Australia No.3 bank clinches union deal for staff to work from home

By Byron Kaye

SYDNEY (Reuters) – National Australia Bank (NAB), the No.3 lender, reached a deal that lets employees work from home, a union said on Friday, one of the world’s first to give private-sector staff legal protection for remote work.

As part of a broader deal that guarantees pay rises for 80% of the bank’s 32,000 staff, NAB must show “support of and encouragement of working from home arrangements” with limitations on the grounds for the employer to refuse a request, according to the Finance Sector Union (FSU).

The deal breaks new ground in a global standoff between corporations and their staff since bosses started calling an end to home-working arrangements that were precipitated by COVID-19. This week the Australian federal body that sets public sector wages also agreed to a union request for uncapped work from home days.

But the pressure point has gone largely unresolved in the private sector, including an unsuccessful class action lawsuit by employees of requesting repayment of expenses related to working from home after it ordered a return to the office.

Some of Australia’s biggest companies, including NAB and larger rival Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA), have set minimum office attendance requirements. But the country’s capital city office vacancies remain around one-sixth, far higher than pre-pandemic levels, amid entrenched resistence.

The FSU said in a statement the agreement was a win for thousands of bank workers, adding that it would pressure other large Australian banks to match the new benchmark set by NAB.

A NAB spokesperson said the deal reflected the bank’s guidelines since 2021 of at least two or three days a week in the office but highlighted “the option for colleagues to apply for flexible working arrangements” as defined in the country’s workplace laws.

The deal comes two days after the FSU took CBA, the country’s biggest bank which has 49,000 staff, to the industrial regulator to object to a directive to return to the office 50% of the time from this month.

In its complaint to the Fair Work Commission, the union said CBA’s return-to-office directive would force staff to spend more money on commuting and child care and lose two to three hours a day travelling to and from work.

A CBA spokesperson said the bank respected its existing union agreement “and those matters that require consultation”.

“Flexible working options remain available, as they always have, and we’ll continue to give consideration to our people who require more tailored arrangements,” the spokesperson added.

No. 2 bank Westpac and the FSU are currently negotiating a new enterprise deal which includes the question of whether to allow work from home, the union said. (This story has been refiled to correct syntax and add a dropped word in paragraph 10)

(Reporting by Byron Kaye; Editing by Jamie Freed and Lincoln Feast.)