One of the privileges of being a union rep was the great life lessons I learnt from the hardworking men and women I met.
I kept vigil for two weeks with the families of Todd Russell and Brant Webb, and supported the underground miners rescuing the men at Beaconsfield. I visited night shifts at factories, and did early mornings at Flemington Racecourse to speak with the track work crew (some of whom I still catch up with during Spring Carnival) and made it to smoko at civil construction sites in time to chat to the fellas in the crib room.
I spoke with migrants and refugees, second and third generation Australians, single mothers and First Nations people. People with vastly different backgrounds and experiences but with one thing in common - they wanted to work.
They wanted to support themselves and their families. To make a better future for their children. To maybe get to a point one day where they could enjoy a comfortable retirement and some time to travel around Australia.
My job was to be the voice of those who felt they had no voice in their workplace. I was able to take their concerns about pay and conditions and safety to their boss and negotiate a better deal and a safer, productive workplace.
Unions are responsible for the standard of living that you and I enjoy today. The basic awards structure that sets out workers' entitlements was designed by the Australian Workers Union in 1908 to cover pastoral workers.
Sick leave provisions, paid annual leave, penalty rates and maternity leave were all fought and won by the unions.
If you get a rest break or a meal break or have a redundancy provision in your employment agreement, that's because a union has helped set the standard.
If you or your loved one get home from work safely, that's because unions fought for safety standards on the job.
And it's not just union members who benefit. The pay and conditions in Australian workplaces today are the result of unions fighting for fairness.
Union values can be summed up as a fair go for all. Those are Labor value, too.
Successive Coalition governments did something that was inherently unfair: thwarting wages growth. They admitted it was a deliberate design feature of their economic management. Literally. I can't believe I even wrote that sentence.
The Albanese Labor Government doesn't think it's right that the lowest paid Australians should bear the brunt of the current global economic upheaval.
We were elected on a promise to get wages moving.
Our next set of workplace relations reforms, the Closing Loopholes Bill, aims to prevent the undermining of people's wages in four ways.
The first is to crack down on the labour hire loophole that's used to undercut pay and conditions.
Labour hire has legitimate uses in providing surge and specialist workforces, and that will continue to be the case.
But some companies bring in a labour hire workforce which is paid less in order to deliberately undercut fair rates of pay already set with workers in an enterprise agreement.
The second element of the Bill is criminalising wage theft.
At the moment, we have a situation where an employee would be committing a criminal offence if they stole money from the till. Fair enough. Stealing is a crime. But why is it not a crime when the employer intentionally steals money from a worker?
We want to close that loophole and legislate to criminalise wage theft.
The third element of the Closing the Loopholes Bill is aimed at stopping the exploitation of casuals.
There are currently people who work permanent regular hours - permanent employees in every sense of the word except they don't get any of the benefits of job security. They're stuck, classified as casuals.
We will legislate a fair, objective definition to determine when an employee can be classified as casual. Casual workers who have regular work arrangements can get greater access to leave entitlements and more financial security if desired.
Not everyone wants that and no one will be forced to convert from casual to permanent. But this is about giving workers choice.
The fourth element of the Bill is to make sure gig workers - the temporary workers or independent contractors such as the people who deliver your takeaway - don't get ripped off.
Twenty years ago, gig work didn't exist. Minimum protections haven't kept up.
We know that many gig workers value the flexibility that comes with that type of work so there is no intention of turning them into employees.
But just because someone chooses gig work shouldn't mean that they end up being paid less than they would if they'd been an employee.
And we know there is a direct link between low rates of pay and safety in the gig economy.
The Albanese Government will legislate minimum standards of pay and safety for gig workers when this Bill passes.
There has been extensive consultation on the design of these measures, including with business groups and unions, and the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations led two processes, with some 160 organisations making more than 220 written submissions.
The Australians who need support and a fair go right now are not the executives wondering if their bonus is going to be $2 million or $3 million this year. It's the people wondering if they can pay their bills this week.
My curiosity about the origin of the term “loophole” led me to understand why it has negative connotations.
It comes from narrow slits in a castle wall. Projectiles could be launched at enemies without fear of similar objects making their way back through the slits.
Those hiding behind the wall were considered to have an unfair advantage.
Some businesses in Australia are hiding behind loopholes in the law to exploit their unfair advantage, safe in the knowledge that the workers have no way to fight back.
This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Wednesday 16 August 2023.