Closing the Loopholes bill: Workplace shake-up set to face final Senate hurdle

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Contentious changes to workplace laws will return to parliament for the first sitting week of 2024, with the government to introduce a new provision which would give workers a right to tell their boss to stop making unreasonable contact outside of work hours.

In early December, independent senators Jacqui Lambie and David Pocock struck a deal with the government to pass many of the less-contentious elements of the government’s Closing Loopholes Bill.

Measures that passed through parliament included changes to stop discrimination against employees who have experienced domestic violence, new small business insolvency laws, expanded assistance for those who suffer from silicosis, and a clampdown on labour hire.

But more controversial measures which would revive a federal system to set minimum pay for truckies, make it easier for casual workers to convert to permanent roles, and empower the industrial umpire to introduce minimum pay and conditions for gig economy workers, are yet to be debated.

Speaking on Sunday, Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke said negotiations with the Greens and the Senate crossbench, whose support will be critical to the passage of the laws, were ongoing, while he expected the Coalition to oppose the measures.

“We’re still talking to the crossbench,” Mr Burke told Sky News’ Sunday Agenda program.

“I think it’s a fair bet we’re not going to get the Opposition’s votes on anything that involves people’s wages going up so it’s a crossbench conversation that matters.

“That’s still happening, it’s constructive, but we’re not there yet.”

Key crossbencher Senator Lambie and Senator Pocock have voiced significant concerns with the measures in the remaining elements of the Closing Loopholes legislation.

The government is also facing a backlash from business over its negotiations with the Greens, which have resulted in a deal to legislate a right to disconnect which would prevent bosses from contacting their staff outside of hours.

On Friday, Business Council chief executive Bran Black demanded the government consult on the proposed change, the details of which remain confidential.

“We are disappointed to see the government try to introduce the ‘Right to Disconnect’ amendment at the 11th hour with no consultation and no detail on what it will entail, and we fear it will be rammed through the parliament next week,” Mr Black said.

But Mr Burke argued that technology meant workers could be contacted at all times, without being fairly compensated.

“There are some workplaces where effectively people are working a whole lot of hours unpaid, because they’re expected to be permanently on call,” he said.

The government was considering changes, Mr Burke said, that would penalise businesses if they continued to contact their workers after they were ordered by the industrial umpire against doing so.

“If it has got completely out of hand of a worker being expected to do unpaid work, they’d be able to go to the [Fair Work] Commission [to] get a stop order,” Mr Burke said.

“If the stop order was breached, only then would there be a situation of fines.”

It is understood Mr Burke has told stakeholders he would like to see this latest tranche of workplace reforms passed through the parliament by the end of the first sitting week.