Victoria introduces new Bill on low-paid workers

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Victoria introduces new Bill on low-paid workers

Debate on the Bill is scheduled for October, when Parliament sits again. The Opposition has not yet decided whether it will support or oppose the Bill.

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Victorian IR Minister John Lenders has introduced a bill in another attempt to hand back more powers to the Commonwealth and win greater protections for workers who are not covered by either federal awards or agreements.

Lenders first outlined the Federal Awards (Uniform System) Bill 2002 two months ago (see 19). It aims to address the findings of the Bracks Government's Victorian IR Taskforce, which found Victoria's 356,000 Schedule 1A workers - those not covered by awards or agreements - were the worst-off in the nation, covered by only five minimum conditions rather than the 20 which apply to all other workers.

They receive no personal and carer's leave or bereavement leave, no redundancy entitlements, no entitlement to be paid for any work they do in excess of 38 hours per week, and have lower sick leave benefits.

In his second reading speech, Lenders said the Bill was designed to close a gap which had steadily increased since the introduction of the Workplace Relations Act in 1996 between federal award and agreement covered workers and those covered by Schedule 1A, and to give them similar minimum conditions.

He said the Kennett Government's referral of Victoria's industrial powers to the Commonwealth in 1996 had not worked, because it had created a 'hybrid' system, rather than ensuring all employers and employees operated under the same conditions.

Employers had been just as hampered as workers, Lenders said, with Schedule 1A employers facing a lack of information of their rights and responsibilities under the Act, and federal award and agreement employers competing against employers who could legally pay their workers less.

Purpose of the Bill

The Bill has two stages. The first refers to the Commonwealth powers to allow it to legislate to have the 20 minimum federal award conditions apply to the Schedule 1A workers.

The second is a fallback position if the Federal Government refuses to adopt the referred power, and would see the state legislating to have federal awards apply by common rule to Victorian workplaces. The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal would make the awards, on application by the minister, registered peak bodies or interested industry organisations.

The Bill also provides for more comprehensive information to be distributed to Schedule 1A workers and employers, and for the appointment of officers to ensure compliance with the legislation.

Lenders said the Government's preferred approach was that it would be 'fairest, easiest and least complex' for the Federal Government to step in. 'To do so would confirm the Commonwealth wants a true uniform industrial relations system in Victoria,' he said.

Previous attempts

However, Lenders' predecessor Monica Gould also tried to refer powers to the Commonwealth, last year, without success (see 76 and 270/2001). The Federal Government dismissed the move as 'too complex and bureaucratic'.

Instead of legislating to give low-paid Victorian workers the 20 minimum conditions other Australian workers have, it introduced a bill which would have given those workers access to personal and bereavement leave, and allowed for more than 38 hours' work per week to be paid for (see 54/2001). That legislation lapsed when Parliament was prorogued before the 10 November election.

A former Bill designed to address the differences within the state, the Fair Employment Bill, was knocked over in the upper house in March 2001 (see 57/2001).

'It is important to stress that the Bill does not represent the Fair Employment Bill under a different guise,' Lenders said. 'The contrast between the two cannot be starker.'

He pointed out that the Fair Employment Bill sought to establish a new Victorian system, while the current bill focused on the operation of a single federal system.

Debate on the Bill is scheduled for October, when Parliament sits again. The Opposition has not yet decided whether it will support or oppose the Bill.

 
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