Let workers transfer leave: ACTU
ACTU secretary Dave Oliver addresses the National Press Club. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen / Fairfax
Workers should be able to transfer their annual leave when they move jobs, a key union leader declared as he vowed to re-mobilise hundreds of thousands of members in 38 marginal seats ahead of the federal election.
But the Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Dave Oliver's portable leave scheme has already been dismissed by business groups as an ''old chestnut'' that would be massively complicated and costly.
Mr Oliver stepped up his calls for transferrable leave - and legislation to protect weekend penalty rates ''forever'' in the face of a business push for greater flexibility - during an address to the National Press Club on Wednesday.
He said some people had two or three employers one week, and the next week one, and in such cases annual leave and sick leave did not translate well.
Mr Oliver said schemes to allow the transfer of such entitlements when people changed jobs had already been put in place in the construction sector, where insecure work prompted the move.
A broader national scheme was needed, he argued.
But how the scheme would be implemented remains unclear. Mr Oliver told Fairfax Media it was ''early days'' and the ACTU was happy to consider options for how it would work.
Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox said the idea of a portable scheme for employee entitlements was ''recycled every few years''.
''Portable long service leave schemes operate in the construction industry and a few other areas, but whenever the idea of a broader scheme has been analysed the massive costs, complexities and problems associated with it become obvious,'' Mr Willox said.
Mr Oliver responded by saying: ''Nothing's insurmountable and it's probably the same sorts of arguments they would have run back in the day when we pursued industry-wide superannuation.''
Mr Oliver also pushed for weekend penalty rates to be enshrined in legislation, in a bid to lock in these minimum entitlements ''forever''.
He noted the retail sector was fighting to scrap penalty rates, potentially affecting hundreds of thousands of workers.
Mr Oliver said some minimum standards, such as hours of work, were already locked into law and guided what could not be negotiated.
''We've already got flexibility build into the system but it's got to have some checks and balances on it to make sure no one's disadvantaged,'' Mr Oliver said.
He added the law did not need to be ''too prescriptive'' but should recognise the general principle that weekend work should be rewarded more than weekday work.
Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Peter Anderson said creating portable leave for all workers and locking penalty rates into law were ''outlandish demands, with massive economic cost, paid for by loss of jobs, incomes and working hours''.
''If the Gillard government were foolish enough to accept these demands, it would not only be sending itself into electoral oblivion, but taking small businesses and service sector jobs with it,'' Mr Anderson said in a statement.
Mr Willox said many professional, managerial and other employees had compensation built into their annual salary for the hours worked ''and they would not want it any other way''.
''Penalty rates need to be dealt with in awards, not legislation, so that the needs of different industries, jobs and employees can be taken into account,'' he said.
Greens deputy leader Adam Bandt said his party would be willing to ''work with the government over the remaining few sitting weeks [to] legislate to protect people's rights''.
When asked, Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten's office would not say if the government would back the ACTU's push to beef up protections in legislation, simply stating that it had always supported penalty rates.
Coalition workplace relations spokesman Eric Abetz said Mr Oliver’s call to insert penalty rates into legislation came amid an ongoing review of the modern awards.
Senator Abertz said this showed Mr Oliver had no confidence in the Fair Work Commission "taking a balanced approach on these issues".
Union 'mistake' to drop campaign
At the National Press Club, Mr Oliver said he regretted his movement's ''mistake'' in walking away from the vast campaigning network it built up to fight the former government's workplace laws in 2007.
He made the admission as he vowed to launch a grassroots campaign designed to spread the word on work rights ahead of the federal election on September 14.
The campaign, tapping into members of individual unions, would be fought in workplaces and communities.
Members of nursing unions would speak with their colleagues, as would teachers, public servants and other union members.
Mr Oliver warned there were 283,890 union members in 38 of the most marginal electorates in Australia, while acknowledging that critics such as Opposition Leader Tony Abbott would attempt to use allegations of union corruption to weaken the entire movement.
Mr Oliver said the 2007 campaign against the Howard government's WorkChoices laws relied on efforts by activists and workers but the movement made a mistake in ''putting it to bed'' after the election.
''We moved literally overnight from being a campaigning organisation as a whole to a transactional one,'' he said.
''We thought our issues could be resolved by simply getting involved in transactions, coming down to Canberra and meeting people and saying here's our list to get fixed. We very quickly learnt that wasn't the case.''
Mr Oliver said the $2 levy imposed on Australia's two million union members, equating to about $4 million a year, would help the movement rebuild its campaigning ability and ''ensure that irrespective of who wins this election we will be out there to campaign on relevant and important issues''.
The Labor member insisted the campaign would not tell people how to vote, although he sought to raise concerns over what work rights an Abbott-led government might change.
Asked about Julia Gillard's continued leadership of the Labor party, Mr Oliver said the Gillard government had been ''good for workers''.
Commenting on the controversy engulfing former Labor MP and Health Services Union official Craig Thomson, Mr Oliver said he and union colleagues were ''appalled'' when they read the allegations of misuse of funds in the Fair Work Australia report.
Mr Oliver said that was why the ACTU suspended the HSU as an affiliated union and supported the federal government's move to appoint an administrator. He dismissed it as ''an isolated incident in a single union''.
Mr Abbott is yet to release his workplace relations policy but has said it would ''address the flexibility, militancy and productivity problems arising from the Fair Work Act'' and would tackle union ''rorts''.