Thursday, 29 October 2020
Questions without Notice
COVID-19: Workplace Relations
My question is to the Attorney-General and the Minister for Industrial Relations. Will the Attorney outline to the House how Australia's unique approach to building a more cooperative industrial relations system is designed to find unique solutions to support our economic recovery from the COVID-19 recession?
I thank the member for his question and for his great service to our country in his previous role. As the member notes, our industrial system in Australia is very unique, and with that uniqueness comes unique benefits, but also some very particular and unique problems that have developed over time in Australia. Many of the benefits of the system are obvious. That OECD notes that Australia has the highest minimum wage in the world. And we know our system of awards sits over the minimum wage. We know that over the award system and award payments sit enterprise agreements. We know that the enterprise agreement system was designed and described by Paul Keating as trying to move people away from awards onto enterprise agreements, where there are higher wages and higher productivity. But the system is also complex and, at times, operates very, very inflexibly. That's why the government took changes to the Fair Work Act to this parliament, on an emergency basis, alongside the JobKeeper payments, to build flexibilities in.
While we're talking about delivery today, it might be worth mentioning again what I mentioned yesterday: those emergency changes to the Fair Work Act, which are some of the greatest reforms to that act in a decade or so, saved hundreds of thousands of jobs—500,000 businesses said that those changes were either important or essential to maintaining their operation during the COVID-19 pandemic. That delivery saved hundreds of thousands of jobs. It occurs to us as a government that if flexibilities could save hundreds of thousands of jobs during the COVID pandemic then reasonable, sensible flexibilities that are generated on a cooperative basis can also help grow jobs as we come out of the pandemic. And the unique problems? Well, there is no definition of 'casual employee' in the Fair Work Act, even though so much turns on the distinction between a casual or a permanent part-time employee.
The enterprise bargaining approval process has become incredibly technical and rigid and is not used anywhere near enough. One example of a very inflexible rule is around part-time employment. For instance, in the general retail award you can have a situation that arises often where an employer might want to provide more hours to a part-time employee and the employee might want to work more hours but the current award rule means that the offer is, in practical terms, never actually made, because there's no flexibility that allows an employee and an employer to agree the terms on which that would occur, outside a very narrow range. And through our many working groups we've heard from people who have said, from both the employer side and the employee side, that this plays out with regard to a number of awards: vehicles, clerks, fitness and many others. Work is not offered and work can't be done, because of the inflexibility of the system, and these are things that we need to deal with.