Labor on the back foot after Greens sneak in criminal penalties for bosses in ‘right to disconnect’ laws

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Labor has been left scrambling, after the Greens snuck through criminal penalties that mean bosses who fail to comply with the “right to disconnect” could face jail time.

The government’s Closing Loopholes No 2 Bill passed the Senate late on Thursday, after Labor clinched a deal with the minor party and independent senators Lidia Thorpe and David Pocock.

But Labor will need to introduce additional legislation to reverse an amendment that allowed for penalties up to 12 months jail time for employers who breach a Fair Work commission order to stop contacting employees.

Labor attempted to fix the error before the Bill went to the final vote in the Senate, but were barred by the Coalition.

The Coalition’s workplace relations spokeswomen Michaelia Cash said Labor had missed the deadline for amendments, putting the saga’s blame at the feet of the government.

“They tried to put through a rushed amendment after the fact – we refused to grant leave to support Labor’s sham legislative process,” she said.

“The fact that the Greens and Labor couldn’t get it right shows that the amendment itself cannot be trusted.

“It’s now up to Labor to fix their own mess and accept they voted for criminal penalties in this legislation.”

Instead of heralding the passing of the tranche of laws that have drawn the ire of business, Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke labelled the opposition’s behaviour “idiotic and irresponsible” and vowed to legislate to “fix” it.

He said Senator Cash had denied the government leave “for reasons beyond my comprehension”.

“I am stunned that after everything Senator Cash has said in recent days her actual position is to have criminal penalties available for employer,” Mr Burke said.

“It is difficult to imagine a situation where criminal penalties would ever be appropriate.

“And certainly it’s impossible for them to be used in the near future because the provision doesn’t start for six months.

Under the legislation, which will now go to the House of Representatives for rubber stamping, Australians will be legally protected against answering calls, texts and emails from their bosses after hours that are deemed “unreasonable”.

If a dispute can’t be resolved in the workplace, the Fair Work Commission can get involved.

Employers who fail to comply with orders to stop such contact face fines of up to $18,780.

The Bill also included a suite of measures aimed at protecting gig workers and casual employees.

Business groups have broadly panned the legislation, with Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Andrew McKellar saying small businesses would struggle with the red tape.

“Every company, when you bring in legislation like this, you’ve got to look at your due diligence, you’ve got to make sure you’ve got the policies and procedures in place. It’s not light touch,” he said.

“At the end of this, there’s a prospect that this is going to get written into awards. That brings with it the risk of penalties if you aren’t complying.

“So there’s a potential financial cost at the end of all of this.”