12/06/2020 - 10:13

Give and take key for change

12/06/2020 - 10:13


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OPINION: The current economic crisis may provide an opportunity to re-engineer workplace relations.

Casual work suits many people for a whole range of reasons. Photo: Stockphoto

OPINION: The current economic crisis may provide an opportunity to re-engineer workplace relations.

Industrial relations reform has emerged as one of the great positive possibilities resulting from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Liberal government, with modestly conservative overtones balanced with a pragmatic attitude to getting things done, has sat down with a union leadership that is watching the erosion of its base and the continued political failure of its political wing, the Australian Labor Party.

They make odd bedfellows, but this is a crisis and neither group wants to waste it.

Both will also have ideologues pushing for their own version of reform, and they will have limits as to which elements of their counterpart’s positions are acceptable and which are beyond compromise.

As an observer of the sector without being an aficionado of the detail, I sense that each side has its own axe to grind.

The government has highlighted the complexity of the award system as an anachronism that needs to be simplified so traditional industries can re-engineer their workforces and introduce greater flexibility.

The awards structure gives unions massive power in those few industries where such structures dominate. You only have to glance at the rules to realise how many awards are throwbacks to the days when people had one job for life and the boss was the enemy.

Employee progress via awards is all done on time and the ticking of skills boxes.

By contrast, modern workplaces look for people who have the ability to grow, reflect the culture of the organisation, and who are deeply committed. It does mean some people will be left behind, or languish. As tough as that is, businesses that follow the traditional time-serving rule for employee promotion simply can’t keep pace. Mediocrity results in oblivion. Just look at our car industry.

Promisingly, Labor gave ground recently in this regard, supporting the federal government’s JobKeeper program and the dismissal of a union call to systematically go through each award and revise it for the circumstances. That was unmanageable and would have slowed Australia’s response to the pandemic considerably.

It will be interesting to see if the urgency of post-viral economic stimulus is enough to ensure real reform of the award system is possible, or a deal-breaker.

The union movement has signalled that its main game is greater rules around casual workers. It has long felt the ‘casualisation’ of the workforce, as it calls the greater numbers working in this way, has been a deliberate strategy to distance workers from the intricacies of awards and, therefore, the influence of unions.

Deliberate or not, there is a kernel of truth in the outcome.

Many workers prefer to run their own race. Casual employment offers flexibility, greater up-front pay, and puts more responsibility on the shoulders of the worker.

Do people get exploited? Of course, there are always examples of someone being taken advantage of, but Australian industries that have fared best during the shockwaves of the past couple of decades have been those with the most flexible workforces.

The offshoring of jobs and future role of automation means businesses will need to adapt. Jobs will be shed in either case, but the optimist in me believes fewer rules about who can do what, when, allows existing businesses to experiment and find ways to survive, rather than just ceding a sector to new enterprises.

So my view is that casual work has saved jobs that would otherwise have been lost, and has created job opportunities for employees who otherwise would not have found work that suited their circumstances.

Arguably, continuing this trend is the key point of reform. Having said that, there are traps in casual work that can be fixed.

If the chasm between the flexible structure of casual work and the rigidity of permanent part-time or full-time employment were closed by stripping back a lot of old and useless rules around awards, I am sure employers would be open to allowing a more porous border between the two.

I have never been a fan of, or understood the purpose of, awards beyond the most junior of staff or most basic of jobs. There is no way two people ticking the same boxes in skills and time served are worth the same; the fact is, attitude is everything.

If industry commitment to pay and workplace rights is made as simple as possible, there is a lot more opportunity for those who truly wish to migrate between casual roles and permanent employment.



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