Another government announcement in the Courier-Mail

Posted on May 26, 2020

Recently the Courier-Mail has published many articles about public sector entitlements. On more than one occasion the government appears to have used the newspaper to make policy announcements, without any accompanying detail.

I wanted to lay out clearly what we are aware of and what has been going on.

Your hours of work

Members may have seen the Courier-Mail story "Huge change coming to public service in wake of COVID-19", which was published on Sunday. 

This story states that there will be significant changes to the hours of work for public servants as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and that discussions are occurring with government agencies about an increased spread of hours. 

As with other government announcements in the Courier-Mail, this came as a surprise. At no stage has there been any discussions with Together, or any other union to our knowledge, about changing hours of work for public servants. 

The Public Service Commission provided unions with a "Framework to support return to COVID-safe workplaces", which has no reference to changing the spread of hours for public servants. Any change to the spread of hours would have to be accompanied by agreed changes to the relevant awards and/or collective agreements. 

Together members have agreed to change hours of work arrangements in some agencies for members who are working from home, and this has only been on a voluntary basis. 

We have written to the Premier seeing urgent clarification on what is being proposed by her government when she is quoted as saying “So people would still do their full complement of hours but they would either start much earlier or finish much later." 

The Courier-Mail article also says that the plan would be announced later this week. 

Returning to the Workplace Discussions 

Together has raised significant concerns about the return-to-workplace plans proposed by some agencies. The current Public Health Directive is clear that where people are able to work from home, they must continue to do so until 10 July at the earliest. Proposals by the government or specific agencies for return to work has to be consistent with the public health advice and decisions of the Chief Health Officer. 

Together members who are essential workers, as all public servants are, have continued to work through the pandemic delivering essential public services. This has occurred from normal workplace locations, from home or from alternative sites where members have been redeployed. Relaxation of restrictions relating to the pandemic is a significant health risk to our members if it is rushed or ill-conceived. Its really important that everyone is safe at work, and getting to and from work. The best way to address this to ensure that workers are consulted about the measures being taken by each agency to provide a safe workplace. 

Together will be approaching a number of government agencies this week to ensure that the provisions of the Workplace Health and Safety Act are being followed in relation to consultation with staff on the risks associated with COVID-19. We will also seek election of additional Health and Safety Representatives to provide more opportunity for union members to have their voice heard on the occupational health and safety challenges of returning to the workplace or from the relaxation of restrictions on public sector workplaces and the delivery of public sector services. 

A "hiring freeze"

Members will be aware of the government announcement in the Courier-Mail at the start of the month that there would be a public service recruitment freeze. 

Together has raised this with the Public Service Commission Chief Executive and various Directors-General and sought clarification on what the details of the policy are. The only responses so far have indicated that the only details known were what was in the Courier-Mail. No more details have been provided by the government. 

A number of public sector awards and agreements have provisions that require the replacement of staff or appropriate workload management processes. It is not clear how such provisions would apply if a recruitment freeze was to be introduced. It is important to reiterate however that you should not have to continue to do more with less.

We have proposed to government that a consultative forum be established to deal with issues relating to the obvious budgetary challenges caused by the COVID-19, but have not yet had a response. 

Public Sector Wages 

On 2 April the Premier announced that 'it is all on hold’ in relation to public sector wages. It was entirely unclear what this meant. 

Together and other unions have been meeting regularly with the Minister Grace, and previously Deputy Premier and Treasurer Trad, on what the announcement would mean for public sector workers. 

The employee ballots for members in the Core and Education Queensland continued after this announcement, but the ballot for the Department of Child Safety, Youth and Women was put on hold. 

On 1 May Minister Grace and Minister Trad committed that, where in-principle agreements had been reached for pay increases relating to 2019, that these increases would be applied administratively and would be paid before the end of the financial year. Last week Queensland Health advised that they are yet to get approval to process the payments in line with this commitment. 

The government has yet to put a position to the union movement on how the wage freeze might apply. Any change to existing certified agreements will require a ballot of all employees. No change has been proposed for Together agreements that have pay increases due on 1 July. 

Following the employee ballots for the Core EB and Education Queensland EB, the employer declined to make an application to certify the agreements despite over 90% support for the agreement amongst employees. In Stadiums Queensland, the employer did seek to certify their agreement in the QIRC following their employee ballot. As the employer had declined to certify the agreements, Together made the application to the Commission for the Core EB and the Education Queensland EB. 

The QIRC listed the certification hearings for Monday 25 May for the Education Queensland EB. Late on Friday afternoon, Minister Grace applied to delay the hearings on Together's applications, and the government's own application for Stadiums Queensland, giving as her reason; 

“The Queensland Government is currently considering its economic and fiscal response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which impact upon a number of industrial relations matters for Queensland public sector.  These are unprecedent circumstances and I seek the adjournments based on these considerations and their implements with the Queensland public sector’” 

Minister Grace sought "an adjournment for a short amount of time" to 22 June 2020. After two months of negotiations the government was seeking a further four weeks to finalise its position. Together sought that the QIRC only delay the certifications for a two week period to ensure that the hearings occur prior to the next sitting week of Parliament. 

Together is gravely concerned about the failure of the government to provide a clear position on its wages freeze, its recruitment freeze and its proposal to change the hours of work for public servants. 

Changes of these nature can only occur through agreed amendments to the industrial awards and agreements or through legislation.

If the Palaszczuk Government were to use their power to legislate to change public sector wages, they would be taking a radical and unprecedented step as well as fundamentally undermining workplace democracy and the agreement-making process.

Direct legislative intervention in agreements has been seen before in Queensland – under Campbell Newman. Union members made clear their firm opposition to it then, and now-Premier Palaszczuk stood with us. What will she and her IR minister do now?

At this stage we are not aware of any proposal to amend the Industrial Relations Act to override existing awards or agreements, but as we have outlined above, there is no detail on how the government will seek to introduce any of its policy announcements.

No government in Australia has suggested using legislation to override existing awards or collective agreements during this crisis. The Commonwealth government has made delays to administrative pay increases and to the system of employees being balloted for changes to existing agreements. It has not changed the requirement that agreements can only be changed with the consent of employees. 

No other state government has proposed changing their industrial relations legislation in response to the COVID-19 crisis, although the issue has been raised in New South Wales. 

We will be raising the spectre of the changing of legislation at the Queensland Council Unions Executive meeting on Wednesday morning. Together will seek that the combined union movement seek guarantees that legislation will not be used to reduce workers' conditions and nor will any proposed industrial relations legislation be rushed through the unicameral Queensland Parliament.

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