Could franchisees be roped into union agreements under Labor?

Questions are being raised about whether a proposal by Labor to allow “multi-employer collective bargaining”, which could provide a window for unions to drag franchisees into collective agreements.

According to Labor’s ‘Forward with Fairness’ IR policy document, its proposed workplace watchdog, Fair Work Australia, “may also facilitate multi-employer collective bargaining for low paid employees, or employees who have historically not had access to the benefits of collective bargaining”.

Although Labor IR spokeswoman Julia Gillard has rejected any suggestion that “multi-employer bargaining” means a return to the union-dominated pattern bargaining of years past, a lack of detail has generated some uncertainty in the business community about the proposal.

CCI Victoria Legal principal Peter Vitale says franchises and industry sectors where low-paid independent contractors are common, such as commercial cleaning, could be affected by any move to multi-employer bargaining.

“This could conceivably affect franchise operations, which would commonly be in industries like fast food that engage a lot of younger employees. While the bigger operators in those sectors tend to have well settled arrangements, it may be there’s some scope there to collectivise workplaces across a number of different franchises,” Vitale says.

Independent contractors in areas like cleaning, who are often prevented from becoming employees because they work for several different employers on different sites, may also be likely participants in multi-workplace bargaining, according to Vitale.

Independent contractors have been the subject of political debate in recent days. On Monday the Housing Industry Association announced that it was comfortable with Labor’s position, and now Independent Contractors Australia executive director Ken Phillips says Labor has given “some very credible answers” on central policy principles.

The softening in attitudes by key independent contractor representative bodies towards Labor doesn’t appear to have gone down very well with Small Business Minister Fran Bailey.

Bailey is reported to have said of the groups today that “I don’t think that they’re doing a good job on behalf of independent contractors if they are prepared to accept promises that something should happen, rather than for Kevin Rudd to acknowledge that the only way that independent contractors can have their independence conserved is including clauses 799 and 800 in their industrial relations policy”.

ICA’s Phillips refused to buy into the political argy-bargy today. “What we’re interested in is the policy, not in the politics and personalities,” Phillips says. “Labor haven’t said they will retain those clauses, and we didn’t ask that. What we asked for was an answer on the policy principles and they’ve given us a very credible answer on them. If they win government and they spin and say they didn’t quite mean it, we’ll call them liars, but we’ve got take them on face value at this stage.”


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