Labor is confident its industrial relations bill will pass this year after a deal with the senator David Pocock to boost safeguards for small and medium businesses, and regularly review the adequacy of welfare payments.
The workplace relations minister, Tony Burke, revealed on Sunday that the government had struck a deal with Pocock to pass the secure jobs better pay bill, in return for measures the Australian Capital Territory independent described as a “game changer” for people below the poverty line.
In a separate deal, the Greens have won an enforceable right to request unpaid parental leave and measures to prevent a loophole in the better-off-overall test.
The two deals guarantee the bill’s passage – another major legislative win in the final week of parliament, when the national anti-corruption commission bill and territory rights (voluntary assisted dying) bill are also likely to pass.
Pocock, who had advocated to split the bill, will pass the bill in return for technical changes about which businesses and workers are included in the single-interest and low-paid bargaining streams, which allow pay deals covering multiple employers.
On the ABC’s Insiders Burke revealed that a third plank of the deal would create “a new statutory advisory committee made up of experts that, in the lead-up to every budget, will provide independent advice as to the structural challenges on economic inclusion”.
The committee would review “the different rules and the levels of payments to provide independent advice to the government, as those budgets are put together”, Burke said.
“And at least two weeks before each budget, they would make information public that would then make clear the different challenges.”
Burke said the new review process would “very much take account of what Senator David Pocock has been saying with respect to some of the poorest people in the country” – in reference to the senator’s calls to lift jobseeker and provide cost-of-living relief, including on housing affordability.
Burke confirmed that this would include the adequacy of jobseeker, parenting and other payments.
In a statement Pocock said “all of these measures” he had negotiated “will strike the right balance between ensuring people start receiving long overdue wage rises, maintaining productivity and protecting the most vulnerable in our communities”.
He added: “This is now a substantially different bill to the one introduced in the House of Representatives a month ago.
“It is better for business, better for workers and makes sure the most vulnerable in our community are no longer left behind.”
Pocock said the government would receive “independent expert advice that is made publicly available before each federal budget looking at how the most vulnerable in our community are faring and what needs to change to ensure we don’t leave them behind”.
Labor introduced the industrial relations bill in October, prompting outrage from business groups about the expansion of multi-employer bargaining and other significant changes to the workplace relations system considered at the jobs and skills summit but not taken to the 2022 election.
The government has agreed to implement all the recommendations of a Senate inquiry that considered the bill, in an effort to improve safeguards for businesses that do not want to engage in multi-employer bargaining.
Those included that conciliation should precede arbitration of flexible work requests, and the small business threshold for an exemption to single-interest multi-employer bargaining should be raised from those with 15 employees to 20.
The inquiry also called to increase from six to nine months the grace period to renegotiate a pay deal before an employer is eligible for multi-employer bargaining.
Burke revealed that the single-interest stream will gain a new test requiring that businesses must be “reasonably comparable” to bargain together, a change likely to ensure companies in the same industry bargain together but limit its application to bargaining in the same supply chain.
In addition to raising the small business threshold, he said, government amendments would ensure that small businesses with fewer than 50 employees would be able to “argue to the commission that they don’t believe that it’s reasonable, that they are not reasonably comparable to the other businesses within a multi-employer bargain and to be able to get out”.
Burke said a new deeming provision would mean if workers in occupations like early childhood education received a pay rise that might otherwise push them out of the low-paid stream, they could continue to use multi-employer bargaining.
Pocock revealed that the government had also agreed to remove the union right to veto an agreement by allowing the Fair Work Commission to compel a multi-enterprise agreement to be put to a vote regardless of whether employee organisations agree and prevent parties unreasonably withholding agreement.