The Federal Government has played down employer concerns they could be fined more than $18,000 if they contact their staff outside normal working hours, despite no promised amendment eventuating before new laws passed parliament.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said Labor would amend its own just-passed ‘right-to-disconnect’ legislation to make it clear employers would not face criminal charges.
But the bill was returned to the Lower House for final passage this week without being amended.
However, the Coalition has signalled it will repeal workers’ rights to disconnect from work after hours if Peter Dutton wins government at the next election.
The Opposition Leader said the so-called ‘right-to-disconnect’ clause added to the Federal Government’s latest tranche of industrial relations laws would damage employer-employee relations.
The Greens got the ‘right-to-disconnect’ included in the bill so the government could rush it through the Senate last week.
But Mr Dutton said that was not the way to change the law.
“If you think it’s okay to outsource your industrial relations or your economic policy to the Greens, which is what the Prime Minister is doing, then we are going to see a continuation of the productivity problem in our country,” he told Sky News.
“And as the Reserve Bank governor pointed out, if you don’t address it, you’ll see interest rates continue to climb, or you’ll see them stay higher for longer.”
Asked if the Coalition would repeal the laws if it won office, he said: “Yes, we will.”
The government’s Closing the Loopholes bill gives workers the right to ignore out-of-hours calls and emails from their bosses.
The new law will protect them from being penalised if they ignore the contact.
ACT Independent senator David Pocock voted with Labor, the Greens and fellow independent Lidia Thorpe to support the new bill.
But Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive officer Andrew McKellar said the government had pushed the legislation through parliament when it was returned to the House of Representatives on Monday (12 February).
“Rather than waiting for another Senate sitting day, the government decided to push the bill through today without removing the criminal element to the new right to disconnect laws,” he said.
“This Greens-inspired amendment was rushed through the parliament with unseemly haste, without the scrutiny the rest of the bill has undergone over months.
“While the error in the bill was apparently inadvertent, the result is a complete mess which adds to the grave misgivings business has about this legislation.
“It is unfathomable that this botched legislation will become the law of the land once given royal assent.”
There will be recognition in the new laws that employers could have a legitimate reason for contacting out-of-hours, such as trying to fill a last minute shift vacancy.
Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke said an “absolute ban” could allay concerns.
“One of the ways instead of the fines of doing it is simply having an absolute ban on there being a penalty on the worker for disengaging,” Mr Burke said.
“So if the worker disconnects, if they decide they’re not going to have their phone with them, if they decide they’re not going to be checking their work emails, then absolutely no penalty can be brought against them.
“And that sort of protection would give you a way of doing it without fines on the employer.”
The bill also gives more rights to gig workers for minimum wages and standards.
Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus welcomed the successful passage of the bill.
“We believe the new rights won in this legislation will deliver on the government’s promise to take action to improve job security for all workers,” she said.
“Not only will casual and gig workers have more rights, protections and choices, but all workers can look forward to a better working life.
“For the first time, all Australian workers will have the right to refuse unreasonable, unpaid work such as the expectation they will monitor and respond to emails out of hours in which they are being paid.
“The right to disconnect is fair and essential to maintaining a balance between work and personal time.”
She also said that employer arguments that the legislation will mean the end of flexibility in the workforce were not valid.
“They’re just trying to find any possible reason they should have it all their own way,” Ms McManus told the ABC’s RN Breakfast program.
“And they’re not, and they don’t like it.”