about people whose parents can come to Australia with them right? And some are in a story this morning, they're saying they're facing wait times of 30 to 50 years. Which is pushing skilled migrants to warn others ‘don't come to Australia, look to other countries, because your parents won't be able to come with you.’ I just wanted to get your views on that. What impact does that have on business in Australia if skilled migrants have been deterred from coming and are you actually seeing that happening?

Jennifer: Well to be fair to the federal government they have commissioned this very comprehensive review of the migration system, and they have put a lot of extra resources into processing the very, very substantial backlog of requests. But look, we have always argued that migration, if well-managed, is unequivocally good for the country. It increases our productivity. It allows us to meet skill shortages. But more importantly, it allows us to bring those unique skills in, get that knowledge transfer, particularly in areas like digital, like cyber, where we're really short of highly skilled workers. So, migration is important for our country and we need to get it right. We need to send a message to the world that we welcome migration. We welcome skilled migration. We welcome those pathways to permanency. Obviously the government has got to continue its endeavors to try and process those visas more quickly.

Thomas: Jennifer Westacott, thank you for joining us. Appreciate your time.

Jennifer: You're very welcome.


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