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Australia: Jobs and Skills Summit – what does it mean for employers?

In our Employment Law Tracker Content for August 2022, we reported expected workplace reforms by the new federal Labor Government and noted there was more to come with the Jobs and Skills Summit to be held on 1 and 2 September 2022 (“Summit”).

Many announcements were made at the Summit relating to investments in skills and labour supply which are important to employers.  However, in this update we will focus on the more controversial workplace relations announcements made by the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, The Hon Tony Burke MP, that came out of the sessions  “Sustainable wage growth and the future of bargaining” and “Creating, safe, fair and productive workplaces”.

The issues that were squarely “on the table” at the Summit were focused on getting bargaining and wages moving again, which included:

a) additional mechanisms to fix bargaining;
b) getting wages and productivity moving;
c) closing loopholes that drive wages down, for example, the termination of enterprise agreements;
d) closing the gender pay gap; and
e) creating safe and fair workplaces.

Proposed Fair Work Act amendments announced at Summit  

Following debate amongst the participants in the two sessions, Minister Burke, in conclusion, spoke about the need for tripartism – that is, government, unions and employers working together. While there were some areas for more work, he went on to address where immediate action could be taken, and he set out the following proposed amendments to the national workplace relations legislation, the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) (“Fair Work Act”):

a) stronger access to flexible working arrangements and unpaid parental leave;
b) stronger adverse action and discrimination protections;
c) ensuring all groups can negotiate in good faith;
d) allowing both workers and business to have flexible options for reaching agreement including removing unnecessary limitations and access to single and multi-employer enterprises agreements;
e) reducing unnecessary complexity for workers and employers including making the better off overall test – the “BOOT” – simple, flexible and fair;
f) giving the Fair Work Commission the power to pro-actively help businesses and workers reach agreement, particularly to help new entrants, such as small and medium sized businesses, and by providing proper support to employer and union bargaining representatives; and
g) ensuring the termination of agreement process is fit for purpose and fair.

Minister Burke announced that consultation would commence from 5 September 2022. The Department of Employment and Workplace Relations DEWR has started consulting on changes to the Fair Work Act, including about proposals for multi-employer bargaining and the BOOT, and a post-Summit white paper. The Treasury has announced a Jobs Summit and Employment White Paper Taskforce, and that the white paper’s terms of reference will be released later this month, along with a call for submissions.

Key Action Points for Human Resources and In-house Counsel

While we are yet to see the detail of the proposed amendments, it is clear that we are going to see significant changes in the rules around enterprise bargaining, such as termination of agreements, multi-employer bargaining and the BOOT.

Employees are encouraged to remain informed on developments in Australia’s workplace relations system, as many of the Government’s policy objectives, if implemented, may require significant updates to workplace policies and procedures, and changes to workplace practices.