Government Promises to Remove Criminal Penalties for Employers Calling After-Hours

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Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has committed to passing new legislation to remove criminal sanctions for breaches of the ‘right to disconnect.’

The government is scrambling to change its own, newly passed, workplace relations laws after finding they still contained criminal penalties for employers who breached the “right to disconnect” provisions—a new law to restrict employers from contacting employees after work.

The legislation passed the Senate on Thursday evening, but Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is now saying it will be amended in the lower house to remove the sanctions.

He played down the significance of the problem, saying: “It won’t mean anything, it’ll just mean we fix it up through separate legislation because this legislation isn’t due to take effect for many months, so it won’t mean anything.”

The “right to disconnect” provisions were added to the bill during negotiations with the Greens, who then agreed to support it along with Senators David Pocock and Lidia Thorpe. Fellow crossbench Senators Jacqui Lambie and Tammy Tyrrell voted against it.

As it stands, if an employee complained about being regularly contacted outside of work hours, their employer could receive a fine of $18,000.

But Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke said the intention was that employees and employers would negotiate more formal arrangements for out-of-hours contact through workplace agreements.

“One of the ways—instead of the fines—of doing it is simply having an absolute ban on there being a penalty on the worker for disengaging,” Mr Burke said.

“So, if the worker disconnects, if they decide they’re not going to have their phone with them, if they decide they’re not going to be checking their work emails, then absolutely no penalty can be brought against them. And that sort of protection would give you a way of doing it without fines on the employer.

“It is difficult to imagine a situation where criminal penalties would ever be appropriate,” Mr. Burke said. “Despite the opposition’s idiotic and irresponsible behaviour, we will legislate to fix this.”

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Minister for Government Services Bill Shorten said the government had already tried to remove the criminal penalties for employers, but the Coalition didn’t provide the support needed on Thursday night.

“I’ve seen this latest ‘Tory’ tantrum on workers getting better rights,” he said. “We said to the Libs, listen, we just better tidy that up. And would you believe, the Liberals threw the toys out of the cot and said, ‘No no, you’ve got your laws, we’re not going to let you amend it.’”

Opposition Deputy Leader Sussan Ley blamed the government, saying it couldn’t control the “chaos in the Senate” it had caused over the legislation on Thursday night.

“Whether deliberately or maybe accidentally, Labor has passed legislation that means that if you either run or manage your business and you contact your staff after hours, you could face jail time,” she said.

“How chaotic and how confusing. We need a much better and much more sensible approach when it comes to these issues.”

Australian Industry Group CEO Innes Willox said employers were looking at “massive complexity and uncertainty about how workplaces operate” as a result of the new laws.

“There is now the real likelihood of conflict where previously there were agreed flexibilities and trade-offs … disputes over trying to keep a workplace moving are now more likely,” he said.

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