Changes to casual work including options for permanency and leave loading proposed in new industrial relations reforms
As parliament sits for its final week this year, the Federal Government will introduce its much-anticipated overhaul of industrial relations laws prompted by the upheaval of the coronavirus pandemic.
The shake-up includes new arrangements for casual workers that could leave them with stronger rights for ongoing employment, but limit employers’ liability on paying casual leave loadings as well as paying other benefits.
The details come after months of confidential, round-table discussions involving businesses and unions on reform options, following the unprecedented cooperation during COVID-19 aimed at limiting job losses.
Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter described the changes as “a fair and equitable outcome that will benefit both workers and employers”, but unions and business groups have been unable to comment publicly yet about their negotiations.
The changes will include a statutory definition of casual work in the Fair Work Act for the first time.
It will define a casual employee as someone offered work without “firm, advance commitment” of ongoing opportunities, with a worker’s ability to reject work and receive a casual loading also relevant.
Businesses would be compelled to offer casual workers with a regular pattern of hours a permanent part-time or full-time job after 12 months, unless they have reasonable grounds not to.
The legislation will also seek to address a landmark legal case earlier this year that found casual workers could be entitled to sick leave and other benefits, even if they have been been paid a casual leave loading.
The Federal Government is concerned that earlier rulings by the Federal Court could financially cripple many businesses.
The legislation would allow casual leave loadings or special pay rates to count towards any entitlements a casual employee may be found to have.
“The solution we will introduce to the double-dipping problem created by the Rossato decision will give business the confidence and certainty they need to invest, grow and start hiring again, knowing that they will not have to pay people twice for things like sick leave and loadings always meant to compensate casual workers for those things,” Mr Porter said.
All of these proposed changes would apply to current employees from the time they began working for their employer and to all prospective employees.
ACTU Secretary Sally McManus said the Government’s proposal made it nearly “impossible” for casual workers to convert to permanent work and said it would “entrench casual work”.
“If an employer is unreasonable or does not offer them permanent employment, there is little they can do about it,” she said.
“Even though we know so many casual workers are not paid more than permanent workers, it also retrospectively takes away rights they would have to paid leave. Casual workers who are incorrectly classified by their employers currently have this right, this legislation would take it away.
“This is a huge missed opportunity to begin to make jobs more secure and turn around the number of causal and insecure jobs.”
Overhaul months in the making
The changes affecting casuals are just one part of an omnibus bill the government has been working on, which will also cover enterprise bargaining, award simplification, compliance and enforcement and greenfield developments.
Shadow Minister for Industrial Relations, Tony Burke, said Labor would scrutinise the bill once it was introduced.
“I know from the Government’s perspective they might feel they’ve been working on it for ages, it’ll be the first time the public sees it and I think we can be confident people will want more than the summer break to be able to properly go through it and work out the implications of it,” he said.
“It has been a situation where, for people’s health and everything, people have wanted a level of cooperation this year that we’ve provided.
“But, as always, if the Government wants to push things too far, then we’ll be there standing in their way.”
With casual employees among the hardest hit by COVID-19 restrictions, the Federal Government is hoping the hotly-contested workplace relations space will be able to come to a consensus.
“With so many Australians still out of work, or doing fewer hours as a result of the pandemic, we cannot do nothing when we have a situation where employers are delaying making hiring decisions because of ongoing confusion about the legal status of casual employment,” Mr Porter said.
“Similarly, Australia’s 2.3 million casual employees need certainty about their work arrangements and entitlements.”