The next wave of changes to Australia’s industrial relations landscape rolled out this week. If you blinked you could miss it, so we’re here to take you through the changes.
What we’ve seen so far:
We’ve been covering the Secure Jobs, Better Pay bill since the start of this year. The first of these changes was rolled out in December 2022, which has so far seen steps towards prohibiting pay secrecy clauses which have entrenched gender inequality in several key industries.
It also saw breastfeeding, gender identity and intersex status all recognised as protected attributes under the Fair Work Act, and implemented several key recommendations of the Respect@Work report, legislating that employers could be held liable for sexual harassment in their workplaces.
On 6 February we saw the abolition of the union-busting Australian Building and Construction Commission, an Abbott-era outfit designed to tackle what employer lobbyists claimed to be existential threats to their industry… construction workers flying flags and wearing union stickers on their helmets. In all seriousness, the ABCC also issued more than $16m in fines against a single union in its short history, a level of punishment vastly disproportionate with the standard employers are held to for workplace injuries. This was designed solely to have a chilling effect on unions trying to prevent workplace injuries and deaths. As you’re reading this, 50 Australian workers have been killed at work this year. The human cost of the millions thrown at anti-union witch hunts under the previous Government, instead of holding employers who put profit over life to account, is nothing to laugh about.
(A reminder that Tasmania remains the last jurisdiction in Australia that has yet to legislate, or is actively moving towards legislating industrial manslaughter laws).
Giving the Commission Power to Resolve (Some) Disputes
From 6 June, the Commission has new powers to intervene to resolve disputes around flexible working arrangements, and extension of unpaid parental leave.
While workers in the Tasmanian Industrial Commission expect an ability for the independent umpire to step in and resolve disputes, this is not the case for our Federal system. The Fair Work system has attracted criticism from the International Labour Organisation on several grounds. While it heavily restricts workers’ civil liberties to take collective action in response to breaches of their employment agreements, the Fair Work Commission itself also lacks many basic powers to settle despites outside of the period of bargaining for a new agreement. Together, these factors combine to produce a system that heavily tips the scales in favour employers’ interests. This week’s changes are a small step in the right direction.
This week we also welcome changes to parental leave, extending the unpaid portion of leave and giving families more choice in how to take it. Flexible unpaid parental leave now increases from 30 to 100 days, and pregnant workers can take some of their unpaid leave starting six weeks prior to the expected date of birth. It also lifts restrictions that previously prevented couples from taking more than eight weeks’ unpaid parental leave at the same time.
From births after 1 July, partnered couples will be able to claim up to 20 weeks’ paid parental leave between them. Parents who are single at the time of their claim can access the full 20 weeks. This removes the need to take PPL in one block directly after the birth or placement of a child, opening up the options of:
- A single block
- Multiple smaller blocks
- Single Days
- A combination of the above
From 6 June we see changes to how agreements are made in the Fair Work system, including increased access to multi-employer bargaining through, single-interest bargaining, supported bargaining, and cooperative bargaining.
Unions are wasting no time in taking up these important reforms. Excitingly, this week the United Workers Union, Allied Education Union and Independent Education Union jointly filed an historic test-case for a new national agreement for early childhood workers.
Together they are seeking a multi-enterprise agreement covering 60 employers, 12,000 workers, and calling for a 25% pay increase for early childhood teachers and educators, some of the historically lowest care workers in our community.
Recovering Unpaid Entitlements
From 1 July, the monetary cap for recovering unpaid entitlements from the small claims process will increase from $20,000 to $100,000 – giving workers more avenues to get justice from employers that shirk their responsibilities. Unions continue to work with a range of worker-friendly law firms to provide no-win-no-fee arrangements to support workers to pursue these avenues for getting justice.
From 6 December we’ll see major changes to how Fixed Term Contracts operate to prevent employers abusing insecure employment. The changes will disallow Fixed Term Contracts longer than two years (including extensions), and may only be extended once. Employers will be prevented by circumventing these rules by disallowing contracts that are the same (or a substantially similar) role as a previous contract.