Secure Jobs, Better Pay Bill: What does it mean for workers?

The Secure Jobs Better Pay Bill 2022: The details,

The federal government recently introduced the Secure Jobs, Better Pay Bill into parliament. The Bill proposes a number of reforms that will update Australia’s Industrial Relations system to make a substantial contribution to getting wages moving.

As this submission makes clear, in many cases they are modest changes to the existing system. In many cases, especially with regards to bargaining, they do not go far enough.

Below is a summary of what the Bill proposes:

Closing the Gender Pay Gap

The Gender Pay Gap in Australia has refused to close and has recently gotten worse with women on average earning $472 less than men.

Workplaces with collective bargaining are able to deliver higher wages for women and this Bill will make it easier to bargain, including by allowing bargaining over measures to reduce the pay gap for the first time, and allowing women to bargaining across workplaces particularly in industries where their work has been undervalued.

The Bill will also strengthen the equal pay laws in the Fair Work Act, by:

  • Making gender equity an object of the act
  • Strengthening how equal pay cases are assessed
  • Establishing expert panels on pay equity and care and community
  • Outlawing pay secrecy clauses in employment contracts that hide pay discrimination against women.
Strengthening the right to request flexible working

Jugging work and care is a burden that falls heaviest on women, limiting the hours they can take on, the money they can earn and their career progression. The proposals in this Bill to strengthening the right to request flexible working, would enable workers to better balance care and work, and improve their workforce participation and income.

Getting bargaining moving again

Enterprise agreements now only cover one in seven workers because the system is outdated, overly complicated and too easy for unscrupulous employers to evade. Yet, even with its limitations, workers who can bargain are getting better pay increases than other workers.

The Bill introduces a series of changes to get bargaining moving again. Firstly, it will make it easier for employees on expired agreements, – which now make up the majority of all collective agreements – to re-initiative bargaining to bring their pay and conditions up to date. It also streamlines the agreement approval process and adopts a common-sense approach to fixing errors in agreements.

Multi-employer bargaining

While the Fair Work Act already has multi-employer bargaining streams, they have proven to be almost unusable in practice. The Bill seeks to fix this. Firstly, it reforms the former “low paid” bargaining stream by broadening the test that the FWC applies and removing other key restrictions under a renamed “supported bargaining” stream. This should enable, in particular, low paid and award-reliant workers the chance to fairly bargain across employers – a vital reform especially in female-dominated sectors. Secondly, the Bill broadens out the very narrow criteria that make the other key multi-employer bargaining stream – single interest – largely unworkable. It also makes a range of other common-sense changes.

Unfortunately the Bill also introduces significant limitations for including employers with 15 or less employees in the single interest bargaining streams. This could have the effect of shutting out up to 4.3 million employees, or about 36% of the Australia workforce from a key reform to get wages moving.

Closing agreement loopholes that employers exploit

Employers can currently undermine workers bargaining positions by threatening to terminate their current enterprise agreements. This has seen workers threatening with significant pay cuts, often forcing them to settle for lower wages. The Bill will close this harmful loophole to ensure that fair bargaining can take place.

Further, an estimated 450,000 workers are trapped on so called “Zombie agreements” - industrial instruments from the WorkChoices era that formally ended in 2009. Sunsetting these agreements will finally enable workers trapped on them to bargain again for better conditions.

Tackling insecure work by limiting the use of fixed term contracts

Almost one in three workers in Australia are on insecure work arrangements which limit their ability to bargaining for better wages and security in their lives. 550,000 workers are on fixed term contracts – many of them frequently rolled over to deny workers job security. The Bill will limit the use of the fixed term contracts, allowing Australia to join the nearly 100 other countries that already do this. More work needs to be done however to give job security to workers on casual, labour hire, gig and sham contracting arrangements.

Making it easier to combat wage theft

Each year billions are stolen from workers by unscrupulous employers. The legal barriers to combatting wage theft are significant. This Bill will provide easier access to the small claims processes for workers to recover their stolen wages. It will also outlaw ads for jobs with illegal rates of pay.

Anti-discrimination law changes

The Bill introduces a prohibition on sexual harassment into the Fair Work Act and improves the process to raise a complaint.

Although the Bill will make an important contribution to getting wages moving again, it is far from perfect.

  • It does nothing to fix industrial action, which is among the most restrictive systems in the world for employees, but still comparatively easy for employers to take.
  • The modest changes to the bargaining system in the Bill still leave a very complicated system in place which risks limiting its uptake and effectiveness.
  • Placing limits on the inclusion of small business in multi-employer bargaining risks shutting out some 4.3 million Australian workers from a key reform to get wages moving.
  • Further key reforms to improve job security and tackle wage theft are understood to be introduced into the Parliament next year.