On the dawn of a summit designed to unify employers, employees, and lawmakers on the future of work in Australia, the Council of Small Business Organizations of Australia (COSBOA) has refuted claims its in-principle agreement with union leaders could undermine the case for business interests.
The Labor government’s landmark Jobs and Skills Summit kicked off in Canberra on Thursday, with the goal of fixing what industry groups, labor representatives, and politicians have all described as a broken industrial relations system.
But optimism about the summit’s collaborative potential was tested earlier in the week, when Australian Industry (Ai) Group chief Innes Willox challenged a pre-summit agreement brokered by COSBOA and the Australian Council of Trade Unions.
Of particular note was the agreement’s a pledge to explore new collective bargaining options — including the possibility of multi-employer agreements, a move which could allow workers to broker workplace arrangements with a swath of employers at once.
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COSBOA CEO Alexi Boyd says the organization is focused on how to simplify the industrial relations system for small businesses, who often find themselves locked out due to the cost and complexity of brokering an enterprise bargaining agreement.
But opening the door to multi-employer agreements is “an issue of deep concern to business large and small,” Willox told The Australian Financial Review.
Such agreements could expose millions of small employers to new industrial action, Willox said, saying there was “enormous concern” among small business operators about the implications of the COSBOA-ACTU statement.
The Ai Group, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI), and the Business Council of Australia (BCA) have also revealed their own three-pronged statement of ambition.
It includes a pledge to work for “workplace relations arrangements that work to deliver high income growth and the flexibility of opportunities for employees, employers and the self-employed,” while standing well clear of multi-employer agreements.
Notably, those three groups have also issued a statement of common interests with input from the ACTU.
However, that statement steers clear of hard-and-fast updates to the enterprise bargaining system, let alone changes which could expose small employers
In response to Willox’s commentary and the joint statement from industry groups representing some of Australia’s largest employers, COSBOA yesterday defended its collaboration with the ACTU.
COSBOA working with unions and larger industry groups is “not mutually exclusive”, the statement read.
“We continue our conversation with government, have agreed to begin a conversation with the ACTU, and our door remains open to work with the other business groups during and following the summit,” Boyd said.
Noting the COSBOA-ACTU statement does not commit to any one policy pathway, or offer specifics on how a new bargaining scheme could operate, Boyd says her organization plans to “approach the conversation with caution and to speak to each of the other business organizations to hear their concerns so that we can come up with a workable solution — one that benefits small businesses”.
“No one said it would be easy,” she added.
COSBOA has also stressed that it would only endorse tweaks to the enterprise bargaining system which meaningfully boost individual small business engagement, disputing fears SMEs could be pulled into the crossfire of industrial action largely targeted against other employers.
The ACCI-BCA-Ai Group statement also heralded the summit as a starting point for negotiations, instead of an event where policy outcomes will be set in stone.
COSBOA says it agrees with that, too.
Matthew Addison, COSBOA chair, on Monday told SmartCompany the event is “not the end point” for discussions between employer and employee groups.
“It’s actually the starting point of the next 12 months of development of white papers and positions to implement policy change,” he said.
“So we are nothing but optimistic that the way the government has brought this about as a focus point to get these discussions on the table, and set up the groundwork for the way forward, it seemed like a very logical way to go.”
More than 140 representatives from industry, the union movement, academia, and the community sector have now converged in the nation’s capital for the two-day affair.