Productivity on the Fair Work Agenda

Fair Work Australia released a “Future Directions” (PDF) document at the end of October, which sets out its plans for the next 12 months, pointing to productivity as one of its four key themes.

It honed in on the Fair Work Act Review’s recommendation that the Fair Work institutions encourage more productive workplaces: the Review suggested that the institutions identify productivity-enhancing provisions in agreements and disperse information on productivity enhancement through conferences and workshops.

To implement this recommendation, Fair Work Australia has signed a memorandum of understanding with Fair Work Building and Construction and the Fair Work Ombudsman to collaborate on productivity and avoid overlap of duties.

It has also decided to enable the electronic searching of approved agreements so productivity-enhancing provisions can be identified. It has pledged to meet with major peak employer and union bodies to develop an “engagement strategy” that will tackle factors affecting productivity in various areas, including skills, infrastructure, taxation, regulations, workforce participation and capacity to innovate. It hopes that it can help industrial parties to find “common ground” by keeping discussions separate from collective bargaining negotiations. The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Australian Industry Group and the ACTU have already committed to collaborating in a forum that will oversee the engagement strategy.

The Federal Government also released its initial response to the Fair Work Act review on 15 October.

It is looking to implement 17 of the Review’s 53 recommendations, for which it said there was broad support. The remaining recommendations required more thought, as there were diverging views as to their efficacy. The necessary legislation has passed the House of Representatives and is under consideration in the Senate.

Discussions will continue to be held on the balance of the recommendations, with the hope of delivering a second tranche of amendments early next year.

The most significant reforms are around unfair dismissal, to help small- to medium-sized businesses. The changes include the alignment of the time limit for unfair dismissal and general protection claims at 21 days instead of 14 and 60 days, and the provision of powers to Fair Work Australia to dismiss claims without merit or order the person making the claim to carry the costs if the claim is found to be unreasonable.

The amendments will also tackle structural amendments to Fair Work Australia, including a name change, with the organisation likely to become the Fair Work Commission.

The full list of items to be addressed with the government’s initial response can be found on the website of the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations.

The Minister acknowledged that there were still issues to be debated, including greenfields agreements, access to arbitration and individual flexibility arrangements. The Australian Industry Group expressed disappointment that such matters had not been addressed, saying that it hoped these “technical” issues would be dealt with as soon as possible so the real issues could be addressed. ACTU secretary Dave Oliver said the changes were sensible.

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