25 AUGUST 2022
SUBJECTS: Jobs Summit, collective bargaining push, Minimum skilled migrant wage.
SARAH FERGUSON, HOST: The hares are now well and truly running ahead of the government's Jobs and Skills Summit next week. Yesterday, the ACTU introduced their big idea; a push to give more muscle to low paid workers in wage negotiations through collective bargaining. Some, though not all, industry groups howled down the proposal, but persistent low wages are one of the biggest challenges Australians face. So is the government open to the idea? Tony Burke is the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. I spoke to him earlier. Tony Burke, welcome to the programme.
THE HON TONY BURKE MP, MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS: Great to be here.
FERGUSON: Now, the ACTU says the way to get wages moving for low paid workers, particularly in the service and care industries, most of whom are women, as we know, or many of whom are women, is to give them more muscle through collective bargaining. It's a big idea. Do you embrace it?
BURKE: We need to bring the system up to date with a government that wants to get wages moving. So in the lead up to the summit, we're not ruling things in or out. There are some ideas that have been very much out of left field that we've kept on the table. I do have to say I am very interested in what the ACTU have put forward. We need to be able to get bargaining moving and there are a few examples in different workforces where that concept of multi-employer bargaining, I'm really interested in seeing how we can flesh this out.
FERGUSON: At the beginning, they were talking about it, let's say, in terms of low paid workers, particularly, as I said, in the service and care industries, but I think they're talking about a root and branch reform. Is that what you have in mind?
BURKE: Well, what I've got in mind is the destination to get wages moving. So we had a decade where the wages were kept deliberately low. It was a design feature of the previous government. We deliberately want to get wages moving and we have this very unusual situation with the economy at the moment, where unemployment is so low, and that should create the hydraulic pressure that's pushing wages up, but instead the hydraulic pressure is there, but the pipes have leaks in them. And bargaining not working is one of those key leaks. So if multi-employer bargaining is one of the ways of opening that up for wherever that might be in the workforce, I'm interested. There are clear examples in lower paid, like cleaners are a simple example, where if a worker directly bargained with a small business employer or medium sized business, and the employer does the right thing and gives a pay rise, you can find very quickly that someone else just comes, undercuts them, and it's all gone.
FERGUSON: So that sounds at the beginning like you are very open to this idea?
BURKE: That's a fair way to put it.
FERGUSON: All right, now just talk about some of the response today. Peter Dutton has jumped on the idea saying that the ACTU's plan is a throwback to the 1970s that will cause crippling strikes. Does this sort of response, along with industry opposition, mean that the idea is doomed before you even get to the Summit?
BURKE: I'm not surprised Peter Dutton would oppose any idea that we get wages moving. He was part of the government that didn't want wages to move and they were successful in that. But if we are going to do anything about helping people make ends meet at a time where we're seeing inflation soar, and the Reserve Bank Governor even says as an anchor point, 3.5 per cent is sort of where you'd want to be as an anchor, we're still at 2.6, even with inflation running at 6.1, so you have to be willing to look at the system. Now, this is one of those ideas, and if people just start knocking off ideas from the start, then effectively they're saying, let's keep wages low.
FERGUSON: Well, in fact, not every employer group has opposed. I think the Business Council of Australia only a week ago, made a speech, well the leader of the BCA did, in which she said, "we need to restore the role of collective bargaining because it delivers better outcomes for workers and employers". Do you think you can get momentum for change with just one group on side?
BURKE: Well, there's lots of employers that have wanted to engage in multi-employer bargaining and have been blocked by the system. Like, I was stunned when I became a Minister and one of the briefs that came through to me a few weeks ago was for me to have to give personal permission for two employers who wanted to bargain together. Now, if they want to bargain together and the workers want to bargain with them, what business is it of mine to stand in the way? Now, there's another example in Victoria where a whole lot of childcare centres, about 70 of them, wanted to bargain together. They all employed about 20 to 30 workers, predominantly female, and to be able to do it, they then had to go through the rigmarole at the end of individually registering each agreement. It was something that was a good outcome for the employer, got wages moving for the workers. But if you want to get the sort of efficiencies that can come with bargaining, it's really not going to happen.
FERGUSON: I think I'm right in saying that that was part of the low paid bargaining stream, part of the Fair Work Act brought in by Rudd and Gillard. That allows for collective bargaining with multiple employers. Can you reform that part of the Act or do you want to scratch that and start again?
BURKE: Look, I'm up for the conversation and we'll have that at the Summit, but everyone I talk to will say that the low paid stream hasn't worked.
BURKE: There were big hopes for it, it was put there in good faith. It hasn't worked. And then you have to work through the principles about if you were to do something like this and we haven't made a decision, but if you were, you'd then work through which workforces you'd apply it to.
FERGUSON: Sally McManus also last night, she backed the call from the Australian Workers Union that all skilled migrants coming into Australia should be compulsorily signed up to a union with an opt out clause. Will you support that?
BURKE: Well, we're leaving it on the table, but to give you context of what we're leaving on the table, the National Farmers Federation have said people can be paid in food and we've left that on the table as well. So different ideas that come forward, we're leaving on the table -
FERGUSON: Does that mean you're open to that idea of compulsory membership of union for skilled migrants?
BURKE: Well, they didn't say compulsory membership. That's the way you just described it, it wasn't. But notwithstanding that, once again, it's not our policy -
FERGUSON: Automatic membership, with an opt out.
BURKE: All I'm saying is it's on the table to be discussed.
FERGUSON: So not ruled out.
BURKE: That's right. In the same way that the National Farmers Federation concept wasn't ruled out. But can I say this? Most of the examples that I look at, where we've had the worst examples of exploitation, have involved people on visas. And if we're serious about addressing wage theft, anything that provides an additional protection, we have to at least keep on the table and have the conversation.
FERGUSON: But just to come back to that question, is some form of compulsory membership a good thing or is it simply untenable in a modern economy?
BURKE: We have freedom of association principles; they're not going to change. They're not going to change.
FERGUSON: For the ACTU to support an increase in skilled migration, they're demanding a minimum wage of $91,000 for all skilled migrants. Are you prepared to back that push?
BURKE: There's a series of different ways of being able to deal with the migration system. One of the things that we've been doing so far legally and both sides of politics over the years have done this is put all the rules into the immigration system. And that's how we've sort of worked through all of those thresholds.
FERGUSON: But that idea of a threshold at 91,000, are you open to that?
BURKE: Certainly we're not fixed to that, but we're glad there's a conversation happening about out where it should be.
FERGUSON: Sounds like a very open mind to collective bargaining.
BURKE: You can't get wages moving without getting collective bargaining moving.
FERGUSON: Tony Burke, thank you very much for joining us.
BURKE: Great to be back.