Greens industrial relations spokesman Adam Bandt said the minor party, which is expected to hold the balance of power in the Senate along with a handful of other crossbenchers, would seek to amend any Labor bill that failed to protect workers from union deals.
“Our principle is if the penalty rates are set out in law you shouldn’t be able to trade them away,” said Mr Bandt, the Greens MP for Melbourne.
“The argument for some people is they should be able to be traded away for higher wages, but the problem is some people work full-time, some part-time, so without regularity of rostering it will result in people being left behind.”
The unions are fiercely guarding their right to use penalty rates as a bargaining chip in negotiating enterprise agreements, which they argue can help them to secure better overall pay and conditions – but critics say leaves some of the nation’s lowest-paid workers exposed to having their pay eroded.
The issue was highlighted by a secret Woolworths deal with the powerful Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association that stripped workers of up to $3000 a year, including penalty rates.
While the supermarket giant has since handed back penalty rates in line with the award after workers sought to terminate the agreement, exposing it to backpay claims, those on similar enterprise agreements at retailers like McDonald’s, Kmart and Bunnings are still fighting.
Labor has not promised to automatically restore penalty rates for these workers.
Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick said he supported “in principle” the Greens’ position. The party has long opposed union deals that trade away penalty rates.
One Nation leader Pauline Hanson said through a spokesman that she remained opposed to union deals that traded away penalty rates.
Labor’s industrial relations spokesman, Brendan O’Connor, declined to commit to legislating a ban on such deals, arguing that restoring penalty rates to workers on awards would also improve pay for those on enterprise agreements.
Mr O’Connor, whose brother Michael is national secretary of the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union, said the details of Labor’s promised law change would be worked out in “government upon departmental advice”.
“There will be an immediate increase to penalty rates for award employees affected by the cuts, and an immediate increase to the better off overall test that will apply to future negotiations for people under enterprise agreements,” he said.
The Retail and Fast Food Workers Union, which fights for low-paid workers in the sectors but is not aligned with Labor, claims that enterprise agreements negotiated by unions have left workers out of pocket by billions of dollars in recent years.
The union’s secretary, Josh Cullinan, accused Labor of being beholden to the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association, which the Herald and Age revealed had brokered enterprise agreements that stripped workers of more than $300 million a year while enjoying cosy relationships with employers.
Labor has previously introduced a private member’s bill that would have restored penalty rates to award-dependent workers, but not those on enterprise agreements.
Dana is health and industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.