Aged care unions plan to use the recently passed industrial relations laws to push for the desired 25% wage increase as multi-employer bargaining becomes more accessible.
Multiple employers within the aged care industry can now bargain together for new enterprise agreements, while there is now greater job security for fixed-term employees and increased gender equality opportunities.
Multi-employer bargaining has been the most talked about feature of this Bill, as the law opens the door for a number of new negotiation tactics within the aged care and disability care sector.
Previously, each organisation would negotiate its own deal with workers, but common-interest employers providing similar services can now be included together in collective bargaining agreements.
It’s believed that multi-employer bargaining will drive up aged care wages and unions are ready to push the Fair Work Commission (FWC) to increase their interim 15% aged care wage rise to the full 25% that was originally requested.
The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) told the FWC the new laws are relevant to the wage increase and they should be used to deliver appropriate wages across the aged care sector – not just for direct care workers.
“This Bill is critical in giving nurses and aged care workers access to a collective bargaining system that allows for much-needed wage growth, improving conditions and increasing gender equity across workplaces,” said a spokesperson for the ANMF.
“In the event the Commonwealth requires some short further time to address these additional matters, without disturbing the rest of the existing program, ANMF would not be opposed to that course.”
Unions will also have additional power when it comes to negotiating new enterprise deals as bargaining representatives. They must provide written consent to providers who want to present a new agreement to employees.
As a result, unions could veto any agreement they find unsuitable before it even reaches an employee vote.
Meanwhile, employees can apply to the FWC to have themselves and their employer added to a supported bargaining authorisation without the employer’s consent. However, there are restrictions to this, as employees from each provider must vote in favour of the agreement for it to pass.
Health Services Union (HSU) National President, Gerard Hayes, said the new Bill was a long overdue intervention by the Government.
“In industries such as aged care, it’s incredibly important that the Federal Government take part in bargaining,” said Mr Hayes.
“At the end of the day they are the primary funder of these services and any wage deal is meaningless if the organisation ultimately funding it isn’t involved.
Mr Hayes also praised the Bill for addressing gender equity in the care industry.
“We are also hugely encouraged by the introduction of new gender equity provisions,” said Mr Hayes.
“Aged care is characterised by insecurely employed, underpaid women. So the changes are very welcome and we plan to take advantage of them.”
HSU said it planned to use the Bill as critical support for its own Work Value Case with the FWC to increase aged care worker awards by 25%.
The Bill was not without its controversies as Opposition Leader Peter Dutton claimed “every business group in the country” opposed it, but Prime Minister Anthony Albanese expressed his enthusiasm for the workers who will benefit.
“[This] is a win for the heroes of the pandemic, the cleaners, the disability workers, the aged care workers, the early childhood educators,” said Mr Albanese.
“They got our thanks but they deserve more than that, they deserve better conditions and they deserve better pay.”
Concerns have been raised that multi-employer bargaining could prove to be a lengthy process while some say it could spur providers into negotiating their own enterprise agreements sooner to avoid being paired up with other providers in a deal they do not want.
The Secure Jobs, Better Pay Bill included a number of other key elements that are set to boost aged care worker rights.
Job security for workers with fixed-term contracts is set to change with no more than two consecutive short-term rolling contracts allowed. The Government wants to see workers offered permanent contracts instead.
Contracts that employ workers on a set period, such as six months or one year, can only be renewed for two consecutive contracts or for a maximum period of two years, whichever is shorter.
Gender equality was a recurring theme as well, with a number of changes included to enhance the rights of women in the workforce.
The gender pay gap will be addressed through the prohibition of pay secrecy clauses that previously denied some employees from voluntarily discussing their wages.
Sexual harassment has been prohibited in the workplace under Commonwealth Law, ensuring one of the final recommendations made in the Respect@Work Report was passed. Workers now have additional protection through the FWC and they can seek support and compensation under the Fair Work Act.
Meanwhile, care workers with their own caring responsibilities at home will have more power to negotiate flexible working arrangements.
The new legislation prevents employers from unreasonably refusing roster requests from staff who are looking after children or caring for a family member. The legislation is seen as a boost for women in the care sector who take on primary care responsibilities at home.
While there are limitations to the flexibility, it means that employers who have been less accommodating are required to work with staff to achieve a positive outcome.
For example, workers can request hours that cater to school drop-off or pick-up and if those arrangements are denied, they now have the right to involve the Fair Work Commission through formal arbitration.
All aspects of the Bill officially passed into law on December 6. You can find a full outline of the reforms here.