The Australian workplace operates subject to a combination of federal, state and territory legislation, industrial instruments (including awards and enterprise agreements) and typically employment contracts.
The primary legislation regulating the employment relationship is the Fair Work Act 2009 (FWA). This legislation sets minimum terms of employment (via the 10 National Employment Standards), provides some specific employee protections, regulates unions and the collective bargaining process, sets out the role of the independent employment tribunal (Fair Work Commission) and deals with a range of other matters.
There are also state employment laws, which affect employers in relation to some issues (for example, long service). There are laws covering superannuation, work health and safety, workers’ compensation, discrimination and equal opportunity and other issues.
The NES set out 10 minimum standards or entitlements in relation to:
Awards are legally enforceable industrial instruments that establish minimum terms and conditions of employment for those employees to whom they apply.
From 1 January 2010, more than 120 new Modern Awards came into operation that replaced in excess of 1600 old awards (although other historical awards continue to apply in some cases). Modern Awards tend to be industry or occupation- specific and quite complex rules apply to their interaction. This can make it difficult to determine which applies.
All Modern Awards contain terms dealing with broadly similar matters, including:
Enterprise agreements are enterprise specific agreements negotiated between an employer and its employees (or unions on their behalf ). The Fair Work Act governs all aspects of the negotiation, approval and operation of enterprise agreements.
Enterprise agreements will usually operate to the exclusion of a Modern Award. However, before an agreement can take effect, it must pass a test (called the ‘better off overall test’) to ensure the employees are not disadvantaged when compared against the terms of the applicable Award.
There are complex rules about the permitted content of enterprise agreement, how they are negotiated, and how they may be approved and terminated.
Subject to legislation and to applicable industrial instruments, employers are able to (and typically do) make contracts of employment with employees, covering a range of matters.
Policies and practices covering employment and industrial relations issues may also be implemented. It is important for anyone planning to establish or purchase a business in Australia to ascertain the terms of any awards, agreements and employment legislation that may apply to existing or prospective employees. The terms of contracts of employment and relevant policies and practices should also be reviewed or be carefully considered when being drafted.
Broadly speaking, under the federal superannuation guarantee legislation, an employer must make superannuation contributions of at least the prescribed minimum rate of each employee’s earnings in order to avoid in order to avoid incurring a charge called the ‘superannuation guarantee charge’ or ‘SGC’. These contributions must be made quarterly.
The minimum prescribed rate is currently 9.5% (from 1 July 2014). The government has announced the rate will remain at 9.5% until 30 June 2018 and then increase by 0.5 percentage points each year until it reaches 12%.
This rate is applied to the employee’s ordinary time earnings (which excludes overtime but which generally includes bonus, allowances and commission) up to maximum earnings prescribed by the legislation (called the employee’s ‘maximum earnings base’).
However, certain exceptions apply in respect of some employees, including:
Employers are required to give their employees a choice of fund into which their contributions are to be paid. If the employee fails to nominate a fund, their contributions are paid into a default fund chosen by the employer.
The federal superannuation guarantee legislation operates alongside and may overlap with any other superannuation entitlements an employee may have under an industrial instrument or their contract.
More information is available in Taxation.
Employers have a duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees while they are at work. If harm results to an employee through a breach of this duty, the employer may be liable to the employee both in contract and in tort.
There is also federal, state and territory legislation regarding work health and safety. In the event that an employer breaches its obligations under that legislation, it can be prosecuted. It is also possible, in some cases, for officers or senior managers of the employer corporation to be prosecuted.
On 1 January 2012, new ‘work health and safety’ laws were introduced by most states and territories based on standard safety laws, regulations and codes of practice. As part of this, a corporation’s officers have positive due diligence obligations to ensure that the corporation meets its health and safety obligations.
All employers must have in place a statutory workers’ compensation insurance policy that provides for compensation for employees who are injured in the course of employment . Workers’ compensation legislation also includes protections against unfair termination of employment as a result of an employee’s work related injury/illness. The legislation also imposes a positive duty on employers to find appropriate alternative employment for a partially incapacitated employee.
Both federal and state legislation prohibits discrimination (in a range of aspects of employment, including recruitment, promotion and termination) on the basis of certain unlawful grounds, including sex, race, disability, religion and age.
Furthermore, sexual harassment in an employment context is unlawful under federal and state legislation.
The Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012 requires all private sector employers with more than 100 employees to institute workplace programs providing women with equal opportunity in the workplace.
The program requires that employers prepare a profile of the company, outlining the occupational and gender characteristics of the workplace, which is made publicly available.
A redundancy generally arises if the duties of a position are no longer required to be performed. If an employee’s employment is terminated for redundancy, the employee may be entitled to a redundancy payment under the National Employment Standards, an applicable industrial instrument or, possibly, their employment contract or a binding policy/procedure.
Modern Awards include consultation procedures that apply on a redundancy. Additional notification and consultation obligations (involving unions) can apply where an employer proposes to make 15 or more redundancies.
Under the Fair Work Act, an employee may commence proceedings if they consider that the termination of their employment was ‘harsh, unjust or unreasonable’.
The remedies are reinstatement or compensation if reinstatement is not appropriate. Compensation is capped at approximately A$64,500, which increases from July each year.
To be eligible to make an unfair dismissal claim, an employee must have been employed for at least six months and earn less than approximately A$129,300 per year (which increases from July each year) unless they are covered by an industrial instrument, in which case, the level of their remuneration is irrelevant.
An employee dismissed because of a ‘genuine redundancy’ (which is a statutory test) is not eligible to make an unfair dismissal claim.
Unlike in Europe, there is no equivalent to the Transfer of Undertakings Regulations (or TUPE). If a business is sold or outsourced, employees will only transfer if the ‘new employer’ makes an offer of employment that the employee accepts. Where employees transfer in these circumstances, the new employer may become liable for their accrued leave entitlements. In addition, any enterprise agreement covering the employees is also likely to transfer to the new employer.