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Business, unions divided on “dangerous” IR bill changes

The proposed industrial relations bill being debated this week has hit some resistance, with both the Labor party and the Australian Council of Trade Union’s voicing concern over some of the ‘business first’ bill’s changes.

The bill adds a clause that will allow the Fair Work Commission to approve enterprise agreements that don’t meet the ‘better off overall test’ – potentially allowing business to weaken conditions and pay for its staff – for a period of at least two years.

Additionally, the bill will remove the requirement that employees must have access to an agreement and have it properly explained to them before voting.

According to AFR business groups have applauded the move, but the Labor party has decided it will oppose the movement on the grounds it will negatively impact its middle Australia voter base.

ACTU secretary Sally McManus said the changes were “dangerous and extreme”, and could significantly weaken working conditions in Australia.

“[They] were never raised during months of discussions with employers and the Government. The union movement will fight these proposals which will leave working people worse off,” McManus said.

“This is not in the spirit of the talks with employers and the government, this is not about us all being in this together.”

Industrial relations minister Christian Porter said it made good sense for the FWC to be able to approve agreements that don’t meet the BOOT if there is genuine agreement between all parties – though he didn’t specify which parties would need to agree.

Porter also noted that putting a two-year time limit on the agreements would “ensure workers are not disadvantaged”.

However, while business groups welcomed the change to enterprise agreements, they have been less forgiving of the bill’s attempts to criminalise underpayments and increase civil penalties for non-compliance with workplace laws.

Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry CEO James Pearson said nobody wins if a business closes because of the size of a fine, or because the employer has been imprisoned.

“The whole community benefits when businesses grow and employ more staff. Conversely, if employers hold back from hiring or shut up shop because they are concerned about the risk they face of imprisonment, it will adversely affect the entire community,” Pearson said.

“It is crucial the government’s Omnibus legislation addresses the labyrinth of complexity in workplace laws including our modern awards, many of which cover industries which have been hardest hit by the pandemic, such as retail and food and accommodation.”

Pearson went on to state that most underpayments are due to misunderstanding awards, which can have multiple interpretations of entitlements.

AI Group chief executive Innes Wilcox said he opposes any criminal penalties for wage underpayments, but that if it is going to be included in the bill it must target business who deliberately and dishonestly underpay staff.

“The vast majority of underpayments are the result of the current overly complex IR system,” Wilcox said.

“Measured and incremental changes to the IR system are essential to support jobs growth during the recovery from the pandemic.”

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