Election battleground: workplace relations?

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The Labor government has flagged its intention to increase the number of employees who can ask for flexible working arrangements.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard made the announcement earlier today, but was adamant that employers would still have the right to say no to unreasonable requests. It is the second part of the Government's broader response to the Fair Work review – but the issue is set to be hotly debated in light of the upcoming federal election.

As it stands, the right to ask for flexible hours or other working arrangements currently only applies to some parents, under the Government's 10 national employment standards (NES). If the change goes through, the government will specifically include the right to request flexibility from their employer under the Fair Work Act, and significantly broaden its scope.

The rights would also be extended to all workers who have care responsibilities, those over 55, workers with a disability, and also worker's experiencing domestic violence. But the central aspect of the change would be in giving new parents a legislative right to access flexible work options as they transition back into work. “[Employees] will be able to request flexible and part-time work and their employer will have to respond to that request,” Gillard said.

Professor Barbara Pocock from the Centre for Work and Life at the University of South Australia, told ABC that it will be essential for the government to provide employers with more information about when it is and is not reasonable to say no.

The Diversity Council Australia (DCA) said their research has found significant evidence that flexible work optimises resources and productivity. It does not believe the changes would create difficulties for business, and pointed to the success of similar rights being granted to workers in the Netherlands and Germany. “Extending the right to all employees makes it simpler for employers to manage, can encourage innovation in work organisation, and can increase workplace acceptance that men as well as women need to be supported to be working carers,” DCA CEO, Nareen Young said.

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