2019 Federal Election:
What’s proposed for workplace relations?

With less than two weeks remaining of the federal election campaign we take this opportunity to look at what the major parties have proposed for workplace relations.

Find our comparison of major party policies here.

What is clear when looking at the major party platforms side by side is the stark difference of approach. The ALP have run a campaign squarely centered on workplace relations, described by Bill Shorten as a ‘referendum on wages’.  The Coalition government on the other hand have steered wide of workplace regulation preferring a message of jobs and taxes; more jobs, lower taxes.

The call for a living wage has been front and centre of the ALP campaign, the concept pulled from the 1907 Sunshine Harvester case in which Justice H B Higgins set out that a ‘fair and reasonable’ wage was one that maintained the ‘frugal comfort’ of the worker. That full-time workers are remunerated sufficiently to meet the ‘normal needs of the average…human being living in a civilised society’ is a central tenet of work with dignity which sits at the heart of the principles set out by the Australian Charter of Employment Rights.

The ALP living wage proposal is just one in a suite of actions designed to boost wages in response to stagnant wage growth in Australia. As noted in the recent Open Letter on the Benefits of Promoting Faster Wage Growth, signed by 124 Australian labour market researchers, wages have only been growing at around 2% per year since 2015, representing the ‘slowest sustained rate of wage growth since the end of the Second World War’.

The Coalition approach has been to lower income tax, and cost of living expenses and stimulate the economy through job creation. Recently Scott Morrison made much of his party’s efforts in creating 1.2 million jobs since 2013. The quality of these jobs has however been called into question by research conducted by the Centre for Future Work noting almost half these jobs were part-time. Indeed increasing numbers of Australian workers identify as underemployed and are engaged in casual or precarious forms of work.

The case for broader reform
Our workplace relations system has remained unresponsive in the face of technological, economic, and societal change, resulting in wage stagnation, increasing inequality and the declining economic and political power of labour. Australia is being driven further and further from the fair and egalitarian society we aspire to be.

The nature and significance of the challenges we face demands the broad reconceptualisation of our system; compromising for politically palatable solutions and tinkering around the edges with minor reform simply cannot resolve the systemic nature of the problem. The landscape in which our labour laws and workplace relations system were crafted bears little resemblance to that in which we live and work today, a new architecture is required not only to respond to emerging challenges but to create a system robust in design that can get ahead of changes to work by setting a principled structure of rights and obligations for all workers. In response the AIER is working on a project to develop a New Workplace Relations Architecture.

Whilst neither major party has committed to reforming our workplace relations system a number of proposals have been made that do start to address some of the broader systemic issues.

Baby-steps to a rights based model

In lieu of, or perhaps on the way to, broader systemic change the AIER has previously called for a statutory definition of ’employment’, drawing on the definition contained in the Superannuation Guarantee Act or else a presumption of employment following the test set out by Justice Bromberg in On-Call Interpreters. Broadening the concept of ’employment’ in such a way so as to capture those workers providing their labour to the business of another with no true entrepreneurial enterprise of their own would go some way to addressing the increasing number of employees being left outside the protection of our labour law system.

The increasing casualisation of work is another key concern for the AIER. Last year the Senate Select Committee on the Future of Work and Workers reported that almost 60% of casual employees have been in their current roles for longer than one year, and 17% of casual employees had been engaged in their current role for more than five years. The AIER supports the introduction of a clear statutory definition of ‘casual’ work, echoing the common law position and restricting casual employment to appointments that are genuinely irregular, uncertain, intermittent and short term.

Both the ALP and Greens have adopted policies to address the coverage of the system, tighten the law around sham contracting and address the issue of the ‘regular casual’ employment.

Our full comparison of major party policies can be found here.