Opinion: Make it simple and effective

By: Warren Clark

The Australian workplace relations system is too complex to be workable

Opinion: Make it simple and effective
Warren Clark


Miscalculating wage rates should not be a criminal offence. However, the workplace relations system in Australia is so complex that it is easy to make a mistake in calculating wages and entitlements. This is particularly so for small employers who don’t have a dedicated human resources function.

Currently, the Fair Work Act imposes a maximum civil penalty of $12,600 on an individual and a penalty of $63,000 on a body corporate for underpayment of award and enterprise agreement wages. And if it is considered that there is a systematic pattern of deliberate misconduct, the underpayments can attract penalties 10 times higher with individuals being able to be fined $126,000 and body corporates $630,000.

NatRoad believes that the federal government should not impose criminal penalties for such conduct: the financial consequences for employers, with large civil penalties, is a sufficient penalty.  Where there is deliberate, intended ripping off of workers, the general criminal law, such as the law of fraud, should apply.

Every day, NatRoad advisers help members confront the complex nature of Australia's industrial relations system. This is a system which is based on over 120 awards and outmoded workplace agreements. The current campaign to criminalise underpayment of wages means that efforts should be redoubled to make the workplace relations system up-to-date and more flexible.

For example, NatRoad used to assist members with a large number of enterprise agreements that improved members’ productivity.  The current agreement making system though is highly complex and is not geared to enhancing productivity. That is why just 11 per cent of workers in the private sector are now covered by an enterprise bargaining agreement.

 Read Warren Clark’s take on overbearing  contract conditions, here

Modern Awards, together with the National Employment Standards, set the minimum terms of employment for most Australian workers. Modern awards underpin the employment of transport workers. Most transport workers have their employment terms and conditions set by the Road Transport and Distribution Award 2010 and the Road Transport (Long Distance Operation) Award 2010.

One of the ways that the system could be improved is to make the awards simpler (although their abolition and replacement with a simple set of statutory conditions would be ideal). In the last five years, NatRoad has participated in modern award proceedings in the so-called four yearly review that is likely to drag on into its sixth year.

The number of Fair Work Commission (FWC) hearings generated by the process has led unions and employers to unite in saying that there should be no more four-yearly reviews and the federal government passed laws to make the first review the last. We think the first review will go on well into 2020.

NatRoad has been actively involved in FWC hearings to protect transport employers’ interests, such as in payment of wages, termination of employment, redundancy, time-off in lieu of overtime and paid leave for family and domestic violence issues. Many submissions have been written and NatRoad advocates continue to be involved in many proceedings. After all this effort the awards are still not documents that you can pick up and readily understand. 

NatRoad believes that reform of the workplace relations system, especially agreement making, should be a priority of the Morrison Government rather than introducing criminal sanctions for deliberate breaches. 

Warren Clark is CEO of NatRoad.

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