'Immediate action' on Fair Work Act

·3-min read

Removing "unnecessary limitations" to single and multi-employer agreements has been flagged as a priority at the jobs and skills summit.

Speaking at the summit on Thursday, Employment Minister Tony Burke identified issues with the Fair Work Act he hoped to address immediately.

These included providing better access to flexible work arrangements and unpaid parental leave so families can share work and caring responsibilities.

Mr Burke also wanted to make the 'better off overall' test "simple, flexible and fair".

The government also committed to setting up a forum to bring together unions, businesses and government to solve issues in the construction industry, such as mental health and safety concerns.

He pointed to areas of ongoing work, including improving the awards system.

Both unions and business groups agreed the industrial relations system is failing workers and businesses, but the prospect of invigorating multi-sector bargaining remains a sticking point.

To get wages moving, Australian Council of Trade Unions head Sally McManus said the country needed new modern options alongside enterprise bargaining, including multi-employer or sector-wide bargaining.

Business Council of Australia president Tim Reed reiterated the organisation's preference to focus on fixing bargaining at the enterprise level.

"If we really want to sustainably get real wages growing, we need to consistently get productivity improvements," he said.

Mr Reed called for an industrial relations system that enhances innovation and productivity, and said that "primarily happens at the enterprise level".

The two groups have found common ground on several issues in the lead-up to the summit, releasing their shared goals for the event on Thursday.

The Council of Small Business Organisations Australia also agreed on shared priorities with the ACTU, including an open discussion on collective bargaining.

COSBOA chief executive Alexi Boyd clarified her position at the summit, telling attendees she did not support any measures that would "force, mandate or remove the autonomy of small businesses" and was "not interested in sector-wide compulsory" deals.

On the ACTU's suggestion to enable more multi-employer or sector-based bargaining, Ai Group boss Innes Willox said he was not convinced of the need for "radical or risky" reform.

"There is real concern that such a proposal will risk exposing our community to crippling industrial action across crucial sectors of our economy, and nobody wants that," he said.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers says legislating multi-employer bargaining won't open the way for small businesses to be unionised, leading to greater strikes and economic shutdowns.

"I don't agree with that conclusion," he told the ABC's 7.30 program after the first day of the summit.

"It's equally untrue to say the whole business community is not in favour of multi-employer bargaining.

"There's not unanimity about the way forward here. Our objective is to try and find sufficient common ground on ways to make the enterprise bargaining system work better for workers and employers."

The government also announced the first stage of its election commitment to deliver 450,000 fee-free TAFE places over four years.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the national cabinet had agreed on the creation of 180,000 fee-free TAFE places next year.

Mr Albanese said the $1.1 billion package would be jointly funded by federal, state and territory governments.

While the details are yet to be nutted out, the funded training places will be focused on areas with skills shortages.

Women, First Nations people and young people will be prioritised.

Opposition immigration spokesman Dan Tehan warned of the unintended consequences of fee-free training.

"Well, nothing's for free - let's just make that clear - ultimately, the Australian taxpayer pays for it," Mr Tehan told Sky News.

He also questioned how private vocational providers would be affected.

The summit also featured a discussion about the jobs of the future and pathways to modernise the economy.

"We rightly pride ourselves in the role we played inventing wi-fi and the solar panel," Industry Minister Ed Husic said.

"But when we hit the full stop of that last sentence, we don't seem ready for the question that rapidly follows: what's next?"

The summit concludes on Friday.