Employment and workplace law: Mid-year review 2014

Submitted by Firm:
Corrs Chambers Westgarth
Firm Contacts:
John Tuck
Article Type:
Legal Article

This is our first annual review of employment and workplace laws in Australia. We look at developments from the perspective of employers in Australia and the challenges that they face in the current economic climate. In considering these issues we have taken the opportunity to gather a range of data that shapes the environment in which employers operate and make decisions.

Work is a critical piece of our economy and of our society; the quality of the work, the productivity of our labour and the number of available jobs are all central to Australia’s health as a nation. It is for these reasons the workplace and the laws that govern it are so often central to our political debate.

Today, in the aftermath of the minerals price boom the focus is on the productivity performance of Australia. It is not a simple debate. The recent massive investment in our resources sector is now delivering an uplift in productivity in that sector from the enormous capital investment. However, this can disguise the weaker productivity performance in other parts of our economy that are our largest employing sectors – health, aged care, construction and education. The resources story can muddy the waters over what Australia now needs by way of workplace laws to positively contribute to more demanding times with lower minerals’ prices, an ageing nation, a dollar doggedly clinging to historically high levels and critical infrastructure upgrades facing our major cities.

The last major national political contest that had our workplace laws at the core was almost seven years ago during the 2007 federal election over WorkChoices. The introduction of new workplace laws were part of the promise of 2007 leading to the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) (FW Act). However, this was before the global financial crisis and the China resources boom peaking in 2011. Whether these laws suit a new economic environment will soon be considered by the Productivity Commission Inquiry into the workplace relations framework due to report in April 2015.

In this context we look at the 2013-2014 financial year and the major developments in Australian employment and workplace relations law.

The most significant change was the election of the Abbott Coalition Government at the federal level in September 2013. Since then, the Government has been implementing its reform agenda, including proposed amendments to the FW Act; legislation to restore the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC); and increased regulation of trade unions.

In February 2014, the Government established the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption (Trade Unions Royal Commission). Hearings of the Royal Commission commenced in April, and will continue throughout the year with a report to the Government due by 31 December 2014.

In the period since the Coalition took office, the industrial relations debate has shifted with employer groups stepping up their lobbying to wind back award penalty rates (particularly in respect to weekend work), unfair dismissal protections and union-centred collective bargaining. In the first few months of 2014, union agreements at Toyota, SPC Ardmona and Qantas came under increased scrutiny in the context of discussion over the survival prospects of these companies – and the Government’s decision to reduce industry assistance. These examples raised the issue of whether our workplaces are flexible enough within the current workplace laws to react to changing demands.

In this extended Corrs Workplace Relations Thinking Piece, we examine these issues and other key workplace relations and employment law developments over the past year, including the commencement of the Fair Work Commission (FWC)’s new anti-bullying jurisdiction on 1 January 2014. Significant court and tribunal decisions are also analysed.

We then look ahead and identify the issues that are likely to be a central focus in Australian employment relations over the next 12 months, chief among them the imminent Productivity Commission review of the FW Act and related legislation.


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