Employers are pushing Scott Morrison to revive industrial relations changes giving them more power to cut employee hours and partially stand down workers during lockdowns, sparking condemnation from the union movement.
Chief executives from seven employer organisations called on the Prime Minister to revive the temporary workplace flexibilities that operated under JobKeeper, insisting that federal and state support measures were not enough for businesses to maintain their workforce numbers.
The changes that business wants the Coalition to reintroduce when federal parliament resumes on August 3 would allow employers to reduce the hours of workers, move workers from location to location or request they take annual leave.
ACTU president Michele O’Neil said employers wanted the power granted under JobKeeper to vary the hours and reduce the pay of workers but they were offering workers none of the protections or security JobKeeper provided.
Industrial Relations Minister Michaelia Cash on Wednesday ruled out reintroducing the changes at this stage but said the government would “monitor the situation”.
“It is important to recognise that when temporary measures were introduced to the IR system last year, they were done so in the context of when the country was facing sustained, economy-wide shutdowns that would require businesses to effectively go into hibernation,” Senator Cash said.
“Thanks to our effective health response and strong economic recovery, this is not the case now.
“The government will continue to monitor the situation and requirements of employers and employees.”
The employer groups, including the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Australian Industry Group, said the flexibilities were needed to support employers and employees “through the country’s latest, as well as any future, lockdowns”.
“It is clear that the federal and state government support measures, while absolutely crucial, are incomplete without temporary flexibilities in the Fair Work Act to allow businesses to operate in and trade out of lockdowns whilst maintaining employment,” the employers said.
“Businesses will be able to more readily maintain existing staffing levels if they are supported with the necessary workplace relations flexibilities.”
Employers said the 2020 changes contained appropriate safeguards negotiated with the union movement, and were familiar to industry.
“The provisions were essential in enabling employers to maintain a connection to their employees through a period when, absent of the provisions, many businesses would have become unviable.
“Australia’s industrial relations legislation needs to be part of the solution if financial support packages are to succeed.”
The statement was also endorsed by the Restaurant & Catering Industry Association, Australian Business Industrial, the Australian Retailers Association, the National Retail Association, and Master Builders Australia.
Ms O’Neil said the premature ending of JobKeeper in March was a big mistake. “We knew then that the pandemic wasn’t over, and that the failed vaccine rollout meant lockdowns weren’t either,” she said.
“If it wasn’t for the Morrison government’s vaccination rollout failure, the likelihood of ongoing lockdowns would be far lower.
“The government has a responsibility to working Australians to not cave to these demands from businesses, and instead to reinstate a revised JobKeeper 2.0 system that we know will work to protect jobs and support public safety.”
Senator Cash said if employers and employees believed extra flexibility were needed, she encouraged them to work together “through existing processes” with the same co-operative spirit they embraced in 2020.
“For example, at the beginning of the pandemic, parties worked collaboratively with the Fair Work Commission to introduce critical flexibilities in awards covering industries that were heavily impacted by public health responses, such as the accommodation and food services industry,” Senator Cash said