Coronavirus: Time ripe for urgent IR repairs, say employers

Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive officer James Pearson.
Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive officer James Pearson.

National employers have urged the Morrison government to capitalise on the co-operation between unions and business during the COVID-19 pandemic by legislating “immediate repairs” to ­federal workplace laws that cut ­labour costs and aim to drive ­employment

Staggered start and finishing times without employers paying overtime and more flexible stand-down provisions through to March next year are among five changes being sought by the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

In a letter to Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter, obtained by The Australian, ACCI chief executive James Pearson says the “pandemic has shown that unions and employer groups are able to come together in times of crisis for the betterment of Australian workers”.

“Australia’s industrial relations system needs some immediate repairs so businesses can restart, bolster low productivity levels and drive up employment,” Mr Pearson said.

Mr Porter told The Australian on Monday “some of the issues raised by ACCI would appear to be commonsense measures to help manage the continuing health ­crisis by supporting social distancing in the workplace and on public transport”.

“Some of the matters raised by ACCI reflect its, and that of other key stakeholders, longstanding concerns about certain issues,” he said. “The input is welcome and, along with the views of others, will form part of the overall consideration over the coming months of potential future reforms.”

Reiterating comments by Scott Morrison to The Australian, Mr Porter said the “post-COVID economic recovery presents a unique opportunity to bring all key groups — employers, employees, unions, business and governments — together to ensure there is a common focus on getting Australians back to work as quickly and safely as possible”.

ACTU secretary Sally Mc­Manus told The Australian that unions were “committed to rebuilding Australia” but business should be ready to do the real work of rebuilding our economy, “not to be looking to government to unilaterally take away workers’ rights”.

“During a time of crisis, working people and their unions have demonstrated our commitment to protecting jobs and working in the national interest,” she said.

“As we look to the future, we would expect to see employer groups coming to the table with ways of making jobs more secure, not trying to relitigate Work­Choices era attacks on workers’ rights.”

In his letter to Mr Porter, Mr Pearson calls for the Fair Work Commission to be temporarily empowered to mediate legal disputes over return-to-work directions; an increase in the number of matters not permitted in awards; and changes to individual flexibility agreements.

He said an overwhelming number of businesses were concerned about how to manage the return of an entire workforce when revenue and turnover were unlikely to recover for an extended period.

He said extending stand-down provisions to March 2021 would enable employers to manage the cost of bringing back employees and limit the number of redundancies an employer might be forced to make either at the end of a stand down or when the JobKeeper scheme ended in September.

“To ensure that this was not in any way abused or exploited, employers should only be able to avail themselves of this flexible stand down where they have already reduced an employee’s hours or have an employee currently on stand down,” he said.

Under the proposed staggering hours scheme, an employee and employer would agree in writing to a temporary change in the spread of ordinary hours and overtime rates would not apply. Any hours worked in excess of 38 per week would continue to attract overtime.

Opposition Treasury spokesman Jim Chalmers told The Australian that the Prime Minister’s headland speech next week would be a “test of whether he’s genuinely interested in finding common ground or just wants to un-pause the same fights of the past”.

“It shouldn’t be another opportunity for Morrison to snap back to the underperforming economy of recent years or the same old policy failures which contributed to it,” Mr Chalmers said.