Federal Act 'too complex' for low-paid Victorian workers

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Federal Act 'too complex' for low-paid Victorian workers

A spokeswoman for federal Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott has described as 'too complex' and 'too bureaucratic' the Victorian Government’s request that he bring some quarter of a million low-paid Victorian workers under the protection of federal awards.

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A spokeswoman for federal Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott has described as 'too complex' and 'too bureaucratic' the Victorian Government’s request that he bring some quarter of a million low-paid Victorian workers under the protection of federal awards. The spokeswoman explained Abbott’s reaction to the Victorian proposal by saying that 'we’re for as much simplification as possible', but the 20 allowable matters under the federal Act 'made the employment contract complex and difficult to understand'.

Victorian Premier Steve Bracks made the offer to refer all relevant industrial relations powers to the Commonwealth at the end of last week, after the Liberal State Opposition rejected his government’s Fair Employment Bill (see story 72/2001). The Victorian Liberals defeated the bill—which was designed, in part, to strengthen the rights and entitlements of Victorian workers not covered federal awards or agreements (Schedule 1A workers)—after a vote in the Upper House.

(Last year a Victorian IR taskforce found that 80% of the Schedule 1A workers were in small business—retail, hospitality and farm workers. And 60% of those are reportedly based outside of the metropolitan area—see story 51/2000.)

A Bracks’ Government spokeswoman said that the call for Abbott to bring the Schedule 1A workers (who are covered by just five minimum conditions) under the full protection of the federal Workplace Relations Act 1996 was more than just a political bluff. The plan was 'a genuine request' for Abbott to honour the Federal Government’s longstanding commitment to a single industrial relations system for Victoria, she said.

Under the Bracks’ proposal, the Victorian government would allow the Commonwealth to give the Australian Industrial Relations Commission the power to make federal awards apply as common rule (with common application across a designated industry or area rather than by listed respondents), on the condition that Schedule 1A workers receive the same minimum conditions as all other workers under the federal Act.

While the Fair Employment Bill hasn’t been consigned to the Victorian Government’s dustbin quite yet, 'we don’t know what’s going to happen in the long term', Bracks’ spokeswoman said. But she acknowledged that if Abbott did agree to the Victorian Government’s proposal, it would 'cancel out the need' for a separate Victorian system to cover those workers who have fallen through the cracks.

In turn, Abbott’s spokeswoman said that the federal government was still pushing ahead with its own proposal to ‘upgrade’ Schedule 1A workers’ entitlements under the federal Act (see story 5), which it plans to introduce during the next sitting of Parliament (the week beginning 22 May). While improving some conditions for Schedule 1A workers, the Commonwealth proposal doesn’t go as far as the Victorian Fair Employment Bill.

Some of the points of difference between the now scuttled Fair Employment Bill (FEB) and the Abbott proposal include:

  • the FEB allowed for long service leave and parental leave for long term casuals, while the federal Act amendment has no such provisions;
  • the FEB created entitlements for public holiday pay, while the federal Act amendment does not;
  • a Full Bench Tribunal would have been empowered to review minimum conditions, and vary, substitute or add conditions under the FEB, while the federal Act amendment has no such provision; and
  • the FEB proposal would have made principle contractors liable, in certain circumstances, for payment of subcontractor’s outworker employees, while the federal Act amendment has no such provision.

Abbott’s spokeswoman said that the Federal Government believes that additional matters for Schedule 1A workers such as these are best dealt with by negotiations at the 'enterprise level’.

The position of outworkers is gearing up to be one of the main points of contention between the two governments. While the Victorian Government wants such workers to be recognised as employees under the federal Act, Abbott’s spokeswoman claimed that he has been in discussions with representatives of outworker organisations who say they do not wish to be designated as employees. 'The say that they want to be contractors [and have the benefit of] flexibility and higher pay', she told WorkplaceInfo.

 
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