Australian Companies Call on Parliament to Vote Down ‘Deeply Flawed’ Industrial Relations Bill

Australian Companies Call on Parliament to Vote Down ‘Deeply Flawed’ Industrial Relations Bill
This photo shows construction workers on a building site in Sydney, Australia, on March 6, 2018. (William West/AFP via Getty Images)
Alfred Bui

Australian industrial and business communities have called on the parliament to reject the newly introduced workplace relations bill, saying it will negatively affect most enterprises and workers nationwide.

On Sept. 4, the Australian Labor government introduced a new piece of legislation to the parliament to “close the loopholes” in the current industrial relations laws.

The legislation is the third tranche of a reform initiated by the Labor government and brings about various significant changes to businesses’ hiring and employment practices.

Under the changes, employers guilty of underpaying their workers could face criminal penalties of up to ten years in prison or fines of up to $7.8 million (US$5 million).
Businesses are also compelled to pay labour-hire workers at least the same remuneration as their regular employees to close what the government calls the “labour-hire loophole.”

This loophole refers to the situation when an employer uses labour-hire workers with cheaper pay rates to force their regular staff to accept a lower remuneration than in their enterprise agreements.

In addition, the legislation proposed to provide a minimum wage for workers in the gig economy.

Other areas of change included stronger workplace protections for survivors of family or domestic violence, introducing an offence and increasing penalties for industrial manslaughter, and better support for workers who have post-traumatic stress disorder.

The new bill also provided some exemptions for small businesses employing 15 people or fewer.

Industrial Community Calls on Parliament to Reject the Bill

Innes Willox, the CEO of the national employer association Australian Industry Group (Ai Group), urged the parliament to vote down the legislation due to its “flawed” nature.
“The government is proposing major changes to core aspects of our workplace relations system. They are changes that will, collectively, impact most sectors of the economy,” he said in a statement.

“It is crucial that parliament properly scrutinises the changes and isn’t misguided by efforts to downplay the adverse impacts of the changes or their significance.”

Cafe staff in Hardware lane prepare to re-open in Melbourne, Australia, on Oct. 22, 2021. (Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)
Cafe staff in Hardware lane prepare to re-open in Melbourne, Australia, on Oct. 22, 2021. (Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

Mr. Willox also alleged that the changes, including the same job, same pay policy and the alteration of the definition of casual employees, would make it harder for employers to hire workers and limit their abilities to offer flexible working arrangements for casual staff.

“Make no mistake, there will be vast numbers of casual employees who will have their livelihoods put a risk by these changes if they see the light of day,” he added.

“Any contention that these changes won’t lead to major disruption in the labour market and to detrimental impacts on workers and employees is fanciful.”

Business Groups Say New Workplace Reform Is the Most Radical

Business Council of Australia, a peak industry body, strongly objected to the new legislation, saying it was the most radical overhaul of Australia’s industrial relations system in decades.
“Everyone believes that Australian workers deserve to be paid a fair rate for their labour, but these changes are taking Australia in the wrong direction at precisely the wrong time,” Business Council CEO Jennifer Westacott said.

“The reality is these changes will stifle productivity–increased productivity drives wages growth–leaving Australians facing another decade of low, stagnate wages.”

The CEO also said that industrial relations were currently not a major concern for Australians and that the reform would drive up living costs for consumers at a time when people could least afford it.

Furthermore, Ms. Westacott alleged that the bill would enhance the power of unions and Fair Work Commission officials.

“What we are seeing through this legislation is a massive increase in power back to an outdated centralised model of wage setting,” she said.

“Many of the decisions will now be out of the hands of businesses, employees, and the legislature, and in the hands of over-stretched, unelected officials at the Fair Work Commission, leading to delay, cost and confusion.”

Government’s Defence

In an interview with Nine News, Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke said the new legislation would benefit underpaid workers.
“I reckon anyone who’s been underpaid, today’s a good day for them because wage theft will be a crime,” he said.

“We‘ll get some minimum standards in the gig economy, and businesses that have been using the labour-hire loophole to undercut rates that they’d agreed to, they know time’s up.

“If you’re an underpaid worker, today’s the day that you know that the parliament’s finally acting.”

The minister also dismissed concerns about the complexity of the legislation, which is composed of 284 pages with 521 pages of support notes.

“The reality is, if you want to give people no rights, you can just put in one blank page,” he said.

“If you’re going to give people rights, then you got to put some words on the page.”

Alfred Bui is an Australian reporter based in Melbourne and focuses on local and business news. He is a former small business owner and has two master’s degrees in business and business law. Contact him at [email protected].
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