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Standing up for workers is worth applauding

After criticism of the Jobs and Skills Summit, unions and proposed changes to the nation’s industrial relations system, Dale Beasley argues that it’s time the pendulum swung back in favour of employees who actually power the economy.

Sep 06, 2022, updated Sep 06, 2022
Treasurer Jim Chalmers and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. Photo: AAP/Mick Tsikas

Treasurer Jim Chalmers and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. Photo: AAP/Mick Tsikas

As I sat down at my seat in Parliament House’s grand Marble Hall I took in my surroundings. I was seated in a huge ‘horseshoe’ arrangement with 140 other leaders from government, business, academia, unions and civil society.

I wondered for a moment; where’s Cate Blanchett? Hugh Jackman? The actors had represented ‘Creative Australia’ at Kevin Rudd’s wide ranging ‘2020 Summit’ in 2008, but there wasn’t any such movie star power in the room at the 2022 Jobs and Skills Summit.

The opening address from The Grattan Institute’s Danielle Wood made it clear why: this summit would be solely about confronting the huge challenges that face Australia’s workplaces; low wage growth, skills shortages, barriers to productivity. Danielle made it clear it was past time to develop a holistic plan to reorient our country for the future of work.

The last time Australia did that was in 1983, when Bob Hawke brought Australia together for the National Economic Summit. That was three years before I was born. As the 2022 Jobs and Skills Summit started, the same amount of time had passed between it and the Hawke’s Summit, as had passed between Hawke’s Summit and World War Two. Past time indeed.

Our workplace bargaining laws, which were written in the aftermath of Hawke’s 1983 Summit, do not contemplate the workplaces of 2022 and are overly and unnecessarily complicated. They no longer provide an even playing field for workers to be able to negotiate decent pay and conditions and make it especially hard for workers in industries dominated by women to get pay rises.

These days, 8 out of 10 jobs are in service industries. In the coming years the areas of greatest jobs growth will be in healthcare, professional services, education and hospitality – sectors now full of contracting out and insecure work. Workplace laws written to service the huge, centralised enterprises of the ‘70s and ‘80s are just not delivering decent pay rises in the decentralised, fixed term, subcontracted, gig economy of 2022.

That’s what unions were at the Jobs and Skills Summit to say. And I was not at all surprised to find that there were an incredible number of people there who agreed.

Detractors of the Jobs and Skills Summit have called it various names like ‘union talk fest’ and ‘lefty love in’ in scarcely concealed attempts to delegitimise it. What I sat through for two days last week was what I’d instead describe as a ‘listen fest’, where almost 150 people with different perspectives sat down, listened to each other, and discovered that there were solutions to our workplace and skills challenges they could agree on. That sort of consensus decision making has been long absent from our political landscape, and we are literally poorer for it.

There are some who have started shouting that the sky will fall in if pay agreements can be struck across more than one employer or a whole sector

The union movement is the largest and most significant non-government representative voice in Australia. Two million Australians are union members and choose to have their views and aspirations represented by a union. Our movement is diverse; in 2022 the average union member is a middle-aged woman in a healthcare or early childhood setting.

Our movement is growing in health and community services, in tech, IT and the gaming sector, and remains strong in public services, manufacturing and construction. At the Jobs and Skills Summit, the voices of those millions of workers found their rightful places next to those of billionaires and peak business bodies.

The Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison governments spent almost a decade trying to delegitimise unions and worked doggedly to remove the voices of working people from policy and law making, and stifle wage negotiations. The result was a decade where wages growth has been frozen or gone backwards. Skyrocketing cost-of-living increases has made this even worse for millions of workers.

By contrast, while still surfing their honeymoon wave the new Albanese government laid the foundations where major agreements on principles for workplace reform have been struck between unions and businesses. These include an agreement between the ACTU and the Business Council of Australia on how to tackle today’s workforce and skills shortages and modernise skills and training systems, and an agreement with the Council of Small Businesses to work together on options to expand collective bargaining which include multi-employer agreements. And these huge steps forward came before the Summit even started.

As the Summit progressed there were discussions on how to better invest in skills and training, deliver gender equity, remove barriers to work for women, First Nations people, people with a disability and other marginalised groups, and ending exploitation and underpayment in our migrant worker programs. Business leaders like Andrew Forrest, Steven Cain and Jenny Westacott shared the floor with union leaders like Sally McManus and Michele O’Neil to speak passionately about finding solutions to these issues.

The distinction is clear – if government enables the voices of workers in the national debate, solutions can be found to our biggest problems.

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The Summit concluded with 36 ideas that required further development and 36 concrete outcomes for immediate implementation, including tackling the wages crisis by modernising the workplace bargaining system. They also included initiatives to boost participation and productivity, like:

  • an Economic Initiative Pilot aimed at increasing employment and improving career pathways of people with a disability
  • building awareness of tech careers and early stage-talent pathways for those who face heightened barriers to employment
  • extend the relaxation of work restrictions for student and training visa holders until 30 June 2023 to help ease skills and labour shortages
  • accelerating the delivery of 465,000 additional fee-free TAFE places, with 180,000 to be delivered next year.

Unions have been clear that we need to get wages moving and increase skills and training for local workers, before unions would support lifting skilled migration levels. We welcome that this Summit has delivered those commitments.

The outcome that seems to have set some cats amongst the pigeons is the commitment to give workers and businesses flexible options for reaching workplace agreements, including removing unnecessary limitations on access to single and multi-employer agreements.

While many business groups and business owners agree with unions that more flexibility in the workplace bargaining system is needed, there are some who have started shouting that the sky will fall in if pay agreements can be struck across more than one employer or a whole sector. Invariably, these figures are ones who have found the current bargaining laws quite advantageous in their pursuit of their own ends, including the suppression of wages growth.

Take Alan Joyce for example. Since the Summit he has been warning that multi-employer wage agreements were a relic of the past and one we should avoid, while singing the praises of the current industrial relations system which has allowed him to largely subcontract out the Qantas workforce and spearhead the insecure employment model in Australian aviation. So yeah, the current system is working really well for him. Meanwhile, the thousands of laid off Qantas workers, former Qantas workers rehired as insecure subcontractors, dissatisfied patrons and shareholders probably agree that the status quo needs to change.

The Summit has made clear the urgent need for action to make bargaining simpler, fairer and more accessible and that without change, wages will continue to go backwards.

Unions and most businesses are looking together to the future and want to have at our disposal new, flexible tools to navigate wage bargaining in the 21st century. The only figures looking longingly in the IR rear view mirror are those like Mr Joyce, who’ve amassed wealth aided by using our current restrictive bargaining laws to suppress pay and drive up insecure employment.

Then of course, we had the Federal Liberal Opposition on the sidelines rolling out tired, old stereotypes about unions to warn that any outcomes of the Summit would be tainted, having been negotiated with us. In a bizarre blunder, Sussan Ley chose the day that the Summit was discussing ending workplace bias and harassment to level slurs and insults at the union leaders and union members who were at Parliament. Her comments set her even further apart when you consider Nationals leader David Littleproud and state Liberal Premiers Jeremy Rockliff and Dominic Perrottet were in the Summit room, engaging with unions.

Peter Dutton’s Liberals can’t seem to find it in themselves to accept that Australians want politics and decision making to be done differently. It’ll be to their electoral peril if they do not recognise that the outcomes of the Jobs and Skills Summit represent a collaborative effort which delivers the Albanese Government a mandate to go forward and make our workplaces better and fairer.

The Jobs and Skills Summit gave Australia the opportunity that many have long wanted; a chance to look beyond the last decade of adversarial politics and strive for something greater. Across the two days it became clear that such a collaborative relationship between Government, workers and business is possible, and it can equally benefit pay packets, business profits and our economy writ large.

Unions look forward to working with the Government and businesses with the same spirit of tripartism to implement changes as soon as practical and get the pay packets of Australians moving again.

Dale Beasley is Secretary, SA Unions

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