Opposition industrial relations spokesman Tony Burke will announce on Tuesday that the party will seek to partner with Senate crossbenchers on a disallowance motion to reverse the government’s slashing of the staff voting period for agreement changes from seven days to just 24 hours.
Minister for Industrial Relations Christian Porter made the temporary changes through regulation last week to allow for rapid responses to the coronavirus crisis and help businesses save jobs.
However, Mr Burke said the move tipped the balance in favour of employers and was open to all businesses, not just those experiencing a significant downturn.
“And while the new regulation itself is set to expire after six months, the changes made to enterprise agreements under this new regulation will remain in place after the current crisis ends,” he said.
“That means workers could consent to a cut to pay and conditions during the crisis – but then find those cuts persist on the other side, unless there’s another vote to vary the agreement.”
The government changes have enraged the Australian Council of Trade Unions, which says it was not properly consulted, and Labor has accused Mr Porter of undermining the goodwill between unions and employers.
‘We cannot stand by’: Burke
Employer groups, including the Business Council of Australia, had strongly pushed for the change to allow for delays or cancellations of pay rises, remove restrictions on part-time work, increase flexible hours and introduce more rights to direct employees to take leave.
The earliest Labor could move a disallowance motion would be in May when the government has flagged that Parliament will sit for two days.
However, the motion needs an absolute majority, defined as 50 per cent plus one, which would require the support of One Nation and Centre Alliance.
Mr Burke said Labor would “work constructively with the crossbench to achieve this outcome”.
“We cannot stand by and watch the government use this crisis as an excuse to diminish workers’ rights.”
Centre Alliance flags support
The Greens leader, Adam Bandt, already announced on Friday that the party would seek a disallowance motion to reverse the regulation.
“The Australian people are prepared to give the government latitude to fight a health emergency, but this doesn’t give them licence to take away rights for the long term,” he said.
He said “workers will be put under extreme pressure to agree in a day to changes that could last for years”.
“There is no evidence this change is needed, especially given the high degree of co-operation witnessed during this crisis.”
Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick told The Australian Financial Review his preliminary view was that one day was “unreasonable” and suggested a slightly longer time frame was better.
“If your EA was to be changed and you were given 24 hours that doesn’t give you time to ask questions, to seek advice, perhaps to raise concerns and you may only be accessing that agreement at 7pm when you return from the office – so you might have lost 12 hours in the first place.”
One Nation senator and industrial relations spokesman Malcolm Roberts said the party supported increased flexibility but that workers should have “enough time to be fully informed”.
Senator Jacqui Lambie said that concern over the government’s changes “make sense” but she would not take “marching orders from the unions”.
“If there’s evidence to back up the need for the legislative instrument I want to see it,” she said.
“But if this is one of those situations that seems to be happening more and more, where the Greens care more about getting the headline than getting the result, then I’m not going to back them on a rushed disallowance motion.”
Mr Porter has promised to review the changes in two months to ensure they are not misused.