Laws allowing workers from different businesses to band together to challenge for higher wages will undergo their first test in the childcare sector.
Unions representing staff from 20 early childhood education providers across NSW, the ACT and Victoria lodged an application with the Fair Work Commission immediately that the new legislation came into effect.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the changes meant pay rises would be easier to achieve in low-paid industries.
“Winning a pay rise is easier when you’ve got power in numbers but if your workplace is small, that’s hard to achieve,” he said.
“It’s held wages back and hurt female-dominated industries like early childhood education and aged care the most.”
Workplace Minister Tony Burke said the multi-employer bargaining laws would help get wages moving.
“The reason the government changed the laws last year … was because a whole lot of people who got themselves in front of the award had done it through enterprise bargaining but in feminised industries like early childhood education it just wasn’t working,” he said.
Opposition workplace spokeswoman Michaelia Cash said the the early childcare sector bargaining on the day the laws came into effect was a cynical stunt.
“While some of the participants in this government-funded industry are happy to stand with the minister, there are thousands of businesses out there with real concerns about this legislation,” she said.
“Employer groups continue to be clear that multi-employer bargaining will enable widespread strikes and other industrial action and encourage unions to make unreasonable demands and risks.”
Senator Cash said the changes would take people back to a system of centralised wages and workplace conditions.
“Multi-employer (bargaining) risks more strikes and fewer jobs, which is the last thing our economy needs,” she said.
The change comes as unions hit back at business groups that have banded together to criticise the government’s proposed “same job, same pay” laws.
The laws would close loopholes allowing companies that have negotiated a pay rate with workers to pay labour-hire contractors less for the same job.
Eight groups – including the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the National Farmers Federation, the Minerals Council and the Business Council of Australia – argue it would deny contract workers the ability to negotiate “more pay for harder work”.
In response, ACTU secretary Sally McManus pointed to national carrier Qantas and union research showing it had split its cabin crew workforce across 14 companies and contractors.
She said this had driven down wages and conditions.
Qantas said in a statement on Tuesday it was the highest-paying airline in Australia but had some decades-old agreements that enshrined conditions from a different era of aviation.
Senator Cash said the proposed laws would be highly disruptive.
“Forcing individuals onto the same rate of pay regardless of their job performance or experience will destroy incentive-based work and reduce productivity in our economy,” she said.
Mr Burke said businesses were still taking part in negotiations on labour-hire issues.
“Yesterday was one of the strangest debates I’ve ever found myself in because business was running a passionate campaign against a policy that the government is not proposing,” he said.
Andrew Brown and Neve Brissenden
(Australian Associated Press)