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Labor to tackle pay deals “rort”

Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations Tony Burke. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

The shape of Australia’s creating Jobs and Skills Summit is becoming clearer, as senior federal government ministers tout the end of one-sided enterprise agreement terminations and a new kind of digital skills apprenticeship as leading items on the agenda.

The Australian reports Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke will use next month’s landmark meeting of employers and unions to challenge the ability of employers to unilaterally slash pay deals negotiated with staff.

Burke is slated to address the Australian Industry Group on Monday, the outlet said, with his speech describing the ability of employers to tear up wage agreements as a “loophole” and a “rort”.

It is his ministerial duty to assess which elements of the workplace relations system are working and which are broken, Burke will say, hinting at the legislative tweaks which Labor could propose.

According to him, at least one aspect of today’s employment framework is broken.

“I see this as a way to get out of freely negotiated obligations, something we would never accept in the world of commercial or consumer contracts,” he will say.

The focus on pay deal negotiations comes after the highly publicized dispute between tugboat operators and Svitzer Towage, which unions accuse of angling to significantly slash pay for seagoing workers.

Negotiations over an expired enterprise agreement have reached a stalemate, resulting in Svitzer applying to the Fair Work Commission to return its workforce to the underlying award earlier this year.

The lingering enterprise agreement contains “a plethora of restrictive work practices and interference in managerial and operational decision-making”, Nicolaj Noes, managing director of Svitzer Australia, said in January.

But on Friday, maritime workers at ten ports across Australia stepped off the job in protest.

The text of Burke’s speech makes it clear where the Workplace Minister stands.

“But even if these workers weren’t in the news, the basic fact remains: If you want wages moving, a tactic that allows for 40 per cent pay cuts is not in the national interest,” he said.

It is his hope that the Jobs and Skills Summit will help provide cooperative alternatives to unilateral action, he added.

His parliamentary colleague, Senator Tony Sheldon, added his own piece Monday morning.

While companies “bully their workers by threatening to terminate their agreements”, Labor will “end this abusive practice,” he said on social media.

Digital skills apprenticeships are on the agenda

Burke’s speech is not the only recent update to Labor’s summit plans.

Speaking to the same publication, Industry Minister Ed Husic said the summit will hear a proposal to create a new apprenticeship scheme focused on digital and tech-forward skills.

The proposed digital skills scheme could provide new pathways to jobseekers and school-leavers who otherwise would have pursued tertiary education.

Two out of five tech roles in Australia don’t require a university degree, Husic said, suggesting a radical expansion of the digital apprenticeship space could ameliorate future skills shortages.

“We might be a new government but tech skills shortages have been a long running problem — that’s why we’re open to new ideas to tackle this issue,” Husic said on social media Monday morning.

Alongside skills shortages and industrial relations reform, small business groups say migration and participation should be front-and-centre of the creative summit.

Labor’s Jobs and Skills Summit is scheduled for September 1-2 in Canberra.

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