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Workforce management

Australia’s Senate passes key parts of its closing loopholes bill including labour hire reforms

This legislative initiative encompasses a series of comprehensive reforms designed to fortify laws.

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Additional provisions include new guidelines for independent medical assessments of workers.
Legislation includes better support for first responders diagnosed with PTSD.
The criminalisation of wage theft is poised to elevate civil penalties.

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On 7th December 2023, crucial components of Australia’s Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Closing Loopholes) Bill 2023 successfully cleared the Senate. This legislative initiative, introduced by the Australian Labor government earlier in the year, encompasses a series of comprehensive reforms designed to fortify labour laws.

The approved reforms are multifaceted, featuring pivotal elements such as the enforcement of ‘same job, same pay’ regulations aimed at curbing the exploitation facilitated by labour-hire entities. Additionally, the reforms strive to enhance protections for gig-economy workers, while also criminalising wage theft, encompassing both civil penalties and intentional wage theft. The legislation extends its reach to include superannuation theft.

Significantly, the Senate’s approval includes the closure of the labour hire loophole, signalling improved compensation for labour hire workers. The criminalisation of wage theft is poised to elevate civil penalties and explicitly outlaw intentional wage theft, incorporating offences related to superannuation.

Notably, The Guardian has reported that the bundling of these provisions into a single bill is expected to spark a robust employer campaign against the ‘same-job, same-pay’ measures. Consequently, reforms pertaining to the gig economy, road transport industry, and casual work are deferred until 2024 due to the bill’s bifurcation.

Additional noteworthy aspects of the approved legislation comprise enhanced rights for workplace delegates, better support for first responders diagnosed with PTSD, strengthened protections against discrimination for individuals experiencing family and domestic violence, and the inclusion of silica-related diseases and safety in the jurisdiction of the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency. The reforms also introduce criminal charges for industrial manslaughter.

The approved reforms are multifaceted, featuring pivotal elements such as the enforcement of ‘same job, same pay’ regulations aimed at curbing the exploitation facilitated by labour-hire entities.

Further negotiations with Senators David Pocock and Jacqui Lambie have yielded amendments that shift the burden of proof for first responders with post-traumatic stress disorder, improving access to work health and safety support. Additional provisions include new guidelines for independent medical assessments of workers and a comprehensive independent review of Comcare, the national work health and safety, and workers’ compensation authority. An agreement with Lambie involves increased funding for the small business advisory service within the Fair Work ombudsman.

While consensus exists on certain elements, such as those related to the gig economy and casual employment, details are anticipated to be resolved in the coming year. The Shadow Workplace Rlations Minister, Michaelia Cash, expressed dissatisfaction with the government’s preemptive deal-making before thorough scrutiny by an inquiry, scheduled to report back in February 2024.

The Greens, having secured the criminalisation of super theft in the initial bill, affirmed their approval of the overall deal. However, they pledge to persist in advocating for the right to disconnect from work, resisting phone calls and emails outside regular working hours when the second bill is presented to parliament.

ACTU Secretary Sally McManus praised the legislation as a timely gift for working people and commended the collaborative efforts of the Albanese Government, crossbench, David Pocock, the Jacqui Lambie Network, Lidia Thorpe, and the Greens. McManus emphasised that the reforms would enhance worker rights, contribute to a safer work environment, and provide a vital boost to wages during the current cost-of-living challenges.

Addressing anticipated opposition, McManus noted that major and highly profitable companies, such as mining giants like Gina Rinehart’s or Qantas, may resist these changes. She underscored that these corporations could absorb the adjustments, characterising the opposition as a reluctance to compromise even minimally on their substantial profits. McManus asserted that the fight is ongoing, emphasising that the remainder of the bill must pass in the new year to ensure equitable treatment for truck drivers, casual workers, and gig workers, declaring that the mission remains incomplete until then.

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