The AIER advocates for multi-employer bargaining in new book

Tony Burke, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations

With the ALP’s Secure Jobs, Better Pay Bill introduced, the possibility of re-introducing multi-employer bargaining (MEB) became the focus of a heated discussion at this year’s Australian Institute of Employment Rights’ (AIER) 12th Annual Ron McCallum Debate on Monday, 24th October 2022, giving a litmus test of unions’ and employer groups’ contrasting views.

The Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Tony Burke, joined speakers from the ILO, ACTU, Master Builders Association, business representatives and experts at the Sydney-based Debate, chaired by Iain Ross, the President of the Fair Work Commission. The topic was, “How can we future-proof work relations in these times of crisis and change?’’

How effective is multi-employer bargaining?

Liam O’Brien, assistant secretary of the ACTU, and Melissa Donnelly, National Secretary of the CPSU, argued multi-employer bargaining is the way to get wages rising again, to reduce gender inequality, and to speed up the introduction of forms of leave and working conditions. Melissa argued, the progress of leave and working conditions had languished under single enterprise bargaining, which caused new standards to be rolled out very unevenly.

President Ross conceded increases in leave used to progress through the tribunals (annual leave increasing from 1-4 weeks, for example, and family and domestic violence leave being introduced) but things like paid parental leave have now been left to the political space.

The AIER’s book, A New Work Architecture: the AIER model for the future of work was launched at the Debate, and proposes removing restrictions on multi-level bargaining in compliance with labour standards, arguing that MEB would help future-proof relations.

The AIER’s book proposes a Robens-style system based on objectives rather than prescriptive rules and universal standards overseen by an expanded Fair Work Commission.

Picking up on ideas in the book, to which she is a contributor, Professor Anna Chapman said, “It was worth pursuing this idea of a system based on an idea of fair go and then articulating that in ways that draw upon important principles” in order to future proof industrial relations.”

James Fleming (AIER) said, “As Justice Ross highlighted in the debate, industrial relations is at its heart about a relationship – that between business and unions. We want to see that relationship grow stronger, and for unions and employer groups to grow stronger, and to return to taking greater responsibility for co-managing the labour market through bargaining.”

Are there any shortcomings of MEB?

John Ritchotte from the ILO elaborated that bargaining ought to occur at any and all levels that the labour market partners wished. “Multi-employer agreements are… more likely [than enterprise agreements] to offer a more inclusive form of labor protection covering migrant workers and workers in diverse forms of employment, as well as complimenting social protection such as unemployment, insurance, healthcare, and pensions,” he said.

John Ritchotte suggested collective bargaining and MEB was a tool that could help informal workers, gig and platform workers. Liaim O’Brien suggested workers engaged in MEB need the full range of bargaining rights and protections or else “it’s not bargaining, it’s begging.”

Emeritus Professor Ron McCallum said “What do we actually do about people who aren’t running their own businesses but are delivery riders, who aren’t being paid appropriate wages with no entitlements? Do we just let that go on? Or should we say as part of the workplace, they should be included? I mean, we can’t go on forever saying that that doesn’t matter.”

Minister Burke said the Fair Work Act had to be updated to deal with the needs of the modern workforce, and something had to be done to aid gig workers as “21st century technology should not demand 19th century working conditions We do need to find a way that we can keep the technology, and yet people can have some minimum standards and some minimum rights” but the minister gave little hint of how MEB will be dealt with in the new Bill.

Employer representatives at the debate were sceptical. Denita Wawn warned MEB would limit the flexibility employers need and would lead to lower wages because it would limit productivity. Stephen Smith of Actus lawyers said that enterprise bargaining improved productivity and the system needed to be as flexible as possible while preserving fairness.

Melissa Donnelly indicated flexibility was unbalanced. “I think from where I sit, we have flexibility in the system right now, but it’s pretty one way. When you think about the insecure work rates, across the economy, when you think about how few employees are covered by collective agreements today, there is flexibility, but it’s predominantly with employers.”

Mark Perica from the AIER said Joe Isaacs, the labour market economist, who argued MEB increases productivity as it “takes wages out of competition and forces less efficient firms, rather than being subsidised by lower wages, to operate at greater efficiency to survive.”