Last week the Morrison government proposed major reforms to Australia's workplace laws, covering five of the most longstanding problems in the most heated policy area that divides the two major parties.
Unsurprisingly, the government and opposition clashed from the get-go, with accusations and denials flying across the floor of Parliament.
That clash has focused on just four paragraphs on one page, specifically a rule known as the BOOT, or the better-off-overall test. But there's a lot more to the reforms outlined in the disarmingly named Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2020.
Christian Porter, who holds the titles of Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations, set the wheels in motion back in June with a roundtable between unions, business leaders and government to help get Australians back into work after the COVID-19 pandemic.
He knew those invited would want to bring their traditional "shopping wish lists", but strictly limited the discussion to just five problem areas nominated by the government. Mr Porter wanted consensus on getting results that could be achieved in the shortest possible time frame.
"It is critical that all sides of the debate lay down their arms and commit to work together during this process to find ways to get our economy moving again and urgently regrow the jobs so many Australians have lost as a result of COVID-19," Mr Porter said at the time.
The government claimed the reforms were "driven by one simple goal - breaking down the barriers to job growth so that we can get Australians back to work".
Problem 1: Casual employment
Casual employees usually commence with no commitment to any agreed pattern of work. This type of work attracts a "wage loading" in exchange for not receiving other entitlements such as paid leave.
However, over time some casuals find their work arrangements are no longer so casual. In such cases, courts have recently ordered employers to pay entitlements that would otherwise have been accrued by those workers. Employer groups think this is effectively paying twice, and unions are concerned by the job insecurity of workers under such arrangements.
The government wants to end the uncertainty surrounding the legal status of casuals, while providing a new casual conversion entitlement for those working regular shifts to convert to permanent roles after 12 months if they wish to do so.
Employees will only be able to make a request to convert once every six months. If successful, courts will have to take into account the previous casual loading the employee was paid, to avoid employers having to pay the same entitlements twice.
Problem 2: Award simplification
The government makes no pretence that making modern awards more "flexible" is about helping workers. This reform is about addressing "immediate pain points for employers" following the pandemic, according to the government's fact sheet.
It is proposing to keep an option in the soon-to-expire JobKeeper laws that would allow some employers to direct employees to perform duties or work at locations different from their normal arrangements.
These new "flexible work directions" will apply to awards covering the hospitality and retail sectors for two years. The employer must reasonably believe that the direction is a necessary part of a reasonable strategy to assist in the revival of their business.
Additionally, part-time workers may voluntarily agree to take on additional hours at their normal rates of pay.
Further reform will be tasked to the Fair Work Commission to simplify existing classifications, loading rates and exemption rates.
Problem 3: Enterprise Bargaining
The government is proposing to simplify the "no disadvantage" test on any new enterprise agreement, known as the BOOT.
Under the current laws, the Fair Work Commission assesses whether employees will be better off under the new agreement than the award.
The proposed change allows the FWC to approve an agreement that doesn't comply with the BOOT in cases where there is a public interest, and sets a 21-day approval deadline.
Agreements that do not pass the BOOT will expire after two years.
Problem 4: Compliance and enforcement
The roundtable heard that small businesses are having difficulty understanding their obligations, leading to unnecessary mistakes in compliance and underpayment of employees. The government acknowledges that the current penalties for underpayment of workers don't provide an adequate deterrent.
The Fair Work Commission has been tasked with setting up a new Employer Advisory Service for small businesses to receive free, tailored advice on their workplace obligations.
Penalties for dishonest and systemic wage theft are also being increased, both with higher fines and potentially jail for employers who deliberately exploit their workers. The process for recovering stolen wages will also be simplified for workers.
Problem 5: Greenfields agreements
Job-creating mega-projects are allowed access to a type of enterprise agreement known as the Greenfields agreements, which provide a level of certainty for project investors that workers won't stop work to renegotiate rates and conditions in the middle of construction.
The roundtable heard the existing four-year length of Greenfields agreements isn't enough to attract global investors. The government is proposing these agreements be allowed to last for eight years.
A lot can happen in eight years, but the the longer agreements will mandate annual increases of the base rate of pay. The amount of annual increases will be determined in the original negotiations.
Ideology or critical reforms?
Labor has not objected to most of the reforms, except the bypassing of the BOOT and the 21-day approvals process. But it intends to campaign against the overall package, based on those objections, throughout the summer.
The government intends to continue consultation on the reform bill.