The Australian parliament has passed the Albanese government’s Secure Jobs, Better Pay Bill. This will enable modest yet important reforms to the industrial relations system that will go some way toward achieving greater balance between employers and workers, and build a pathway to sorely needed workplace gender equality.
We were invited to give evidence to the Senate Committee inquiry into the Bill, alongside several other university research specialists. We presented evidence on the many significant problems facing Australian workers and workplaces, like negligible wage growth, a broken bargaining system, barriers to quality flexibility work arrangements and an unacceptably high gender pay gap. Considering the research regarding these challenges, we encouraged senators to support the Bill.
Research evidence suggests current industrial relations laws are tilted too far in favour of employers. Wages not keeping pace with rising living costs reflects this. The current bargaining system is inaccessible to many workers and too easy for employers to avoid. Even in sectors where bargaining agreements cover higher numbers of workers, the system currently takes too long to deliver reasonable wage outcomes. This has led many staff to leave their jobs and contributed to staff shortages.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in vital, highly feminised care work where employees have effectively been locked out of a bargaining system that is supposed to help lift wages and improve the quality of work. As a result, care workers, the majority of whom are women, are low paid and struggling to make ends meet.
Study after study shows that demand for quality flexible working arrangements is very high and yet is in short supply, particularly for workers with caring responsibilities. Key groups of workers, especially parents of young children, are often faced with a dilemma: work in a long-hours, inflexible job or in a precarious, insecure job without opportunity to get a professional wage. Because neither choice is attractive, many parents, particularly mothers, drop out of the paid workforce.
The Secure Jobs, Better Pay Bill contains many sensible changes to directly address these problems. Modernising the way pay equity cases are heard by the Fair Work Commission should allow for a better valuing of women’s economic contributions and drive more gender equitable wage outcomes. Strengthening the ability of workers to access flexible working arrangements should help to improve attraction and retention of highly educated women in paid work.
Reducing the barriers to bargaining should improve the capacity of workers to negotiate fairer pay arrangements. Measures to support and facilitate bargaining in low-paid sectors should open the door for workers to access living wages.
Making it easier to establish multi-employer bargaining should lead to better pay and employment outcomes, particularly for low-paid and women workers. Despite what critics claim, this aspect of the Bill is hardly radical. Multi-employer bargaining is used in most OECD countries and international research evidence highlights its benefits for achieving both fairer and more efficient work arrangements.
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