Senate to test government stance on casual worker boost


The result keeps the government’s original approach of making a temporary change to the Fair Work Act to give employers the flexibility they need to pay workers the minimum $1500 without breaching awards or enterprise agreements.

However, the unions have secured an assurance they can seek arbitration at the Fair Work Commission if there are concerns about the way any employer uses the scheme, for instance to weaken employee rights.

Ms McManus retains significant concerns about the JobKeeper bill and continues to argue for a more generous subsidy that could help up to 1.1 million casual workers who do not qualify under the scheme unveiled last week.

The ACTU has also maintained its preference for the Fair Work Commission to oversee the scheme rather than using a temporary change to the Fair Work Act, but it accepts the wage subsidy must be legislated as swiftly as possible.

Mr Porter agreed to some of the suggestions from Ms McManus to modify the draft bill, knowing the ACTU would retain concerns but could accept the package.

A tight Senate vote appears certain to test the Morrison government’s stance on the treatment of casual workers after Mr Porter shut the door on calls to extend the payments to more casual workers.

The government is staring down demands to include up to 1.1 million extra casuals in the JobKeeper scheme after earlier indicating it would be as “inclusive and reasonable” as possible in negotiations on the policy.

But the tactics will not go so far as blocking the bill, ensuring it goes through a cut-down Parliament on Wednesday, subject to wrangling over amendments.

In one sign of flexibility on the massive program, the government revealed on Monday there would be some “tolerance” in the rules to include employers that did not meet some of the technical benchmarks of revenue decline.

To be eligible for JobKeeper, employers will only have to estimate their turnover will shrink by the 30 or 50 per cent thresholds, according to their company size, with the Australian Tax Office to exercise “tolerance” where it ultimately falls by slightly less.

The ATO will also be able to set alternative tests when an employer has drastically different revenue from year to year as a result of an acquisition or because the business is in a variable industry.

The new guidance, issued by Treasury, also made it clear employees younger than 16 on March 1 would not qualify.

The JobKeeper rules require casual workers to be employed on a “regular and systematic basis” for one employer for longer than 12 months as at March 1, 2020, although this can include shifting between companies within the same corporate group.

Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter on Sunday said he was working on the question of casuals who moved from employer to employer but on Monday hosed down the idea of a change to the draft bill.

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“We will require regular and [systematic] attachment to an employer for 12 months,” Mr Porter said on ABC Radio National.

Asked if this had to be for the one employer, Mr Porter said: “That’s correct. That’s the standard definition that exists in the Fair Work Act. Now, exactly the wording of that definition [and] how it’s refined is something we’re working through at the moment.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has privately argued for Labor and the Australian Council of Trade Unions to back the scheme in its original form in the national interest.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has also pushed back against demands for changes given the added cost to the scheme.

But Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick said there was a case for broadening the scheme to more casual workers, although he needed “in-depth consideration” to decide where to draw the line.

Tasmanian independent Jacqui Lambie said there were “all sorts of holes” in the government plan but she would not stand in the way of passing it on Wednesday.

“I’m not going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good by blocking help to those who need it,” she said, adding that she would back a Senate inquiry into the government response to the coronavirus crisis.

Greens leader Adam Bandt is also pushing for an oversight committee and for changes to include more casual workers.

Labor industrial relations spokesman Tony Burke said there was “absolutely nothing that I can imagine” that would stop Labor voting for the JobKeeper package given the party had called for a wage subsidy for weeks.

However, Mr Burke said Labor would call for more casual workers to be included in the scheme.

One Nation leader Pauline Hanson praised Mr Morrison on Monday for his response to the crisis and did not nominate any change she would seek in the Senate.

More than 120 community, union, faith and migrant organisations on Tuesday released a letter calling for JobKeeper to be extended to migrant workers and all casuals. The Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney and Islamic Council of Victoria are among the signatories along with the ACTU and Australian Council of Social Service.

“If we don’t expand the wage subsidy to include temporary migrant workers they will be forced on to the streets at the height of a pandemic,” Migrant Workers Centre director Matt Kunkel said.

Only Australian citizens, residents and New Zealanders in Australia can access JobKeeper under the current eligibility criteria.

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