Unions push for ‘reasonable test’ in JobKeeper compromise deal for casuals

Attorney-General Christian Porter has rejected <i>Four Corners</i>’ allegations.

Attorney-General Christian Porter has rejected Four Corners’ allegations. Photo: AAP

Thousands of casual workers who do not currently qualify for the $1500-a-fortnight JobKeeper allowance based on length of service could secure access to the scheme in a compromise deal after Attorney-General Christian Porter confirmed he was “listening” to union concerns.

But Labor and unions are also set to compromise over changes to allow bosses to slash some workers’ wages and hours to fit the base rate of the $1500 payment for six months if they are stood down – to help companies “hibernate” during the COVID-19 crisis.

Winners and losers are set to emerge from the JobKeeper wage subsidy that will pay all eligible employees a flat rate of $1500 a fortnight regardless of whether they are casual, part-time or full-time.

The winners include casuals and part-timers who have worked for companies for 12 months or longer who are currently paid less than the JobKeeper payment.

The design of the wage subsidy means that some casuals who previously earned just a couple of hundred dollars a week working in a supermarket will get a huge pay boost to $750 a week.

But casuals who have worked for less than 12 months in continuous service will miss out under the draft rules announced by the Morrison government.

ACTU secretary Sally McManus is proposing a “reasonable test” to extend the payment to casuals who had expected work over the next year, before COVID-19, regardless of whether they have served 12 months of continuous service.

The workers would otherwise be left on the $550-a-week JobSeeker allowance, the ‘dole’ that has been recently doubled to help workers laid off during the coronavirus crisis.

Currently, casuals who have worked for a company for less than a year are excluded from the $1500-a-fortnight scheme.

“Unfortunately in our country, we’ve become so dependent on casual work. Think about all of the universities – more than 50 per cent of the workers there are casual workers and they won’t get that allowance unless it changes,” she said.

“There’s a reasonableness test to it. And I think that that would mean that you’d pick up on all of the people who had already banked on the fact that they already have a job this year.”

Mr Porter said he was carefully considering calls from Ms McManus and Labor to extend the eligibility to more workers.

“We are listening,” Mr Porter said.

“We’re doing it in a short time. We’re trying to make the definition reasonable and inclusive and there will be, as Sally McManus said in this today, in her language ‘swings and roundabouts’.

“Some people will find themselves being paid significantly more than their usual wage because they’re part time or casual.”

But he urged Labor and the unions not to delay the JobKeeper wage subsidy.

This change will be happening next Wednesday. No matter how late we have to sit, the change will be happening next Wednesday,” Mr Porter said.

“Six million Australian jobs depend on it.

“Next Wednesday we are pushing a $130 billion lifeboat out into the roughest economic seas Australia has ever seen.

“And people will need to decide whether or not they’re going to help us push that boat out, but it is going out on Wednesday.”

Mr Porter has rejected calls to suspend award rates during the crisis, but flagged that some flexibility around agreed hours will be required to industrial relations laws, for example in circumstances where workers have been stood down and are not working.

Workers who earn more than $1500 a fortnight and are stood down because of mandated COVID-19 closures, could have their salary slashed – legally – while the business goes into “hibernation”.

Employers will also have the option to ‘top up’ the salary to the normal amount if workers earn more than $1500 a fortnight.

This will apply to companies that qualify for the wage subsidy but continue to trade as normal.

“I think there’s agreement amongst all people who have knowledge and experience in industrial relations and employment relations in Australia that for the system to work you have to make changes to the way in which the employment relations and industrial relations system in Australia presently operates,” Mr Porter said

“Now those changes would be time-bound. They would only last for as long as the payment system lasted.

“But without those changes, even if it were the case that a business would face a situation where it would otherwise have to let an employee go.

“So we must change the system.

“Now I’ve been working very, very co-operatively with Sally McManus and the ACTU and with the assistance of Greg Combet on the Prime Minister’s Commission.”

Opposition industrial relations spokesman Tony Burke.

Labor’s industrial relations spokesman Tony Burke said it would be reasonable to reduce hours in some circumstances, but his main concern was ensuring casuals who do not qualify on the basis of length of service are considered.

“You can’t reduce someone’s hourly rate but there may be circumstances where the employer can’t afford … to pay the full rate but there’s a chance of a job because of the job subsidy, and in those circumstances, you’d want to find a way that you could negotiate to reduce hours so that the person was still on the correct hourly rate,” Mr Burke said.

But he said there would be other circumstances that are not acceptable.

“For example, is having an employer who ran a restaurant shut down the restaurant and then be able to say, well having shut down the restaurant, I’m going to use the wage subsidy so that the people who used to work in my restaurant can now do the cooking and cleaning for me and my family at home. You wouldn’t want to allow that.”

Mr Burke said Labor’s preference however was to allow the Fair Work Commission to manage these issues.

Parliament will sit on Wednesday, with far fewer MPs flying to Canberra in an attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19 and non-essential travel.

Topics: Jobkeeper
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