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Response to Labour's Industrial Relations policy

By Charles Cameron


Yesterday’s speech from the Federal Opposition leader outlining Labor’s IR policy platform offered the same motherhood statements that we have heard countless times before, but remained absent of any detail despite Labor having years to prepare it.

Australians needs work laws that respect the way they work today, they don't want to be told to work the same way as everyone else, they want options, opportunity and the capacity to make their own decisions based on their own life circumstances.

A one-size-fits-all approach to Australian work laws may have worked in the 80s, but it won't work in 2021 and beyond. This is especially relevant as we work to recover from the impacts of COVID-19.

Business confidence – especially in a highly volatile post COVID world – will be the largest contributing factor in Australia’s ability to create jobs and grow employment.

Australia needs constructive thinking and we need industry to be engaged as part of the solution to ensure the nation is well placed to remain competitive within the global economy.

The Leader of the Opposition reconfirmed Labor’s commitment to the “same job, same pay” policy they took to the last election. Sadly, there was nothing new or more detailed to add to the simplistic ‘principle’ and ‘concept’ that they refused to elaborate further on back then.

Labor has had more than three years to develop the detail around approach and application of this concept. We were disappointed to note today that in that entire time, the idea has still failed to progress beyond a policy thought bubble.

Same job same pay sounds like a nice idea, but in a modern economy where there are multiple employers, employees and contractors working alongside one another, often for very short periods of time, this nice idea quickly becomes unworkable in practice.

We will continue to work with the Opposition to encourage them to think more deeply about their ‘concept’ so that we can have a meaningful discussion about coverage, implementation and unintended consequences. Questions of definition of ‘jobs’ and ‘pay’ are critical to successful policy, as is scope.

Labor’s definition of ‘labour hire’ is very wide and extends to many businesses that do not see themselves as ‘labour hire’ providers, which means that same job and same pay would be enormously disruptive and confusing for business when what they need is certainty and simplicity.

The Opposition Leader also stated that “when the Fair Work Act was written more than a decade ago, few could have predicted the extraordinary growth in the different forms of insecure work.”

I hate to be the one to let facts get in the way of a good political pitch, but someone should alert the Opposition Leader to the fact that he has built his entire policy platform upon a completely false premise.

Concepts of growing ‘casualisation’ are mythical. It is pure disinformation. The facts simply don’t support the claims:

- Data from the ABS and Australia’s most comprehensive independent longitudinal research, HILDA, confirm that casual employment, as a proportion of the workforce, has not changed over the past 20 years.

- The proportion of people working in labour hire and independent contracting between 2001 and 2017 has declined.

- The fact is that contract, part time and labour hire work has been in existence for decades. These forms of employment aren't new and they aren’t growing.

Moreover, evidence actually suggests that work might be more secure – and workers feeling more secure - now than they were in the 1980s.

- Research from Jeff Borland of Melbourne University shows that since the early 1980s, there has been an increase in the proportion of the workforce in long duration jobs (10 years or more) and a decrease in the proportion of workers in jobs of less than 12 months.

- That same research found that workers themselves are feeling more ‘secure’ in their employment, with the proportion of workers worried about the ‘security’ of their jobs decreasing over the past 15 years

A push to insert a concept of ‘job security’ into law is a bit concerning. The idea of ‘job security’ as it stands is little more than vague and undefined rhetoric used by labor. Even in his speech, the Opposition Leader failed to define it clearly or to explain how the idea might be measured or advanced. Though I can probably understand the reticence to measure, given there is no labour market data to support the concept in the first place.

If, after more than a decade of using the emotive term, Labor still cannot clearly define, ring fence or clarify specifically what they are referring to in relation to job security, I am unsure as to whether I feel the proposition of attempting to enshrine it into law is extremely worrying or simply laughable.

To extend this ill-defined concept of ‘secure’ work to inform the way government procures services is equally concerning, subjective and open to a bias that challenges the notion of responsible procurement.

Another proposition floated by the Opposition Leader yesterday was the development of a scheme for portable leave entitlements for workers in some industries. While I am not averse to the idea of optional portable leave scheme, any such scheme would absolutely need to make allowances for the fact that these entitlements are already paid to casual workers, and to understand and reflect that many casual workers would prefer not to opt to participate in a portable scheme.

Any national program that requires employers to fund entitlements for casual staff through a loading, and then to fund it a second time through a levy would be little more than government imposed double-dipping that will be devastating for jobs and economic recovery.

In fact, if the WorkPac double dipping decisions are not addressed in the IR Bill before parliament, the introduction of a portable leave scheme could result in triple dipping.

I did however welcome the Leader of the Opposition’s interest in exploring options for additional protections for gig workers. People who work in labour hire and professional contracting roles are engaged by staffing firms as employees, with all the protections of the Fair Work Act and applicable Awards. This is not usually the case for people who work in the gig economy.

RCSA is supportive of greater protections for gig workers and we remain open to working with both the government and opposition to provide input and insights into ways worker protections can be provided across a mobile and flexible workforce.

I was heartened to finally hear the Leader of the Opposition express his recognition and understanding that ‘good workers understand that their jobs are linked to the viability of their employer’s business’.

This is a fundamental truth that needs to inform any policy designed to boost employment. Put simply, there are no secure job opportunities without secure businesses. So, let’s provide business with confidence and simplicity rather than adding more and more layers of red tape and uncertainty.

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