Government makes concessions on multi-employer bargaining bill

The Albanese government has made concessions to employers on its planned extension of multi-employer bargaining, as it hopes to fast track its industrial relations legislation through parliament before Christmas.

Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke said on Sunday there would be a change in the proposed way voting would work for these agreements.

He also flagged the government was sympathic to a “grace” period of six months to allow continued negotiations after a single-enterprise agreement ran out before employees were able to seek a multi-employer agreement.

Employers had expressed the “reasonable concern” that a large workplace could overwhelm the vote of a smaller one, in a general vote, Burke said.

Under the amendment, votes by workers – to be part of an agreement, to take industrial action, or to accept an agreement – would be at the individual business level.

“This puts an end to the argument that you’ll end up with workplaces that didn’t want to be part of an agreement but somehow got roped in anyway, or didn’t want to be part of industrial action,” Burke told Sky.

“If you vote against any of the stages at that business level, then you’re not part of it.”

The government says it wants the legislation through this year so it can get wage increases happening as soon as possible.

It believes the extension of multi-employer bargaining, which exists in only very limited form currently, will secure larger pay rises particularly in low paid feminised industries. On Friday the Fair Work Commission handed down its long-awaited decision for aged care workers, awarding a 15% pay rise.

The legislation will be debated in the House of Representatives this week, with a vote on Thursday. The government has the numbers to push it through the house, without any crossbenchers.

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But in the Senate it needs on extra vote on top of the Greens. Key crossbencher David Pocock, who met Burke on Friday, on Sunday continued to complain about the rush.

“The bill was introduced just over a week ago, and already we’ve seen a number of significant changes flagged by the government. That says to me that we need more time. That’s why I’ve suggested splitting the bill.”

Apart from multi-employer bargaining, the bill includes the scrapping of the Australian Building and Construction Commission and various measures to address the gender pay gap.

One issue that has come up is the threshold number of workers (15 in the current bill) for businesses to fall under the multi-employer bargaining provision. Burke said the Senate crossbench had been raising with him how the number was counted – for example, whether it would be a headcount of employees or full-time equivalents. Burke said he would have discussions about this when the bill reached the Senate.

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Business has pressed for the number to be raised to 100.

Jennifer Westacott, Business Council chief executive, welcomed the concessions but said more were needed.

“We’re pleased that we have brought the government back to the table to reduce some of the most harmful unintended consequence of this legislation but big problems remain,” Westacott said. Business argues the changes increase the complexity of an already complex system.

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