More than a casual concern

You wouldn’t know it, but there was some actual lawmaking going on in Canberra yesterday during what is Parliament’s final sitting week.

The ridiculous war of words over Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s involvement (or not) in the establishment of a union slush fund more than 20 years ago just won’t seem to stop, despite the fact that there appears to be no smoking gun in the case and the same four or five questions are being asked over and over again.

I’m sure many SMEs would agree with me when I say to both sides: Get on with it. There are some pretty major economic challenges looming at present, and this is no time for ancient history.

One politician getting on with things yesterday was Greens MP Adam Bandt, who yesterday introduced a private member’s bill that would have profound consequences for employers if it was to be made into law.

Bandt’s proposed amendment to the Fair Work Act (which is called the Fair Work Amendment (Tackling Job Insecurity) Bill 2012 and which can be read in full here) aims to tackle what the Greens and the union movement describes as the problem of “insecure work” or casualisation.

Bandt said yesterday that the proportion of workers on casual work arrangements or rolling contracts who cannot access benefits such as sick leave and annual leave has risen from 15% in the 1980s to around 25% today.

“Spain is the only country in the OECD with a higher rate of temporary work than Australia,” the deputy leader of the Greens said yesterday.

His amendment aims to tackle that by allowing casuals and those on rolling contracts to make a written application to their employer requesting a “secure employment arrangement”, which means “ongoing employment on a part-time or full-time basis”.

The employer has 21 days before they must decide whether the casual employee can become a part-time or full-time employer.

If the employer refuses, they must provide their reasons in writing.

If the request is refused, Bandt’s amendment would allow the employee or their union to take the matter to Fair Work Australia and request what he is calling a “secure employment order”.

In other words, after considering “the needs of employees to have secure jobs and stable employment, and the genuine needs of business to use arrangements that are not secure employment arrangements” the industrial relations umpire could actually order an employer to make a casual worker a full or part-timer.

Small businesses are exempt from the requests and in reading the bill it is clear that Bandt has tried to outline that FWA would need to carefully consider the needs, circumstances and size of the employer.

But Bandt’s amendment also makes it clear that FWA can make a secure work order over an entire “class” of workers – that is, workers in a particular industry, workers doing a particular type of job or workers of a particular employer.

The idea that FWA could make an order over an entire industry or massive group of workers – say, casual cleaners or casual hospitality staff – is a seismic change that could potentially threaten the sustainability of thousands of businesses.

In most businesses, wages are the biggest cost and business owners need to be able to manage those costs to retain maximum flexibility.

What Bandt is proposing in the form of secure working arrangements would essentially mean a court would get to decide when and if an employer gets to use that crucial flexibility tool.

That’s a dramatic, frankly seismic, change that employers cannot accept.

Labor and the Coalition were too busy bickering yesterday to say much about Bandt’s bill, but neither is likely to support it.

Whether you like the Greens or not, one thing it is hard to argue with is that they genuinely try to support the little guy, be that workers or small business.

But this amendment is a step too far that shouldn’t, and won’t, be taken up.

James Thomson is a former editor of BRW’s Rich 200 and the publisher of SmartCompany and LeadingCompany.

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