Unions want the right to work from home included in enterprise agreements

Unions are pushing to have the right to work from home included in enterprise bargaining agreements covering tens of thousands of white-collar workers, arguing the measure would help keep workers safe from new COVID variants.

Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, Paul Kelly, has called on employers to let staff work from home this winter to control the “significant new threat” posed by the latest Omicron subvariant, but enshrining the right to stay home in long-term agreements could delay a traditional return to the office for many years to come.

Unions want the right to work from home included in enterprise agreements.Credit:iStock

The Finance Sector Union, which is campaigning for a 6 per cent wage increase for bank staff, is pushing Westpac and NAB to give employees the right to negotiate with their managers over remote working entitlements in a condition to be written in as part of their enterprise agreement.

The union’s Victorian and Tasmanian branch secretary, Nicole McPherson, said the fight could have broader implications for people who had proved their ability to keep working from home throughout the pandemic and wanted to continue the arrangement.

“Working from home has proven to be an important health and safety measure in controlling COVID,” McPherson said, adding that it would also improve wellbeing by allowing more work-life balance.

“Both NAB and Westpac are large employers, so those two bargains represent an opportunity to achieve work-from-home rights for a larger amount of people in the finance sector. You start one enterprise agreement, and it goes and goes and goes. That’s the really exciting thing about trade unions transforming workplace environments.”

The National Tertiary Education Union’s national assistant secretary, Gabe Gooding, said almost all branches were pushing for work-from-home rights in agreements being negotiated between universities and some 27,000 professional staff around the country.

“One of our big concerns from that is employers seem to think their only obligations are to the public health orders. We say they have an obligation to minimise hazards and reduce risks,” Gooding said.

Westpac declined to comment on the current enterprise bargaining, but the bank, which employs about 40,000 people, has told staff they are able to work from home during the winter Omicron wave, using a “green, amber, red” system to signal the level of COVID risks.

NAB has already “strongly recommended” its employees wear face masks indoors and stay home if they are unwell or caring for others. A spokesperson said the details of the new enterprise agreement, including pay and leave entitlements, were still subject to negotiations.

Craig Laughton, chief executive of the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association, the peak employer body, said industry awards could be modernised to recognise working from home “in some iteration”.

He said that while universities had conflicting interests in trying to maintain campus life while protecting staff health, they were conscious “a commonsense approach needs to be taken, particularly in light of what we’re experiencing with this current wave”.

The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance is also pushing for working-from-home arrangements in current enterprise bargaining discussions.

Australian Council of Trade Unions president Michele O’Neil backed the white-collar unions, saying employers had a legal obligation to keep workers safe, including by consulting and working with staff.

“During the current wave, that means ensuring that people are working from home where it’s possible to do so, and have masks and socially distancing arrangements in place where it’s not,” she said.

“Employers should also be providing both free masks and RATs that working people need to keep themselves safe, as well as paid leave for anyone who needs to isolate.”

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who has said it’s up to workplaces to handle working-from-home arrangements during the winter wave, faced questions on Thursday about whether any COVID mandates would return, including the wearing of masks.

He said no one had been arguing for more regulations.

“The other thing you need to bear in mind is the mental health aspects of restrictions on people’s behaviour. We need to get the balance right. And I think that’s something that the chief health officers have borne in mind,” he told ABC radio.

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