Government’s new IR bill ‘dangerous and extreme’

Brisbane 2018 campaign for industrial manslaughter laws to be made national. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

Federal Minister for Industrial Relations Christian Porter introduced an omnibus industrial relations amendment bill on December 9, which unsurprisingly includes measures that advantage businesses over workers.

It has come after months of tripartite negotiations between unions, employer groups and government.

Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus described the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia’s Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020 as “dangerous and extreme”. She compared it to former-prime minister John Howard’s attacks on unions and workplace rights under the WorkChoices legislation.

“WorkChoices allowed employers to cut wages, and this proposal will do that as well”, McManus said on December 8. “When WorkChoices was introduced [in 2006] employers rushed out to cut wages, the same will happen if this law passes. Some workers are still stuck with WorkChoices pay cuts some 13 years later.”

McManus said the bill, if made law, would hit young workers, casuals and insecure workers the hardest because it effectively further entrenches casualisation.

She said the bill would:

• allow employers to cut wages and conditions, including allowing agreements to go below the minimum award safety-net;

• remove rights from casual workers, allow employers to reclassify workers as casuals and take away leave rights; and

• strip workers in large-scale projects in construction and mining of bargaining rights for up to eight years, which would hit FIFO workers the hardest.

David Peetz, Griffith University professor of employment relations at the Centre for Work, Organisation and Wellbeing, released a report on November 27 that found more than half of casual workers do not receive the legal 25% loading to their pay.

What do the data on casuals really mean? found that “casual” employment does not mean greater flexibility for those workers. Rather, it means fewer rights, no paid leave and lower pay.

The report also states that Australia lags behind 88% of other high-income countries that require temporary workers to have the same leave entitlements as permanent workers. From the 800,000 jobs lost since the pandemic began, 500,000 were casual workers in insecure jobs.

Rather than seeking to create secure, permanent employment as part of a post-COVID-19 economic recovery, the government plans to allow businesses free rein to create more casual and insecure jobs.

Economist and director of the Centre for Future Work (CFW) Jim Stanford said in The Conversation on December 9 that Porter’s bill aims to “further skew the already lopsided balance of power towards employers”.

“The bill doesn’t just take the employers’ side in the five issues debated at those roundtables (award simplification, enterprise agreements, casual work, compliance and enforcement, and ‘greenfields agreements’ for new enterprises).

“One of its biggest changes is to suspend rules that prevent enterprise agreements from undercutting minimum award standards. This proposal wasn’t even discussed at the roundtables.”

Senior CFW economist Alison Pennington tweeted on December 9 that the new IR changes “signal a dangerous return to WorkChoices-era unilateral employer wage-setting power in enterprise agreements”. She added that the bill aims to give employers two years to push non-union, below-award enterprise agreements (EAs) and to fix wages for long periods of time in other EAs.

Pennington said the bill is also aimed at weakening the Better Off Overall Test (BOOT), stopping unions from contesting bad EAs and relaxing the requirements governing the EA approval process at the Fair Work Commission, which will expand the number of low-wage, non-union EAs, similar to what happened under WorkChoices.

Under WorkChoices, EAs were allowed to undercut awards and unions were restricted from contesting approvals. The result was an explosion of non-union EAs, rising to 20%-60% of all private sector EAs from 2004 to 2009, she said. In 2009, there was a dramatic decline after the FairWork Act and BOOT were introduced.

The WorkChoices-era surge in non-union, low-wage EAs that undercut awards had a lasting negative impact on wage growth. In some cases, under “zombie agreements” workers were paid up to 20% below award wages on expired non-union agreements. There are still thousands of workers on Howard-era, below-award EAs.

Geelong Trades Hall Council secretary Anthony Anderson told Green Left that the new IR proposals were bad news for workers. “The proposed changes are more about stripping workers of their rights than giving workers certainty about their employment and conditions. The only group that would be feeling tickled pink about the bill would be the bulk of bosses”, he said.

A WorkChoices-style attack needs a mass response. It took tens of thousands of delegates, rank-and-file union members and the community on the streets to blunt those attacks. We are going to need to do the same again to stop the government from weakening laws aimed at protecting workers.