The federal cabinet has signed off on contentious new workplace relations legislation, which the Albanese government says is intended to help low-paid employees, particularly women, negotiate higher pay packets and better conditions.
Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke plans to introduce the Secure Jobs, Better Pay Bill into parliament next Thursday, following the government’s first budget on Tuesday.
He has previously indicated he would like the laws passed before the end of the year, a quick timeline some business lobby groups have criticised, considering the minister may need to make some concessions to get the bill through the Senate.
Ending wages stagnation was a key commitment from Labor ahead of the election, but its task has been made harder by rapid rises in the cost of living, which have seen real pay packets continue to go backwards.
The government plans to release the full details of what is included in the bill over the next week and a half, after finishing some final consultation sessions.
A statement released by Mr Burke said the legislation will include some commitments the Labor Party made ahead of the May election, as well as some of the ideas that were listed for immediate action at the Jobs and Skills Summit in September.
Multi-employer bargaining appears likely
The government hasn’t formally revealed whether a contentious proposal for multi-employer bargaining will be included, but it appears very likely.
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The federal government has rejected suggestions any move to widen access to multi-employer bargaining would lead to more strikes and shutdowns across the country.
Unions have been campaigning for the move, arguing it would give low-paid workers — particularly in female-dominated professions like aged care — more power by allowing them to group together with workers in similar businesses to negotiate one big workplace agreement covering pay and conditions.
But some business and industry groups remain deeply wary of the proposal, fearing it could lead to large, or even sector-wide, strikes.
“There appears to be an undue haste in relation to pushing forward proposals for multi-employer bargaining,” said the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s Andrew McKellar, who is attending his last planned consultation session on Thursday this week.
“Certainly this isn’t the top priority to address the collapse in enterprise agreement making over the past decade.
“The process for consultation … still has some way to run. Any proposals at this stage are, at best, half cooked”.
The government’s legislation is also expected to included changes to the Better Off Overall Test (BOOT), which sits on top of workplace agreements, though this has also not been formally confirmed.
The BOOT is often cited by business as too restrictive and a key reason for the decline in enterprise bargaining agreements in recent years.
Unions and the government have indicated they are willing to make it less strict as part of a broader series of changes to bargaining, though the Greens, who hold key votes in the upper house, are wary of any alterations to it.
The Opposition is calling for further details about the proposed changes.
“We have real concerns about the drive towards areas of essentially collective bargaining that Labor is seeking to pursue in the way in which they are presenting some of these possible changes,” Liberal senator Simon Birmingham said.
“We haven’t seen the detail of the legislation and so we will work through that. But the real test for the government is that they claimed at of their Jobs and Skills Summit they were getting consensus and support across business and we’ll be looking to test with the business community whether they have actually achieved that consensus.”
Closing gender pay gap a ‘key objective’
Senior ministers have repeatedly said a major aim of the bill is to close the gender pay gap and better support workers in female-dominated professions.
In his statement, Mr Burke confirmed the legislation would ban pay secrecy clauses, so companies can’t prevent their staff from discussing their salaries.
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“These clauses have been used to conceal gender pay discrepancies,” the statement said.
“Banning them will improve transparency, reduce the risk of gender pay discrimination and empower women to ask their employers for pay rises.”
The legislation will also establish two new Fair Work Commission panels — one on the Care and Community Sector and one on pay equity — make gender equity a central aim of the Fair Work Act, and put in place a statutory Equal Remuneration Principle.
Mr Burke’s statement said that last move would “make it easier for the Fair Work Commission to order pay increases for workers in low-paid female-dominated industries”.
“These measures add to legislation we have already introduced to establish 10 days of paid family and domestic violence leave,” the statement said.
“The government will announce further measures from the Secure Jobs, Better Pay Bill before its introduction later this month.”