Albanese government to commit to multi-employer bargaining despite business concerns

Treasurer Jim Chalmers says ‘sufficient common ground’ has been reached at jobs summit although employer groups fear industry-wide strike action

The Albanese government will push ahead with options for multi-employer bargaining despite business groups’ concerns it could lead to industry-wide strike action.

On Thursday the Albanese government announced 180,000 fee-free Tafe positions and a suite of “immediate” reforms to improve bargaining for workplace pay deals on the first day of the jobs summit.

The summit has achieved consensus among employer and union groups on the need to simplify the bargaining system, while the government has struck a middle path by promising to allow deals that cover multiple employers without “interfering” in businesses’ ability to deal directly with their employees if they choose.

The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, opened the summit on Thursday by pledging a $1.1bn “training blitz” with extra places for 2023 to help alleviate the “urgent challenge” of workforce shortages.

While the contentious proposal for multi-employer bargaining was debated through the morning session, employers and unions agreed behind the scenes on changes to the “better off overall test” for workplace pay deals.

The test is a safeguard which requires workers to be better off than the award before the Fair Work Commission will approve a collective pay deal.

But the three major employer bodies and the Australian Council of Trade Unions acknowledged the test has become too great a roadblock, with even disadvantages for hypothetical shift patterns enough to cruel deals.

The ACTU secretary, Sally McManus, said Australia needs an industrial relations system that “does the job of getting wages moving”, suggesting the test “can be made simpler without compromising on fairness”.

The workplace relations minister, Tony Burke, promised to renovate the Fair Work Act to make bargaining for a workplace pay deal “simple, flexible and fair” after the summit heard that declining coverage of such deals was to blame for Australia’s decade of wage stagnation before the current cost of living crisis.

Burke said his department would begin consulting on reforming the better off overall test next week. Other items ready for “immediate action” included a promise “of stronger protections against adverse action, harassment, and discrimination” at work.

Burke said the government wants to “ensure workers and businesses have flexible options for reaching agreement, including removing unnecessary limits on single and multi-employer agreements”.

“Businesses and workers who already successfully negotiate enterprise-level agreements should be able to do so without those changes interfering with it,” he said.

The shadow employment minister, Michaelia Cash, warned at a fringe event that industry-wide bargaining “would be devastating for the Australian economy, leading to widespread strike action”.

On ABC’s 7:30 the treasurer, Jim Chalmers, noted that the Council of Small Business Organisations of Australia and “some elements” of big business wanted more bargaining options.

Chalmers said the government would “listen respectfully” to others’ concerns but the government had found “sufficient common ground” to push ahead with reform “because we can’t have more of the same wage stagnation which has been a feature of the economy for the best part of a decade”.

Earlier, Burke also promised to give the Fair Work Commission power to proactively help workers and businesses, particularly new entrants, small and medium businesses, to strike pay deals.

He also promised to ensure the process for cancelling a pay deal is “fit for purpose” and to end “zombie agreements”, struck during the WorkChoices era, which cut workers’ pay below current minimums.

The summit has a focus on women’s participation in the economy, which Grattan Institute chief executive, Danielle Wood, said was an “untapped” resource like an ore deposit, which “would have governments lining up to give tax concessions to get it out of the ground”.

The Business Council of Australia and Australian Council of Trade Unions proposed increasing paid parental leave to 26 weeks, while the ACTU, Greens, independent MP Zoe Daniel and others have called for Labor’s childcare subsidy changes to be brought forward six months to January.

Wood said “Australia invests less in paid parental leave than most other OECD nations”, insisting the government-funded leave scheme will “need to evolve”.

Earlier, Chalmers told Channel Nine the government “had a good look at trying to bring it forward but it’s very expensive to do that” – appearing to rule it out.

Burke said that better access to flexible working arrangements and unpaid parental leave were among the things the government was ready to take “immediate action” on.

Burke said issues that would require more work – and not be included in the first tranche of reform – included: new laws to allow challenges to unfair contractual terms, allowing the commission to set minimum standards in the road transport industry, and ensuring the minimum wage is a “living wage”.

That sets up a clash with the Greens, who have indicated they will push amendments for the minimum wage to be pegged to 60% of the minimum wage, and guaranteed above-inflation pay rises in female-dominated industries.

Earlier, employer groups the Australian Industry Group and Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry led a rearguard action against the ACTU’s call for options for multi-employer bargaining.

Academic experts including professors Anthony Forsyth and Sara Charlesworth approved the reform, which they said could help boost pay, especially in female-dominated industries such as aged care and childcare.

But AiGroup’s chief executive, Innes Willox, said while it could agree to “sensible reform” to the better off overall test, it did not support “radical change”.

Willox complained the ACTU had provided “little detail” for the “risky” multi-employer bargaining proposal, leaving employers “deeply concerned” about possible consequences, such as “crippling industrial action”.

Earlier, Albanese revealed the national cabinet had agreed on Wednesday to the 180,000 more fee-free Tafe places, to be jointly funded by commonwealth, state and territory governments.

The announcement is the first tranche of and accelerates the delivery of 465,000 fee-free Tafe places announced prior to the May federal election.

“We want to see more Australians gaining the skills they need to find good jobs, in areas of national priority,” Albanese said.


Paul Karp

The GuardianTramp

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