Since the Covid-19 pandemic, ACCI commenced rapid extensive dialogue with its members to develop ideas and propose solutions to ensure businesses’ sustainability, bymitigating the social consequences of lockdowns, trading restrictions, a rapid loss of business and consumer confidence, as well as the rapid onset of recession.
Following the consultations with its members, ACCI:
- negotiated with the national and industry level trade unions for temporary changes to the Australian industrial relations award system, to support jobs during COVID-19 (see here for more details), and
- encouraged the Government to instigate a process of reform for Australia’s industrial relations legislation.
Australia’s award system is unique. Its 122 industry and occupational awards have evolved over 113 years through a mixture of employers and trade unions negotiations, and centrally imposed arbitration by an independent tribunal called the Fair Work Commission. Each award prescribes minimum conditions of employment and multiple minimum wage rates by level of occupation, skills and experience.
In the midst of the lockdown, employers and unions managed to agree to following changes for the hospitality industry, restaurants and clerks:
- A reduced notice period for closedown;
- Employees being directed to take accrued annual leave with 24 hours’ notice, subject to considering an employees’ personal circumstances;
- Scope to agree double annual leave at half the wage;
- A reduction of ordinary hours of work for fulltime and part-time employees, by either agreement or direction;
- A reduction in the minimum engagement for parttime and casual employees working from home;
- An increase in the range of duties employees can be required to perform; and
- Changes to the spread of ordinary hours of work of day workers working from home.
Given the positive nature and agreement between employers and unions, these measures were ultimately endorsed by:
- The Fair Work Commission who agreed to the variations for the awards. Although ACCI was disappointed that 122 awards could not be changed by agreement.
- The Government through changes in legislation that allow businesses across all sectors to benefit from the agreed flexibilities, if they are eligible for the ‘JobKeeper’ wage subsidies, between 8 April and 27 September 2020.
The Government approved the JobKeeper wage subsidy in April to retain jobs following joint calls from both employers and trade unions.
It provides a standard level of fortnightly payment ($1,033 USD) regardless of pre-subsidy earnings. It is estimated that more than 1.6 million Australians were receiving the wage subsidy by June 2020, and Australia is currently trying to determine how it can wind down the subsidy without additional job losses.
ACCI successfully called on the Government to initiate a process to reform Australia’s highly prescriptive, complex and in many areas poorly operating industrial relations system, through amendments to the Fair Work Act (the national industrial relations statute). ACCI called for Australia’s industrial relations system to be updated to better support recovery from COVID-19 through increased employment, restoring dynamism into the economy, and increasing productivity.
The process is organised around five working groups, focusing on:
- the prescription and complication of the award system;
- collective agreement negotiation;
- Labour inspection, enforcement and compliance with minimum wage rules / the awards system.
- Ensuring “casual / zero hours” work options remain accessible and affordable for employers and employees, overcoming recent adverse court decisions that threat jobs and recovery;
- Special industrial relations arrangements to attract major mining and hydrocarbons projects to Australia.
Speaking before the five working groups, Scott Barklamb, ACCI’s Director of Workplace Relations and an employer member of the ILO Governing Body, reported that:
“Australian employers welcome this historic re-examination of our industrial relations laws through tripartite social dialogue. Employers have a very clear sense of responsibility to reform laws and processes to do all we can to support vulnerable jobs and vulnerable businesses. Greater flexibility and practicality, and a simpler set of rules are absolutely vital if Australia is to regain more than a million lost jobs, and go forward as a productive, attractive and rewarding place to do business. We are looking forward to sitting down with our trade unions and government to hopefully deliver some long overdue changes that can benefit all working Australians“.
Australian employers are also seeking to adapt organisations to COVID-19:
- For 2020/21, ACCI is freezing fees for its members at 2019 levels, to decrease the financial burden on business organisations who expect to suffer reduced subscriptions and incomes as Australian employers reduce in size or go out of business.
- ACCI and its member EMBOs are actively changing their services to provide added value and relevance to Australian business during difficult times.
- Some ACCI members have moved to offer a level of complementary (free) membership and services to grow their organisations and expand their contacts with metropolitan and regional business communities.