Since AIER released our election analysis last week there have been some further relevant announcements on workplace related issues. These announcements confirm our conclusions that a Coalition government would shift workplace regulation further away from the principles espoused in the Charter of Employment Rights, while the policies of Labor and the Greens better reflect the Charter principles.
For an election called on the basis of an industrial relations issue – the reintroduction of the ABCC – and one full of policy and rhetoric on jobs, there has been little of substance said about work. As we noted before, Labor and the Coalition are utilising their favoured tropes: threats to penalty rates and threats of rampant and corrupt unionism. But beyond these tactics, there is a reluctance to engage in the pressing issues facing workers and employers in today’s changing economy.
The most recent policy announcement from the Coalition is to commit to implementing 48 of the 79 recommendations from the Trade Union Royal Commission. These further restrictions on freedom of association include:
- Legislate to allow the courts to ban officials of registered organisations from holding office where they repeatedly break the law;
- Enable courts to place registered organisations (or individual divisions or branches) in administration or deregister them if they become dysfunctional or are no longer serving the interests of their members;
- Introduce a new public interest test for mergers of registered organisations.
With three days left for voting day, the Coalition has yet to provide its response to the Productivity Commission’s Report. Remembering that the Productivity Commission’s Inquiry was the Coalition’s industrial relations policy last election. Its report was to form the basis of the Coalition’s policy this time around. Commentators have noted that the Coalition is going to the election without an industrial relations policy while at the same time former Prime Minister, John Howard, suggests if re-elected the Coalition might further deregulate IR calling it “unfinished business”. Given that the primary policies from the Coalition so far have been about greater regulation of unions, the deregulation referred to by Howard would be in the interests of business and the detriment of workers.
If the Coalition are successful in holding onto Government on Saturday, they will not control the Senate. Any attempts to reform industrial relations along the lines suggested by John Howard will be fiercely opposed by Labor and the Greens in the Senate. This leads us to consider the Nick Xenophon Team who are likely to win at east three Senate seats. Xenophon does not have an industrial relations policy, except to say he will respect the decision of the Fair Work Commission when it comes to penalty rates. It is fair to say NXT will take a centrist approach looking to support small business while acknowledging the role of unions in giving workers a voice. However, Xenophon did vote for the ABCC at the second reading and on past form cannot be relied upon to fully refute further “deregulation” attempts.
Labor has made a couple of significant announcements recently. Most importantly, they have announced a national universal licensing scheme for labour hire providers. This is a welcome initiative given the recent evidence of exploitation of labour hire workers. Key elements of the scheme include
- To gain and maintain a licence, labour hire companies will have to demonstrate that they comply with the Fair Work Act, occupational health and safety laws, immigration laws and that they are correctly paying superannuation and tax.
- Licences will only be granted to employers who are judged to be ‘fit and proper’ persons.
- Labour hire companies will be required to keep proper records to demonstrate their compliance with these requirements.
- It will be unlawful for companies to operate without a licence. It will also be unlawful for other firms to knowingly or recklessly use an unlicensed labour hire company.
Labor has also indicated it will examine the definition of “casual” work and will set an objective test for determining when a worker is “casual”. This is also a welcome development. AIER has long advocated for a proper definition of a casual worker that is related to the intermittency and irregularity of work.
Overall, the election has been very disappointing for the lack of attention paid to how we work and under what conditions. The Fair Work Act is increasingly irrelevant for many workers and is incapable of dealing with the challenges of an increasingly fragmented and insecure workforce. For example, without being prepared to grapple with rethinking enterprise bargaining in the age of ever more complicated supply chains and fragmented business models, workers will continue to lose out. At some point, however, we will need to move on from reductive messages on corrupt unions or fears of cuts to penalty rates and recalibrate how we regulate work to meet the needs of a changing workforce.