Workplace changes need review

15 September 2023

This opinion article by Business Council chief executive Bran Black was published in The Daily Telegraph on Friday, 15 September 2023 

This week I started my new role as Business Council chief executive and I've been reading up to hit the ground running. Last week, a new document jumped to the top of my list - a 284-page bestseller called the Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Closing Loopholes) Bill.

It's heavy going but fortunately there's a cheat sheet, an explanatory memorandum that runs to another 521 pages.

That's right. In the middle of our current, extremely challenging economic conditions, the Federal Government is asking big and small businesses across the country to try to get their heads around another 800 pages of far-reaching workplace changes.

There are some good things in this Bill, including tougher action on employers who wilfully underpay their people. We all agree that all workers should be paid a fair rate for their labour, no matter how they choose to work. But despite the government's attempts to play down the impact of this legislation, the measures outlined across 800 pages represent the most radical restructuring of our workplaces in decades.

They will touch nearly every business in the country in some way, affect millions of employees and, by the Government's own admission, drive up prices for consumers in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis. The real winners are the unions, who will get significant new powers and protections for their officials and shop stewards.

The Government's omnibus bill will inject even greater confusion into an extremely complex system. The new Bill has 13 separate start dates for various changes, for example. Of particular concern for employers are the changes to conditions for casual workers. The percentage of Australians who work in casual roles has barely changed for three decades. For many, casual work provides the flexibility, regularity and additional income they need to juggle busy lives.

What the government's Bill proposes is ripping up the current and accepted definition of a casual employee and replacing it with a complex multi-step test to determine if a person is a casual or not.

The Bill also introduces a second avenue for casuals to seek conversion to permanent employment on top of the existing process where a business must make a permanent offer to a worker after 12 months.

This just adds to the confusion, given there will be no reasonable grounds on which an employer can refuse to convert the role.

We know employers want to do the right thing by their employees. However, the risk, uncertainty and cost of these changes will make many employers feel they have no choice but to offer fewer casual roles or push their costs up for customers - just at a time when we all know families across the country are struggling.

The parliament-imposed delay on the Bill until next year gives the government the opportunity to go back to the drawing board, to explain the problems it is trying to fix and allow proper scrutiny of its proposed solutions.

Businesses both large and small want to employ workers and to do that we need a system that is simple and easy to understand - not 800 pages of additional complexity.

Bran Black is the chief executive of the Business Council of Australia


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