Tony Burke open to ACTU industry-wide pay plan

The Australian, 25 August 2022

Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke says he is very open to the ACTU push for multi-­employer bargaining, as aged-care operators and small business said they were willing to discuss the plan with unions.

The Albanese government faces strong resistance from major employer groups, which called the proposal to allow strikes in support of sector-wide pay claims a job-killer and a throwback to the 1960s.

While former ACTU secretary Bill Kelty said the plan could be a more flexible alternative to “complicated” awards, Mr Burke said the government was open to examining the proposal at next week’s jobs summit.

“We have this very unusual situation with the economy at the moment where unemployment is so low and that should create the hydraulic pressure that’s pushing wages up,” he told the ABC’s 730.

“But, instead, the hydraulic pressure’s there but the pipes have leaks in them, and bargaining not working is one of those key leaks. So if multi-employer bargaining is one of the ways of opening that up, for wherever that might be in the workforce, I’m interested.”

Anthony Albanese and Jim Chalmers on Thursday both said the current enterprise bargaining system was not “working”, with wages not keeping up with the cost of living, and they would wait for the jobs summit to achieve consensus between the unions and major employers. “Enterprise bargaining at the moment simply isn’t working, wages aren’t keeping up with the cost of living,” the Prime Minister said in Sydney.

The Treasurer said the government was not “naive” about the contentiousness of the issue, as he rejected claims that the summit – designed to bring consensus between unions and employers – would lead to a stalemate. “I do share the broad view that one of the reasons why we haven’t seen the wages growth that we want to see in our economy for the best part of the decade is because enterprise bargaining is broken,” Dr Chalmers said.

Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott said multi-employer bargaining was not a solution to the decline of enterprise bargaining or slow wages growth. “The best way forward is to make the enterprise bargaining system easier, more accessible and simpler to get ambitious agreements,” she said.

Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Andrew McKellar said “if we’re talking about industry-wide bargaining replacing enterprise bargaining, that really does jeopardise the relationship between employers and employees, the ability to bargain in good faith”.

Council of Small Business Organisations Australia chief executive Alexi Boyd said there were so many elements of the current industrial relations system that were broken for small business and the body was open to discussing the ACTU proposal for one agreement covering multiple workplaces.

Ms Boyd said a simplified template agreement applying across multiple small businesses could be among options to be considered, and help employers overcome complexities in the award system.

“If you think about it logically, you have a whole bunch of businesses that largely operate the same way, and they just don’t know what to do, so here’s one option to help you create a framework for a discussion to have with your employees to come up with something that’s simpler and more effective and everyone is happy,” she told The Australian.

Ms Boyd said COSBOA had held discussions with the ACTU about the proposal and was happy to talk to other business groups, given the status quo was broken.

As well as small business, the ACTU has nominated the care sector as an area for sector-wide claims and the Health Services Union on Thursday said multi-employer bargaining laws could be used to replicate working conditions across hundreds of aged-care operators.

HSU national president Gerard Hayes said once the union’s pay claim for aged-care workers was determined by the Fair Work Commission, the union would look at pursuing multi-employer claims with peak employer bodies that could apply to hundreds of operators.

“To have a peak negotiation that would then be reflective of some … 700 employers would make a lot of sense, given that the industry is relatively consistent with conditions and also their wages,” he said.

“So it makes a lot of sense from our perspective in the aged-care region to be going down a path of industry-wide bargaining.”

Mr Hayes said the law changes should give workers the right to strike across multiple workplaces as part of the bargaining process, although it would be a last resort for aged-care workers.

The Aged and Community Care Providers Association, the nation’s overarching body representing residential, home and community care and retirement living, on Thursday would not rule on a return to sector-wide bargaining for its workers. Its chief executive, Paul Sadler, said a “template” enterprise agreement with bargaining arrangements existed in the aged-care sector, with collaboration between union and employers already under way.

The template, first established in 2009, is used by about 80 to 90 organisations in NSW, with service providers able to opt into the agreement if it is unanimously agreed to by the staff.

Aged-care workers receive higher pay under the agreement than through the standard award.

“It wouldn’t be out of the question for us to consider,” Mr Sadler said.

“We wouldn’t be averse to a discussion to whether there could be benefits – it would be something worth evaluating.”

Mr Kelty told The Australian “there’s a role for multi-employer bargaining in certain areas … it’s a more effective way to bring together a lot of smaller and medium-sized businesses”.

“We have the most comprehensive award system in the world. No other country has such a comprehensive award system. Nobody,” he said.

“It’s not that you want to get rid of it but where you have such a comprehensive award system, what is wrong with providing a bit more flexibility to smaller segments covered by that award?”

He said awards could be too complicated for employers.