Federal Government Announces Inquiry into Australia's Labour Relations Laws

On 22 January 2015, the Australian Productivity Commission (Commission) released a collection of five issues papers which will frame public debate on the Government's plans for reform of Australia's labour relations laws. 

The Commission was instructed by the federal government in December 2014 to conduct a public inquiry into the performance of the nation's workplace relations framework, including the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth). In conducting this inquiry, the Government has instructed the Commission to examine the current operation of the Australia's labour laws and identify means of improvement, while being mindful of workers' protections and business growth. 

The inquiry's terms of reference include investigating unemployment and underemployment, pay, small businesses, productivity and competitiveness, changing economic conditions, patterns of engagement in the labour market, flexibility for employees, bargaining, employer compliance, industrial conflict, independent contracting, the performance of the Fair Work Act 2009, the impact of the workplace relations framework, and the experiences of other OECD countries. Labour unions, employers and other interested stakeholders are invited to make submissions for the Commission's consideration. 

The Commission has identified the following areas for particular attention:

  • Guarantees about employee pay and conditions (safety nets), notably minimum wages, awards, and the National Employment Standards;
  • The employee-employer bargaining framework, including industrial disputes;
  • Employee protections, notably those relating to unfair dismissal, bullying and adverse action; and
  • Other issues in the assessment of the effectiveness of the workplace relations system, such as the efficiency and effectiveness of various workplace relations institutions and government agencies, the overlap between competition policy and workplace relations policy and alternative forms of labour in the economy.

The Commission is expected to release a draft report in mid-2015, when it will seek further information and feedback from the public. A final report containing the Commission's recommendations is scheduled to be delivered to the federal government on 30 November 2015. As to the government's approach to adopting any of the report's recommendations, it has indicated that, rather than guaranteeing implementation, the government will assess if recommended changes are sensible and fair before seeking a mandate for reform at next federal government election, likely to be in 2016.