Casuals in frontline of jobs plan

Attorney-General Christian Porter. Picture: Britta Campion
Attorney-General Christian Porter. Picture: Britta Campion

Attorney-General Christian Porter will press the Senate crossbench to back a single package of industrial relations changes that increase the ability of casuals to convert to permanent employment, simplify awards in COVID-distressed industries and make it easier to have enterprise agreements approved.

The government will not announce any of the proposed changes in next week’s federal budget but intends to introduce an omnibus bill into parliament later this year before seeking passage through the Senate in early 2021. Employer groups put fresh proposals to the government on Thursday to rewrite the Fair Work Act’s better-off-overall test used to approve enterprise agreements, in a move seen by unions as a concession by business after a split over enterprise bargaining proposals.

Mr Porter said on Friday he did not have a firm position on the proposed new test but wanted “changes that make the enterprise agreement system simpler, more efficient, more attractive to employers and employees so that you have less reliance on awards and more reliance on enterprise agreements where there is higher wages and higher productivity”.

He said he had never expected employers and unions to be “cheering in the streets” about the proposals and had worked to ensure they did not generate “violent disagreement” because he wanted to increase their prospects of being backed by the Senate crossbench. “Legislation that can’t be moved through parliament doesn’t create any jobs,” he said.

Sources said employers had been agreeable to union-backed proposals to increase the capacity of casuals to apply for permanent employment, with both sides suggesting the government was looking at a nine-month period of employment when an application could be made.

Employers said their data did not support union arguments that a large percentage of casuals wanted to become permanent and they believed they would not face a large number of claims because the workers would prefer to keep their 25 per cent casual loading.

The proposed conversion clause is linked with the government’s intention to insert a new definition of casual employment into the Fair Work Act as a way to stop so-called “double dipping” claims that employers claim could cost billions of dollars.

Mr Porter said the lack of a casual definition was a huge problem and must be fixed to give employers, particularly small business, the confidence to employ workers.

The government is also proposing to simplify classifications and categories in awards covering an estimated 750,000 employees in the retail, hospitality, restaurant and cafe sectors.

“There’s no doubt there’s a lot of complications in that system. I think there’s also agreement on the employer side that no one wants anyone to be paid less but we do want simplification through the system,” Mr Porter said.

The changes were not a “silver bullet” for jobs growth but an important part of the armoury the government would rely on in the next six to 12 months.

“I think this package removes a whole lot of impediments to job growth,” Mr Porter said.

“If you don’t know you are employing someone as a casual when that’s your intention and therefore don’t know whether or not you might be subject to a claim for sick leave even though you have paid 25 per cent loading, that’s an impediment to job growth.

“If you find it difficult to categorise an employee in hospitality/restaurants, general retail, and they could fall into error as to how to pay them, that’s an impediment to job growth.

If we can’t get more enterprise agreements negotiated, that’s an impediment to productivity and jobs growth.”