Motion- Frontline Workers

29 Nov 2023

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Parliament

I rise to speak on this matter of public importance that has been put forward to thank and acknowledge our frontline workers, particularly during the summer ahead. I want to do that because we can all speak to this motion because obviously over the years, whether it has been various crises, like the pandemic, or various natural disasters, we have all said thanks to our frontline workers and our essential workers. But what is really important is that we actually demonstrate our thanks to those workers, whether it is people across a wide range of sectors – healthcare; teachers; emergency services, including our firies; those in the public sector; the community sector – because right now they are absolutely under the pump.

We have got teacher shortages in our schools – in fact teacher shortages right across the board – we have got social and community sector workers unable to help the increasing number of people in need, and healthcare workers and mental health care workers straining under the pressure. The reason why they are struggling is because on top of the cost-of-living crisis that is creating so much pressure out there – people just literally cannot afford the basics, which is putting a lot of pressure on our government services and community services – there has been a continued underfunding of these services, there has been a deliberate policy by the government to keep wages low, and we are going through right at the moment cuts to thousands of public sector jobs and cuts to funding. On top of this now, despite being overworked, overstretched, increasingly stressed and burned out, we have got a government proposal on the table to cut that from the workers compensation scheme. What makes this all the more galling is that during the pandemic – this incredibly difficult time when so many workers, essential workers, were on the front line in our hospitals, in our communities and services, keeping society functioning, helping people in need, putting themselves in harm’s way when there was the real risk of catching COVID, particularly within our health system – was there anything we can take away from those very difficult years?

We all said thank you, but there was a need to demonstrate that thanks, to value our frontline and essential workers with higher wages, with better working conditions and with more support for people in need. Instead, we have had for some time now a deliberate policy to keep wages low with the public sector wage cap, which has been under inflation for some time. That depresses wages not just within the public sector but across the economy and the private sector as well – it sends a signal there. This is at a time when low wage growth has been one of the most significant economic issues that people and workers have been facing.

We have now got cuts to thousands of public sector jobs. The idea that you can somehow isolate frontline workers from the impact of these cuts when they are already stretched – many government departments are already stretched in their ability to meet the increasing needs of our community – is just ridiculous. The idea that you can just cut billions of dollars from the public sector without it having an impact is simply ridiculous. As I said, to add insult to injury, we have now got these WorkCover changes, which thankfully will now be the subject of much further scrutiny.

I am concerned that they are doing this. Why are they doing it? Well, we have got an economic approach that is saying we need to make the savings. This is coming at a time when you have got profiteering corporations. We put on the table an alternative view: instead of cutting from the public sector and from much-needed government programs, what they should be doing is making sure that those profiteering corporations pay their fair share of tax. I am also concerned about the approach to addressing inflation now – I am just concerned after coming out of recent Public Accounts and Estimates Committee hearings. I obviously respect the apolitical public service, but when asked what the government’s approach to addressing inflation is, the secretary simply put on the table that the only thing that the state can do is just manage its fiscal strategy, and that is to look at spending. Again, that approach is in my view short-sighted, and it is one that will simply mean that all those people in need who are struggling with the cost of living, pushed to the margins and struggling with hardship will not get the help they need.

In terms of other essential workers, people who are also on the front line, our supermarket workers, people who work in transport, in logistics, again during the pandemic turned up to work, day in and day out, in harm’s way and kept society functioning. Recently I spoke at the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union rally at the Coles AGM – the first strike by supermarket workers in history, I have been told – and really called out the behaviour of the supermarket duopoly. At a time when people are struggling to afford the basics, at a time when there is economic upheaval, at a time when we should be recognising our supermarket workers for all the hard work that they have done over the past few years and everything they put up with – let us face it, they have to put up with a fair bit of BS in their job as well – are they seeing how they can pay their workers a decent wage? Are they seeing how they can keep their prices low so that at least their workers – people who work in supermarkets – can afford their products, which they are telling me actually they cannot? There was probably a time in history when even a large corporation might have thought that their workers being able to afford their own products would be something to aspire to – not anymore. Are they looking at how they can keep their workers safer? As I said, some of the safety issues that many of our supermarket workers face are not being addressed adequately. But are they doing those things? No, they are not. They are thinking, ‘How do we make a buck? How do we exploit the economic crisis? How do we profiteer?’ And it is absolutely appalling. Instead, they need to pay their workers a decent wage so that they can at least afford what the supermarket is selling. They need to stop price gouging, and if they do not, the government needs to step in and stop it for them.

I also want to just touch on the SES, which has been raised. Obviously there is another tough summer ahead, and previously it was not seen as the right thing to do in a time when there are disasters to talk about climate change. Well, now I think we are getting to the point where it is almost misplaced if you do not mention it. Our SES volunteers, our firies and those who are dealing with fires and with storms because of the increasing impacts of climate change – we need their help more than ever. We obviously need to take the drastic action of stopping burning fossil fuels. But when I visit a local SES, whether it is out in Malvern or in Port Phillip, again the conditions are just absolutely appalling. They do not have the stations or the locations to meet the needs of our community. Across the board the SES are very poorly funded. This is a significant issue. The SES often feel like they are the poor cousin of our greater emergency services network. There needs to be much greater funding for the SES, and I would urge the government, particularly within the areas of Port Phillip and Malvern – they desperately, desperately need new stations to meet the growing needs of those particular branches and to meet the needs of our community.

Other members have addressed our electorate office staff. My goodness, they are often doing quite a challenging job. As someone who worked in social services, I have taken that sort of thinking towards being an MP in the electorate office, making sure that there is no wrong door. If someone comes to you with an issue big or small, whether it is a significant issue – you know, if someone has got a housing crisis or what have you – or whether it is that the street needs to be cleaned, it is making sure that that person is assisted and helped in every way possible. That is a big job for electorate office staff. It is a very vast job, and certainly I want to acknowledge and recognise the work that they do in their area. But ultimately, with so many people struggling and so many of them being frontline and essential workers, we need to demonstrate our thanks – not just say thanks but demonstrate our thanks – properly fund services, pay them a decent wage and provide better working conditions. This is the way that we will demonstrate respect for them and value their work as frontline and essential workers.

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