Concern over government’s industrial relations bill

The federal government’s industrial relations legislation, particularly the multi-employer bargaining element, has caused concern amongst industry bodies.

The Senate inquiry into the Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Secure Jobs, Better Pay) Bill 2022 takes place this Friday, but organisations such as the Australian Association of Convenience Stores (AACS), the National Retailers Association (NRA), and Franchise Council of Australia (FCA), are concerned of the impact the proposed reforms will have on businesses.

One of the most contentious elements of the proposal is the expansion of multi-employer bargaining, which Lindsay Carroll, Acting CEO of the NRA, believes will be a backwards step for Australia’s industrial relations system.

“We are particularly concerned about the ‘one size fits all’ approach to enterprise bargaining. This would take Australia’s industrial relations system back to the 1980s – erasing the bold and successful reforms of the Hawke and Keating Labor Governments. Those Governments understood the fundamental need to link wage increases with productivity, in order to avoid driving higher and higher inflation.”

Carroll said that industry-wide bargaining provides no consideration for individual employees, no consideration for individual businesses, and imposes massive costs on those who otherwise would be happy to operate under the award system.

“The bill is designed to hand power to unions to shut down businesses with strikes across entire sectors. The Minister has boasted that it will drive wages growth. At a time when the Reserve Bank is trying to contain inflation, this bill would have the exact opposite effect. Industry-wide strikes and wage increases not linked to productivity gains can only lead to spiralling costs for businesses, which will flow through to higher prices for consumers.”

The bill is being passed through the lower house today with a large number of amendments, and Theo Foukkare, CEO of AACS, said the fact that business groups only received the 34 pages of amendments this morning gave them very little time to interpret and respond.

“AACS has been working with the offices of Senator Pocock and Senator Lambie directly over the last week to express our concerns, as the Government needs the support of the Senate to get this over the line. Currently, both Senators have significant reservations over similar parts of the IR bill as I do, and we are hoping that common sense prevails, and it doesn’t get through the Senate.”

Foukkare said that AACS will continue to advocate for its member’s best interests at all levels of government, however multi-employer bargaining as it stands in the proposed bill does not provide much in the form of protection for its members.

“Our members are already paying at the award, and in some cases much higher, given the desperate need to retain staff due to the tight labour market.”

Small businesses, under the Far Work Commission definition of 15 employees or less, will be exempt from the proposed bill, but Foukkare would like to see changes to that number.

“There are various definitions of what a small business is, and a lot of our members are small businesses and employ more than 15 staff. I would like to see this extended to 100 full-time employees to give our members more protection.”

The NRA is not opposed to single-employer enterprise bargaining and Carroll believes the current system strikes a good balance between improving wages and conditions for workers while giving businesses the flexibility they need to support those higher wages, and the introduction of multi-employer bargaining could be dangerous for convenience retail.

“Potentially the convenience industry could find itself being forced into an enterprise agreement with large supermarket chains, who have much more capacity to pay higher wages, and who may not be concerned about how the agreements they strike with unions will affect the rest of the industry. In fact, it could be used as a weapon against small players in any industry, including retail.”

Research conducted by the FCA saw that 68 per cent of franchisee small business respondents did not understand the proposed industrial relations changes or know how they might impact their business operations.

Of those who felt that they understood the proposed reforms, 55 per cent were concerned about the changes in the bill, particularly the multi-employer bargaining provisions.

Mary Aldred, CEO of the FCA, said the figures highlight the small business community’s strong degree of concern about the government’s proposed industrial relations changes.

“This Bill represents the most significant reforms ever introduced to the Fair Work Act. Given the potential impact on our economy, employers, and employees – the government should not rush the legislative process.

“This legislation was only publicly released on the 27th of October and the government has already circulated 150 amendments in response to community and business feedback. This demonstrates that a longer consultation and review process is required.”

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