Sanctions won’t deter underpayment: union

Unionists gather in Canberra to protest the Bill. Image courtesy PPA

The union for employee pharmacists has slammed the proposed Fair Work Amendment, saying the changes would be “exceptionally unfair”

In its submission to the Education and Employment Legislation Committee Inquiry into the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2020, Professionals Australia argues that industrial relations reform is needed: but that it “should not come at the cost of workers and undermine their livelihoods”.

The Bill would affect both the General Retail Industry Award 2020 and the Pharmacy Industry Award 2020 as well as others.

PPA says that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of the role played by frontline workers, including “healthcare workers in our hospitals and pharmacies battling the virus and caring for the most vulnerable community members”.

“Frontline workers have borne the brunt of the pandemic – working long hours, in highly stressful environments, risking their own health and safety to protect the community’s well-being,” wrote Jill McCabe, CEO of Professionals Australia, in the submission.

“Many workers dealt with the challenge of remote working, while others faced reduced working hours, stand downs and, in some cases, the complete loss of employment.

“Workers from across all industries and sectors of the economy made huge sacrifices to keep business operating, compromising their working hours, pay and conditions.

“Despite the enormous sacrifices of Australian workers, the Government has decided to attack their wages, rights and working conditions through industrial relations ‘reforms’, as contained in the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia’s Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020.”

The union says it opposes the Bill for a number of reasons, including concerns that it will “result in employers becoming the primary decision makers regarding who is a casual employee and then which casual employees can convert to permanent employment”.

It also says that the Bill would “unfairly extinguish the claims of workers who have been denied paid leave entitlements because they have been misclassified as casuals through no fault of their own”.

Introducing JobKeeper provisions into awards is likely to result in these provisions becoming general conditions of employment.

This means they would become applicable to all employees covered by the Award, when JobKeeper was only ever meant to be temporary, applied to workplaces affected by the COVID-19 crisis.

And part-timers could become more like casual employees – without the casual loading or overtime they currently enjoy, PPA warns.

“The Bill’s proposal to provide for part-time workers to agree to work overtime at time for time instead of at penalties is opposed by Professionals Australia,” the submission says.

“Part-time workers, particularly those working in small businesses, find it very difficult to refuse an employer request to work additional hours because they do not want to create difficulties.

“Agreeing to work additional hours often requires the employee to hastily make other caring arrangements and sometimes to discuss a later start with another employer.

“Working additional hours often results in employees incurring additional costs for essentials such as child-care. A part time employee who enters into an employment agreement to work a certain number of hours on certain days and within a certain span of hours is entitled to rely on the agreed terms of their employment agreement and secure certainty around these arrangements.

“A casual employee is entitled to be paid a casual loading as compensation for the uncertainty of having their working hours and days changed at short notice.”

The proposed changes to the procedural requirements for how enterprise agreements will be made and how they will be approved will result in enterprise agreements being undermined and delivering substandard pay and conditions for employees, rather than better pay and conditions, the union says.

“The provisions for greenfields agreements come at the cost of workers’ rights to organise, be represented and collectively bargain.

“The proposed changes in the enforcement system will lengthen the time employees have to prosecute claims before they can obtain orders against non-compliant employers.”

The union says that a closer examination of proposed penalties for underpaying wages reveals that:

  • The employer can only face prosecution if they dishonestly engage in a systematic pattern of underpayment (compared to the Victorian legislation, which made it an offence to dishonestly withhold entitlements owed to an employee); and
  • The definition of “dishonesty” the Bill introduces “means it will be virtually impossible to convict an employer given it must be established beyond reasonable doubt the underpayment was not only ‘dishonest according to the standards of Professionals Australia: Submission to the Education and Employment Legislation Committee Inquiry 17 ordinary people’ but ‘known by the defendant to be dishonest according to the standards of ordinary people’.”

As a result such sanctions would “fail to act as an effective deterrent against wage theft by employers,” it said.

Yesterday the AJP reported that Angie Bell LNP member for Moncrieff, Qld told Parliament that, “Greater flexibility will be introduced into awards in some of our hardest-hit sectors. This will drive retail and hospitality jobs”.

Pharmacist and MP Emma McBride, ALP member for Dobell, NSW, said that health workers would be caught up in the reforms, putting them at greater risk of job insecurity.

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