“It is likely the direct economic and social impacts of the pandemic will be felt for some time to come and that there will be a continuing need for flexible work arrangements to assist employers and employees in adapting to the changed conditions and to support the recovery,” Justice Ross said in a statement.
The announcement “put the cat among the pigeons” said one source involved in the working groups, who was not authorised to speak publicly.
“It appears that the FWC wants to make sure that it’s still relevant in the process,” the source said.
Another source said it was now unclear whether businesses should look to the commission or the federal government’s working groups to resolve award issues.
“It’s difficult to see how the government can deliver on its commitment to award simplification when it seems now to be in competition with the commission on who can get the work done first,” another source said.
There is already frustration among some participants that the process is yet to come up with any concrete proposals for industrial reform.
The commission’s plan allows people to work from home, agree to share diminished hours among more employees rather than a few facing redundancy and purchase more annual leave among other measures to help businesses through the coronavirus pandemic.
Justice Ross suggested the changes were particularly relevant to industries like hospitality, restaurants and retail because they have a large number of small businesses and have been hit hard by the pandemic. Unions and employer groups should come to agreements with the template as a starting point, Justice Ross suggested.
Others in the groups, including the minister overseeing them, Attorney-General Christian Porter, welcomed the commission’s involvement as an acknowledgement of the challenges facing Australian businesses and another opportunity for collaborative work across the industrial divide.
“This is the same priority being applied by representatives on the industrial working groups which continue to work towards potential reforms which will drive the retention and creation of jobs post-COVID,” Mr Porter said.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions declined to say whether it would be pursuing deals under the commission’s framework, with secretary Sally McManus only saying changes should help working people.
Jos de Bruin, chief executive of Master Grocers Australia, one of the groups involved in the working group process, agreed with Mr Porter.
“I think it’s really positive that the commission is getting involved and getting on the front foot,” Mr de Bruin said.
Both Mr Porter and Ms McManus have said they are more optimistic about the prospects of compromise in the working groups than some of the participants, who have shown little hope there will be a large scale deal.
But speaking at a Griffith University function last week, Ms McManus said there were some employer groups who were still wedded to the Howard government’s controversial WorkChoices industrial reforms.
“They probably dusted it off from under the pillow that they go to sleep with every night,” Ms McManus said. “They’ve memorised every page.”
“For sure some people have approached it that way but I wouldn’t say that’s been a universal approach by business representatives. There are others who have been more constructive.”
Nick Bonyhady is industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based between Sydney and Parliament House in Canberra.