A workplace relations agenda all parties should support


In the lead-up to the impending Federal Election, Ai Group released a series of policy papers that together present an agenda aimed at raising the living standards of Australians and addressing the slowdown in real incomes growth of recent years. Businesses have a critical role in achieving these national objectives by investing; creating jobs; introducing new goods and services; and developing and adopting new technologies and processes.

First among these were four papers outlining an important workplace relations platform we suggest all parties should support. This election offers an opportunity for all sides of politics to support workplace relations policies that will contribute to creating a flexible, inclusive and productive workforce that will help set us up for our post-COVID recovery and beyond.

These four policy papers covered Gender Equality, Diversity & Inclusion; Enterprise Agreements; Forms of Employment & Engagement; and the Safety Net of Minimum Conditions.

Ai Group has a strong commitment to gender equality and inclusive workforce participation. Businesses with a gender-equal, diverse and inclusive workforce have improved performance. Increased workforce participation, particularly for women, assists in their economic well-being and independence, particularly later in life.

We have proposed a number of initiatives in this area including:

  • More accessible and flexible childcare options for households;
  • A publicly-funded family and domestic violence leave payment linked to the existing unpaid leave entitlements in the Fair Work Act; and
  • A commitment that any religious discrimination legislation must not inhibit the ability of employers to maintain inclusive and harmonious workplaces.

There are serious problems with Australia’s declining enterprise agreement system that need to be addressed to encourage agreement-making. Enterprise agreement making should be a relatively simple process for employers and employees – not the ‘minefield’ that it currently is.

With a few sensible reforms, the enterprise agreement system can once again play a key role in delivering higher productivity, improved remuneration to employees and more competitive businesses.

Ai Group proposals include:

  • Simplifying the Better Off Overall Test by ensuring that hypothetical types and patterns of work that are unlikely to be engaged in are not taken into account. 
  • Simplifying the requirements for the Fair Work Commission (FWC) to be satisfied that genuine agreement has been reached. 
  • Simplifying the requirement for employers to explain the terms of a proposed enterprise agreement to employees prior to the vote.

These are basic, common-sense changes, and by no means radical reforms.

It is vital that businesses have the ability to engage workers in whatever form of employment or engagement suits the needs of the business. The casual employment uncertainties have been comprehensively settled in legislation, in awards and in the High Court. It is in no-one’s interests for this to be disturbed.

The High Court has also recently provided a lot more certainty for independent contracting arrangements.

It is a myth that insecure work is increasing. The level of casual employment, labour hire employment, fixed-term employment and independent contracting has not increased over the past decade.

Employers and employees need flexibility with forms of employment, not more restrictions.

Australia’s industrial relations system is far too complicated. The safety net of minimum conditions needs to be modernised to reflect the needs of contemporary workplaces. Matters that are primarily dealt with in the National Employment Standards (NES) in the Fair Work Act should be largely removed from awards.

The Fair Work Act should be amended to require that employers and employees to whom awards apply have access to certain minimum levels of flexibility. The minimum levels of flexibility should include: 

  • The ability to agree on flexible part-time employment arrangements, with the ability to readily adjust ordinary hours on any day by agreement. 
  • The ability for day workers who are working remotely, to work outside the spread of hours in the relevant award and to break up their work periods, provided that their employer agrees. 
  • The ability for an employee to enter into an Individual Flexibility Arrangement (IFA) with their employer, with an optional lodgement and approval process so that both parties can have certainty that their IFA passes the Better Off Overall Test and is legally enforceable.

Our industrial relations system is intended to be fair to all parties. However, it is not fair that the system is so complicated that even many major corporations with sophisticated payroll systems are making payroll errors leading to multi-million dollar underpayments. What hope does a small business have in being confident that it has complied in all respects with relevant awards and workplace laws given the current complexity of the system? 

To read Ai Group’s full series of pre-election policy papers, visit www.aigroup.com.au/news/election-2022/