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2019 Election Primer, Part 4: Decision Time

17th May, 2019

This is the fourth and final in a series of posts discussing the major aspects of workplace relations policy in the lead-up to Australia’s federal election on 18 May 2019.

An edited version of this post was published in The Age/Sydney Morning Herald, 17 May 2019: ‘It’s a choice between status quo on workplace policy and big changes’.

Workplace policy has featured as a key campaign issue for the first time since the ‘Work Choices’ election in 2007. The major parties are offering starkly different alternatives in this area.

The Coalition proposes mainly to stick with the current system of regulation – especially the measures it has introduced to combat union power like the Australian Building and Construction Commission.

There are recommendations from a 2015 Productivity Commission review which the Coalition could implement. But IR policy is still a ‘no go zone’: the Coalition paid a big electoral price for radical labour market deregulation through Work Choices. The Prime Minister acknowledged this week the Coalition had learnt those lessons.

Pushed by the ACTU’s ‘change the rules’ campaign, Labor has articulated a fairly bold policy agenda to address sluggish wage growth, wage theft and insecure work.

Bill Shorten called this election a ‘referendum on wages’. Labor proposes to have the Fair Work Commission adopt the concept of a ‘living wage’ that reflects the increased expenses faced by working families. It will also wind back the Commission’s 2017 cuts to penalty rates in hospitality and retail within 100 days of taking office.

The ALP has plans for a suite of reforms to the collective bargaining rules, including allowing industry-wide bargaining for workers in low-paid sectors. Linked to this, Labor announced during the campaign it would directly fund wage increases for child care workers.

Labor’s policy outlines proposals to address the problems arising from labour hire and the long-term engagement of casuals. A ‘same job, same pay’ principle would apply to labour hire workers, giving them the same pay and conditions as direct employees of host businesses.

An objective definition of ‘casual’ would be legislated, to clarify that true casual work is irregular in nature – leaving no room for the notion of ‘permanent casual’ that has developed in industries such as hospitality. Casuals would also be given a meaningful right of conversion to full-time or part-time status.

Labor will constrain the use of fixed term contracts, setting a limit to four consecutive fixed term contracts, with a 24 month cap, before an employer is required to offer them a permanent part time or full time position. 

If implemented, these will be the most meaningful interventions yet on the 30-year growth of precarious work in Australia.

There is one area where there is some common ground between the parties, and where the Coalition has had a bit more to say. Back in March, the Government announced it would implement the recommendations of the Migrant Workers Taskforce.

These included criminal liability for deliberate and systemic underpayments; preventing companies from contracting out of their workplace obligations (through extended accessorial liability provisions); greater enforcement powers and tools for the Fair Work Ombudsman; and a national labour hire registration scheme.

Labor supports most of these measures. However it is also proposing a new, quick process for the resolution of underpayment claims of less than $100,000 – a ‘one stop shop’ in the Fair Work Commission so workers can avoid costly court cases and long delays.

Whichever party wins on Saturday, there will be a more comprehensive crackdown on wage theft. Beyond that, there is a choice between the status quo and a very full program of workplace reform that responds to a worker/union-focused agenda.

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