The Australian Government has given the Productivity Commission broad terms of reference to undertake a public inquiry into the performance of Australia’s workplace relations framework, including the Fair Work Act 2009 (FWA) and identify improvements that can be made.  The Productivity Commission has today released 5 issues papers that deal with a range of topics to be addressed by the inquiry and pose a number of questions to guide public submissions on those topics. 

The 5 issues papers address the context of the inquiry, safety nets, the bargaining framework, employee protections and a selection of related issues such as compliance costs and public sector workplace relations.  A copy of the issues papers can be accessed here.

Of particular note is issues paper 4 which deals with employee protections, namely:

  • unfair dismissal;
  • anti-bullying laws; and 
  • general protections provisions of the FWA. 

The issues paper notes that unfair dismissal provisions in the FWA have imposed costs on businesses and uncertain impacts on productivity.  It also raises specific issues for comment including the practical impact of the unfair dismissal provisions, who should be covered by those provisions and the practice of employers paying ‘go away’ money to dispose of matters. 

In relation to both anti-bullying laws and general protections, the issues paper notes that there is complexity and overlap amongst the various mechanisms available to individuals when seeking redress for workplace conduct.  In relation to all employee protections identified, the Productivity Commission seeks comment on ways in which processes could be improved or streamlined. 

The issues papers together recognise the complexity of Australia’s current workplace relations systems given the interplay of employment contracts, the National Employment Standards, awards, enterprise agreements and common law employment principles.  Throughout all the issues papers comment is sought on ways to reduce that complexity, improve efficiency and allow for greater flexibility. 

Initial submissions are due by 13 March 2015.  Public hearings will be held following the release of a draft report in mid-2015.  The final report is expected in November 2015. 

Whether or not this process will result in any, or any significant reforms remains to be seen, particularly given that a federal election is to be held in 2016.