A quick breakdown of the new industrial relations laws

An industrial relations bill introducing multi-employer bargaining and a raft of other changes was passed by the Australian Senate in early December.

The ‘Secure Jobs, Better Pay’ bill introduces some of the most significant changes to workplace legislation in over a decade.

The Albanese government pushed for these changes with the hope they will lead to wage growth while limiting industrial action and helping to make workplaces fairer for employees. 

Here is a brief overview of some of the key changes. 

Australia’s new industrial relations laws

Changes to worker rights

  • Pay secrecy

Under the IR law changes, pay secrecy clauses will no longer be allowed. Employees will be able to speak about their pay to others and existing secrecy clauses will no longer apply.

  • Equal remuneration, anti-discrimination and sexual harassment

Modern Awards will be amended to be more clear about people’s rights to secure work and equal pay. As shared by Lexology.com, “Some minor changes will align the FWA with other anti-discrimination legislation by including protection against discrimination on the basis of breastfeeding, gender identity and intersex status as protected attributes.”

Changes to sexual harassment laws mean employers may be vicariously liable if they cannot show that they took all reasonable steps to prevent improper conduct.

  • Fixed-term contracts

With some exceptions, employers will soon find there are limits on how many times they can extend a fixed-term contract. 

  • Flexible work arrangements

Workers will have more circumstances under which they are able to request flexible work, for example on the grounds of family and domestic violence.

  • Bargaining

Perhaps the most talked about change is the expansion of multi-employer bargaining. 

As explained by The Guardian, the bill contains three streams of multi-employer bargaining:

– the cooperative stream where employers opt-in to bigger pay deals

– the supported stream, for low-paid sectors

– the single-interest stream.

Within these streams, some of the changes and new rules include the following: 

  • The Workplace Minister will be able to declare that an industry or occupation is eligible for supported multi-employer bargaining (MEB)
  • Workers with common interests will now be able to bargain together, where it is in the public interest for them to do so (exceptions will apply for small businesses that only have a limited number of employees)
  • The Fair Work Commission will have the power to compel a multi-employer agreement to be put to a vote, without an employer’s right to veto and without union support, limiting the ability of parties to unreasonably withhold agreement.
  • If larger businesses want to avoid multi-employer bargaining, they will have to prove they are not reasonably comparable with other businesses
  • Bargaining disputes

The Fair Work Commission will have additional power when it comes to arbitrating bargaining disputes. For example, if the minimum bargaining period is longer than nine months, the FWC may issue an intractable bargaining declaration if bargaining has not and is not likely to be progressed further.

  • Terminating agreements and sunsetting of old agreements

The reforms introduce restrictions on employers terminating agreements after the normal expiry date.

There is a helpful explainer article about old and ‘zombie’ agreements here: https://www.cbp.com.au/insights/insights/2022/june/dusk-of-the-dead-the-end-for-zombie-agreements

If you’re an employer

The passing of this bill may require you to review your policies, agreements, contracts and bargaining plans in 2023. Talk to your HR team about how the changes may affect your business. 

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