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ABC 24 with Patricia Karvelas



Subjects:  Coronavirus and workplace entitlements

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Christian Porter welcome.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Good to be here Patricia.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: You’ve met with union and employer groups this morning. What are they telling you are the key things they want this stimulus package to include from a workforce perspective?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well we were very careful to try and not jump into solutions to problems that the extent depth and location of which are yet to become clear so this meeting was very much about an exchange of information. Yes there will be some announcements on a stimulus package but of course the nature of responses will need to be scalable. But if you like today was blowing the whistle on what's going to be several months of much more intensive engagement between government, business, employers, employees. We know that we're going to face certain challenges. We know that some of those will coalesce around casual employees. We know that some of those are around when directions are given for people to stay home or when businesses might find that they need to close for a period of time, or when employees are making the best decisions about the health and safety of their fellow employees to not turn up to work. What are the legal consequences of each of those decisions, when might they arise, what industry sectors, what might be the best response. Certainly one of the best responses of the moment is for everyone to act cautiously but with as much common sense as can be mustered. You know there will be times where people will need to work from home when they've never worked from home before. But the most important thing, I think, was agreed was that the key here is maintaining the health and safety of employees in all types of businesses across Australia. At the same time trying to make sure that businesses are able to make sure that they're keeping the goods and services produced that we rely on every day.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Should workers lose their sick leave entitlements when it’s out of their hands and they are forced self-isolate?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, you know, that's a question that was raised today. And when you use the language ‘forced to self-isolate’, there might be circumstances of quite a large variety, when someone is potentially subject to a control order at a state or a federal level, whether it's a condition of a visa for re-entry on permanent residency into Australia, they might be following advice from a doctor, all those circumstances are quite different. So very much what we were trying to do today is we have our lists and break down and taxonomy of all of the different circumstances that might arise. We are trying to compare that to the sort of situations that even in these early stages are experiencing on the ground, because the answers will be different in a variety of different circumstances. What was very clear to me today was that there's not going to be a single answer that you can put in place for every conceivable circumstance that might arise, you need tailored responses and they need to be scalable in different industry sectors.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Ok, so for a worker that’s told by their boss that they should quarantine because someone has been exposed and has coronavirus in a workplace, so they are asked by their workplace, should they then have to use their sick leave if they don’t actually have coronavirus?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well as a very general principle and that's obviously a hypothetical, but as a very general principle, employers are under an obligation to operate their business in a way that ensures the health and safety of all their workers. If for whatever reason they considered that a worker or some workers should stay at home because of the likely exposure or risk to the health and safety of other workers, that direction means, and they can make that direction, the person who was staying at home would basically have to use their leave in those circumstances, but if they were directed by the employer and they ran out of leave, then the employer would still be paying the wage to that person because they're home at the direction of the employer. But that's a general principle, and that might play out very very differently depending on what contract or enterprise agreement or award a person is under. So, it will not be without its complications, but generally speaking, leave is there for circumstances where leave should be taken and employers have an obligation to protect the health and safety of other employees.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: For those workers who do not have enough sick leave to cover a 14-day quarantine, will the government or their employer extend their sick leave entitlements at their current rate of pay?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: I can't answer that in the general, because there are different circumstances as to whether or not someone has been directed to stay at home or whether someone's stayed at home because they're not available for work because they're sick or subject to some other direction which is enforceable. Obviously the situation is different for part time employees and part time permanents to casuals, but what we are trying to do at this stage and what business and unions have been very helpful in doing is trying to break down all of those different possible scenarios. Consider which are the most likely to cause challenges early, design potential responses and make sure that those responses are scalable. So, it is very difficult to talk in generalities because no one rule applies to all of them.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Would the government sometimes step in Minister?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, if there are certain industry sectors with certain types of employment, we'll be looking to make sure that there are enough employees to do the work to keep the goods and services flowing. We'll also be looking to do what we can to make sure that people are sufficiently taken care of, if they are either directed to stay at home or they can't turn up to work because they are sick. But there are already obviously, a range of safety nets in place inside the Fair Work system and in our industrial relations system, and the welfare system. What we're looking at now is to see where they may not be sufficient for short periods of time.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Is it your view that people who aren’t entitled to sick leave like casuals and contractors should be covered by the Federal Government for the time period that they are at home?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, when you're saying ‘when they're at home’. Again, there might be any number of reasons why someone's at home. A casual employee might be home because they're sick with the flu or they might become sick with Covid19. But what we're looking to see is how that scenario particularly obviously with coronavirus might play out at large. But if you're talking as a general matter of principle, the principle is, of course, people who are employed as casuals get a loading to make up for the fact that they don't accumulate sick leave. Now, how that might play out in a pandemic situation is what we're trying to understand as a matter of predictions and data and experience, and if and when there needs to be a response to that, we will make sure the response is tailored and scalable.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Sure but given that one in three workers Minister are casuals, if you are a casual worker, I reckon if you are relying on that casual work, you’ll avoid even having this test to find out if you have coronavirus and keep working and put people at risk. Don’t we need some clarity to ensure they will be paid sick leave, the equivalent of what they would lose to ensure they don’t put others at risk?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: First of all, the data around casuals is more like a quarter of the workforce than a third. Secondly, the presumption that everyone would act in a way that is contrary to the national interest and go to work, even if they thought they had coronavirus is not something that I accept. I think most people understand as at law they have an obligation to their fellow workers to ensure their health and safety by making the best assessments about whether they are ill or potentially could be ill. But I'm just I'm just saying that everyone, everyone...

PATRICIA KARVELAS: But Minister if you can’t feed your family I’m not sure if that is what people will do?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well Patricia everyone has said that there is going to be a rush of people running into work who are casuals, even though they feel sick or could get corona or are in an isolation group. I don't accept that. I don't accept that at all. I think people, by and large, behave very very responsibly and sensibly, but if circumstances arise where there are issues around incentives or disincentives then that perspective, we'll look at them. There are already mechanisms inside a very broad and very stable welfare system that you could possibly look at, but we're not at the point now where we need to activate any of those. We are at the point where we are trying to understand what might be the best scalable responses if those problems do arise.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: But these things are unfolding right now. So if a casual right now, and we did have a case in Tasmania, was thinking perhaps they are unwell but was thinking that perhaps they want to keep working through the shifts and they know that money might not be replaced any other way, they might be avoiding the test. I mean that is live and real scenario isn’t it?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, the first question that anyone has to ask themselves whether they're a part time or permanent or casual is the question whether or not they're behaving consistently with occupational health and safety laws and they have a duty to ensure that they're not presenting to work in circumstances where it would risk the health and safety of their co-workers. Now that applies to all people whether they are casual or full time or permanent employees that applies to all people…

PATRICIA KARVELAS: But it is easier for people who know that they have got sick leave. I mean if you’ve got sick leave that wouldn’t be an issue. I certainly would call in sick because I’m employed here by the ABC and I know that I will be paid entitlements, but if you’re a casual you don’t have that guarantee, that is the issue here?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: No, that's right, but I mean many people would have already made provisions for that because of course the purpose of casual employment is that you’re paid extra in lieu of those types of entitlements. If it is the case that large numbers of people in particular industry sectors, by virtue of the casual nature of their employment are having those types of problems and that's something that we're aware of could happen, that’s something that can be responded to likely through the welfare system but there might be other options, but we're not going to jump to a solution in anticipation of a problem that is broad before that problem has arisen, or we reasonably know that it will arise. I mean we're at the moment, in a dialogue that's probably going to go on for several months with unions, with businesses, so that we get the earliest warnings and the best predictive ability to understand where those problems arise, to an extent that they require response outside the ordinary parameters of the welfare system and the fair work system.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: So you mentioned the welfare system, is that an option here that you are exploring here, that casuals, the scenario that I just put to you here, would be put on Newstart payment while they were quarantining or ill at home?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, we're exploring a variety of options, and of course a variety of…

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Is that one of them?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: One of the obvious options is to look at ways in which you can have minor modifications to the accessibility of different payments in the welfare system and that's obviously one of the options but depending on whether or not you went for that option or any other option, or whether options even became necessary depends on the speed of the spread of the virus, the way it infects different places at different times, the way in which impacts are being felt amongst different parts of the workforce, how businesses and employees respond together. So you have seen, for instance, with Uber, I believe it was that they came to an arrangement with the drivers who are essentially casual employees to organise this as between employers and employees and so of course we would be encouraging all businesses to see whether or not it's possible for them to make arrangements for conditions that they consider might arise. But we are watching it, watching it very closely. We have got a range of information and data coming in, we’re engaging with unions, with business, big, medium and small, and we're exploring a range of options that will all be on our books. But we're not determining on any particular option at any particular scale, until the extent of the challenge and problems becomes better known.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: There is an existing welfare measure called the sickness allowances. Is that something you are exploring? It’s designed for people who are seriously ill but have run out of sick leave, is that something that you could easily put people on for this particular potential pandemic?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, what I will say is that we are investigating a range of options from inside and outside the welfare system. Obviously the payment that you've just mentioned, is one that sits inside the welfare system that has some ability to be scalable, but there are a range of other options. And again, it's only when you better understand the extent, nature, location and extent of the challenge that we're going to activate one or other solution. But what we're looking at is a range of potential solutions to potential problems.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Ok so outside of the welfare prism and you’ve confirmed to me that you are looking at those options, what could you do outside of the welfare prism?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, again, it depends on what the problem is Patricia…

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Well the problem I’ve talked about…

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Yeah but you’re talking about hypothetical problems right? Whether that problem affects 600 people or thousands of people in a particular place at a particular time means that our response would be potentially different. But our industrial relations system under the basic parameters of the Fair Work Act is a somewhat complicated system but one of the benefits of that is it does cater for a range of different types of circumstances, and people’s circumstances were different depending on whether they're on an enterprise agreement, what the nature of their contract is, whether it's a modern award and If so, in what industry. So people’s circumstances will be different. At this stage what is most important is to have information flowing as quickly and as accurately, both ways from government to businesses but also through employer and employee organizations, back to government so that we can get the earliest sense of where challenges are arising, but it is not an opportunity I might add, whether you're in business or in a union to try and have your version of long term structural reform to the industrial relation system, engaged in by government during a very challenging period where we're trying to respond to what will be short term changes in the labour market.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Is it your view that we are likely to see shortages of health workers as the outbreak intensifies and some are inevitably forced into quarantine?


Well that is a potential and it is a potential not merely obviously in health service related enterprises, but in many other businesses that produce goods and services that we rely on every day. What we will probably find is that some businesses will have demand drop off and have a surplus of employees, not enough demand. Other enterprises are going to face really increased demand and may be struggling to have enough employees to meet that demand. So, that means there's going to be a need to be flexible and probably some flexibility in our casual workplace which we have in Australia is going to be very desirable thing throughout this problem. And that excess of demand for a good or service and constraints or excess in supply of employees might affect businesses in different ways at different times and in different places across Australia. But we're obviously very focused on making sure that the provision of health services has adequate supply of employees, and professionals, and allied health workers to ensure that those services can be delivered during what will be no doubt a challenging period of high demand.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Just in terms of when we are going to have some final answers on what you might do for workers and sick leave entitlements for casuals that you have put on the table, there does seem to be a sense of urgency now that we are seeing the spread person to person in Australia. Will this be announced this week and will we get some final clarity on how the government might step in and what it will require from employers by the end of the week?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well Patricia you put them on the table. I've only spoken about a number of options, many many options that will be considered. I mean, there are many options, there are some obvious ones that have been mentioned here. The stimulus package will obviously be the subject of announcement very soon, but that's scalable measure. And so, other matters that might pertain to activation of certain parts of the welfare system or might look more to the way in which agreements work or ways in which agreements are working between employees and employers, or a way in which we can incentivize the movement of workers in casual employment from one industry sector to another. I mean, those things are part of a wider response which will be scalable. So you'll get announcements about those at the point in time where the problems is clearly enough manifest that we can be assured that the solution to the problem is (A) workable and (B) the least invasive and most effective and (C) scalable if the problems in that area get worse. So, it is a little bit too early to give you those type of answers at this particular point in time.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister just before I let you go, your national career ambassador has defended not telling people what he’s paid. He says this $350,000 sum that’s been reported is none of anyone’s business but it is taxpayer’s money. Don’t people have a right to know?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Look, I know the story’s been live today but I must say it's not in my portfolio are and I haven't been following it very closely. Obviously, that amount of money is paid to the ambassador because it is viewed that there will be good value for money out of his ambassadorial actions in that area. I'm sure that they will show fruit but I haven’t been closely watching it and have been dealing with more important matters today.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Ok Minister, thanks for your time