ALP to overhaul workplace laws

The Australian, July 29, 2017

Federal Labor is devising a package of proposed changes to the ­nation’s workplace laws, including tougher measures to combat ­deliberate underpayment of workers, greater regulation of ­labour-hire arrangements and a crackdown on sham contracting.

Facing an aggressive campaign from unions that claim the current industrial relations system is “broken­”, opposition workplace relations spokesman Brendan O’Connor said yesterday the changes were needed because the Fair Work Act had not kept pace with changes in the labour market.

“When we repealed Work Choices and enacted the Fair Work Act when last in government, we righted one of the biggest wrongs to Australian workers in our history,’’ he said.

“But from the vantage point of hindsight it’s clear that the labour market throughout the last couple of decades has been changing in such a way that there needs to be greater reform to our industrial ­relations laws.”

As hairdressers yesterday joined restaurants, cafes and clubs in a new push to cut Sunday penalty­ rates, unions will today put forward a series of motions at the NSW ALP conference calling for increased entitlements and protections for workers.

But while Mr O’Connor virtual­ly ruled out federal Labor supporting union calls to jail employers­ for “wage theft’’, he pledged to consult employers, ­unions and workers over changes that Labor will include in a revised workplace relations policy to be taken to the next federal election.

“The difference between us and the current government is we will sit around a table with unions, workers and employers — they won’t,’’ he said.

“We are talking about regulating labour hire to stop abuse, we are talking preventing sham contracting where people pretend someone is a company when, in fact, their real relationship is an employment one, and looking at prosecuting people who deliber­ately phoenix companies.’’

Mr O’Connor pledged Labor would seek to go further than measures proposed by the ­Coalition to tackle exploitation of workers and the deliberate underpayment of employees.

In the wake of underpayment controversies involving companies such as 7-Eleven and Pizza Hut, Employment Minister Michaelia Cash announced in March that franchisees would face a tenfold ­increase in penalties for the deliberate and systematic underpayment of employees. But the government has delayed a vote on the bill following a backlash from employers who claim the proposed new laws making head offices liable for the underpayment of workers by franchisees could discourage investment and send some small businesses to the wall.

Mr O’Connor said it was extraordinary there was “nothing in the parliament” two years after the ­7-Eleven scandal broke.

“From what we know of the bill, it won’t go far enough and it may not lead to deterring future underpayments,’’ he said.

As well as proposing “significant amendments’’ to the bill, Mr O’Connor said, Labor would ­devise further legislative measures to increase the prospect of prosecuting employers for intentional systemic underpayments.

A conference motion by the Transport Workers Union and Unions NSW is expected to pass today, committing the NSW ALP to introducing jail terms for employ­ers that refuse to pay correct wages and super to their staff.

The motion proposes that laws be changed to make it a criminal ­offence when employers “knowingly, recklessly or repeatedly underpay their staff”.

A similar motion was passed by the Labor Party in Victoria in May and TWU national secretary Tony Sheldon said Labor should support the move federally.

“When an employer refuses to pay the correct rates, allowances or superannuation, the worst that can happen is that the Fair Work Ombudsman asks them to pay it back,’’ he said.

“This is not a deterrent, it’s an invitation to see what you can get away with. Billions of dollars are being taken out of ­employees’ pay cheques every year through unpaid wages and superannuation.”

But Mr O’Connor indicated federal Labor would not back jail terms for employers that ­engaged in wage theft.

“Federal Labor will be very cautious about shifting what are normally civil matters into the criminal jurisdiction,’’ he said.

Unions are also pushing for the ALP to support 10 days of domestic violence leave for workers. While federal Labor has committed to five days’ leave, NSW unions­ want the entitlement doubled and the right enshrined in the National Employment Standards.

The Australian Industry Group moved yesterday to pursue cuts to Sunday and public holiday penalty rates on behalf of the hair and beauty industry.

Ai Group chief executive Innes Willox said the commission had previously highlighted that the hair and beauty industry had some characteristics similar to the retail and hospitality industries, in which Sunday and public holiday penalties were cut.

The ACTU’s secretary, Sally Mc­Man­us, said the employer move confirmed union legal advice­ that the commission’s decision cutting penalty rates opened the door to cuts in other industries.

“Any employer group who seeks to take advantage of Malcolm­ Turnbull’s green light to ­attack penalty rates will have a fight on its hands,’’ she said.