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Will the Upcoming Election Affect Workplace Relations?

With an election due in the next 12 months and the Coalition Government performing poorly in polls leaving a potential change of government well within the bounds of possibility, there has been a quickening of interest surrounding workplace relations policy issues.  A number of these issues may become significant differentiators between the Government and Opposition parties.

Some of the most notable policy differences include:

  • Adding an enforcement mechanism to the ‘flexible work’ provisions of the Fair Work Act, and narrowing an employer’s right to refuse on the basis of ‘serious business grounds’.  [This bill was introduced by the Greens and supported by the ACTU.  To some extent, this is in parallel with the ‘family-friendly working conditions’ stream of the 4 Yearly Review of Modern Awards.]
  • Legislating for casual or gig economy workers to have the right to convert to full/part-time work.  [This was another Greens’ bill which was, to some extent, in parallel with the ‘casual conversion’ stream of the 4 Yearly Review of Modern Awards, and was also an issue for the ACTU.]
  • Regulation of labour hire via a licensing scheme in order to protect pay and conditions.  [This was an ACTU proposal, following on from legislation passed in both South Australia and Queensland, and in turn proposed in Victoria.]
  • Regulation of the gig economy to extend rights to include minimum pay, leave, superannuation, workers compensation and unfair dismissal rights to gig workers.  [This was another ACTU proposal – please see the FWC comments in a recent case involving Uber.]

These policy proposals all seem to challenge the ‘neo-liberal consensus’, the end of which has been much prophesied in the light of recent political turmoil in the US, UK and Europe.  There is also a renewed focus on employee rights in addressing discontent with both low growth and stagnant wages.  The fact that these issues are being dealt with in the FWC, by parliament, and in political debate gives them a definite ‘zeitgeist-ish’ feel.

Due to the associated low rate of inflation, wage stagnation has been a concern for the Reserve Bank – and following a decline in the use of enterprise bargaining, the Opposition has suggested that the Fair Work Act enterprise agreement system is broken as a means of underpinning wages growth.

With this said, and taking into account both the decline in union memberships and the limitation of enterprise bargaining within sectors with traditionally strong union involvement, it is unclear how enterprise bargaining could actually be kick-started – or how it could affect wage outcomes in a more general sense.  Changing the balance on lawful industrial action may be an option, with Bill Shorten suggesting as much.

As against this, the Government has not yet suggested any significant policy developments, but can be expected to:

(a) Emphasise repeated union (especially CFMEU) defiance of industrial laws, as increasingly hefty fines are treated as a cost of doing business, and;
(b) To oppose all of the above proposals.

We may well be looking at the most significant debate (or loudest shouting match) over  the workplace relations system since the Workchoices/Fair Work transition of 2007-10.

If you have questions regarding the above policies and how they may result in changes to the way that your organisation conducts business, or you would like to speak with somebody in Coleman Greig’s Employment Law team – please contact:

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