Employment Minister Tony Burke with crossbench senators.
Employment Minister Tony Burke announced a deal with crossbenchers to pass reforms. Image by Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS
  • employment

Workers win extra protection as Labor seals Senate deal

December 7, 2023

Extra protections for workers have passed federal parliament after Labor struck a deal with crossbenchers to split its industrial relations reforms.

Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke secured the support of independent senators Jacqui Lambie and David Pocock for key parts of the “closing loopholes” legislation.

The measures cleared the Senate on Thursday afternoon, ahead of being ticked off by the lower house.

The laws will stop companies underpaying workers through the use of labour hire and criminalise intentional wage theft.

There will also be a criminal offence of industrial manslaughter, better support for first responders suffering post-traumatic stress disorder and improved protections for workers subjected to family and domestic violence from discrimination at work.

The functions of the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency will be expanded to include silica.

Construction workers in Sydney.
 New laws will stop companies underpaying workers and criminalise intentional wage theft. Image by Bianca De Marchi/AAP PHOTOS 

A loophole will be closed in which large businesses claim small business exemptions during insolvency to avoid redundancy payments.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said workers would be better protected by the laws.

“What this bill provides for is commonsense and decency and fairness, stopping companies underpaying workers through the use of labour hire, criminalising wage theft,” he told parliament.

“The legislation’s designed to make sure, as well, that it benefits those businesses doing the right thing.”

Mr Burke said other measures in the government’s original and larger bill would be debated next year.

“I’m even more optimistic about those remaining provisions because of the goodwill and good intentions of the cross bench,” he said.

Greens leader Adam Bandt said his party’s support came after the government agreed to criminalise underpayment of superannuation.

“We would have liked to have seen more protections for casual and gig workers before Christmas, but there’s some important wins in this bill,” he said.

The Greens will continue to push for the right to disconnect, which ensures workers don’t have to respond to emails and phone calls outside work time.

The government will boost funding for the small business advisory service in the Fair Work Ombudsman, and will review the Comcare scheme to help workers injured on the job.

This will cover ambulance officers, emergency services communications operators, firefighters, the Australian Border Force and Australian Federal Police.

Kay Catanzariti, whose son was killed at a Canberra work site, welcomed the strengthening of protections after years of advocacy.

“We’re all Australians – it doesn’t matter what jurisdiction you get killed in,” she tearfully told reporters.

Senator Lambie said she’d had a gutful of big companies not paying people what they deserved under labour hire.

“They’ve got massive profits, these bloody little buggers, and they’re not doing the right thing,” she said.

Opposition industrial relations spokeswoman Michaelia Cash described Labor’s move as a “desperate ploy” to distract Australians from released immigration detainees.

“In the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, the government’s new labour hire laws will substantially increase the burden and costs imposed on businesses using legitimate labour hire arrangements to meet demand surges or remedy staff shortages,” she said.

Business Council chief executive Bran Black said the government was pushing significant changes to labour hire employment under the guise of other legislation to avoid scrutiny.

ACTU secretary Sally McManus described the announcement as a “cost of living Christmas present” for working people, but said the job wasn’t done yet.

She remained confident other protections for casual and gig economy workers would also pass.

“We look forward to support of people on the cross bench and constructive engagement to finish the job,” Ms McManus said.