Fight brews as business digs in over workplace reforms

Brendan Esposito/AAP PHOTOS

The battleground has been set for another tense round of workplace reforms, with the federal government's plans to boost protections for gig workers slammed by business groups and the opposition.

The changes, detailed in a speech by Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke at the National Press Club, are part of the government's broader reform agenda that will be introduced to parliament on Monday.

Gig worker rights, criminalising wage theft, creating a pathway for casual workers to become permanent and the "same job, same pay" rules for labour hire will all be bundled into the bill.

Central to the workplace reforms are ensuring worker rights don't "fall off a cliff" when they are not deemed an employee.

"What we want to do is turn that cliff into a ramp," Mr Burke said on Thursday.

The minister said employees were at the top of the ramp, "employee-like" gig workers were in the middle and independent contractors were at the bottom.

To make this three-level model work, Mr Burke plans to define what an employee is in the Fair Work Act - challenging the notion "if the contract says you're not an employee, then you're not an employee".

"That's not a common-sense way of making sure we've got standards here in Australia," he said.

Under the gig worker changes, eligible parties will be able to apply to the Fair Work Commission to set minimum standards that are specialised to the work they perform.

It will be up to the industrial umpire to set the terms, but the options will be restricted to things such as minimum pay and insurance and will stop short at rostering arrangements and other orders that could restrict flexibility.

"While we all love the technology, it's got to be possible to have 21st century technology without having 19th century working conditions," Mr Burke said.

Opposition workplace relations spokeswoman Michaelia Cash said the changes would drive up costs for consumers and businesses.

"At a time of a cost-of-living crisis, high inflation, businesses struggling with staff shortages and rapidly increasing power costs, Labor is making a bad situation worse," Senator Cash said.

Mr Burke confirmed the price of delivery services and other impacted services would increase "a tiny bit" but that was the cost of paying workers fairly and keeping them safe.

Senator Cash said a big risk was independent contracting arrangements getting caught up in legislation and called for more clarity around which platforms would be affected.

A coalition of business groups called for the Senate to block the "fundamentally flawed" bill.

Business Council chief executive Jennifer Westacott described the government's proposed reforms as a "radical shake up".

"It will create complexity, it will create extra cost, it will make it harder to get casual work," she said.

Australian Council of Trade Unions president Michele O'Neil said employer groups had embarked on a "scare campaign".

"It's crying wolf, instead of talking about the facts of what is a modest and fair bit of legislation being introduced," she said.

The Greens will push for a "right to disconnect" in the workplace laws.

"Workers should have the right to turn off their phones, block their bosses' calls and switch off their emails when they're finished work for the day," Greens employment spokeswoman Barbara Pocock said.