New laws enshrine flexibility, but do we really need more work-from-home?

New workplace laws will give workers more power to request flexible working hours while introducing controversial changes to open the way to widespread multi-employer bargaining.

Oct 27, 2022, updated Oct 27, 2022
Industrial Relations Minister Tony Burke. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Industrial Relations Minister Tony Burke. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke will introduce the bill to parliament on Thursday, kicking off the first tranche of workers’ rights reforms.

Employers will be legally required to try to reach an agreement with employees who request flexible work hours, including making alternative arrangements if the request can’t be catered for.

A worker would then be able to take the case to the workforce watchdog if their boss refuses.

Eligible workers include parents with school-age children, carers, people with a disability and those above age 55 or experiencing domestic violence.

Burke said people’s expectations of flexible work had changed in the past decade but people who had their requests refused currently had no right of appeal.

“We need to be able to make sure that people have stronger powers to be able to get flexible work,” he told ABC Radio on Thursday.

“There’s a good number of people out there where a change like this is life-changing for them.”

The workplace bill will also clear the way to multi-employer bargaining, a measure facing stiff resistance from business groups over concerns it could lead to more strikes and risk jobs.

Burke said existing laws already allowed for multi-employer deals but the government was simplifying the rules to make it easier for workers and businesses to strike agreements.

“There are some industries where bargaining hasn’t worked – where you get bargaining, you get better pay outcomes and better productivity outcomes,” he said, adding the measure would particularly help in female-dominated industries.

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Speaking before the release of the detail of the bill, Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief Andrew McKellar said workplace reform was the “one discordant note” in the government’s economic plans.

“The risk is if we don’t get this right, we will see an increase in industrial action and job losses will follow.”

But Burke denied the changes would lead to more strikes, saying the bill also introduced compulsory conciliation to help sort out disputes without industrial action.

Australian Council of Trade Unions national secretary Sally McManus said the most important issue for workers was getting wages moving at a time when inflation was far outstripping pay increases.

“Clearly there’s a problem at the moment – when the economy is good, workers don’t get pay rises and when the economy is bad, it’s the same thing,” she told ABC TV.

“If we have people on a more equal footing, you get better outcomes. It’s a pretty straightforward solution.”

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