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.
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.