The Australian Attorney General recently observed that there were ‘no more bosses and no more unions’ but rather Australians working together to adjust and adapt during these unprecedented times caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19).

Moving beyond the adversarial nature of workplace relations is to be welcomed, but we need to keep the ‘bosses and unions’, perhaps better described as our ‘business leaders and union leaders’, seated at the table (albeit via video conference for now).

Business leaders and union leaders will need to continue in this spirit of cooperation as they work on Australia’s economic recovery plan because the role of the workforce is going to be critical.

As a part of our recovery, Australia has the potential to refocus on domestic production and supporting our local businesses. That’s going to require a shift in mindset for all of us.

Australia pays high minimum wages by international standards and this has seen lower wage countries compete more effectively in some sectors of the global economy, including manufacturing.

We do not want to compete on the basis of low minimum wages and we do not want our position as a high wage economy to change when the labour market adjusts to the challenges we face. This means:

  • Consumers who have purchasing power may need to be prepared to pay more for their Australian products, even if it means buying higher quality but less often.
  • We will need to get better at spreading the workload so more people can maintain jobs. Instead of paying overtime, our policy settings will need to encourage business leaders to hire more people. Businesses are already reinventing standard working patterns and shift arrangements with the effect that people may work less than a full-time load but more jobs are preserved in the process.
  • As businesses pivot their products and services, we need to think quickly about where we can draw skills from to carry out the new work. The trades and skills that will feature in our economic recovery plan needs to be considered, and the pipeline should be mobilised now. This includes thinking now about what roles in our current economy are well positioned to be retrained to do this new work, especially as domestic production ramps up.
  • It is time to review unnecessary constraints to our agility and consider streamlining regulation and workplace rules, including enterprise agreements. We have seen some promising developments already with industry leaders, unions and the Fair Work Commission driving changes to modern awards. This will support both business efforts to adapt and the mobility of people across our workforce so we are better placed to leverage opportunities that emerge in our recovery phase.

The way to recovery

While business leaders have needed to focus their attention to immediate and unforeseen needs, it is now time to be shifting gears and considering a longer term strategy in planning for business recovery. This is going to require consideration of:
  1. New operating model and supply chains.
  2. New workforce strategies, structures and skills.
  3. New, collaborative approaches to workplace relations, driven by business leaders and unions working together in pursuit of common interests.
  4. A renewed policy focus on encouraging employment and innovation and removal of regulation that impedes agility.

If our business, union and political leaders can continue to work together collaboratively as we consider the settings needed to shape and build our recovery, there is significant cause for optimism.


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