Government gives more detail on flexible work changes, but opposition and IR experts say clarity still missing

The federal government has solidified its plans to expand flexible working standards, with Prime Minister Julia Gillard confirming legislation will change to allow victims of domestic abuse to request different working hours.

But while Labor has said businesses will still be able to reject these types of requests based on reasonable business grounds, industrial relations experts suggest the reality isn’t that simple.

“The uncertainty about that topic may be a motivating factor in announcing these changes,” says industrial relations law expert Peter Vitale.

“I think part of the difficulty with the law as it stands is that business doesn’t have clarity around these topics.”

Although Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced changes to flexible work standards on the weekend, she confirmed the changes in question time yesterday and announced a new change – victims of domestic violence will be able to request flexible work.

While the move has been heralded by womens’ advocacy groups, business is hesitant. Peter Anderson, chief executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told SmartCompany this morning the concept is agreed upon in principle – just not in practice.

“Extending the right to request flexible working arrangements is a worthy goal, but the practicalities for small business in particular need to be front and centre of the government’s plan if this is to be workable.”

With regard to the major change, expanding flexible working arrangements to victims of domestic abuse, Anderson says ACCI has no fundamental disagreement with that proposal, but wants to see more detail.

“A regulatory approach is not always the best way of achieving a goal such as this,” he says.

The right to request flexible work hours will be extended to carers, older workers and parents of school aged children. Mothers may also request the ability to move to part-time work.

But opposition small business spokesman Bruce Billson told SmartCompany there needs to be more clarification about how the rules will work – especially as workers already have the right to request flexible work arrangements.

“Under the national employment standards there is scope to approach employers about flexible working arrangements. That exists now,” says Billson.

“Flexibility is important, but we haven’t seen any of the detail.”

While business has been assured it will still have the right to request any applications on reasonable business grounds, Vitale says the definition of such an objection is still quite vague and requires clarification.

“If the government suggests the answer is to continue extending these rights, at some point businesses are going to say they want clarification.”



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