This article was co-authored with Jessica Kamleh, Sarah Katz, and Lachlan Crosbie.

The highly anticipated Federal Government’s Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Secure Jobs, Better Pay) Bill 2022 (Bill) has been introduced to Parliament.  This Bill proposes ambitious changes to the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) (FW Act) and mirrors many of the proposals which emerged from the Jobs & Skills Summit in September.

We will be exploring these proposed areas of change and what they may mean for you and your employees in a series of blog posts on our Global Workplace Insider blog, published over the next two weeks.

In the meantime, a snapshot of the key proposed changes are set out below.

1. Fixed term employment

In a bid to encourage secure, permanent employment, and limit the use of rolling fixed term contracts, the Bill introduces prohibitions against engaging employees on fixed term contracts:

  • spanning for a period of two or more years (inclusive of extensions); or
  • that may be extended more than once.

These changes will be a civil remedy provision – meaning that employers engaging employees on extended or rolling fixed term contracts will be exposed to monetary penalties under the FW Act.

The Fair Work Commission (FWC)will be granted the power to resolve disputes relating to these provisions.

2. Enterprise Bargaining

Multi-enterprise bargaining

While multi-enterprise bargaining is currently permitted under the FW Act in circumstances of ‘low-paid bargaining’ and ‘single interest bargaining’, multi-enterprise agreements are not commonly utilised by employers.  The Bill looks to increase the limited take-up of multi-enterprise agreements by:

  • Replacing ‘low-paid bargaining’ with ‘supported bargaining’ stream: like low-paid bargaining, the supported bargaining stream is intended to assist employers and employees who have struggled to bargain at the single-enterprise level.  The Bill simplifies the factors that the FWC is required to consider when granting a supported bargaining authorisation, to more readily allow multi-enterprise bargaining to commence.  The previously lengthy list of relevant factors will be narrowed to focus on whether the employers to the application have an ‘identifiable common interest’.  All other multi-enterprise agreements will be renamed ‘cooperative workplace agreements’.
  • Streamlining ‘single-interest employer’ authorisations: The Bill removes ‘unnecessary limits’ on access to single interest employer authorisations and aims to simplify the process for obtaining them.  Notably, where two or more employers with common interests are not franchisees, a Ministerial declaration will no longer be required for an authorisation to be granted.
  • Access to protected industrial action: parties to a single-interest enterprise agreement or a supported bargaining agreement will be entitled to take protected industrial action.

Enterprise agreement approval

The proposed changes are intended to simplify the agreement-making process and approval requirements, and include:

  • Removal of access period requirements: there will no longer be a requirement for employers to take all reasonable steps to ensure employees are given access to a copy of the agreement (and any material incorporated by reference) during the 7 day ‘access period’ or that employees be notified of the time, place and method for the vote by the start of the access period.  Instead, these requirements will be incorporated within the overarching requirement that the FWC must be satisfied an agreement has been ‘genuinely agreed to’ by employees.
  • Genuine agreement: a number of strict pre-approval requirements have been removed or simplified, being replaced by the overarching requirement that the FWC must be satisfied the agreement has been genuinely agreed to by employees covered by the agreement. 
  • Statement of principles: the FWC will be required to publish a ‘statement of principles’, which will provide guidance for employers about how to ensure employees have genuinely agreed to an agreement.  The statement of principles will be required to deal with a number of matters, including informing employees of bargaining and their right to be represented, providing a reasonable opportunity for employees to consider the agreement and information regarding the vote, as well as explaining the terms of the proposed agreement and their affect.  This statement of principles will be taken into account by the FWC when approving an agreement.
  • Sufficient interest in the terms of an agreement and sufficiently representative: the FWC cannot be satisfied an agreement has been ‘genuinely agreed’ to, unless it is satisfied that the employees who were requested to vote on the agreement had a sufficient interest in the terms of the agreement and were sufficiently representative of the employees the agreement is expressed to cover.

Initiating Bargaining

Employees (via a bargaining representative) will be permitted to write to their employer to initiate bargaining for a proposed single-enterprise agreement in the following circumstances:

  • the proposed agreement is to replace an existing agreement; and
  • the existing agreement’s nominal expiry date is within the past 5 years; and
  • the scope of the existing agreement is substantially similar to the proposed agreement.

This method of initiating bargaining will not apply to a proposed greenfields agreement, a multi-enterprise agreement (i.e. a cooperative workplace agreement or a supported bargaining agreement) or a single-enterprise agreement in relation to which a single interest authorisation is in operation.

The BOOT

The better off overall test (BOOT) will be amended to address inflexibilities in its implementation which have arisen over time, including ensuring that it is applied as a global assessment (not as a line-by-line comparison) as well as ensuring that the FWC will only have regard to patterns of work or types of employment that are reasonably foreseeable at the test time (not hypothetical working patterns).

A new ‘reconsideration process’ will enable the BOOT to be reassessed during the approval process.  This would allow the employer, employees or their representatives to seek a ‘reassessment’ of the BOOT if there has been a material change to working arrangements or where relevant circumstances were not properly considered during the approval process.

Dealing with errors in enterprise agreements

The Bill will empower the FWC to correct obvious errors, defects or irregularities in enterprise agreements and address situations where the incorrect version of an enterprise agreement has been mistakenly submitted to, and approved, by the FWC – removing the current complexity in rectifying these issues.

Bargaining Disputes

The FWC will have the power to issue an intractable bargaining declaration if it is satisfied there is no reasonable prospect of bargaining parties reaching an agreement.  If this declaration is made, the FWC would consider whether to exercise its discretion to provide the parties with a further period to negotiate (a post-declaration negotiation period), taking in account the relevant circumstances and whether the post-declaration negotiation period would assist the parties in reaching an agreement.  Following this period the FWC will have the power to make a workplace determination to resolve matters still in dispute.

Current provisions regarding serious breach declarations and bargaining-related workplace determinations will be repealed.

Industrial Action

Various amendments are proposed to the industrial action provisions of the FW Act that will:

  • extend the validity of a protected action ballot for a period of three months from the declaration of the ballot results (instead of 30 days);
  • allow the FWC to pre-approve persons authorised to conduct the ballot in addition to the Australian Electoral Commission;
  • require bargaining representatives to attend a conference conducted by the FWC during the protected action ballot period when directed to do so by the FWC;
  • in respect to single interest employer agreements and supported bargaining agreements, 120 hours’ written notice will be required to be provided before protected industrial action can be taken.

Varying enterprise agreement to remove employers and employees

The Bill proposes to amend the FW Act to enable an employer and affected employees to make a variation to a single interest employer agreement or multi-enterprise agreement so they cease to be covered.  The variation must be approved by the FWC.

3. Zombie Agreements

All remaining transitional instruments currently preserved under the Fair Work (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Act 2009 (Cth) will automatically sunset (i.e. be abolished).  These instruments include, collective agreement-based transitional instruments made under the predecessor legislation to the FW Act (e.g. collective agreements, workplace determinations, preserved collective State agreements, pre-reform certified agreements, old IR agreements, Australian Workplace Agreements), Division 2B State employment agreements, and enterprise agreements made during the bridging period (from 1 July 2009 to 31 December 2009).

Terminating enterprise agreements after their nominal expiry date

The Bill also proposes amendments to the existing powers of the FWC to terminate enterprise agreements that have passed their nominal expiry date, including the insertion of specific provisions to address situations where termination of the existing agreement is proposed in the context of bargaining (including prospective bargaining) for a replacement agreement.

4. Restricting pay secrecy

In an environment where aggressive salary negotiations and job hopping for higher pay has become the new normal, Australian employers have increasingly relied on their ability to direct employees not to disclose their salary with their co-workers in order to prevent employees from agitating for higher pay.

While pay secrecy has enhanced bargaining powers for employers during salary negotiations, it is argued it has led to actual and perceived wage inequality in the workplace contributing to entrenched gender and racial pay disparity.

In a bid to achieve pay transparency and equity, the Bill introduces new prohibitions on pay secrecy terms in contracts of employment.  These new terms create new workplace rights:

  • allowing employees to discuss and disclose their remuneration and employment conditions (e.g. number of ordinary hours and overtime hours worked); and
  • protecting the right of employees to elect not to make a disclosure (including when asked by their co-workers).

These changes will be a civil remedy provision – meaning that employers who insert these clauses into new contracts of employment or attempt to enforce them will be exposed to monetary penalties.

5. Sexual harassment & discrimination

Sexual harassment

The Bill implements some of the recommendations in the Respect@Work Report, including recommendation 28, by introducing a broad prohibition against sexual harassment in connection with work.

The prohibition applies to the wider definition of ‘worker’ under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Cth), including individuals carrying out work in any capacity for a person conducting a business or undertaking (including, for example, employees, trainees, apprentices, contractors and volunteers).

Additionally, in line with recommendation 29 of the Respect@Work Report, the stop sexual harassment order jurisdiction of the FWC will be expanded and will enable prospective workers to seek such orders.

The Bill also creates a new dispute resolution function for the FWC, modelled on the FWC’s general protections dispute resolution process.  In particular, if an application for the FWC to deal with a sexual harassment dispute does not consist solely of an application for a stop sexual harassment order, the FWC can deal with the dispute by mediation, conciliation or by making a non-binding recommendation.

Discrimination

The Bill extends the protections against discrimination under section 351 of the FW Act to include the attributes of breast feeding, gender identity and intersex status.

6. Flexible work & equal pay

Flexible Work

The Bill introduces important mechanisms to support employees experiencing family and domestic violence to access flexible work arrangements.

The amendments will also require employers to provide employees with reasons for any decision to refuse a flexible work arrangement request and inform employees of alternative changes that the employer is willing to make to accommodate the employee.

In addition, an employee will now have the ability to dispute the refusal of a flexible work arrangement where they consider the refusal is unreasonable – with the FWC being empowered to resolve disputes regarding flexible work arrangements.

Equal Pay

The Bill amends the requirements relied upon by the FWC to make a determination varying modern award minimum wages, requiring that the FWC consider:

  • that the work value must be free of gender based assumptions; and
  • whether the work has historically been undervalued as a result of gender based assumptions (e.g. gendered aged care and health care value judgements).

In an attempt to ensure that wage assessments are judged with sufficient expertise and to promote the above objectives, the Bill also provides for the constitution of Expert Panels within the FWC in relation to pay equity and the Care and Community Sector.  These newly constituted Expert Panels will be required to preside over substantive pay equity matters in the FWC.

7. Increase small claims cap

Under the FW Act, employees can currently take legal action in a small claims court to resolve claims about underpayments that are for $20,000 or less.  Small claims proceedings have the benefit of allowing claimants and Courts to dispose of small claims quickly, flexibly and cheaply – with employees easily able to make claims without legal representation if they choose.

The Bill aims to make small claims for employees more accessible by increasing the monetary cap on the amounts that can be awarded in small claims proceedings under the FW Act from $20,000 to $100,000.  The monetary cap for small claims will not include any amount of interest that may be awarded.

Employees who are successful in the small claims court will also be able to apply to claim their filing fees back from the opposing party (as costs) to ensure they are not penalised for claiming back their entitlements.

8. Abolishing the ABCC and ROC

The Bill introduces provisions which abolish:

  • the Registered Organisations Committee and the role of the Registered Organisations Commissioner (ROC); and
  • the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).

The role of the ROC will be absorbed by the General Manager of the Fair Work Commission, and the Fair Work Ombudsman will oust the ABCC to become the sole workplace relations regulator for the building and construction industry. 

The Bill will also repeal the Code for the Tendering and Performance of Building Work 2016, which was significantly stripped back earlier this year, as well as repeal other parts of the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Act 2016, such as provisions providing for higher penalties and the broader circumstances under which penalties may apply to building industry participants.

In our future blog posts, we will discuss in more detail what these changes may mean for you and your employees.

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