Anthony Albanese has suggested Labor could accelerate industrial relations reforms, adding to its election policies to “get wages moving” without “[waiting] for everyone to agree on everything”.
The prime minister made the remarks at the National Press Club, as Labor opened the door to multi-employer pay deals to shrink the gender pay gap and further bargaining changes ahead of the jobs and skills summit on Wednesday.
On Monday, the unions’ call for pay deals to cover two or more employers in the same sector gathered momentum with in-principle agreement from the Council of Small Business Organisations (Cosboa) and endorsement from the workplace relations minister, Tony Burke.
Albanese said the government will introduce an industrial relations bill to enact election promises such as criminalising wage theft in the next sitting, and could “potentially take further action from what we’ve foreshadowed”.
“We’re hopeful that, if this week, near consensus emerges from the discussions on Thursday and Friday, then we would look at change in an expedient fashion,” he said.
Albanese said enterprise bargaining was not working for business or employees. “If we can work through ways to improve that with as much support as possible, then great,” he said. “But we also are prepared to lead on issues as well … [If] you wait for everyone to agree on everything, not much will happen.”
On migration, Albanese blamed the Morrison government, for providing “no income support” to temporary visa-holders, “which means many of them have left, with ill feeling towards Australia”.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and the Business Council of Australia (BCA) have agreed that full employment, wages growth and increased migration should be aims of the summit, but unions have also pushed multi-employer pay deals as their top industrial relations demand.
The idea is still controversial, with the Business Council of Australia chief executive, Jennifer Westacott, saying on Monday she is “concerned” about “unintended consequences” of the plan.
The Cosboa acting chief executive, Alexi Boyd, said it must be “opt-in”, with no industry-wide requirement to take part.
Earlier, Burke told Radio National the deal between the ACTU and Cosboa was “exactly the sort of cooperation we’ve been hoping to achieve”.
The minister said he was “very interested” in multi-employer bargaining, because small businesses were locked out of “the simplicity, the efficiencies” of having a collective pay deal with their workforce because they don’t have an HR department to negotiate one, while employees miss out on pay rises.
Burke said sectors such as childcare, aged care and smaller retail “workplaces where the majority of people working there are women [are] the ones that have tended to miss out on bargaining”.
“There’s a direct link between this conversation and some of the things we need to do to close the gender pay gap,” he said.
Cosboa, which represents industry associations with more than 800,000 small business members, is now at odds with other employer groups, which forcefully rejected multi-employer bargaining last week as a “throwback”.
Boyd said multi-employer pay deals “can be customised to our circumstances”, helping small businesses that “do not have resources that are available to big business with lawyers and HR departments” to bargain together. “The one size fits all approach doesn’t work,” he said.
The ACTU secretary, Sally McManus, said workers in feminised industries including childcare were taking “unprotected industrial action … so strictly under our laws that’s unlawful, with no ability to reach [multi-employer] agreements at the end”.
Multi-employer bargaining would help feminised industries have more of a “voice” like workers at “a big oil rig, a construction site or a bank”, she said.
Behind the scenes, Burke has been consulting the ACTU, the BCA, the Australian Industry Group (AiGroup) and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Acci) on changes to the better off overall test.
Before the Fair Work Commission can approve a workplace pay deal, it must first be satisfied employees are better off than they would be under award minimums.
The test has become unworkable, with even unions conceding that hypothetical shift patterns should not be used to knock back a pay deal.
AiGroup and Acci are pushing for broader changes, including quicker approval of deals and easing rules around which casuals have to be consulted in workplace votes. Unions have said the test should not be watered down.
Burke said he was “very careful and wary of changes to the better off overall test” but recognised the test had become “very legalistic” and spoiled some pay deals that enjoyed 90% worker support.
“I’m not ruling out that we might be able to find compromises that make the whole system work more effectively both for workers and for employers,” he said.
“If there’s creative ways that people can come up with that allow something more flexible but still see wages get moving, then I’m interested.”
Westacott said the test should be “retained, simplified, and be made less litigious, and able to be applied across all employers”, with “primacy” given to the intention of the parties which negotiated it.
She said workers should be better off “overall” – not each and every employee individually – and this was a “key principle” to be “restored” to the operation of the test.
The ACTU president, Michele O’Neil, said its position was that “nobody should be worse off” but there was “room to look at making sure the test is simple, easily applied … [and] fair”.