Mass strike threat in COVID ‘pay cut’ dispute
Unions will not rule out broadscale strikes if the government pushes ahead with major industrial relations reforms which could see some COVID-hit businesses offer workers lower pay for the next two years.
Labor and the unions have branded the changes "the worst attack since Work Choices" and could create a race to reduce wages.
But the Morrison Government has dismissed their concerns, saying the emergency provisions will only be able to be used in "exceptional circumstances" and won't necessarily affect pay.
Under the proposal, during enterprise bargaining a majority of workers would have to agree with their employer to sign a new agreement which does not fit the existing Better Off Overall Test for pay and conditions.
The company would then have to prove to the Fair Work Commission that it has been impacted by the COVID recession.
As an example the Attorney-General pointed to tourism operators on the Great Barrier Reef who are unlikely to see a short-term recovery with international borders remaining shut.
The special COVID provisions will be open to any enterprise bargaining agreements coming up in the next two years and any agreements signed will last for two years maximum.
Labor is squaring up for a "Work Choices" style fight, saying there is nothing in the legislation that specifies a business needs to be worse off financially with the call left to the Fair Work Commission.
Attorney-General Christian Porter said the FWC would act as an independent umpire and would have to pay attention to the extent of employee support for the agreement.
"It would seem to me almost certain that things like turnover and the disruption to their business that have been occasioned by COVID-19, would have to be put in a satisfactory fashion with appropriate evidence," Mr Porter said.
"Otherwise you'd be destined to fail and the application would be pointless."
Mr Porter said it was a slight change, varying an existing provision to deal with a short-term crisis to deal with the "mid-term" crisis of COVID, adding it was more likely to vary flexible hour arrangements or shift patterns than pay.
"I expect it would be potentially used in a small handful of occasions - but it is not a groundbreaking change," he said.
Tony Burke said that there was nothing in the legislation which specifically requires the Fair Work Commission to take into consideration the financial impacts of COVID-19.
"This pay cut is the Government's Christmas present to workers who got us through the pandemic," Mr Burke said.
"The Government has taken the Better Off Overall Test and turned it into a test where, under an agreement, every single worker covered can be worse off."
Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus said "we won't rule anything out" when asked about increased industrial action if the government pushed ahead with the proposed changes.
"Anything that takes rights off working people, that reduces, damages the economic recovery," she said.
Originally published as Mass strike threat in COVID 'pay cut' dispute