During the recent federal election, the Coalition announced its workplace relations policy, including stronger enforcement under the Fair Work Act 2009, the reintroduction of the Australian Building and Construction Commission and stronger regulation of unions and their officials.

Enforcement under the Fair Work Act 2009

The Coalition Government intends to strengthen the enforcement provisions under the Fair Work Act in response to the ‘systematic exploitation of workers’, including:

  • higher penalties (10 times the current maximum) for employers who deliberately and systematically underpay workers and fail to keep proper records;
  • a new offence for employers who pay employees the correct wages but then force employees to repay a proportion in cash;
  • new provisions applying to franchisors and parent companies who fail to deal with exploitation by their franchisees, including imposing liabilities on franchisors and parent companies who should have been reasonably aware and could reasonably have taken action to prevent breaches of the Fair Work Act 2009; and
  • providing the Fair Work Ombudsman with compulsory evidence gathering powers (similar to those held by ASIC, the ACCC and the ATO) and introducing new penalties for those who obstruct Fair Work inspectors and provide false or misleading information to inspectors.

The Coalition has also pledged a $20 million funding increase to the Fair Work Ombudsman to facilitate enforcement and establish a Migrant Worker Taskforce to target employers who exploit migrant workers.

Australian Building and Construction Commission

The Coalition intends to re-introduce the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) as a response to high levels of industrial disputes on building sites.

The Bill to reintroduce the ABCC also seeks to:

  • expand the definition of ‘building work’ so as to bring the transportation or supply of goods to building sites and offshore resource platforms within the purview of the ABCC;
  • create new prohibitions on the organising or taking of unlawful industrial action, or unlawful picketing;
  • increase penalties for unlawful industrial action and unlawful picketing to $34,000 for individuals and $170,000 for corporate entities, including unions; and
  • remove the limitation preventing the ABCC from initiating or continuing enforcement action where the parties involved have settled a dispute.

Regulation of union officials

The Coalition also intends to re-introduce the Registered Organisations Bill to establish a new specialist regulator, the Registered Organisations Commission, to take over responsibility from the Fair Work Commission for oversight of registered unions and employer associations.

The Registered Organisations Commission would be given enhanced investigation and information-gathering powers. The Registered Organisations Bill in its current form also:

  • increases the obligations of union officials with respect to the disclosure of material personal interests and decision-making where officers may have such interests;
  • strengthens the financial, disclosure and transparency requirements applicable to officers in financial management matters; and
  • increases civil penalties and imposes criminal liability for serious breaches by organisation officials.

Based on the positions expressed by many cross bench federal senators, it is unlikely that either the Bill to reintroduce the ABCC or the Registered Organisations Bill will be passed in their current forms.

Major reform of the Queensland industrial relations framework

Following the Queensland Government’s review of the industrial relations framework in Queensland, and the December Review 2015 report, the State Government has announced significant changes to Queensland’s industrial relations system.

The State Government will introduce the Industrial Relations Bill later this year, which will propose a new regime of rights and obligations for Queensland Government, some local government and statutory body employees, including:

  • the inclusion of mutual trust and confidence in the objects section of the new Act;
  • the inclusion of anti-bullying laws, very similar to the anti-bullying laws under the Fair Work Act 2009;
  • the inclusion of a general protections regime, similar to the regime under Part 3-1 of the Fair Work Act 2009, but broader in some areas including an employee’s right to request a flexible work arrangement;
  • complaints of unlawful discrimination in the area of employment and pre-employment heard by the QIRC rather than QCAT; and
  • the inclusion of 10 days’ domestic violence leave.

The State Government has also confirmed that it intends to legislate further to protect independent contractors in Queensland.

This article originally appeared in the July issue of our Workplace Relations and Safety Risk Management Adviser