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Federal

Feb 11, 2013

Workplace flexibility: where (almost) everyone gets to grandstand

The government's proposal to expand the right to ask for workplace flexibility was a grandstanding opportunity for everyone except its target, the Coalition.

There’s something for everyone in the Prime Minister’s rather vague announcement about extending the right to request flexible working arrangements to parents returning from parental leave — everyone, that is, except the opposition.

A little background: the Fair Work Act established a right for carers/parents with kids under school age, or with disabled kids, with 12 months’ ongoing employment, or long-term casuals, to ask employers for flexible working arrangements. The right is entirely limited to asking: employers can knock back requests on “reasonable business grounds”.

Sounds vague and a bit wishy-washy, right? When the Fair Work Act review looked at the right last year, however, it was quite positive about the right, and about similar schemes overseas. “The high percentage of requests that lead to flexible working arrangements being put in place, and the comparatively low rate of refusals, indicates employers are taking the provisions seriously and that they are being used effectively by employees to alter their working arrangements to suit their circumstances,” the review found. It also noted international evidence that employers believed such schemes improved productivity.

The review recommended the right be expanded to “a wider range of caring and other circumstances”, as urged by unions and academics, and that the right be strengthened to the requirement that “the employee and the employer hold a meeting to discuss the request”. But it knocked back proposals for a right of appeal, or for legislative codification of what “reasonable business grounds” meant. In effect, it proposed to extend the right to ask, but leave it at a right to ask.

And while submitters to the review proposed extending the right to all carers, or people with school-age children, or victims of domestic violence, the extension proposed yesterday by the Prime Minister appears confined to “mums who are returning from maternity leave, and indeed for dads who are returning from caring for children too,” along with a promise to strengthen requirements for consultation on roster changes.

If you’re wondering how parents returning from parental leave don’t already fit into the existing category of carers with children under school age, you’re not alone. Australian Industry Group’s Innes Willox wondered the same thing. Presumably that particular mystery will be explained when more detail is made available on the legislation later this week.

The political rationale for targeting this at employees returning from parental leave is, however, crystal clear: the government believes that area is a weak spot for the opposition, an intersection of the electorate’s mistrust on a possible return to WorkChoices and Tony Abbott’s women problem. So untrusted is Abbott on issues relating to women that voters actually prefer the government’s significantly less generous paid parental leave scheme to Abbott’s “Rolls-Royce scheme”. For an opposition that usually comfortably leads Labor on trust in virtually every area of policy, it’s a remarkable gap.

Not that Labor was alone in grandstanding on the subject. The Greens quickly issued a press release calling for an enforceable right to flexibility, meaning employees could take employers to Fair Work Australia for arbitration on requests, imposing a potentially costly layer of bureaucratic intervention in a process that appears to be working well in its current form. “An unenforceable right to request is no right at all,” Greens MP Adam Bandt said in a media statement, a view that the Fair Work Act review evidently disagrees with. The government couldn’t assume the Greens’ support on the bill, Bandt insisted.

Yeah right.

And The Australian Financial Review shoehorned the issue into its monomaniacal obsession with productivity, finding employer representatives to lament the “produc­tivity-sapping elements of Labor’s Fair Work Act” and even some self-described “business battlers” for whom the prospect of being asked by their staff about flexible working hours was, apparently, a nightmare.

The head of Pacific Retail Management, whom the article was careful to note was pregnant herself, complained that employees being able to merely ask about flexible working hours, without any guarantee of getting them or any external procedural requirements, made her “nervous” and was “a bit like taking choice away” (no, that doesn’t make any sense to me either). Apparently, amid incessant calls for greater “flexibility” in the workplace, there are some forms of flexibility employers so dislike they don’t want to even be asked about them.

The only team left out of the grandstanding was the opposition, who sensed Labor’s trap on the issue and wisely held off commenting until more detail was available. Having failed to lure Abbott into any form of industrial relations debate so far, Labor will be hoping the opposition bites on this. “Nervous” business people who can’t abide the idea of talking to their employees might hope they do as well.

Don’t count on it.

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46 comments

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46 thoughts on “Workplace flexibility: where (almost) everyone gets to grandstand

  1. Jimmy

    Abbott will have to “bite” at some point, surely he won’t be allowed to got to the election without an IR policy.

    On a related matter anyone find it funny that News Ltd papers ran an article on the 1990’s home reno’s of the PM (again with no new evidence of wrong doing) on the same day Abbott puts forward a bill increasing the penlaties for corrupt Union officials?

  2. MJPC

    Of course the LNP won’t be drawn in and make comment as their willing foot soldiers in the ever compliant employer groups are doing their work for them, with the usual bleating about how hard they are doing, how less regulation is more for them and similar trite comments.
    Of course they are ably assisted by the joke that passes off for informed commentary in this country, when interviewers let pass their assinine comments without probing questions.
    Abbott and his fellow travellers can run but can’t hide on the issue of industrial relations, a debate I am anxious to hear.

  3. Jimmy

    MJPC – If Abbott does finally come out with a IR policy and it is skewwed back in favour of employers the govt SHOULD be able to tie a few things together and tell a very persuasive story.

    In the past couple of weeks he has committed to rolling back means testing of private health insurance & FTB while dumping the shcool kids bonus (ie cutting payments to lower income famil ies and restoring them to higher income famil ies) and he plans to cut the low income super contribution while opposing tax increases for high income earners super contributions.

    Add to this a move back towards work choices and you have a very clear story of favouring the rich at the expense of the workers, we just have to hope the “workers” can figure this out, seeing as most of them read the Herald sun and think B.olt & McCrann are representing their views I don’t hold out any real hopes.

  4. klewso

    Abbott is going to be kept on a short leash up to the election – like Howard and his pack of non-core promises – that way Labor will get all the viewsmedia (playing their part in the “debate”/farce) scrutiny, negativity and scepticism.

  5. Jimmy

    Klewso – I think that is why Gillard made the election date known so early, over 8 months the pressure will build and build for Abbott to get out more detail on his policies.

    See today the head the Parliamentary budget office said they need the policies sooner rather than later to get them costed.

  6. MJPC

    Agreed Jimmy, the LNP will not be able to keep mum on their vision for too long. I am waiting for the lie that by giving more to the rich they will create jobs for the underprivileged or low paid workers.
    Already we are hearing of the removal of penalty rates, internships not such a bad idea and other such nonsense from the “ruling” class that bought us all the GFC.

  7. Jimmy

    MJPC – Just hope it get’s some half decent ana lysis in the media, but considering B.ol t today was laying the blame for the drugs in sport allegations at Gillard feet I am not very confident.

    According to News Ltd if it is bad and it happened it is Gillard fault – they would blame her for climate change if they beli eved it existed!!

  8. Mike Flanagan

    “Some one killed old Jim Divine
    The poor old fellow was a 109
    But blame on the Gillards boys…..
    I think I’ll go and steal a horse myself…….
    And blame on the Gillards…………..”

  9. Mike Flanagan

    I’ve left out “it” that should proceed “blame” Sorry, as I hoist my Kelly flag.

  10. taylormade

    You will just have to patient Jimmy. People are still coming to terms with the surplus backdown and now the low mining tax has just added to the confusion. Abbott wont bite at anything until both these issues have played out.

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