The Australian Labour and Employment Association (ALERA) National Conference took place last Friday 15 October 2021. The programme included a long list of IR leaders, influencers and decision makers including Fair Work President Ross, Minister Michaelia Cash, Shadow Minister Tony Burke, Sally McManus, Sharan Burrow, the Fair Work Ombudsman Sandra Parker, Professors Andrew Stewart and Marilyn Pittard and other esteemed speakers.

Whilst this short blog post will not do justice to the depth and breadth of information and opinions shared, I will seek to pick out the eyes that may be of interest to our Justitia clients.

President Ross confirmed that it was likely that the Commission will continue to conduct some of the Commission’s hearings online. This will particularly be the case for short hearings, mentions and issues involving evidence. It will, as he observed, result in “less cost, less time for parties, they can engage in a short matter from their own workplace without the need to travel” to the Commission.

The Commission’s updated website and new online learning modules will be launched in the coming month and will progress the Commission’s objective of digital transformation. He also continued to promote the successes of the Commission’s interest-based bargaining program; there are video case studies on the Commission’s website that provide further information about the program, which provides an alternative approach to the traditional position-based bargaining.

Tony Burke put the spotlight on the casualization of the workforce, which, during the pandemic, has resulted in a more adverse impact on those in low socioeconomic areas of the workforce, as well as women, and hindered a government’s capacity to protect workers from getting infected. He flagged that Labor would be doing more to ensure work is secure, and that this would become an objective of the Fair Work Act. He outlined the following agenda for his party.

Labor will:

  • limit the number of successive fixed term contacts that can be offered on employee
  • ensure they (the Federal Government) becomes a model employer themselves
  • direct that the same job receives the same pay, to counter labour hire practices.
  • outlaw pay secrecy
  • require large corporates to report on the gender pay gap
  • provide 10 days paid family violence leave

Stephen Smith from AI Group foreshadowed:

  • that workers will be looking for more flexibility after the pandemic, and they will vote with their feet if it is not provided it. In his view it would be unreasonable, given how people have taken control of how they work, to expose employers to award breaches and so potentially, this may require an increase in flexibility under awards
  • there are two important cases to be handed down by the High Court in independent contractors (Jamsek v ZG Operations Australia Pty Ltd and Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union v Personnel Contracting Pty Ltd)

Andrew Stewart, Marilyn Pittard and Frances Anderson (VGSO) discussed the challenges faced by employers in navigating the current health directives in Victoria. Measures employers are relying on to prevent unvaccinated workers from entering the workplace included: standdown provisions, reasonable and lawful directions and/or the wage-work bargain.

Stewart in particular lamented the lack of national leadership which has resulted in the States adopting their own approaches. He thought it was unsatisfactory to have different standards and directives, which could be influenced by political factors like forthcoming elections. Whilst the legal position of employers to ultimate exclude unvaccinated workers, if not terminate employment, was clear, there would still be a lot of claims and funded litigation from anti-vaccination advocacy groups. A useful reminder as well that employers need more than a valid reason to dismiss.

Pittard pointed out that the current rights under the FW Act to request flexible work need to be overhauled in light of the pandemic. There is no right to work from home. They all made fascinating observations about the development in other countries, and the odd Australian enterprise agreements, to the “right to disconnect”. [More on that in another Justitia blog!]

Academic Paula McDonald discussed developments in automation, and the pros and cons of AI. She observed that an area ripe for research was the increased use of AI in recruitment.

A session on “The Future of Work” led by Dr Jim Standford and Dr Alison Pennington was interesting. Dr Standford stated it is a myth that our jobs are being removed by technology. There is in fact an increase in jobs that don’t need technology and so we are in a new era of work. There are in fact lots of low-tech work that is low paid and essential e.g. aged care workers, fastfood, cleaning hospitals. Those workers are now celebrated as heroes. He asks: if we think they are heroes, why don’t we treat them as such?

He listed ten ways that the pandemic had changed work for good which you can read more about here.

Lastly, whilst the Fair Work Ombudsman’s presentation was not permitted to be reported on, it should be noted that the FWO’s annual report is out in the next few weeks.

Congratulations to the ALERA conference organisers for a thought-provoking day.

This summary and interpretation of the presenters, is entirely the work of the author Sarah Rey. She welcomes any corrections, your questions and the opportunity to continue the conversation.