Peter Strong: Workplace relations is finally on the agenda this election. So what are the major parties promising?

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Source: SmartCompany.

We are seeing the first real focus during an election on workplace relations (WPR) since the ill thought-out Work Choices campaign helped force the Coalition out of government in 2007.  

Since then, the Coalition has been reluctant to even mention the word ‘workplace’ while the unions and Labor have been straining at the bit, ready for a fight on industrial relations (and don’t the unions love a good IR fight).

It is very good news that WPR is now being talked about. 

The current system is far too complicated — not just for employers but also for employees. Australia needs a system that can be easily understood, is written in modern English and gives certainty to employees on pay and conditions and certainty to employers, particularly small business employers. Small business people need to know that they will not end up at the Fair Work Commission over some fanciful unfair dismissal complaint or because of an honest mistake made when it is not obvious what award to use and/or the award conditions are ambiguous and difficult to understand.

As always, we all support the pursuit of employers, big and small, who deliberately underpay workers. They are basically criminals and are in the minority, but they exist. 

Yet when we see that even Maurice Blackburn Lawyers — the expert industrial relations law firm preferred by unions and workers — had to give its own employees more than $4 million in back pay you know the WPR system is definitely too difficult (or Maurice Blackburn Lawyers did it on purpose, which it didn’t).

What is Labor promising?

In the lead up to this election both the Coalition and Labor have made welcome announcements. 

Firstly Labor. Anthony Albanese made an important announcement last week at an Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) event. The announcement was basically about building a Hawke-style dialogue between a Labor government, business and unions. 

To quote Albanese: “Bringing business and unions together at the enterprise bargaining table, with productivity gains as a focal point, is the only way we can increase both profits and wages without inflationary pressure.” 

He added that this would extend to small businesses and the people who work in them too. He then mentioned the work already underway between the ACTU and the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia (COSBOA), which aims to make the system for small businesses simpler and more accessible, while also ensuring fairness for employees.

Now, the work between COSBOA and the ACTU came about from frustration with certain employer organisations — the IR club made up of ACCI, Australian Industry Group and others. Those employer groups and many of their members, make money from the complexity of the system so they aren’t that motivated to pursue change. However, the few changes they do want are not beneficial to small business and would benefit lawyers and their own organisations. 

We know the ACTU is part of the IR club too, yet they reached out to COSBOA and said “what can we do together?” It is worth noting that the Business Council of Australia (BCA) has also been in dialogue with the ACTU attempting to get change — any change — or at least a start. The big business members of the BCA, even with their large teams of experts, still spend a lot of time and money managing a complicated system. 

The focus on small business from Labor is mainly on a small business schedule to be placed into key awards. The schedule would make the system simpler and easier to understand for small business people and their employees. Excellent. 

To repeat the obvious, the outcome of a better system is good for employers and employees. And that is good for the economy as businesses, and employees, can focus on their jobs, on skill development and on innovation and reward without worry about any uncertainty in the workplace.

What the Coalition says it will do

Now to the Coalition. Recently Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced his government would revisit Fair Work Act amendments put to parliament in March 2021 but withdrawn due to lots of shenanigans from the crossbench and others.

The main proposals that affected small businesses were:

  • Amendments to insert a definition of casual employment, provide for a casual conversion process and to address issues around ‘double dipping’;
  • Amendments providing for employers covered by identified modern awards to offer additional hours to part-time employees and issue flexible work directions to employees;
  • Amendments in relation to the operation of the Better Off Overall Test (BOOT) and agreement approval processes; and
  • Amendments in relation to compliance and enforcement including by introducing new penalties and criminalising certain forms of wage theft.

This is good news from the Coalition. The Labor Party has complained that the government wants to get rid of the BOOT test and that is, according to them, a bad thing. It isn’t. What the Coalition is proposing is that workers can receive benefits besides pay. 

For example, in the fitness industry a worker might want to work a normal day (at normal rates) from 6am to 2pm so they can spend time with the family and share school drop-off and pick-up with their partner. That suits their lifestyle, and they are happy. That is not allowed under the current form of the BOOT. The employer must pay penalty rates — which is to the detriment of the employee, and of course the employer.

The unions would argue that ‘you can’t trust employers and before you know it everyone would be on normal pay rates no matter what hours they worked’. Using that logic no employee would ever get a work schedule that suits their lifestyle and still leaves the business as viable. This is very frustrating if you are an employer seeking a happy workforce as well as a viable business. It is beyond imagination that penalty rates would be removed as the unions and Labor would not let that happen. It is also worth noting that it is often women and families that want flexibility.

Either way, it seems that both sides of politics want removal of complexity and creation of flexibility.

Let’s see who wins the election and who has the greater commitment to change. It is a good thing that the ACTU wants to work with small business groups like COSBOA to create some positive change and that the Coalition is willing to once again step into the WPR quagmire to get change. Nice work everyone.

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