Australia’s largest companies would be unable to claim their share of $4bn to hire young workers under Greens amendments to significantly tighten eligibility for the jobmaker hiring credit.
The Greens will seek to exclude companies that have recently declared a dividend or have underpaid workers through Senate amendments to the government bill creating subsidies for new hires aged 35 and under.
On Monday, Labor ambushed the government by bringing on lower house debate on the $4bn hiring credit program, part of a suite of more than $30bn of business tax concessions in the October budget to spur economic recovery from the Covid-19 recession.
The hiring credit has copped criticism from unions, Labor and the Greens who warn it does nothing to help older workers and could even see them laid off by employers hoping to gain payments of $100 a week for new hires aged 30 to 35 and $200 a week for those aged 16 to 29.
The Greens will amend the bill to prevent employers sacking existing staff to claim the subsidies, on top of the government’s unlegislated safeguards that employers must increase their headcount and payroll to claim payments.
The shadow treasurer, Jim Chalmers, told the house it was “incredibly concerning” that employers could “rort” the scheme by sacking an older worker and hiring two younger workers.
The shadow employment minister, Brendan O’Connor, also hinted at “potential amendments” from Labor. He warned that small businesses losing access to the jobkeeper wage subsidy may not be in a position to hire extra workers to gain the hiring credit.
“Our fear is, if this is replacing jobkeeper as the main support for small business, it will not be fit for purpose,” he said.
Labor plans to pass the bill in the lower house but will not decide its final position until after a Senate inquiry reports on 6 November.
The Greens want to make wholesale changes when the bill comes to the Senate. Greens leader, Adam Bandt, said the minor party “will amend the enabling legislation for the government’s jobmaker wage subsidy to stop public money going to big corporations that are paying dividends to shareholders or that have a history of ripping employees off”.
The exclusion of companies that have recently paid dividends will render Australia’s largest employers ineligible, including grocery and retail giants Woolworths and Wesfarmers, miner BHP and telco Telstra. The big four banks are already ineligible for the program.
The Greens amendment follows controversy about the number of employers that claimed jobkeeper wage subsidies because they suffered revenue downturns of 30% or more and later declared large dividends or paid executive bonuses.
The exclusion of companies that underpaid workers could impact employers such as Sunglass Hut, jeweller Michael Hill, and Super Retail Group, the owner of Rebel, Macpac, and Super Cheap Auto, which have admitted inadvertent underpayments and paid workers back.
Bandt said “in the biggest recession we’ve seen in generations, we shouldn’t be subsidising profitable corporations or giving public money to corporations that underpay workers”.
“If a big corporation is doing well enough to pay dividends during a pandemic, it doesn’t need the public to pay part of its wages bill,” he told Guardian Australia.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions is pressing Labor and the crossbench to amend the bill, warning it would allow employers to replace full-time jobs with multiple part-time or casual jobs.
In budget week and again on Monday, O’Connor raised concerns that the bill gives the government power to introduce any form of payment to encourage job creation or workforce participation.
The bill contains none of the program’s safeguards, giving the government a blank cheque to change its rules or introduce new programs without approval from parliament.
Bandt said it is “outrageous that the treasurer is expecting opposition parties to consider a key recovery measure with nothing more than a glorified fact sheet available for review”.
“We need to see the details to make sure this wage subsidy won’t make the employment crisis worse, throw current employees into unemployment, and further drive casualisation and insecure work.”
Scott Morrison has fumbled the details of the program’s safeguards, incorrectly telling 6PR Radio on 8 October that employers cannot sack existing staff and receive the subsidy.
“If you’re already working for a place, they can’t reduce your hours or get rid of you to appoint someone else, they wouldn’t get the subsidy under that arrangement,” he claimed.
In fact, provided an employer increases the total number of staff and the amount spent on wages, there is nothing in jobmaker’s safeguards that would prevent a reduction of hours or laying off existing staff.
Bandt said the government “seems confused about whether the scheme would allow employers to fire a decently paid full-time employee in order to recruit two young people on a subsidised minimum wage”.