Wide-ranging changes to industrial relations laws around casual work have sparked concerns among union groups, with fears precarious workers will be further disadvantaged.
The federal government’s much-anticipated IR legislation hasn’t been properly introduced to the parliament yet, or even been seen in full by anyone, but it’s already setting the stage for a brutal fight in the last Canberra sitting week of 2020.
Attorney-General and Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter will reveal the sprawling omnibus bill to parliament later this week, but the government is gradually rolling out its workplace changes day by day.
On Sunday it released plans to allow merged unions such as the CFMMEU to de-merge; Monday was the scene for proposed changes that Mr Porter said would give casuals greater protections and ability to transition to permanent employment.
“These are significant reforms which together will solve the problem of uncertainty, provide better avenues for job security, remove the burden of double-dipping claims and recognise employee choice,” Mr Porter said.
He said the new laws will also create “very strict rules” for casual conversion, so casuals who work regular shift patterns can move – if desired – to part-time or full-time employment after 12 months.
But Labor’s shadow industrial relations minister Tony Burke warned it was an “attack on casuals”.
“Don’t buy the government’s spin on what they’re doing with industrial relations with today’s announcement,” he said.
“Today is one of the biggest gaps you’ll ever see between announcement and delivery. The government announces as though they’re helping casuals – what they’re actually doing is taking rights away from casuals.”
Labor still hasn’t seen the legislation but when you look closely at the reports it seems this is another example where the spin of the government announcement is the opposite of the delivery.
— Tony Burke (@Tony_Burke) December 6, 2020
Mr Burke complained Labor “don’t have the full legislation yet” but said it was concerned casuals would lose rights to complain about employers who failed to pass on full entitlements.
“The rights that casuals have won over the last couple of years in the courts will be taken away by legislation to be introduced to this parliament. At the end of this, casuals will have fewer rights,” he said.
“What’s worse, employers who break the law will no longer suffer a penalty … casuals lose their rights and employers walk away without any penalty.”
The Australian Council of Trade Unions claimed the Coalition’s proposal was a concession “to the most radical elements of the business lobby”. ACTU secretary Sally McManus claimed the changes would actually make it harder for casuals to convert to permanent work.
“This proposal takes rights off casual workers, some of the hardest hit people during the pandemic,” she said.
“It gives employers what they have asked for, that ability to legally label someone a casual, even if they are hired for a permanent, ongoing job.”
“This is a huge, missed opportunity to begin to make jobs more secure and turn around the number of causal and insecure jobs. Instead, this proposal will entrench casual work.”
But Mr Porter said the bill came after 150 hours of consultation with business and union groups.
The legislation will also address concerns from the government about so-called “double-dipping”, where employers might have to pay sick leave and other leave as well as the 25 per cent casual loading meant to compensate for those benefits.
This comes after a recent controversial workplace judgment in the Federal Court. Labour-hire company Workpac was found to owe entitlements such as holiday pay, plus the 25 per cent loading, to workers classed as casuals who worked regular and predictable shifts.
The government’s proposal will ensure employers do not have to pay such entitlements twice. Mr Porter said the bill was aimed at preventing “confusion” among employers who were unclear about what entitlements they needed to pay.
“We cannot do nothing when we have a situation where employers are delaying making hiring decisions because of ongoing confusion about the legal status of casual employment,” Mr Porter said.
Double-dipping “is a huge concern”, Australian Industry Group CEO Innes Willox told Sky News on Monday.
IR laws set up parliamentary fight
The legislation to be introduced on Wednesday will cover three areas.
It will introduce the statutory definition of casual employment in the Fair Work Act, which will include employment being offered without any firm advance commitment that the work will continue indefinitely and follow an agreed pattern of work.
“Our definition of casual employment is likely broader than some business groups had wanted,” Mr Porter said.
“Unions are likely to say we should have made the definition broader still, suggesting to me that we have struck the right balance on this issue and delivered a fair and equitable outcome that will benefit both workers and employers.”
But Labor turned the ‘double-dipping’ claims back on the government.
“If an employer tries to take the reliability of a permanent roster but only offers the insecurity of casual work, it’s the employer who is double-dipping,” Mr Burke said.
“The government proposal would overturn the current cases, which had protected workers where labour hire was causing casual workers to be paid less than the permanent workers doing the exact same job.”
Mr Burke wouldn’t confirm if Labor would formally block the laws in the Senate, saying the opposition wanted to see the full legislation. But he said it wouldn’t allow it to be rushed through parliament before it rose at the end of this week.