The Guardian • Issue #2024

Multi-employer bargaining key to improving working conditions: ACOSS and ACTU

Photo: Ethan Parsa – (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) has joined with the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) to call on the Albanese government to implement a policy aimed at “achieving and sustaining full employment” following the recent Jobs and Skills Summit.

The agreement defines full employment to mean that “people can obtain the jobs and paid working hours they need, the quality of jobs and real income levels are improving along with productivity, and the benefits are fairly shared.” It canvasses a range of measures aimed at improving social security, removing barriers to labour market participation, and improving the federal workplace relations system.

The agreement also recognises that the issues of employment and social security are intimately linked. First Nations people, women, people living with a disability, and those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds face systemic barriers to labour market participation.

In the context of depressed wages and labour shortages in key sectors (such as the care and education sectors), coupled with skyrocketing rents and the inability of wages or social security to keep up with the cost of living, big changes are needed to enable workers to win better wages and conditions.

Key to improving wages and conditions for workers – especially those in the care sector – is the legalisation of multi-employer bargaining. ACTU Secretary Sally McManus pointed out that conditions have changed in the care sector and so the sector’s approach to bargaining must change too:

“Workers across the community and disability sectors have been locked out of collective bargaining because it just does not work and was never designed for them. The sector is dependent on government funding and it is ridiculous to think workers can negotiate at individual workplaces.”

Multi-employer bargaining (sometimes called pattern bargaining) enables workers in a sector to negotiate an enterprise agreement with multiple employers at the same time, standardising conditions across the sector. This is currently illegal under the Fair Work Act, but despite the illegality the practice continues in heavily unionised sectors like construction.

The current industrial relations system has worked hard at undermining collective agreements and limiting the power of workers to deal with issues collectively. The ruling class knows that individually, workers are powerless. 

It is no surprise why. Empirical research shows that in sectors where pattern bargaining occurs, wages increases are higher on average than in those where it does not occur. ACOSS and the ACTU argue that the care sector is one of the areas in desperate need of an improvement in wages and conditions, and multi-employer bargaining is the way we will win:

“We need a fairer and simpler system of enterprise bargaining that could allow organisations to bargain together in multi-enterprise agreements to reach outcomes that better support care and community organisations and their employees. This must be underpinned by public funding arrangements that leave neither employers nor workers out of pocket.”

There are many more mechanisms that could be implemented to make the industrial relations system work for the working class, but the agreement summed it up neatly: “[i]t should be fair and simple.”

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