“We’re aware of the issue that pertains to casuals, just as we’re aware of the issue that pertains to small business [owners] who might find a fall-off in demand or fall-off in the number of people who are there able to produce the goods and services to meet the demand,” Mr Porter said.
He added that until the crisis abated, unions should reconsider any plans for industrial action.
“There will always be a temptation to have industrial [action] when it has the greatest effect,” Mr Porter said. “Industrial action of any type at the moment would have a very large and negative effect.”
He said that had not been discussed at the meeting with Ms McManus and other union representatives and the government would continue with its negotiations to have the “union-busting” Ensuring Integrity Bill pass Parliament while focusing predominantly on coronavirus.
Employer groups had a mixed response to the unions’ casual leave proposal. The Council of Small Business chief executive Peter Strong said casual workers who were not getting enough shifts or who were unable to work should go to Centrelink and “get looked after like anyone else”.
Mr Strong said the best economic response to the virus would be cash and tax relief for businesses to stay open and retain their employees.
The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s director of workplace relations, Scott Barklamb, said while it did not “endorse any changes for casuals,” governments should “look at any income support coming online quickly”.
Labor frontbencher Bill Shorten, a former Australian Workers Union boss, said the Morrison government needed to come to the table and design “special” leave to cover casual workers.
He said the government could reimburse employers who paid workers if they had to self-isolate.
“Because we shouldn’t be asking workers to either starve or go to work when they’re sick,” Mr Shorten told the Nine network. “We’ve got to be smarter than that.”
Jason Hefford, assistant secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, which represents workers who went on strike at an SPC plant in the Victorian town of Shepparton on Monday, said it was unfair to place blame for industrial action on unions.
“It’s always a really serious matter for our members but at the end of the day it could be averted if the company came to the table with a fair offer,” Mr Hefford said. SPC has called the workers’ actions “selfish”.
Nick Bonyhady is industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based between Sydney and Parliament House in Canberra.