The Gillard government intends to give more Australian workers the right to request flexible working arrangements. The plan would allow all workers with caring responsibilities to ask for flexible work arrangements, including those with school-aged children or elderly relatives requiring care. It would also give the same rights to victims of domestic violence and those who care for them, and all workers aged 55 and over.
Under the existing Fair Work Act, only parents of preschool children, and those with disabled offspring under 18, have the right to request flexible working arrangements, such as later start times to cover school drop-offs.
As she left New Zealand on Sunday, Julia Gillard said she would reveal more changes to the legislation this week, including protecting parents from sudden changes to their work rosters. "This is about giving more workers a better balance between work and family," the Prime Minister said.
In an effort to beef up awareness of the provisions, employers will give notice of the new rights to all new recruits.
But bosses will have no legal obligation to accept requests for more workplace flexibility, and there has been no announcement of a new right to appeal if an employer refuses a request, which has lead to criticism from the Greens, researchers and the Australian Council of Trade Unions.
Greens deputy leader Adam Bandt said the government "should not assume they have got the Greens' support for this blatant piece of window dressing. Labor is proposing to put into law what people have already got ... But if the boss says no, there's nowhere to go."
Barbara Pocock, from the Centre for Work + Life in Adelaide, welcomed the scheme's extension, but was critical of the lack of a review mechanism. "We have labour law which says to bad bosses, if you underpay someone or refuse a condition to them, employees can take their case to a court. What is it about a right for carers, most of whom are women, where no such backup exists?"
The Coalition says it supports, in principle, any measure that makes workplaces more flexible, but that it was "a two-way street" and it would wait for more details. "It now seems that employees can approach employers for a whole raft of their individual needs but what about the employer?" said the shadow minister for employment and workplace relations, Eric Abetz.
Chief executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry Peter Anderson agreed. "The Fair Work laws are creating significant problems for business," he said. "The announcement will not be supported by the private sector unless the government has a solid package of changes that address business issues as well."