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Stage set for jobs and skills summit

The stage has been set ahead of this week’s jobs and skills summit, with migration policy, training and industrial relations reforms expected to dominate the two-day gathering.

With wage growth falling well behind skyrocketing inflation, the mechanism used by workers to collectively negotiate better wages and conditions – enterprise bargaining – has come under the microscope.

Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus will focus on workers’ bargaining powers as the government flags potential enterprise bargaining reforms.

The unions are pushing for multi-employer or sector bargaining, which would allow multiple workplaces to make an agreement together.

“Workers’ bargaining power has been smashed,” she told the ABC’s Insiders program on Sunday.

“That’s why we have a problem, a huge problem, with wages growth and unless we address that issue, that is not going to change.

“It should be simple, it should be fair, to give the workers the bargaining power they need to get pay rises again.”

Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott says there needed to be a greater focus on driving innovation and productivity to boost wages.

But the head of the peak business body agreed with the ACTU the enterprise bargaining system needed an overhaul to ensure workers were paid more.

“Sally and I are absolutely on a unity ticket that we want people to be paid more and those wage increases sustained,” Ms Westacott told the ABC Insiders program.

“When done well, when you look at the data and averages on wages, people on enterprise agreements get substantially more money.”

Both peak bodies want to strengthen the ‘better-off overall test’ and streamline the bargaining process.

“This is the crucial thing. When the parties agree, when they have negotiated in good faith, when they have followed the processes, that the Fair Work Commission doesn’t try to re-write and micro-manage that agreement,” Ms Westacott said.

“(And we need to) make sure the people who haven’t been party to the agreement can’t come in later and blow everything up.”

Migration policy has also emerged as a key issue ahead of the summit, with the lifting of skilled migration caps floated as a solution to ease labour shortages.

Training domestic workers for the “jobs of the future” is a priority for Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, with nurses, chefs, early childhood teachers, construction workers, tech staff and electricians among the professions experiencing dire shortages.

Bolstering the participation of women in the workforce and reducing the gender pay gap will also feature.

The federal Greens have written to Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek, asking the government to use the summit to promote jobs that will protect and restore the environment.

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young says key regions and sectors need appropriate investment.

“A strong plan to invest in green jobs would provide a high return on investment while also ensuring the restoration and recovery of critical ecosystems and wildlife,” Senator Hanson-Young said.

“Addressing our climate and biodiversity crises can go hand in hand with stimulating jobs and economic growth.

“Protection of land and environment is a jobs rich area, with opportunities for both labour intensive jobs like weed management, infrastructure and revegetation, as well as skilled jobs such as ecological research and monitoring to protect wildlife and build resilience.”

While the summit agenda will canvas a variety of issues, Australian National University’s Robert Breunig says tax reform is missing from the agenda as a tool to create jobs and incentives for people to work.

He recommends replacing the complicated set of offsets designed to cut tax paid by lower income earners with an earned income tax credit.

Under this system, this group would be paid “negative tax” for every dollar they make until a threshold and then start paying “positive tax”.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton will not attend the employment summit this week but Nationals leader David Littleproud plans to sit in to ensure rural and regional interests are represented.

It will be held in Canberra on Thursday and Friday.

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