New laws aimed at improving working conditions — including ones that make it harder for employers to deny requests for more flexible work schedules — have sparked controversy.
Employment Minister Tony Burke said the Safer Jobs and Better Pay Bill, introduced in Parliament on Thursday, aims to improve conditions for those working in low-paid and female-dominated industries.
The changes have already drawn criticism from employers’ groups, who describe the changes as “seismic” and are particularly concerned that they will force several employers to negotiate against their wishes, increase strikes and lead to higher unemployment.
Employment expert Associate Professor Chris Wright of the University of Sydney said the laws aimed to create greater equality between working men and women.
He said workers in the hospitality sector would benefit greatly, as would those working in areas such as retail, horticulture and the private office sector.
“In these industries, workers currently face great challenges in being able to negotiate with their employers,” he said.
So what are the laws? Here are some of the main changes.
Hospitality workers are expected to benefit from the new workplace laws. Source: AAP / Bianca De Marchi
The secret of pay
Employers will no longer be able to include a clause in contracts that prohibits employees from discussing their pay.
Professor Wright said research had shown that secrecy did not benefit employees.
“The more transparent pay mechanisms are, the fairer they are, and that’s good for workers in general, and it’s good for workers in particular, who are likely to be paid less.”
He said workers not covered by enterprise agreements are more likely to have confidentiality clauses in their contracts, including many female-dominated industries, hospitality and private sector jobs.
Flexible work schedule
Under current law, workers can ask for more flexible working conditions, including changing working hours, but if they are denied, it is not possible to challenge it.
The new laws will allow workers to refer the matter to the Fair Work Commission.
The more transparent the payment mechanisms are, the fairer they are
Associate Professor Chris Wright
Mr Burke said women, in particular, were often forced to leave their jobs or take lower-paid or less secure jobs to cope with chores and work responsibilities.
“This plays an important role in increasing the gender pay gap,” he told parliament. “We want families to have better access to flexible working so they can better share and manage their care responsibilities.”
Allowing more workers to bargain collectively
It is probably the most controversial change that will make it easier for more workers to negotiate collective agreements, such as enterprise agreements, with their employers.
This will allow workers in a particular sector, such as childcare, to come together and agree a deal that will apply to a range of employers.
“The law already provides for multi-employer negotiations through three streams — one percent, multi-employer and low-wage work,” Mr. Burke said. “The problem is that it doesn’t work.”
Prof Wright said there had been a decline in the coverage of corporate agreements in recent years and this had particularly affected women.
Employment Secretary Tony Burke says current labor laws are not working. Source: AAP / LUKAS KOCH
Deputy Opposition Leader Susan Ley said the bargaining system had not been broken and the proposed legislation would strip such arrangements of much-needed flexibility.
“This patterned style, industry-wide trade will increase the strike,” Ms Ley told reporters on Thursday.
“What it is, this government is taking the industrial relations system back to the 1970s and has no focus on workplace productivity or a focus on increasing jobs and safety for both workers and employers,” she said.
Dealing with fixed-term contracts
The bill limits the use of fixed-term contracts so that workers on contracts that last, say, only a year or two years don’t have to keep renewing them.
Employers will only be able to use a fixed-term contract for the same position for a maximum of two years or two consecutive contracts, whichever is shorter.
“More than half of all employees on fixed-term contracts are women,” Mr Burke said. “And more than 40 percent of temporary workers have been with an employer for two or more years.”
Gender equality and sexual harassment
The bill also introduces a number of provisions aimed at gender equality and the prohibition of sexual harassment.
Gender equality will be included as a key objective of the Fair Work Act, meaning that the Fair Work Commission will have to take it into account in actions such as setting the minimum wage, considering changes to awards and other decisions.
A new Equal Pay Expert Group and a Care and Community Sector Expert Group will be set up to help set appropriate pay rates and remove the need for female-dominated industries to compare pay rates with equivalent male pay.
The bill also introduces an express ban on sexual harassment under the Fair Work Act. The Fair Work Commission will also be allowed to review all complaints, whether the harassment has occurred in the past, is ongoing, or both.
The new laws also prohibit sexual harassment. Source: AAP
Why are the changes so controversial?
The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry has raised concerns about the changes and said it would force several employers to bargain against their wishes.
“Businesses will be forced to accept one-size-fits-all terms that may not be affordable and may not meet the needs of their workplaces. It’s not a “choice,” said chamber executive director Andrew McKellar.
He said there were no adequate safeguards to ensure businesses with limited similarities were not forced to trade together.
There was also concern that new rules protecting strikes, particularly for the expanded stream of “single interest” bargaining, would put some businesses on strike across the sector.
Mr Burke said the rights to strike were not new, but employers argued that the expansion of the rules to include characteristics such as general geography meant that the “single interest” stream could now cover almost any sector. Previously, the flow was voluntary and limited to certain businesses, such as McDonald’s franchisees.
Andrew McKellar (second right) at a news conference on Friday to voice his concerns about new jobs legislation. Also in attendance were (left to right): Minerals Council of Australia Chief Executive Tanya Constable, Business Council of Australia Chief Executive Jennifer Westacott and Australian Industry Group Chief Executive Ines Willocks. Source: AAP / Mick Tikas
National employers’ association Australian Industry Group chief executive Ines Willox said the government’s changes risked putting the country on a path of more strikes, fewer jobs, centralized decision-making and less business confidence.
“To be clear, there is no strong or significant employer support for these proposals,” Mr Willox said in a statement.
“This does nothing for productivity or growth. It only threatens our decades of national prosperity that has been underpinned by a focus on supporting trade in our small and large businesses.”
Mr. Burke noted that the government is ready to consider some business concerns.
“We want to make sure that, for example, if you have an individual workplace where the employer doesn’t want to be part of the multiple agreement and the employees don’t want to participate in the agreement, that they don’t get involved in it somehow,” he said at the breakfast. ABC News on Friday.
“But we’re not going to budge from the concept that we need to raise wages. And we know that in order to raise wages, we need to start negotiating and bargaining again.”
For wages to move, we need to start negotiations and agreements again
Employment Minister Tony Burke
What does the ACTU say?
The Australian Council of Trade Unions welcomed the proposed new laws and said the bill was an important step towards modernizing Australia’s bargaining system to help people get the pay rise they deserve.
But he is concerned that limiting access to new bargaining options, including by locking out many workers, could limit his effectiveness. He also believes more needs to be done to stop wage theft.
“Predictably, the same employers who have been able to keep wages low for a decade are resisting change,” ACTU secretary Sally McManus said. “The wage crisis will not be fixed unless workers have a modern collective bargaining system that gives them the ability to win fair wage increases.”
Potential benefits of protective equipment
Professor Wright said international research and evidence showed such a policy would be good for business and the economy.
He said one of the reasons why skills shortages are such a problem at the moment is that workers are leaving their jobs.
“Having a strong set of protections in place will make employers hire staff more safely, pay them better, and those are things that we know will keep employees in those jobs longer,” he said.
It would also lead to increased productivity because long-term employees would have a better understanding of how the business works, and employers would also not have to spend time and money hiring and training new staff.
“Workers who are secure and better paid are more likely to invest in business in turn.”
– from the PLO