A key employer group has unveiled the changes it sees as most crucial for Australia's industrial relations system, which is among the government's priorities for post-pandemic reform as it tries to get Australians back to work.
The Australian Industry Group, which represents about 60,000 businesses, urged the government to simplify the industry awards that set pay and conditions for millions of workers, make it easier for businesses to bargain with their staff and clarify which employees are casuals.
Ai Group chief executive Innes Willox argues a simpler industrial system will help employers take on more workers.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer
The group's chief executive, Innes Willox, said on Tuesday the changes could help Australia overcome the period of predicted high unemployment and low growth.
"Now is not the time for tired old arguments about industrial reform," Mr Willox said. "Decisions made by federal and state governments over coming months about reform options will play a big role in determining how long the recovery period will be."
Attorney-General and Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter welcomed the group's input and said it would be considered by the government along with that of other bodies as it planned potential reforms.
"The government's approach to any reform will have one key focus – to drive jobs growth," Mr Porter said.
Mr Willox wants to stop unions intervening in enterprise agreement processes between workers and businesses unless they already represent staff covered by them and replace the current requirement that agreements leave workers "better off overall" with a less stringent test.
He said those changes would help businesses and workers strike bargains that would meet their needs and help reverse the trend over recent years of fewer agreements being struck.
Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus said "tired old union-bashing" was unproductive.
"The union movement is trying to ensure that Australia makes it through this pandemic as quickly and safely as possible, and that through the recovery we strengthen the rights of working people, rather than doubling down on the failed policies of the past," Ms McManus said.
Professor Anthony Forsyth, a labour law expert from RMIT, said employers sometimes took advantage of the complexity of the industrial system to circumvent protections.
"The system has worked more in ... employers' favour," Professor Forsyth said. "They talk about the technicality of it, but in the last 10 years employers have found very clever ways around the technicalities."
He supported the Australian Industry Group's proposals clarifying which workers were casuals because that term was not defined clearly in legislation, but on the proviso it not reduce workers' rights.
AI Group argued the government should establish a "simple and clear" definition of casual work so employers had certainty about their workers' rights after a court found a worker who was nominally employed as a casual but worked fulltime hours was entitled to paid leave.
"On the pathway to recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, employers need to be encouraged to employ more people, not deterred from doing so," Mr Willox said.
Nick Bonyhady is industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based between Sydney and Parliament House in Canberra.