Industrial relations bill: Manufacturers jump on multi-employer bargaining amid race to bolster union hurdles

First-class sheet metal workers under union enterprise agreements are paid $48.60 an hour, almost double what those on the award are paid, at about $27 an hour.

“It’s chalk and cheese, just on wages alone,” Mr Scavera said. “I’ll be at a project and ask who’s that bloke? He was a baker last week and today’s he’s a duct installer.”

He said employers wanted to embed more relevant classifications and formal recognition of qualifications, with links to higher pay, to develop an industry standard.

The group intended to invite the rest of the sector, totalling an estimated 20 tier-one suppliers and 700 employees, to meet in two weeks for a presentation to get more players on board.

“I want to be on the front foot,” Mr Scavera said. “We need to get the industry back on the right playing field. We need to take up the challenge and meet what’s coming to us and bring back some credibility in the industry.”

The push comes as major business groups are racing to bolster a new threshold of “reasonable comparability” for multi-employer bargaining – which the government agreed to introduce as part of its deal with Senator Pocock – so that employers can use differences in operations or size to avoid getting roped into union deals.

With about half the HVAC sector signed up for bargaining so far, Mr Scavera acknowledged there was “always some resistance” but said the group did not intend to cover hundreds of “mum and dad” businesses with just a few employees.

AMWU national secretary Steve Murphy said the union wanted the agreement to deliver “security of work for HVAC industry employers, help employees get consistent training and upskilling, prevent worker exploitation, improve work health and safety in HVAC manufacturing facilities, and result in a better end product”.

“The HVAC manufacturing sector has been in a race to the bottom for some time,” he said.

Employers push for further changes

“Everyone recognises that it’s not sustainable, and that multi-employer bargaining will re-establish consistent wages and work quality across the sector.”

Senator Pocock’s deal includes expanding the small business exemption from single-interest multi-employer bargaining and introducing a test that employers have to be “reasonably comparable” before they can become part of a deal.

Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox said the changes didyer bargaining amid race to bolster union hurdles not resolve business concerns about the broad scope of law but that “we’ll see what comes out of the conversations this week”.

“What we now have is a broad parameter, but there’s a lot of detail to fill in and still a lot of unknowns,” he told ABC radio on Monday.

“We have to work that through, so it’s going to be a busy week. But the fact is now that we are almost certain to have multi-party bargaining impacting a lot of the economy. That creates a lot of uncertainty.

“It creates a lot of anxiety for employers and it also creates a lot of complexity and there’s no guarantee of wage increases going up any time soon. Even as a result of this.”

AiGroup will seek greater clarity on the “reasonable comparability” and “common interest” tests for businesses, as well technical fixes to make other parts of the bill more workable.

Legal experts have criticised the common interest test as so broad it could extend multi-employer deals up and down a supply chain or group together direct employees and labour hire staff working for the same business.

But businesses are hoping that the new reasonable comparability threshold will allow employers to use differences in size, operations, products or work techniques to avoid getting forced into a multi-employer deal.

Minerals Council of Australia chief executive Tania Constable, who pushed for the new threshold, said it “will prevent a one-size-fits-all approach to multi-enterprise bargaining being imposed on the mining industry”.

“It will give mining companies the ability to make the case that their operations, size and product, for example, are not comparable to another company, and therefore they cannot be required to bargain together,” she said.

The MCA is also lobbying the government to ensure the laws “do not disrupt workplaces where employees and employers have good working arrangements already in place” – a reference to well-paying resources companies on the west coast that do not have enterprise agreements and prefer a “direct engagement” model.

Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus said “every company where employers and employees have good working arrangements will continue undisturbed”.

“Unions have to jump many hurdles to access multi-employer bargaining and can only do so where a majority of the workforce also votes for it. Workers who are satisfied with their current arrangements will not vote to change them.”

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