Morrison’s new IR bill will weaken worker protections
The federal government’s new IR “omnibus” bill, along with attacks on industry superannuation, will weaken the safety net that has served Australia so well during the pandemic.
After a token effort at consultation, the federal government has resorted to type with the introduction of its highly partisan industrial relations omnibus bill, say experts.
In June 2020, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the formation of five working groups of employers, unions and government bureaucrats to review IR reform. The groups met over several months.
The product of these groups is a new IR bill that reflects the five themes of the working parties.
According to David Peetz, Professor of Employment Relations at the Centre for Work, Organisation and Wellbeing at Griffith University, the outcome of these “consultations” is a big win for employers.
“Like most industrial relations reforms it is principally about affecting who gains income and power in the workplace.
“The bulk of the bill ‘favours employers over employees’,” he wrote on The Conversation website.
In The Guardian, Paul Karp commented: “The bill creates a path for employers to cut pay due to the impact of Covid-19 on their business, wipes out backpay claims for misclassified casuals, and proposes new flexibility for part-time workers to pick up shifts without overtime rates.”
The five key themes in the bill
Employers initially argued for removing penalty rates, overtime pay, and other payments.
Peetz says that “haunted by the loss of the 2007 WorkChoices election” the government watered this down slightly to a focus on “award flexibilities”.
“The bill enables hours for part-time employees to be increased without any overtime premium. Part-time employees take on the hours’ flexibility that casuals currently have, but at lower pay rates.
“The bill also allows employers to give ‘flexible work directions’ to employees to perform new types of work, or at new locations.”
Employers wanted to overturn two Federal Court decisions that gave a legal entitlement to annual leave to many long-term employees.
They also wanted a definition of casuals that avoided any possibility of a leave entitlement, and retrospective voiding of any previous entitlement.
Karp says this latter measure “could wipe out claims worth up to $39 billion”.
Peetz says: “The bill meets employer demands. It enables employers to define any employee as a casual, with no leave entitlements or job security, at the time employment commences, provided certain conditions were met. This is more about power than genuine flexibility in work.”
Some employers had called for the “better off overall test” (BOOT) to be abolished. The BOOT means an agreement has to make any worker better off compared to under their award.
Peetz says: “The main complexity in the enterprise bargaining system is the barriers put to unions seeking agreements. The bill addresses none of these, instead aiming to make non-union agreements easier to make.”
Unions and Labor argue that suspending the BOOT will result in cuts to take-home pay for one in four workers covered by enterprise agreements.
The bill criminalises serious wage theft – where an employer dishonestly engages in a deliberate and systematic pattern of underpaying one or more employees. The bill sets out penalties of four years in prison and up to $1.1 million for an individual and up to $5.6 million for a corporation.
Peetz says: “The biggest problem is not that the maximum penalty is too low. Already the maximum is rarely used, and many offences are ignored. Not many are caught, and punishments are light. If you think you won’t be caught, let alone punished, you’ll keep on doing what you’re doing.”
Greenfields agreements are agreements that cover a new project, usually in construction, but can also cover workplaces like a new hospital.
Peetz says: “For up to eight years, any employees recruited to a new “major” project initially approved by a chosen union will be unable to negotiate better conditions through industrial action. A major project is anything worth above $250 million that the minister declares to be “major”.
Unions argue locking workers into lengthy pay deals prevents them exercising the right to strike for better pay, and that the threshold has been set so low it will apply to projects like hospitals, not just giant oil and gas projects.
What the ACTU says about the bill
“We will not accept workers being worse off – cuts to pay or the taking away of rights. And finally, the changes have to make a start in tackling the biggest problem facing working people as exposed by the pandemic: the unacceptably high number of casual, insecure jobs.