Small-business ombudsman calls for simpler workplace relations

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Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman Kate Carnell has released a position paper identifying steps to tackle the complexity of workplace relations for small businesses.

“We’ve had significant consultations with small businesses over the last two years and the overwhelming view is the legislation is far too complicated for the majority of Australian businesses with fewer than 20 employees and no expert HR or legal departments,” she said.

“Our paper, ‘Workplace relations – simplification for small business’, contains practical and realistic solutions that attempt to make it simpler for businesses to do the right thing and build their confidence to employ, which is what the economy needs.”

Ms Carnell says most of the recommendations can be achieved with little-to-no legislative changes.

The solutions achievable without legislative change include:

  • The Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) further developing the Small Business Showcase to include an online decision-making and pay-calculation tool, so small businesses that make a genuine effort to comply, but commit an error, can avoid prosecution, penalty or fine, while still repaying any staff underpayments.
  • Ensuring unfair-dismissal claims are substantiated before elevation, and dismissal claims are not judged solely on procedural errors.
  • Publishing Fair Work Commission (FWC) outcomes in plain language to improve transparency.
  • Expediting the review of the ‘Small-business fair-dismissal code’ to simplify and remove ambiguity.
  • Improving the education of and communication with small businesses by extending the FWO’s employers support line beyond standard business hours, with the FWC and FWO working together to establish a dedicated, consistent resource centre for providing reliable small-business advice.

Approaches that require legislative changes are:

  • Putting in place a streamlined and appropriate small-business enterprise-bargaining agreement as an option for some businesses.
  • Allowing for a dignified end to employment when an employee is no longer a ‘good fit’ for the business, with payout equivalent to redundancy entitlements. Currently the only options are a manufactured redundancy or a performance-based exit.
  • Investigating a legislated option for optional loaded rates as a method of simplifying payment for businesses that choose to.

“If these and other recommendations are implemented, it will level the playing field for small businesses who want to do the right thing and empower the Fair Work Ombudsman to deal with businesses that don’t,” Ms Carnell said.