‘Rights aren’t worth much if they can’t be enforced.’

Industrial relations reforms announced this week will hurt pharmacy workers by undermining pay and conditions, warns one stakeholder

This week the Morrison Government announced reforms to the IR system which it said were driven by a single goal: “breaking down the barriers to job growth so that we can get Australians back to work”.

Following consultation with employer and employee groups, the Government prepared the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia’s Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020.

According to a statement by the office of the Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations, Christian Porter, five key areas are targeted: award simplification; greenfields agreements; casual employment; enterprise bargaining; and compliance and enforcement.

Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations, Christian Porter, said the reforms would give employers the confidence to invest in staff.

The changes regarding casuals are hoped to end “the confusion and uncertainty surrounding the legal status of casuals, while providing a clearer pathway for those working regular shifts to convert to permanent roles after 12 months if they wish to do so,” the statement said.

But Professional Pharmacists Australia has slammed the changes, saying that as well as undermining pay and conditions, the reforms will strip the rights of casual workers”.

Professional Pharmacists Australia President Dr Geoff March said the Bill contains a range of troubling reforms.

“The government’s proposal to allow two-year agreements which are not required to comply with the Better Off Overall Test if the company can show such an agreement is economically necessary, will simply allow employers to cut wages and conditions, even permitting agreements which deliver conditions below the minimum award safety-net,” he said.

Dr March said the union now expects some pharmacy owners who have previously been resistant to negotiating enterprise agreements with their employees to now be more likely to seek such an agreement.

“Pharmacy employees should be wary of any approach from their employer to enter into an enterprise agreement if this new Bill is passed, as their employer may be seeking to reduce their pay and conditions.

“Pharmacy employees should immediately contact the union if they are confronted with a new enterprise agreement by their employer.”

Dr March was also concerned about the impact that the IR reforms would have on casual and part time workers, who comprise a large component of the pharmacy workforce.

“The proposed laws take rights away from casuals, and allow employers to call workers who are actually working full time hours ‘casuals’, removing their entitlements to annual and sick leave.

“While the government argues that casual workers will be able to become permanent after 12 months, the laws don’t provide workers with any way of enforcing this right.

“Frankly, rights aren’t worth much if they can’t be enforced.”

Dr March said that the Bill also introduces new part-time flexibility provisions to be available across 12 identified modern awards. One of those identified awards is the Pharmacy Industry Award. 

“This new provision, if it is passed, will enable employers to only pay part time employees who work overtime at their normal hourly rate time instead of the current award requirement for them to be paid at overtime rates.”

The line between permanent and casual work had received significant media scrutiny during 2020, particularly after a May Federal Court in the matter of WorkPac v Rossato, which upheld key principles of the 2018 WorkPac v Skene decision.

WorkPac v Skene had outlined that work which is regular, on-going and permanent in nature is not genuinely ‘casual’ and therefore attracts entitlements such as paid annual leave.

At the time, it was reported that Mr Porter was considering legislation to address this situation.

Professionals Australia CEO Jill McCabe also commented, saying the reforms were particularly disappointing given comments made by the Government about wishing to reduce friction between stakeholders.

“When the Morrison government said it wanted to transcend the adversarial nature of industrial relations and adopt a more conciliatory approach, this was welcomed by our union,” she said.

“Unfortunately, the reforms unveiled this week undermine the existing rights and entitlements of Australian workers, including those, like pharmacy employees, who worked tirelessly on the front line during the pandemic delivering essential services to our community.” 

She also said that at a time of economic downturn, the government’s IR reforms were completely counterproductive.

“The fact we are still facing tough economic times where the need to increase consumer spending is paramount to recovery, yet the government is proposing laws which will result in workers having less money in their pockets to spend, is simply nonsensical.

“Professional Pharmacists Australia will not accept proposed changes that leave pharmacy employees worse off and we will be actively opposing any attempts to water down workplace rights.”

Christian Porter had also noted that the introduction of the Bill was not the end of the conversation, “with a Senate Committee likely to examine the legislation in detail over the coming months”.

“This is an opportunity for further submissions to be made by all sides of the debate and the Government will be willing to consider any sensible amendments that pass the simple test of being good for job growth,” he said.

“The danger is that if those inside and outside the Parliament revert to their traditional ideological corners, these critical reforms could be delayed or even blocked, leaving business without crucial supports and workers without an opportunity to get back into jobs.”

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