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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Paul Karp

‘Free riders’: NSW unions want to charge non-members for pay rises they broker

Construction worker stands near fencing with Sydney Opera house in background
Unions NSW is calling for bargaining fees for non-union employees benefiting from union-negotiated pay deals. Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP

Non-union workers would be forced to pay fees for union pay deals while the requirement to advertise jobs domestically, before sponsoring foreign workers, would be abolished in favour of a higher wage floor, under two proposals by Unions NSW.

Under the plan employers could be forced to pay a skilled visa applicant 30% above the industry median wage before sponsoring an offshore worker, a move designed to incentivise training Australians.

In a submission ahead of the September jobs and skills summit, the peak NSW union body has also proposed bargaining fees for non-union employees covered by union-negotiated pay deals to prevent the problem of “free riding”.

Both proposals are likely to be controversial with employers, who have warned raising the pay floor for migrant workers will “kill” migration and oppose bargaining fees on freedom of association grounds.

Unions NSW submitted that labour market testing – a requirement to advertise for jobs domestically before sponsoring a worker from overseas – and lists of approved skilled occupations could be scrapped in favour of a requirement to pay skilled visa-holders 30% above the industry median.

“[This] would stimulate higher wages across the industry and push employers to attract the highest skilled migrant workers,” it said.

Unions NSW secretary, Mark Morey, said labour market testing was “not a reliable source for skill shortage identification” and tended to result in a “flood” of temporary workers in approved occupations which then “drives down wages”.

Given most if not all industries are facing shortages, Morey said a higher pay floor would be a better solution, as it would both “stop exploitation” of migrant workers and incentivise business to “engage in skills training for local workers”.

Last week the Australian Council of Trade Unions revealed that it could support an increase in migration to 200,000 provided the salary floor for temporary skilled migrants is increased from $53,000 to $91,000.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s chief executive, Andrew McKellar, said this would “kill many areas of the immigration program overnight” and a pay floor of $60,000 would be more “realistic”.

On Monday prime minister, Anthony Albanese, was asked if the government could expand the list of skilled visa occupations on which workers could enter Australia.

The prime minister blamed the Morrison government for worker shortages because it “told everyone to leave who was a temporary visa holder”, an approach skills and training minister, Brendan O’Connor, described as “either leave or starve”, because temporary visa holders were excluded from jobkeeper wage subsidies.

O’Connor acknowledged there was “a significant hole in our labour market” but said there was “no one solution”, citing the need for skills training and “targeted skilled migration and preferably, permanent migration”.

The Unions NSW submission noted that 30.7% of private sector workers benefit from workplace pay deals, but just 9.5% of private sector workers were union members.

This indicated “high levels of free riding, which is a critical contributor to wage stagnation, inequality and collective bargaining decline”, it said.

More than a quarter (27%) of workers who were paid according to pay deals struck after a union balloted to take industrial action are not members, which Unions NSW argued made them “free riders”.

It proposed “a charge on free riders … capped at 70% of yearly union dues and only payable if the benefit to the worker from the enterprise agreement is higher than this amount”.

Unions NSW noted bargaining fees are allowed in New Zealand, the United States, Canada and South Africa, but banned in Australia.

Unions NSW also proposed: banning unpaid overtime for workers earning less than $162,000; preventing employers applying to the Fair Work Commission to end workplace pay deals early; and for a portion of the Fair Work Ombudsman’s budget to be paid to unions to communicate workplace rights to workers.

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