Small business calls for unfair dismissal moratorium

A key small business group has called for unfair dismissal claims to be paused during the coronavirus crisis and temporary changes to workplace rules to become permanent, arguing union concessions expose the system’s inflexibility.

Council of Small Business Organisations Australia (COSBOA) chief executive Peter Strong praised Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus for co-ordinating greater flexibility in some awards to save jobs but argued the temporary changes were an admission the current rules don’t work.

COSBOA’s Peter Strong says small business employers fear they could be hit by unfair dismissal claims. Pat Scala

“There’s all these businesses out there doing the absolute hard yards and we’ve got the leader of the unions now accepting that the system was broken,” he said.

“All it says is when we come out of this, we need to fix it up so it’s just flexible. We don’t want to have to go through this every time we have a problem.”

Mr Strong said COSBOA was urging a moratorium on unfair dismissal claims from March 1 to September 1 out of concerns that small businesses could be hit by vexatious claims arising from job losses during the crisis.

“Our fear is, after it’s all over, all these people [who are laid off or stood down] will go to unfair dismissal,” he said.

“Their employees could sue them and say you could have done something else, you could have kept me on and I want more backpay. It’s a real fear out there.”

However, unions have hit back at the business leader, accusing him of exploiting the crisis and calling for his comments to be withdrawn.

Our fear is, after it’s all over, all these people [who are laid off or stood down] will go to unfair dismissal.

Mr Strong’s comments came as Prime Minister Scott Morrison thanked Ms McManus for her “engagement in what is a very difficult time” and declared there were “no more bosses or unions … only Australians”.

ACTU president Michele O’Neil and secretary Sally McManus. Alex Ellinghausen

ACTU president Michele O’Neil said the union movement had “no tolerance whatsoever for any employers who would use this crisis to pursue old agendas”.

“On the day that the Prime Minister told the nation ‘there are no bosses’ and ‘only Australians’ and thanked workers and their unions for working for the common good during the crisis, a business representative has attempted to use the pandemic to radically undermine people’s rights at work by suggesting protections from being unfairly dismissed be removed,” she said.

She said business leaders needed to “work together to save lives and jobs”.

“This is not an opportunity to reduce working people’s rights and important protections. We ask Mr Strong to reconsider and withdraw his comments.”

Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry workplace director Scott Barklamb said employers should “focus on the time in front of us”.

“Employers have consistently maintained there are significant problems in the Fair Work Act and the award system,” he said.

“It may be this crisis reinforces this or gives us new opportunities to think about the system going forward, but employers and unions sat down together to negotiate specific crisis responses and they’re nothing more than that.”

Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter, SMH

Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter on Thursday praised unions and employer groups for working “co-operatively and quietly” on workplace changes that he said were “utterly critical to saving what I believe to be tens of thousands of jobs”.

“It probably is fair to say that there has been the type of change in three weeks inside the award system that you might otherwise wait 30 years to see,” he said.

The award deals, which did not involve COSBOA, saw temporary cuts to minimum hours and relaxation of classifications in hospitality so more people can work, as well as suspension of penalties so administrative staff can work irregular hours at home.

Mr Porter also praised Fair Work Commission president Iain Ross for “using his own motion power” to propose two weeks unpaid pandemic leave for 103 awards on Wednesday, as well as rights to take double annual leave at half pay.

The new entitlements, if not opposed, will cover almost 20 per cent of the workforce from next week. The construction industry has been excluded from the reforms at this stage.