Fair Work changes coming, but business hesitant over expanding flexible working rights

Small business has expressed its hesitation over the federal government’s planned expansion of flexible workplace laws, saying they could threaten the viability of businesses in certain industries and place undue pressure on struggling SMEs.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard said yesterday she would deliver more information about changes to flexible work legislation this week, but reports indicate the changes will extend the ability for workers to request flexible work arrangements.

Currently only parents of pre-school aged children, along with those with disabled children under 18 years, can request flexible work arrangements. Labor reportedly wants to increase that right to parents of all school-aged children, or those caring for elderly relatives.

Another change would see mothers who return to work after maternity leave being able to request a move to part-time work.

The announcements form part of the government’s second wave of reforms taken from the Fair Work Review, although more detail is expected to come in the next few days.

Peter Strong, chief executive of the Council of Small Business of Australia, says while employers generally have no problem with flexible work arrangements, the government shouldn’t expand those rights too far or too quickly.

“A business is a cooperative place where everybody knows the business comes first. If we can be flexible, we will be, but…it can become terribly inefficient.”

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry isn’t particularly happy, either, with chief executive Peter Anderson telling The Australian Financial Review the changes would result in more regulation for SMEs.

“There are serious issues around flexibility in the workplace which must be addressed to stop employers limiting hours because of penalty rates, to make businesses viable and to stem the losses caused by what is, for companies, an extremely inflexible regime,” he said.

Gillard also flagged another big change, which would prevent workers from being affected by last-minute changes to rosters.

Russell Zimmerman, executive director of the Australian Retailers Association, says such a change would put more pressure on SMEs. Casual workers, he says, enjoy the amount of flexibility in choosing their schedule.

“Unions are looking for those casuals to be made into part-timers, and we don’t have a problem with that being the case but what we want is flexibility from our perspective,” he says.

“You may have a casual who wants to work an extra hour in the afternoon, and you want to extend that hour. If you’re a part-timer you can’t do that without a lot of pre-arranging.”

However, there is some respite for small business – it is expected the changes won’t involve a requirement on behalf of the business to agree to the request. Currently, businesses can refuse these requests if they provide reasoning.

The government has been keen to push flexible working arrangements – it recently even promoted the idea of having staff work from home.

Such a push has caused a lot of conversation within the business community about managing staff who work from home, or who operate flexible working schedules.

While business leaders say they want to see more detail before commenting any further, Zimmerman says there needs to be flexibility “for both sides”.

The Greens have weighed in to the debate, saying they support flexible working but don’t want the issue to be used as an election prop.



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