Labor is poised to make the most extensive changes to workplace relations laws in nearly two decades after the government secured the support of a crucial crossbench senator.
Employment Minister Tony Burke revealed he had struck a deal on the Secure Jobs, Better Pay Bill with independent ACT senator David Pocock, who holds the balance of power in the upper house.
Mr Burke made the announcement on the ABC’s Insiders program on Sunday morning after a late-night meeting in which Senator Pocock secured series of concessions in exchange for his support.
Labor will adopt the recommendations from a parliamentary inquiry into the Bill including changing the definition of a small business that can be excluded from multi-employer bargaining from one that employs 15 people to one that employs 20.
It will also be easier for a business with 50 employees or fewer to opt out of multi-employer bargaining by giving them a stronger ability to argue to the Fair Work Commission that they should be excluded.
The responsible Minister will be given the power to decide which occupations can take part in the low-paid bargaining stream, which was designed for workers in industries such as aged care and cleaning.
The government will also set up a new statutory advisory committee to review welfare payments and provide independent advice before every federal budget on the structural challenges to economic inclusion for Australia’s poorest people.
Senator Pocock had said he would wait to receive the report from the parliamentary inquiry before making a final decision on whether or not to support the Secure Jobs, Better Pay Bill.
He said on Sunday the amended legislation was now “substantially different”, noting it included additional safeguards for both businesses and low-paid workers.
“Taken together, all of these measures will strike the right balance between ensuring people start receiving long overdue wage rises, maintaining productivity and protecting the most vulnerable in our communities,” he said in a statement.
“Given the pace at which this legislation has moved, my concern has been to ensure stakeholders are heard and any issues addressed.”
The expansion of multiemployer bargaining — which essentially makes it easier for workers at different companies within one industry to band together to call for better pay and conditions — has been the most contentious element of the legislation.
Under the “single interest” stream, workers will be able to negotiate a single enterprise agreement to cover different workplaces, as long as a majority of employees at each company involved agree to do so.
The Fair Work Commission will have to determine that workers have a common interest before allowing them to take part in multi-employer bargaining.
Employer groups and the Coalition have argued the multi-employer bargaining provisions would lead to widespread strikes and high levels of industrial conflict and give unions undue power in workplaces.
Mr Burke said on Sunday that negotiating with Senator Pocock hadn’t been easy but he was confident the Bill would pass in the final sitting week of the year.
Senator Pocock was expected to cast the deciding vote on the Albanese government’s industrial relations reforms, which passed the lower house earlier in the month.
Labor doesn’t have a majority in the Senate, meaning it needs the support of The Greens and at least one crossbencher to pass legislation that doesn’t have the backing of the Coalition.
The Greens have confirmed they will support the Secure Jobs, Better Pay Bill after securing their own changes.
These amendments including giving parents an enforceable right to request unpaid parental leave and preserving the existing Better Off Overall Test.
The BOOT requires proposed enterprise agreements to ensure employees will be ‘better off overall’ than they would be if their employment was covered by a relevant modern award.
Mr Burke confirmed MPs will sit on Saturday in order to pass the industrial relations reforms.
He said he was “astonished” to see the Opposition “complaining” that they might have to work on a Saturday.
“I think there are plenty of Australian workers, knowing what’s at stake with wages haven’t been moving for a decade, that would be just shaking their heads about that particular objection,” he said.
The Senate is already scheduled to sit an extra day on Friday as the government seeks to pass the Secure Jobs, Better Pay Bill and the National Anti-Corruption Commission legislation before its self-imposed end-of-year deadline.