- by Anna Pha
- The Guardian
- Issue #1950
Labor Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese raised the expectations of many in the trade union movement with his announcement of Labor’s Secure Australian Jobs Plan on 10th February of Labor’s industrial relations (IR) reforms. He talked about the first eight elements of Labor’s Plan, suggesting there are more to come:
- “Job security” explicitly inserted into the Fair Work Act (FWA)
- Rights for gig economy workers through the Fair Work Commission (FWC)
- Portable entitlements for workers in insecure industries
- Casual work properly defined in law
- A crackdown on cowboy labour-hire firms to guarantee same job, same pay
- A cap on back-to-back short-term contracts
- More secure public sector jobs by ending inappropriate temporary contracts
- Government contracts to companies and organisations that offer secure work for their employees.
He also promised the abolition of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) and the Registered Organisations Commission (ROC), and to safeguard the legislated incremental increases in employer superannuation contributions to twelve per cent.
The defeat of the Coalition at the next elections would provide an opportunity to replace the Coalition’s anti-worker, anti-union legislation with laws that protect workers’ and trade union rights.
Albanese pointed to the growth in numbers and different forms of insecure employment and promised to legislate to make “job security” a key objective of the FWA. The FWC would be required “to bring a sharp focus to job security when making decisions about your rights at work.” He made particular reference to the “on demand,” gig economy workers, whose wages and working conditions were well below those of other workers covered by the formal industrial relations structures.
Importantly, he said Labor would do this by extending the powers of the FWC to include “employee-like forms of work,” allowing the Commission to make orders for minimum standards in new forms of work. There is no indication as to what the nature of these standards would be or suggestion that they would extend to trade union rights.
It is not clear whether other forms such as labour hire would be covered.
The Communist Party of Australia (CPA) calls for “on demand” forms of work to be replaced with secure, permanent work which carries with it the statutory wages and working conditions that apply to other workers.
Access to basic entitlements
Albanese correctly points to the “confronting revelations” that emerged during the pandemic of how many workers were casuals, contractors or gig workers, with no right to paid sick leave. “Far too many Australians had to choose between supporting their own family or playing it safe for the country,” he said.
As a result, low-waged casuals working several jobs, one of which was in the aged care sector, spread the coronavirus between centres as they went from job to job. These workers not only need basic entitlements such as paid sick and annual leave, but also secure work and a wage commensurate with their skills and responsibilities. If this was the case, they would not need more than one job.
Albanese promised to take a national approach, to develop, “where it is practical,” portable entitlements for annual leave, sick leave, and long service leave for Australians in insecure work. Which insecure forms of work does Labor intend to cover with such measures? What about superannuation and workers’ compensation contributions? These questions were not answered in his speech.
There is already a model for portable long service leave in the building and construction industry. What is not clear here is what is meant by “where it is practical.”
The CPA calls for ALL workers to be entitled to all forms of leave, the compulsory superannuation guarantee, and workers’ compensation cover, whether in secure or non-secure employment. Secure, ongoing employment should be the norm except where good reasons exist for a contract, such as filling in for a worker on parental leave or seasonal work.
“Abolition” of ABCC and ROC
The original ABCC was the brainchild of the Howard government with Tony Abbott, as Workplace Relations Minister, established it in 2005.
In 2012, the Gillard Labor government rebranded it as the Fair Work Building and Construction (FWBC) or more formally the Office of the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate. At the same time, Labor made a few changes to the ABCC, such as to the process of issuing summonses and reducing penalties by a substantial amount. In essence, the “former” ABCC remained largely in place. Trade unions and workers in the industry continued to be hounded, brought before the courts, and fined as before.
On becoming Prime Minister in 2013, Tony Abbott wasted no time taking to parliament legislation to restore and enhance the former ABCC. The bill, amongst other things, increased penalties ten-fold. It eventually passed in December 2016, under the leadership of Malcolm Turnbull following a double dissolution.
In reality, the ABCC was NOT abolished as promised but amended, although Labor’s changes are often referred to as if it were abolished. Evidence of this can be found on the ABCC’s website makes this clear. (abcc.gov.au, “History of the agency”)
This raises the question: What does Albanese mean when he says “abolish?” Likewise, for the union-hounding ROC, another piece of Abbott legislation. Will it be torn up or rebranded with a few amendments?
It is in the interests of all workers and trade unions that the legislation creating the ABCC and the ROC is repealed, not amended.
As far as it goes, Albanese’s commitment to public servants is good: “We will call time on the relentless outsourcing, off-shoring and short-term contracting that has undercut the capacity of departments to do their jobs and undermined the frontline services Australians rely on. […] We will conduct an audit of employment within the Australian Public Service and, as a model employer, take steps to create more secure employment where temporary forms of work are being used inappropriately.”
What about the average staffing level (ASL) cap that has been imposed on public agencies? The ASL counts full and part-time employees, as well as casuals in the cap but not labour hire, incentivising public agencies to use labour hire more often. Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) National Secretary Melissa Donnelly noted recently that since 2013, more than 12,000 jobs have been cut from the APS as a result of the cap.
“We know that because of this staffing cap there are around 20,000 workers on labour hire in the APS. In fact, in some agencies over forty per cent of their workforce are staffed with workers who are not directly employed but are contracted through labour hire companies,” she said.
Creating secure and permanent jobs is important, but will Labor also increase the number of jobs in the public service and government agencies, a pre-condition to restoring services to their previous levels? And will they do something about the cap?
Is a time-consuming and costly audit really necessary? The public sector unions are in a position to tell Labor now what is required, so that the additional necessary jobs and reforms could be created quickly following the election.
Labor, Albanese says, will also ensure that government purchases of goods and services are from companies and organisations “that are themselves providers of good, secure jobs.”
Albanese is silent on the Coalition government’s decision to cap wage rises to the average in the private sector. Public sector employees need a real wage rise to make up for years of cuts.
Today one in four workers in Australia are employed as casuals, even though they may be carrying out ongoing work. Casual employment is abused by employers who are not required to meet all of the entitlements that other workers receive – paid leave provisions, workers’ compensation coverage, superannuation payments, etc. The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that thirty-four per cent of employers do not meet their obligation to pay the twenty-five per cent casual loading to compensate for this.
Labor is promising a test to determine when a worker can be classified as casual. Albanese does not provide any details of what this might entail. He says, “[…] Labor’s plan can be summarised in one simple phrase: same job, same pay.” This could be made stronger by adding, “same entitlements, same rights.”
Albanese says that workers employed through labour hire companies would receive at least the same pay as workers employed directly. This is a very important commitment, one that would be of great benefit to workers in mining, construction and a number of other industries. Are other workers in other forms of employment being offered the same protection? Does it extend beyond wages to other entitlements? These questions remain unanswered.
Albanese has signalled that more provisions of Labor’s Plan are still to be released.
The Communist Party of Australia calls on Labor, as a minimum, to include the following IR reforms in its plan which are in the interests of workers:
- Legislate for trade unions to take industrial reaction when and how they determine through their democratic structures. Without this right, workers cannot fight to defend and improve wages and conditions or enforce safety measures.
- Outlaw employer lockouts as they swing the balance of power to the employers and deny workers their right to collectively bargain and take industrial action. This is a powerful weapon being used more often than ever. Australian employers have powers to impose lockouts not found in any other OECD country.
- Trade union officials should have unfettered right of entry to workplaces without having to jump through hoops or risk losing their permit, as well as the right to organise.
- Secondary boycotts and trade union and community pickets be made legal
- Flexibility clauses should not be allowed in enterprise agreements, awards or any other employment instrument.
- Modern awards must be updated in line with increases in wages and conditions found in awards, with the minimum wage increased to become a living wage with regular adjustments.
- The focus should be on union-negotiated agreements that are industry based.
The plan so far is a step in the right direction but lacks detail, and there are glaring omissions such as those as indicated above. It is important that these are brought to the attention of Labor MPs and a campaign waged for such basic rights as the right to take industrial action, industry-wide bargaining, the outlawing of employer lockouts, the ongoing updating of awards, and comprehensive entitlements for ALL workers regardless of employment form.
The CPA says: Same job, same pay, same entitlements, same rights!