One rate to cover all in IR reforms

Attorney-General Christian Porter. Picture: Getty Images
Attorney-General Christian Porter. Picture: Getty Images

Employers would be allowed to pay a single, higher rate to retail, hospitality and restaurant workers and the Fair Work Commission would be required to approve enterprise agreements within 21 days under industrial relations changes being finalised by the Morrison government.

Employer and union sources said the government was also proposing to set the same wage and conditions for the construction lifeline of new major projects worth more than $500m.

The “life of project” agreements would also be allowed for projects of lesser value if they were deemed to be of national significance and create jobs.

Employers and union sources familiar with the government’s industrial relations omnibus bill, due to go to cabinet this week and to be released next week, said the Coalition was proposing a ­“loaded rates” schedule be ­attached to four awards covering workers in retail, hospitality, restaurants and licensed clubs.

Under the proposal, an employer could pay a single higher hourly rate rather than have to work out a range of rates, including penalty rates and allowances that might apply. To address public concern about any impact on workers, sources said the proposal would contain an undertaking that no worker would be worse off under the arrangement.

In a bid to boost enterprise bargaining and speed up the agreement-making, the commission would be required to fast-track approval of agreements voted up by a majority of employees and submitted to the tribunal,

Sources said it was proposed that commission members would generally have 21 days to approve an agreement.

However, this deadline could be extended if there were exceptional circumstances.

Changes will be made to the Fair Work Act’s better-off-overall test, as flagged recently by Scott Morrison, to prevent approval of agreements being held up on technical grounds.

Sources said the changes were also designed to frustrate the ability of the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union to delay the approval of agreements involving major employers.

Union and employer sources said the government had proposed “life of project” agreements would be able to be applied to ­projects in excess of $500m. ­Employers want the change because they say it will prevent ­industrial action and provide certainty to investors.

The government will propose a new definition of casual employment but sources indicated the Coalition had shifted from an earlier proposal to allow conversion from casual to permanent employment after nine months. Employers and union figures said they now believed conversion would cut in after 12 months. The bill will be introduced into parliament next week and be subject to a Senate inquiry, meaning it will not come to a vote until next year.

Employers expressed support for most of the changes but described them as incremental. Unions have not reached consensus with the government on the changes and have signalled they will campaign against amendments to the better-off-overall test. In a recent email to union members, Ms McManus said the current test ensured employers could not cut wages or working conditions below minimum standards. “The employer lobby groups are hoping that this seemingly minor change will be easily passed through the parliament early next year,” she wrote.

“(They) are hoping that workers and the community who relied on workers to carry Australia through the pandemic — will ignore this change … (that) you won’t care and they are given even more power. I’m asking you to prove them wrong.”

Attorney-General Christian Porter declined to comment