Where to after the Jobs and Skills Summit?

September 8, 2022
WA public servants rally for a wage raise on August 17. Photo: CPSU/CSA Facebook

The federal government’s Jobs and Skills Summit over September 1–2 brought trade unions, employer groups, civil society and state governments together to discuss economic challenges, including rising inflation and interest rates and falling real wages.

The summit’s purpose was to inform an Employment White Paper on “labour market reform”.

Labor wants to have legislation ready by the end of the year to allow multi-employer bargaining and has hinted it wants other changes too.

There is little detail on the scope of its multi-employer bargaining proposals, such as whether they will be confined to small businesses or allow industry-wide bargaining.

It now appears that Labor will seek to simplify the Better Off Overall Test (BOOT) as a trade-off for multi-employer bargaining.

Currently, the BOOT allows new or re-negotiated enterprise agreements (EAs) to be thoroughly examined to ensure any new agreement ensures workers are no worse off than they would be under the relevant industry award.

Applying the BOOT has become more significant since Coles employee Duncan Hart won an industrial fight against the giant corporation and the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association in 2016.

Hart appealed the Fair Work Commission’s decision to approve a re-negotiated EA, arguing that the lower penalty payments for evenings, weekends and public holidays was not compensated for by higher hourly rates and left some workers worse off.

Any simplification of the BOOT risks a similarly dodgy approach.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and Labor, when in opposition, strenuously opposed the Coalition government’s attempts to simplify the BOOT.

Now, however, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations Tony Burke said he would not “rule out” compromises on the BOOT.

Anglicare Australia told the summit that Workforce Australia, the new system for welfare recipients, had to be overhauled. Instead of helping people, the “system is stopping them from finding work, causing harm, and driving some people to despair”, it said.

“Linchpins of the system, like Work for the Dole and Jobactive, have repeatedly been shown to fail — and they waste millions of dollars a year.”

ACTU secretary Sally McManus said in the lead-up to the summit that she and the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia had agreed there was a need to simplify the industrial relations system, including a “a simpler BOOT” and “new options for flexibility in the workplace”.

McManus said wages growth needs to return to sustainable levels and workers must be able to share in productivity gains. She said the gender pay gap needs to close and care and services sector workers need to be properly remunerated and included in the bargaining system.

The ACTU wants the vocational education and training system to be reinvigorated to help increase the number of apprentices.

McManus pointed to a joint report last year by the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Worldwide Fund for Nature and the ACTU, which said opportunities exist to create 395,000 jobs and generate $89 billion in new renewable energy exports by 2040.

The government produced a summit outcomes document, which includes: an additional $1 billion in federal and state funding for fee-free TAFE in 2023; 1000 new digital public service apprenticeships for women, First Nations people, regional Australians and culturally and linguistically diverse people; raising the permanent migration program ceiling to 195,000, as well as extending visas and relaxing work restrictions for international students.

Much of Treasury’s 14-page document, which reads a lot like election policy, was hammered out and publicised beforehand. Others, such as how to maximise jobs and opportunities to boost “defence capabilities” and support Australia’s “delivery of critical maritime capabilities”, did not receive much media attention.

The Employment White Paper’s terms of reference are yet to be released and there will be an opportunity to make submissions. Going forward, only a mobilised union movement will break the power of the billionaire class and ensure workers are properly paid for keeping the economy and society functioning.

[Sarah Hathway is a national co-convenor of Socialist Alliance and a union organiser in the health sector.]

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