The Australian Federal Government’s Jobs and Skills Summit was held across the first two days of September 2022 (Summit) and involved a smorgasbord of panel discussions with experts and advocates, contributions from the floor and various government announcements.
The attendees, who were drawn from a wide cross-section of business and employee representatives, were invited to contribute a diversity of perspectives on industrial relations, skills shortages and future challenges for the Australian job market arising from digitisation, automisation and the recalibration of operations associated with decarbonising and moving towards renewable resources.
Broadly speaking, the Summit covered the following topics:
- maintaining full employment and enhancing productivity;
- boosting job security and wages;
- lifting participation and reducing barriers to employment;
- delivering a high-quality labour force through skills, training and migration; and
- maximising opportunities in the industries of the future.
Wages were raised in the context of reduced actual wage growth from inflation and the general rise in the cost of living. However, as the Summit was held at a time when Australia had record low unemployment (as discussed in our previous article), the focus of the Summit was tilted towards skills shortages, increasing migration caps and future adaptability.
Further insights into the topics grabbing headlines from the Summit are below.
Enterprise bargaining, the BOOT and push for multi-employer bargaining
Both Union and business groups were aligned in their view that enterprise bargaining was not working and changes to the Better Off Overall Test (“BOOT”) are necessary, with the general theme urging ‘simplification’. Having said that, there was no consensus as to the form of any changes.
There was a strong push by Union groups for legislation to enable multi-employer bargaining, which would allow employees within an industry to bargain together to be covered by the same agreement, in lieu of the applicable modern award. Tony Burke, Federal Workplace Relations Minister, has since begun consultations on multi-employer bargaining with the goal of introducing legislation later this year. Critics of the proposal fear this will facilitate industry wide strikes and there is some credibility to this concern. However, supporters say it is the only way to enhance bargaining, particularly in traditionally low paid sectors (such as childcare).
Spotlight on women
Gender equality was front and centre, with interested parties agreeing that improving women’s workforce participation is critical for economic prosperity and resilience. A core focus across the Summit was on the role of women, unlocking the untapped talent of women to participate fully in the workforce, pay equality and the need to provide respectful and safe workplaces for all.
The comparative data catching headlines tended to reveal how Australia is falling behind our OECD country neighbours, with keynote Speaker Danielle Wood, CEO of the Grattan Institute, remarking on how Australia has one of the most gender segregated and divided workforces, and one which invests less in parental leave than other OECD countries.
Interestingly, the last time the Australian government hosted a jobs summit (being the Hawke government in 1983), only one woman was present. Fast forward to 2022, women boasted over 50% of the leaders present, and many powerful female voices led and dominated those important conversations.
So what were the outcomes?
The Australian Federal Government (together with states and territories) pledged to 36 immediate outcomes. Some of those (by no means all) were to:
- upskill and create a better trained workforce through an additional $1 billion in joint federal-state funding for fee-free TAFE in 2023 and 465,000 additional
fee-free TAFE places;
- alleviate immediate and critical skills shortages by lifting the migration cap from 160,000 to 195,000 places in 2022-2023 and providing $36.1 million in additional funding to accelerate visa processing, while extending visas and relaxing work restrictions on international students;
- promote equal opportunities and reduce barriers by providing age pensioners with a temporary upfront $4,000 income bank credit to allow them to work without losing their payments;
- strengthen reporting standards to require employers with 500+ employees to commit to measurable targets to improve gender equality and those with 100 employees or more to publicly report their gender pay gap to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency;
- maximise jobs and opportunities in our industries and communities by implementing a digital and tech skills compact to deliver ‘Digital Apprenticeships’ and provide 1,000 digital traineeships in the Australian Public Service, over four years; and
- amend the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) to:
- ensure that all workers and businesses can negotiate in good faith for agreements that benefit them and flexible options for reaching agreements;
- remove unnecessary complexity for workers and employers, including making the BOOT simple, flexible and fair;
- give the Fair Work Commission (FWC) the capacity to proactively help workers and businesses reach agreements that benefit them;
- provide stronger access to flexible working arrangements and unpaid parental leave and stronger protections for workers against adverse action, discrimination, and harassment; and
- extend the powers of the FWC to include “employee-like” forms of work, allowing it to make orders for minimum standards for new forms of work, such as gig work.
What does this mean for you?
While the Australian Federal Government labelled the Summit as an “extraordinary success” and the start of a “new era of cooperation and consensus”, interested parties will be keeping a keen eye on the reform agenda as we steam ahead into 2023 and await the Government’s pledges to turn into reality.
What we know for now is:
if your business has suffered a shortage of options when recruiting high-skilled candidates, relaxing of the skilled migration cap may ease some of that pressure in the short term; and
legislative changes on the industrial framework are imminent with multi-industry bargaining on the horizon and changes expected to the FWC. These changes are likely to impact enterprise bargaining, independent contractors and potential reporting requirements for gender pay gaps, meaning tracking and reviewing these measures earlier is recommended.
To learn more about the full-set of outcomes and additional commitments arising from the Summit, see here.