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‘A collective failure’: IR reform debate kicks off again

Emma Ryan
22 April 2021 2 minute readShare

Varied opinions on the IR Omnibus Bill introduced to Parliament last year have gathered media attention this week, with one small business body hitting out at two others over comments relating to wage theft.

Earlier this week, The Australian published comments from both the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) and Australian Industry Group (AIG) in response to COSBOA’s call to revive legislation to penalise wage theft.

“If the government was in any way inclined to reopen discussions on IR, we would strongly encourage them to look at the other matters that were on the table, such as reversing the terminal decline in enterprise bargaining, which supported productivity improvement and job creation,” said acting ACCI chief executive Jenny Lambert.

AIG chief executive Innes Willox added that while his group “does not support employers who deliberately underpay their staff, but the reality is that the vast majority of underpayments are the result of genuine payroll errors, typically caused by Australia’s overly complex workplace relations laws and awards”.

“A few years ago, the penalties for underpaying employees were increased by 10 times and the penalties for record-keeping offences were increased by 20 times,” Mr Willox said.

“Exposing small business owners and other employers to jail terms of up to four years for underpayments is not the answer.”

Following the article being posted, COSBOA chair Mark McKenzie hit back, noting that the “collective failure” of the employer groups to agree on a way forward “meant that we simply handballed our conflict and disagreement on a way forward to the Australian Parliament”.

“The reported comments from ACCI and AIG on our call for the wage theft provisions to be revisited to penalise deliberate and systemic wage underpayment demonstrate that they either haven’t actually read the legislation, or are deliberately misrepresenting it to undermine the argument for change,” Mr McKenzie said.

To further his point, Mr McKenzie reiterated that our wage theft differs to payroll mistakes.

“Pretending that legislating against wage theft will result in small business employers who make mistakes going to jail — particularly coming from the mouths of big business groups, some of whom regularly defend deliberate misclassification of staff as contractors — is reprehensible,” Mr McKenzie said.

COSBOA CEO Peter Strong echoed a similar sentiment, calling the comments by ACCI and AIG a “toxic all-or-nothing approach”.

“Packaging all of the reforms together in one bill didn’t work the first time, so why are they threatening to support penalties for wage underpayment only if it’s part of a new bill containing the reforms that failed to get through Parliament? It’s beyond disappointing, beyond obstructive — it’s just plain stupid. As the cliché goes, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results,” Mr Strong said.

“COSBOA wants real change. And we understand that sometimes incremental change is the best — or even the only — way forward. We are motivated by practicality, not ideology.

“Let there be no doubt we want a simpler workplace relations system that is easy for small business employers to navigate. One that gives small businesses confidence to employ people. But let’s achieve this one step at a time.”

The IR Omnibus Bill passed the Senate by 35 votes to 33 in December last year; however, following votes on a range of amendments introduced by the Labor opposition and the crossbench, only the provisions around casual work passed the Senate in the end.

Pictured: COSBOA chair Mark McKenzie

‘A collective failure’: IR reform debate kicks off again
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Emma Ryan

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