Wage suppression, a weak workforce, and undervalued jobs: Can multi-employer bargaining fix them all?

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The Albanese Government wants to pursue “multi-employer” bargaining this year.

The idea caught some people by surprise when it was announced at last week’s jobs summit.

Labor’s national policy platform from 2021 made specific references to the idea, with the party pledging to improve access to collective bargaining if it won this year’s election, but the party didn’t make a huge deal of the idea during the election campaign.

So why does Labor think we need it? What’s wrong with the existing system?

Multi-employer bargaining

Tony Burke, the Workplace Relations Minister, will begin consultations on multi-employer bargaining this week, with plans to introduce legislation to parliament this year.

But big business lobby groups are concerned about it.

They fear it could be a Trojan Horse for the return of industry-wide bargaining and widespread industrial action because it will help workers co-ordinate strikes across different businesses to try to secure better pay and conditions.

So, it’s worth remembering how things stand at the moment.

If you treat industrial disputes as a proxy for workers’ power and their ability to secure decent pay increases from rising productivity, have a look at the graph below.

Industrial disputes have been on life-support for decades.

Next, in recent material published by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) that mentions multi-employer bargaining, the union’s focus for the idea is on the care sector — child care, aged care, and cleaning and other industries.

It says these are feminised industries, in which the majority of workers are women, where wages are being suppressed partly because the majority-female workforces lack access to decent bargaining.



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