Burke foreshadows further amendments to controversial IR bill, as unions warn more changes could threaten wages growth

Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke has foreshadowed further concessions to secure the success of the government’s industrial relations legislation before Christmas, putting him at odds with the head of the union movement who warned giving more ground would weaken the laws and threaten workers’ wage claims.

Burke said on Tuesday morning he was prepared to further tweak the 249-page Secure Jobs, Better Pay bill following a parliamentary inquiry into the legislation – the third time in as many days the minister has flagged changes.

Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke has foreshadowed further changes to the controversial Secure Jobs, Better Pay bill.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“We’ve been showing good faith in terms of the consultation, and, yeah, there’ll be further work that’s done as a result of the Senate inquiry,” Burke told Radio National Breakfast.

“You always end up with amendments on this sort of legislation after the Senate inquiry, so I suspect there’ll be more to come, but that’s pretty standard with the legislative process.”

Burke had already announced changes on Sunday and Monday as business and the crossbench push for reforms to the controversial changes. On Monday he agreed to a new body to oversee the culture of the construction industry in a bid to address concerns raised by independent senators Jacqui Lambie and David Pocock.

Many members of the crossbench want the bill split so its less controversial elements can be debated and passed this year, leaving more time to consider elements such as multi-employer bargaining next year.

The government argues the speedy timeframe for the entire bill’s passage is necessary to deliver industrial relations changes that could make it easier for workers to negotiate better pay, an idea backed by the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus said on Tuesday the government had already made significant compromises on the legislation, and further changes would render the bill ineffective.

“We are focused on doing what is needed to get wages moving, and we don’t want further changes that are going to make that harder, and I know that some in the business lobby are pushing for changes that will make it totally inoperable,” McManus said.

“This idea that we can just give multi-employer bargaining or [other] options for the very low paid will not fix the problems we’ve got with wages in our country,” she said.

McManus said if only the low-paid multi-employer bargaining stream was passed this year “it would take a very long time to get wages moving”.

Multi-employer bargaining is the sticking point in the bill as it would allow the majority of workers across multiple businesses to jointly force their employers to the bargaining table, which businesses fear could expose them to unworkable deals and widespread industrial action.

ACT senator David Pocock, a possibly crucial vote the government needs in the Senate, wants to push forward with multi-employer bargaining for low-paid workers and the opt-in stream for small businesses “to urgently deliver pay rises for the lowest paid workers”, leaving the most controversial ‘single interest’ stream to be debated next year.

Burke told ABC radio he was hopeful that over the next few weeks, “I’m able to give [Pocock] more comfort on the single interest stream.”

“Multi-employer bargaining allows the different competitors to have an agreement where they’re not competing on a race for the bottom on wages, where people aren’t just undercutting each other,” he said.

In a sign of tensions between the government and the crossbench over the legislation, Government Services Minister Bill Shorten, a former union boss, accused “well-paid” members of the Senate of “telling Australian workers they’ve got to wait even longer for a modest pay rise”.

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