Coalition IR changes would allow bosses to change workers' hours, duties and location

Paul Karp
·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Employers would gain powers to change employees’ hours, duties and location of work and to offer part-time workers extra hours without overtime rates under the Coalition’s industrial relations omnibus bill.

Under changes to be announced next week, the attorney general, Christian Porter, will propose flexibility provisions that mirror powers gained by employers accessing jobkeeper, extending them to all businesses with employees covered by 12 modern awards in industries hit hardest by Covid-19.

On Friday, Porter struck a conciliatory note, promising to continue to consult unions and not be “obstinate” about the bill’s provisions, but unions have already warned that part-time provisions are a recipe for cuts to take-home pay.

The industrial relations minister described the bill, released to the states and territories on Friday and in sections to participants in the five industrial relations roundtables, as a “balancing act” that aims to boost jobs.

Related: Coalition risks 'inciting opposition' by failing to sell need for industrial relations reform

In a bid to allay union concern that Covid-19 will be used as cover for permanent changes, the industrial relations omnibus bill proposes a two-year limit on the powers to change hours, duty and location of work.

Porter’s draft bill also proposes that industries hardest hit by Covid-19, including retail, should gain “part-time flexibility”, allowing part-time workers working at least 16 hours per week to be offered extra hours at ordinary time rates without penalties or loadings.

The proposal will provoke backlash from the Australian Council of Trade Unions, whose secretary, Sally McManus, warned in October the idea was “simply a way to have casuals under another name, except with lower wages”.

“We don’t support that proposal – it would absolutely mean wages would be cut.”

Employers would give extra hours to existing part-time workers rather than employ more people, McManus argued, failing the government’s own test of job creation.

On Friday an ACTU spokesperson said if part-time flexibility and powers to cut hours are included in the bill “it means that the government has sided with some of the more extreme suggestions from the employer lobby and embraced changes which would leave working people - the heroes of the pandemic - worse off”.

The extension of jobkeeper-style powers ensures that many employers which did not qualify for the wage subsidy program will not be at a competitive disadvantage, but business groups have already signalled they want the flexibilities to be permanent.

The Council of Australian Small Business Organisations chief executive, Peter Strong, told Guardian Australia: “If you want to make it easier and less risky to employ someone – flexibility shouldn’t be temporary.

“[The government are] going to do it in increments – but if we can get part-time flexibility changed – it’s a win for the employer and for the worker, because a part-time worker can get more work.”

Guardian Australia understands the bill also proposes eight-year enterprise agreements for new work sites where the project is worth $500m or more or $250m where the project is deemed to be “nationally significant”.

In November, Scott Morrison pointed to the need to reform the better off overall test to “ensure it will be applied in a practical and sensible way so that the approval process does not discourage bargaining”.

The bill will ensure that a class of employees being hypothetically disadvantaged is not sufficient to block an agreement, aims to speed up mechanics of bargaining processes and set a firm deadline for the Fair Work Commission to approve agreements.

The bill will introduce a definition of casual employment to ensure the agreement between an employer and employee and payment of casual loading prevents courts redefining casuals as permanent employees based on their work patterns.

The compliance section of the bill will deliver on the government’s commitment in response to the Fels taskforce on migrant workers to introduce criminal penalties for the most serious forms of deliberate exploitation, such as underpayment.

Porter had already begun a process of consultation on how to criminalise “wage theft” before the roundtables were launched in May with a promise from Morrison not to pursue union-busting legislation as a sign of good faith.

Ahead of the release of the bill, Porter told reporters in Canberra that the proposals would not be put to parliament on an “all or nothing basis”.

He said the five roundtables identified “separate” issues, each with “their own complications”. These included “the failure to have a definition of casual employment in the Fair Work Act”, the “complication in the award system”, issues around compliance, and the length of agreements for new work sites.

Porter said the bill would likely be referred to a committee “to be considered over the summer period” and the government does not intend to be “obstinate about anything in the bill”.

Although everyone would not “love everything in the bill”, Porter expressed hope that the consultative nature of talks would continue after the bill was introduced to parliament, and promised to listen not just to business groups but also to unions.

“Everything in the bill is designed to grow more jobs, so we think everything in the bill is important, but there are some things in the bill that we will talk about, clearly.”

Related: ACTU head Sally McManus calls for halving of insecure work by 2030

On Wednesday, Porter laid the groundwork for changes to awards in the accommodation, food services and retail trade sectors, which he described as both the hardest-hit and most award-reliant.

Porter noted in question time that while some awards such as hospitality allowed permanent part-time workers to easily take on extra hours, others like retail imposed “significant restrictions that discourage that type of agreement”.

Porter suggested the bill would ensure businesses could offer part-time workers more hours “at their usual rates of pay” by “reasonable and fair agreement” and in doing so remove a barrier to “more permanent work”.