Changes coming to employers – a look at the 2022 Jobs and Skills Summit –

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You may have heard of the Jobs and Skills Summit in Canberra, but what does it actually mean for employers? Emily Haar, Erin McCarthy and Juliana Marcus discuss possible changes coming from the summit for workers.

The overarching goal of the September 2022 Jobs and Skills Summit was full employment and increased productivity for the benefit of all Australians. The summit reached consensus on 5 main outcomes:

  1. A better qualified, better educated workforce

  2. Overcoming the shortage of skilled workers and strengthening the migration system

  3. Increasing job security and wages and creating safe, fair and productive jobs

  4. Promoting equal opportunities and removing barriers to employment

  5. Maximizing jobs and opportunities in our industries and communities

While these are very general findings, there are a number of immediate actions and commitments emerging from the consensus that are likely to impact how employers manage their workforce.

Increasing job security and wages and creating safe, fair and productive jobs

A tripartite National Construction Industry Forum will be set up between companies, unions and the federal government to address issues such as mental health, safety, training, apprentices, productivity, culture, diversity and gender equality in the industry.

A series of updates for the Fair Labor Act 2009(Cth) (Fair Labor Act) were agreed at the summit, although most of the amendments had not yet been tabled in Parliament at that time. The proposed changes are designed to allow workers and companies to negotiate good faith agreements that benefit them.

One of the main headline proposals from the summit was to support industry and sector bargaining rather than (mainly) company-level bargaining. How this will work in practice has not yet been described in detail and has been the subject of controversy among business and industry groups.

Summit participants agreed that the Better Off Overall Test should be made “simpler, more flexible and fairer”. Again, more details on the specific changes are expected.

The federal government also agreed that the Fair Work Act would be amended to terminate “zombie” agreements (ie, the pre-Fair Work Act agreements that remain in effect under transitional provisions) and to amend the process for terminating expired agreements so that this is the case “appropriately and fairly”. Employers still bound by pre-Fair Work Act shop agreements should start thinking about how their organizations can transition to the Modern Awards now, so that any transition is as smooth as possible. The proposed changes to the procedure for terminating expired agreements have not yet been made public, but are likely to be designed to limit employers’ ability to use the procedure as a bargaining tool.

The summit agreed that an updated Fair Work Act will provide better access to flexible working arrangements and unpaid parental leave to allow families to share work and care responsibilities. It was noted that these improvements will be reflected in changes in national employment standards (NO), with the possibility of further sanctions being imposed in the event of non-compliance.

The above proposals complement the current government’s existing commitments to:

  • equal work, equal pay legislation, meaning agency workers or “outsourced workers” must be paid the same rates as direct employees;

  • the prohibition of wage secrecy clauses and the right of employees to disclose their remuneration if they so choose;

  • limiting the use of fixed-term contracts;

  • criminalization of wage theft; and

  • Improvement of the framework for compliance with and enforcement of the Fair Work Act, including the Small Claims Procedure, although civil penalties for violations will be increased to ensure workers’ wages are protected.

That Fair Work Amendment (Equal Pay for Equal Work) Bill 2022 (Cth) has been referred to the Senate Committee on Education and Employment Legislation. Upon successful completion, agency workers subject to certain modern awards receive the same or higher rate than directly employed workers.

While it is not yet known exactly how the other changes in the Fair Work Act will be incorporated, employers should consider how such changes could affect their HR strategy in the near to mid-term.

Promoting equal opportunities and removing barriers to employment

Following the summit, the federal government announced plans to strengthen standards for reporting on gender equality. The main proposal is that employers with 500 or more employees must commit to measurable targets to improve gender equality in their workplaces.

In addition, companies with 100 or more employees must publicly report their “gender pay gap” to the Equality Authority in the workplace. The Gender Pay Gap”measures the difference between the average earnings of women and men in gainful employment“.1 The Australian civil service will also be required to report to the agency and set targets to improve gender equality in public service.

The government also announced that it intends to improve the outcomes of employing people with disabilities through a “Visitor management Disabled employmentpilot project. This is proposed to deliver place-based employment outcomes by bringing together small businesses, employment service providers and jobseekers with disabilities.

The summit commitments complement a number of existing government commitments that are expected to impact employers, including:

  • Introduction of 10 days from paid family and domestic violence abandoned in the NES;

  • Support and, if successful, finance wage increases for aged care workers by submitting the government to the Fair Work Commission; and

  • Working with Australia’s 200 largest employers on public reporting and improving the employment levels of First Nations workers.

That Fair Work Amendment Bill 2022 (Paid Leave for Family and Domestic Violence). (Cth) is before the Senate awaiting a second reading. No deadlines have been set for the other amendments at the moment, so it remains to be seen when they will appear in Parliament on the legislative calendar.

Conclusion

While no specific deadline has been set for a number of flagged changes, employers should now take action to put their “houses in order” to make the transition as seamless as possible. If your HR strategy needs a review, Piper Alderman’s National Employment Relations team can help.

footnotes

1Agency for Equality at Work, The gender pay gap HTTPS://WWW.WGEA.GOV.AU/THE-GENDER-PAY-GAP >.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the topic. In relation to your specific circumstances, you should seek advice from a specialist.

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