Government could be forced to the bargaining table on sector-wide wage deals

  • Published October 31, 2022

Sydney Morning Herald, 30 October 2022

The Fair Work Commission will be able to force the federal government to take part in multi-employer wage deal negotiations for sectors it heavily funds, including aged care and childcare, under Labor’s new industrial relations bill.

The lever has been welcomed by unions and providers in the low-paid, feminised industries, but raises questions about the effectiveness of pursuing sector-wide wage deals if the government doesn’t have enough cash to foot the pay rises needed to stem the haemorrhaging of critical staff.

Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke included a “supported bargaining” stream in the Secure Jobs, Better Pay bill he introduced to parliament last week, which makes it easier for care sector workers to band together across employers to push for higher wages, a move met with trepidation by some providers.

He has also slated a veto power for unions over multi-employer deals hatched directly between workplaces and their staff, saying the amendment was about giving bargaining power to workers over collective agreements in the care sector.

“We’re going into extra territory to try to really focus on providing extra leverage, particularly in feminised industries. The areas that have been held back are areas like childcare ... [and] aged care. They’re not militant workplaces, they’re the ones that this reform is very squarely aimed at,” he told Nine’s Weekend Today program on Sunday.

Reflecting broader outcry from businesses, Aged and Community Care Providers Association chief executive Tom Symondson said on Friday the bill’s potential to pull providers into multi-employer agreements they hadn’t consented to “threatens to upend the traditional employer-worker relationship”.

However, childcare provider peak body, Early Childhood Australia, released a joint statement with the United Workers’ Union earlier this month saying the parties would continue to meet to explore multi-employer bargaining, and urged the government to take part in discussions.

A Department of Education, Skills and Employment spokesman said the supported stream for multi-employer bargaining included the power for the Fair Work Commission to direct a third-party “who exercises significant control over the terms and conditions of employees” to attend discussions.

“These parties may include head contractors or government agencies that provide funding, as in practice, they have a significant impact on the pay and conditions of workers,” the spokesperson said.

Health Services Union national president Gerard Hayes said that, as a primary funder for aged care services, the government should be involved in negotiations.

But Hayes said he was “quietly concerned” last week’s federal budget’s $3.9 billion allocation for the sector wouldn’t leave enough money for the wage rise the government promised to fund when Fair Work hands down its decision this summer on the union’s 25 per cent pay claim for aged care workers.

The government has also promised $4.7 billion over four years to increase the childcare subsidy, but United Workers Union early education director Helen Gibbons said this sparked concern about the staff-strapped sector’s ability to meet increased demand.
“Any discussion about improving wages always comes back to government funding, which is why it’s really important to have the government at the table as part of those discussions,” Gibbons said.

Early Childhood Australia head Samantha Page said a “multilateral” bargaining framework involving providers, educators and the government could change the way funding flowed and the obligations on employers.

She said early educators needed to achieve pay parity with primary teachers, but there was “limited room for employers to move without passing costs onto families, which nobody wants to do”.

“If we can do that through multi-employer bargaining with the government as part of the negotiating parties, that would be good,” she said.
Treasurer Jim Chalmers told ABC’s Insiders program on Sunday that early educators got a 4.6 per cent pay rise following Fair Work’s minimum wage decision in June.

“We’ve got to deal with skills and labour shortages, that’s why TAFE, that’s why migration, that’s why universities are so important. We’ve got to attract more people into the sector,” he said.