Work choices or penalty rates? Who knows?

Confused by the federal government’s stance on penalty rates, minimum wages and workplace flexibility? So, it seems, is the federal employment minister and just about everyone else!

Victoria’s premier Daniel Andrews has claimed the Abbott government is planning to revive WorkChoices.

Pre-empting the federal government’s response to a sweeping Productivity Commission review of Australia’s workplace system released last month, Mr Andrews has released figures showing 587,000 Victorians usually work at the weekend, 328,000 usually work overtime, and 157,000 usually work night shifts. Mr Andrews predicts the incomes of Victorians could be cut by up to a third.

Productivity Commission chief Peter Harris launched the long-awaited review last month, confirming that penalty rates, the minimum wage and the workplace flexibility would be under intense scrutiny.

But the Abbott government will not pursue changes to penalty rates and the minimum wage regardless of the outcome of a Productivity Commission inquiry, according to federal employment minister Eric Abetz. He stresses, “The government will leave the responsibility of setting modern awards, including penalty rates, and the minimum wage with the Fair Work Commission.”

So if it is to be status quo, why bother with the Productivity Commission inquiry?

“If Eric Abetz says penalty rates are off the table, then why did the Abbott government ask the Productivity Commission to look in pay and conditions for employees?” Victorian industrial relations minister Natalie Hutchins said claiming the review was an “attempt to sneak a revival of WorkChoices through the backdoor”.

Liberal MP David Southwick stated in parliament that, “If the government were really serious about getting businesses going and getting people back to work, it would look at penalty rates”.

Business groups have lashed the Abbott government for ruling out any change to penalty rates or the minimum wage, accusing it of taking a “head in the sand” approach.

The confirmation the government will not step in to adjudicate on penalty rates comes as a blow to the business groups campaigning against penalties.

Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry CEO Kate Carnell said, “Obviously we are disappointed by the minister’s comments… They have said they would have the Productivity Commission report and that… they would use the outcomes to take a comprehensive policy to the next election. It would seem the policy is becoming less comprehensive.”

Australian Industry Group CEO Innes Willox said that while it was appropriate the Fair Work Commission set the minimum wage and penalty rates, but the criteria that applies to the making of such decisions should be scrutinised by the Productivity Commission during its review”.

“The fact is that penalty rates in industries like the fast food sector are having a big impact on businesses and on employment for young people,” he said.

Labor employment spokesman Brendan O’Connor said if Senator Abetz was genuine about this matter the Abbott government should also withdraw the Fair Work Amendment Bill. Deputy Greens leader Adam Bandt said that if the Abbott government was ruling out changes to penalty rates and the minimum wage, the Productivity Commission should stop the now pointless inquiry into these matters.

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