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Senate Committee Inquiry into the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020 19 February 2021

Opening statement by Stephen Smith, Head of National Workplace Relations Policy for the national employer association Ai Group.

The Bill would make some modest and practical changes to the Fair Work Act in order to boost jobs and wages during the recovery from the pandemic.

The definition of a 'casual employee' and the 'double-dipping' provisions in the Bill are extremely important, but they will do nothing more than preserve the very widespread existing industry practice.

In the real world, when an employer wants to engage a casual, they engage them as such and pay a casual loading. It is grossly unfair to allow an employee who has been engaged and paid as a casual to turn around years later and claim annual leave and other entitlements that they have been paid a casual loading in lieu of.

There are about 2.5 million casuals in Australia (19.2% of the workforce, based on the latest ABS statistics released yesterday) and over one million of them have worked regular shifts for their employer for at least 12 months. All the evidence is that, in most cases, casuals have no desire to be permanent employees.

Over 80% of casuals work for SMEs. The current uncertainties around the meaning of a 'casual employee' are threatening the livelihoods of thousands of small business owners.

The level of casual employment in Australia has not increased for the past 23 years. It has remained at around 20% of the workforce. It is a myth that the workforce is being increasingly casualised.

The casual provisions in the Bill are critical but, when properly considered, they are weighted in favour of employees – not employers. Employers will simply be able to continue with their longstanding current practices. However, the Bill gives employees robust rights to convert to permanent employment after 12 months of regular work.

The flexible part-time provisions in the Bill also have obvious merit. If an employee wants to work additional ordinary hours and the employer is prepared to offer those hours, workplace relations laws and awards should not stop this. Of course, if part-time provisions are more flexible, employers will be more likely to hire part-timers rather than casuals.

The enterprise agreement making provisions in the Bill are designed to address widely recognised problems that have led to the number of current enterprise agreements in Australia reducing from 25,000 a decade ago to less than 10,000 today. The reinvigoration of the enterprise bargaining system will lead to productivity improvements and wages growth.

With the sensible and practical amendments that Ai Group has recommended, the Bill would deliver a series of worthwhile changes to the IR system that would provide opportunities for more productive and flexible workplaces, more jobs and higher wages.

Ai Group’s submission to the inquiry is available at this link.


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