SUBJECTS: Minimum wage; Malcolm Turnbull; Penalty Rates.

TANYA PLIBERSEK, DEPUTY LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Well thank you very much for coming out this morning. I am here with Margarita and of course with my colleague Brendan O’Connor and with the head of the United Voice union, Jo Schofield and both Brendan and I will be able to answer questions or make comments in a moment and of course we will hear from Margarita too.


The reason that I am here to meet Margarita today is because I wanted to hear firsthand from her about the experience she has had as a low paid worker in the hospitality industry. Margarita has been working for decades as a cleaner. She has done that to raise her two children after her husband died, having to raise her children alone, put food on the table and a roof over their heads.


What the Prime Minister is asking of Margarita is that she now do the same amount of work for less money. That she should do the same amount of hard work, cleaning hotel rooms, for less money.


Margarita has worked on Sundays for decades. She has missed out on some very precious time with her children, who are grown now, she is a grandmother now. She has missed out on that precious time with her children, she’ll never get that back. She did it because she was struggling to pay the bills.


Working about 30 hours a week now, Margarita earns less than $30,000, and these changes mean that she will earn about $2,000, just under $2,000 a year less if penalty rates are cut in the way that the Government is proposing. It is impossible to imagine that this Government really thinks that Australians like Margarita deserve a pay cut when they will still be working the same number of hours.


Now Margarita is about ten years away from retirement and she is asking herself the question, if she is earning $2,000 a year less, say $20,000 over the decade less, can she afford to retire when she planned to. This kind of change throws all of her future plans and all of her day to day plans into chaos and it is completely unacceptable that at the same time the Government is planning cuts for workers like Margarita they want to offer a $50 billion big business tax cut.


So wages are stagnant, in the last quarter they actually went backwards, and the Government’s solution to that is to cut wages. Company profits are at record highs. They went up last year by 26%, and the Government’s solution to that is to give a big business tax cut.


It is completely unjust. It is completely unfair.


And today we hear from the Government, from Michaelia Cash about their proposals when it comes to the minimum wage as well. They are suggesting that people on the minimum wage don’t need a pay increase. Extraordinarily, the Government’s submission on the minimum wage case argues that a lot of people on low wages are women, single, have no children – so they don’t need a pay increase.


It honestly is like this Prime Minister believes the solution to housing affordability is “Get rich parents”, and the solution to the gender pay gap is “Get a rich husband”. We might hear from Margarita now.

MARGARITA MURRAY-STARK: Hi, I am Margarita Murray-Stark. I worked in the hotel industry for 30 years, and this is the way our Prime Minister is doing to us. He didn’t concern about our working conditions, he just cut off our penalty rates. As far as I know the $2000 that he is cutting off for us, he’s already cutting off our life. That is the $2000 that could help us for our living. For me, it’s getting sooner, getting retired. That $2000, where is the $2000? I am still going to be working hard until I become 80 years old, 70 years old. I became a single parent for how many years and I have been struggling to work in the hotel industry for minimal wages only, we just have before $15.00 up to $18.00. I worked in the hotel industry since I was working when I was young for penalty rates. Those penalty rates is not enough for me to raise the two children.

Now our Prime Minister is cutting up, why is he cutting up? For what reason?

We are already in minimal conditions. As parents, we are already deprived of our lives as parents, we have already lost our lives through weekends because of the $50 on top of our salaries. My children grow up with no parents at all, because I am in the hotel, I’m working there every time, so I could earn extra money to give them decent food, decent shelter and decent conditions. But now, the Prime Minister again is cutting up, so what is this about?  I’m here, and I wanted to meet him and ask the question.

Recently, my son is grown already twenty four, he asked me ‘mum, where are you when I was eight years old?’ So I need to ask the Prime Minister, where are you? Why do you do this to the hotel industry, to the people who work hard? We have been sacrificing our lives, so why are they always cutting up? We need a decent life, we need decent wages, and we need to have respect. It seems like we’re being disrespected from our Prime Minister, so I’m just asking him, why is he cutting up the penalty rates?

JO SCHOFIELD, UNITED VOICE UNION: Thanks Margarita, that was fantastic.


No one’s going to be as eloquent and powerful as Margarita because it affects lives so personally. But she’s one of the hundreds of thousands of workers who’ll be affected. It is really about time that Malcolm Turnbull sits down with Margarita and other workers and actually listens to what will happen to them if the Government does not support Labor’s bill in the parliament to negate the effect of the decision and to ensure that this doesn’t happen to other awards.

There is currently a debate in the Senate and there’s currently a bill before the house. The Prime Minister still has the opportunity now to join Labor and support the legislation. What that would mean is, we would be intervening in the decision to stop retail and hospitality workers’ wages going down. Now, he did intervene to stop truck drivers’ wages going up, so he has done it before, insofar as intervening.

But really, the Government stands abandoned now. There are no cross benchers that support them. Labor has initiated proceedings in the Parliament for this to be remedied. The Government stands isolated and abandoned. It’s about time Government Members and Senators support the legislation so that Margarita will not suffer the difficulties and quite frankly the insult that this Government is willing to impose on her.

Just finally, I wanted to add - people have to understand just how hard it is for cleaners in this country. It is back-breaking work. For a woman of Margarita’s age to now have to now work a further ten years in that occupation; a vital occupation, an important, essential occupation; and have to suffer the indignity of losing money, $2000 a year – it’s just beyond the pale. It just will take some leadership from the Prime Minister to fix this, and that’s what he should do.


PLIBERSEK: Jo, are you going to have a few words?


SCHOFIELD: Margarita’s story is one of many hundreds of thousands of workers that are affected by these penalty rates cuts. And throughout the course of the Fair Work Commission proceeding, workers were looking to the Government for some sign, some signal that the Government was actually going to step in and say to the Fair Work Commission that they had the interests of low-wage workers at heart, that the Commission should not institute cuts in the rates of pay of retail and hospitality workers. The Government did nothing. They sat on their hands and they allowed employers - the big business lobby and some of the most powerful employer groups in the country - they allowed those employer groups to run their case in the Commission.


We’re now left with a decision that leaves workers like Margarita $2000 a year worse off. The Government can fix this situation. They can act now by supporting legislation in the Parliament that will remedy the position of these cuts for workers like Margarita and our union expects them to take that step. Thank you.


PLIBERSEK: Any questions?

JOURNALIST: Tanya, why is Labor intervening in the penalty rates decision, and yet not directly intervening or naming a figure in the minimum wage dispute?

PLIBERSEK: I might let Brendan do the minimum wage.

O'CONNOR: Thanks Tanya. And in fact there was a question, a similar question asked of me yesterday. Firstly, we've said all along that it's an exceptional thing for us to do, to have to stand up to the Commission, to legislate to not allow a cut to workers' wages. And it is an exceptional thing to do, it wasn't an easy thing for us to do, because in many ways it's only Labor that is the guardian of having an institution like the independent umpire. We saw what Malcolm Turnbull did, he was willing to not only revoke an order of the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal but willing to sack the umpire, abolish the commission. So we do have respect for the Fair Work Commission, but we disagree with them on penalty rates. But it does have a significant function and has had a significant function since the Harvester judgement in 1907. It is an institution that is about, and should be about, fairness. That's why we decided not to support the decision on penalty rates, but we still believe it has a role to play in the minimum wage.

Now we're the only Federal Opposition that has ever made a submission to the minimum wage, we did it two years ago and we did it again this time. But we want them to consider the factors. We're concerned about the fall in the minimum wage as a proportion of the average wage. We've already talked about the decline on the [inaudible] and that's why, if you read our submission, whilst we don't mention the number, we're saying we need to make sure we have a liveable wage, so people can have a decent standard of living, and that's what we have done. What we don't believe, is we're going to take away all the functions of the Fair Work Commission. That's probably, that would be maybe the dream of conservatives in this Parliament, who wouldn't want to have an umpire ultimately, and we saw what they did to the Road Safety Tribunal. We know they're standing behind the Fair Work Commission for once in their life because they like the penalty rates decision. I mean, it's a fig leaf, for Malcolm Turnbull to stand behind the Fair Work decision when he abolished the Road Safety Tribunal and revoked the order that allowed truck drivers' wages to go up. So, whilst people might find that somewhat difficult, it's not difficult for us to understand that there's a role for the Commission in society, and we believe they should do the right thing by workers. They have to have regard to a lot of other factors, of course they do, but let's remember, we've got the lowest wage growth in a generation in this country, we've got people struggling, and we've seen the minimum wage fall over time as a proportion of the average wage, that's referred to very expressly in our submission.

By way of contrast, the Government has actually made a submission that effectively does not support an increase to the wage. And today, the Treasurer spoke publicly about this matter and said that he didn't want, he didn't believe in a mandatory increase to the minimum wage. If you don't believe in a mandatory increase to the minimum wage, it means you want real wages to fall. Because if they do not keep up with prices, wages will fall in real terms. So the questions that really need to be asked to the Prime Minister and the Treasurer, is why don't they support Margarita, and why don't they support a decent minimum wage?

JOURNALIST: Brendan, Michaelia Cash got in a spot of bother on the radio this morning about this idea that a lot of people on the minimum wage live in high-income homes. I mean, that is true isn't it? A lot of these people are teenagers and early 20-somthings who live with their parents -

O'CONNOR: Let me just go over that. I've read the submission, can I just say, this is according to the Government's submission. Clearly Senator Cash didn't know her own submission… or she hasn't read her own submission and that's why she wasn't sure what she was talking about. Now, I'm not going to accept, on face value, these assertions made by the Government, but it is true to say that there would be people on low wages who might be in household incomes which are reasonably good. But even the Government's submission says the majority of people on the minimum wage are certainly not in houses with decent incomes. That means many, many people are struggling to make ends meet, even if you supported the proposition that that was the case. The other thing that Minister Cash doesn't seem to understand is that all of the award rates go up when you have a national wage case. The  award system and the national wage decision underpins enterprise bargaining. If you don't have a decent national wage increase, you not only attack people on the minimum wage, you lower the test for all enterprise bargaining agreements in the future. So it's not just about the floor, it's actually about the structure of awards in this country, and it's also about the level of bargaining, and the leverage of workers to bargain a decent outcome by using the awards system as the test. So, I understand Minister Cash is wanting to [inaudible] policy, I'm not surprised she couldn't answer a question and she couldn't understand her own submission, she probably didn't read it. She may not have remembered it, it's more likely she didn't read it. But the reality is the Government's submissions are offensive, it actually says that the majority of people that will get the benefit of this are women, and somehow, astonishingly, she tries to use that as an argument, as Tanya said, to actually not support a decent increase to the minimum wage. It's an offensive submission and for that reason it should be condemned, and I hope the Fair Work Commission disregards it entirely.

PLIBERSEK: Can I add a little bit about this submission? Because as Michaelia Cash is both the Minister for Industrial Relations and the Minister for Women, and I have responsibility for the women's portfolio. I think this is extraordinary, the idea that if you live in a household with a high income earner, your wage, consequently, should fall or not grow, it's medieval. It's going back to the days when whole families were indentured to the one Lord and the children would work for free. I mean, what a proposition this is, that if you're married to someone on a good income, your wage should not grow consequently. I am absolutely appalled by it, and when we asked Malcolm Turnbull whether the decisions in the penalty rates case would increase the gender pay gap, he said no, no, no, it wouldn't. He pointed to one small area where there are a lot of men employed and ignored the fact that pharmacy, for example, has a vast majority of women employed in that area.

This is the same proposition - you cannot address the gender pay gap in this country by keeping minimum wages low. We know that women are predominately employed in lower-paid areas, they’re more likely to be award dependent. Making an argument that says that workers in these categories don't deserve a pay rise will exacerbate the gender pay gap in this country which already stands at about 17 per cent.

MARGARITA: I just wanted to say to the Prime Minister, why all this, the low wages people is a big thing to be cutting off.

JOURNALIST: Brendan, what do you think of One Nation amendments to prevent enterprise agreements from reducing penalty rates below award rates? Wouldn't that help hundreds of thousands of Coles workers that the Fair Work Commission found weren't better off under their SDA enterprise agreement?

O'CONNOR: I'm very happy to discuss looking at the Better Off Overall test, absolutely, if there was a genuineness in this. But you're trying to suggest to me, Paul, that One Nation is moving an amendment in the Senate, having for the last week after week, said they want the abolition of penalty rates. Malcolm Turnbull - that's funny actually - Malcolm Roberts, Senator Roberts’ amendment is something that we can consider by committee, and if the Government is genuinely interested, to examine the test, to see how it works with respect to enterprise agreements, then we're very happy to look at that. But let's be real here, One Nation is moving this amendment to try and sabotage the Bill. Now, the test for One Nation is this - Senator Hanson has said she now supports penalty rates. The only way she can ensure that is seen to be sincere is she votes for Labor's Bill. And that's the same for Senator Hinch, who's been on the record for years saying he wants cuts to penalty rates on Sunday, he now apparently has had a conversion, an epiphany, and Senator Xenophon, who also moved a Private Members' motion to cut penalty rates in this place a couple of years ago, he now has had a conversion as well. Well I want them to be supporting Labor's Bill. We know that the Greens are, and we're very happy with that, and we're happy that they are, and Senator Lambie has. Now, we expect all of those Senators to support the Bill, but just to go back to your point, and it's an important point, as for the test itself, if the Government sincerely wants to examine the test and as to how it applies to the enterprise agreements because they're concerned about workers maybe not getting everything they should through that test, we're very happy for that discussion and have that considered after this Bill that will stop the Fair Work decision case happening, that's the priority of Labor, that should be the priority of every Member and Senator.

PLIBERSEK: Excellent, thanks everyone.