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Ferguson: keeping workplace issues front of mind for politicians is crucial

Exclusive by Martin Ferguson, Chair, Tourism Accommodation Australia

Tourism may well be increasingly ‘front of mind’ for politicians, because of its benefits to the economy and employment, but it is imperative that the hotel industry continually explains and justifies its positions in Canberra if we are to achieve the outcomes that the industry requires to maintain its growth momentum.

Last week, the Board of Tourism Accommodation Australia met with key Ministers involved in our industry. We were able to present to, and hear the views from, Senator Richard Colbeck, the Minister for Tourism, Steve Ciobo, the new Minister for Trade & Investment, Senator Cormann, the Minister for Finance, and Michaelia Cash, the Minister for Employment .

All four portfolios are critical for the future of the hotel industry, and fortunately all four Ministers have a strong understanding and appreciation of what our industry can deliver to the economy.

Issues such as the need to address commercialisation of unregulated short-term accommodation, access to skilled labour, tourism in regional and remote Australia, and tourism promotion were canvassed, but undoubtedly the biggest issue remained reform of workplace relations and conditions.

This is an election year and I know from personal experience in the Federal Parliament that sitting governments are loathe to tackle such potentially divisive issues, but following the Productivity Commission’s encouraging call for Sunday penalty rates to be adjusted to Saturday rates in recognition of changes to working conditions and attitudes over the past 50 years, we believe there is a healthy appetite for commonsense reform.

We enjoyed a very frank and open discussion with Employment Minister Michaelia Cash, who had the opportunity to hear first hand from hotel industry leaders about how reform could lead to employment growth.

The final stages of the review of the Hospitality Industry (General) Award 2010 are likely to coincide with the run-up to the Federal Election, and you can be assured that there will be considerable debate from both sides. It is essential for industry members to make strong submissions to their local members to ensure that our voice is heard amidst the inevitable negative scare campaign.

TAA and AHA have represented the industry throughout this Fair Work Commission hearings into the Award, and we were able to present 43 witnesses to the hearing last September. This provided a comprehensive view on the impact of penalty rates and other workplace conditions on the industry, from major operators to small businesses.

We were also able to put forward expert witnesses, and that culminated in a final written submission from the AHA/TAA that was submitted to the Fair Work Commission last month.

There will be submissions from the unions this month, which we will be able to comment on, with final hearings by the FWC in mid April, but there isn’t any indication when they will announce their decision.

The important issue is for the industry to demonstrate that current levels of penalty rates are counter-productive to employment and business growth.

Easter is almost upon us, and while we are not arguing for elimination of penalty rates on public holidays, no one benefits if penalty rates of 250% see businesses close their doors, or cut back hours, because of the excessive costs. Hoteliers need to get this message out across the country over the next month.

We also outlined to Minister Cash our desire for greater part-time work flexibility within the Award, and we currently have an application before the Fair Work Commission in support of such flexibility. The dates for the part time flexibility hearings are set down for 14 to 24 March.

The barriers to hotels employing more people on part-time contracts are unnecessarily high at the moment, which neither suits employers nor employees.

If we are to develop our staff, moving people from casual to part-time contracts is important, but not if it locks a hotel into an inflexible arrangement that doesn’t match their business needs.

We are strenuously opposing an ACTU submission that seeks to increase ‘minimum engagements’ for both part-time and casual employees, and we have provided six witness statements to support our position. The United Voice union is also seeking to introduce overtime for casual employees who work in excess of 38 hours per week or 10 hours in a day, and we will respond to this claim once we have analysed their submission. These matters will be heard before the Full Bench of the FWC this month and in July and August.

What we stressed to all three Ministers is that this a critical time for the industry. There has never been such a large-scale investment in the industry as is currently taking place, with some 70 projects to be developed in the five years from 2015 – 2020. This will revolutionise the industry, with a tremendous range of new hotels across all price points and in every State and Territory.

We will have exceptional new and upgraded ‘hardware’ to offer travellers, but workplace conditions equally require modernisation and upgrading.

In our Canberra meetings we also raised the issue of the need for more flexible visa arrangements, especially if we are to attract workers to regional and remote areas. Senator Colbeck has identified the need for up to 123,000 workers in the tourism and hospitality industry, including over 60,000 skilled workers, and while the industry is investing heavily in career development, there are already serious shortages that need to be addressed. In particular, we called for the so-called ‘backpacker tax’ to be reviewed, as this could seriously limit Australia’s ability to attract working holiday makers.

As a former Tourism Minister I was impressed to see genuine support for the industry in the hallways of Parliament House. When I launched the 2020 Tourism targets at the beginning of the decade, some people believed they were over-ambitious, but with governments across the country now investing time and resources into the industry, and with the private sector seeing the tourism and hospitality industry as a tier-one industry, we are well placed to meet those targets.

But the next three months will be when the industry needs to work together to pressure parliamentarians of all shades into supporting our industry in its endeavours to re-shape it to meet the needs of the new generation.

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