Fair Work Commission pledges better systems for SMEs in wake of Billson report, but business leaders say “much more” to be done

Bruce Billson

The Fair Work Commission has responded to former Small Business Minister Bruce Billson’s report into unfair dismissal changes for SMEs by ignoring the main recommendation for a case triaging system but agreeing to a number of simplification and information access initiatives aimed at smaller players.

Last week Billson released his report into the Commission’s small business processes, proposing a number of changes to how the Commission interacts and advises SMEs. The primary suggestion was to introduce a case filtering or triaging system, which would only allow cases to proceed if the claims are valid.

The report also sought to establish a specific small business division of the Commission to better oversee cases involving small employers, and recommended better access to resources for SMEs, and for those resources to be simplified and made easier to understand for inexperienced employers.

This also included a proposal to simplify modern awards to benefit both businesses and employees.

“More helpful resources, simpler and more reliable ways of interpreting complex awards and making it easier and more predictable for small workplaces to embrace flexibility mechanisms would all produce significant savings for SMEs,” Billson said when describing the report.

However, in a broad response released yesterday, the Commission embraced only some of Billson’s recommendations, eschewing the requests for a small business division and triaging system, but pledging to improve modern award language and the Commission’s overall interaction with Australia’s small businesses.

In the report, titled What’s next? The Fair Work Commission’s plan to improve access and reduce complexity for our users, the Commission laid out the plans for the next 12 months to ensure it “continues to provide a world-class dispute resolution service to the Australian community”.

Clearer info for SMEs

The first of the five new initiatives promised by the Commission is one to provide greater support for SMEs and individual users, drawing on issues raised in Billson’s report and a separate report on User Experience of Unfair Dismissal Matters. Through these, the Commission determined better-personalised support would reduce SME uncertainty and confusion around unfair dismissal cases.

The Commission says it will now ensure the first point of contact between it and a small business or affected employee will be a phone call from a trained staff member. Building on this, the Commission will conduct a full review into the information needs of its users later this year.

“Clear, timely and consistent information is essential to providing an accessible, fair and efficient dispute resolution service, particularly for those who are self-represented,” the Commission said.

The Commission has also pledged to rewrite a number of modern awards in plain language, something requested in Billson’s report and strongly supported by Council of Small Business Australia chief executive Peter Strong.

“We need to get more simplification in processes and awards, and this would be a win for employees as much as employers,” Strong told SmartCompany earlier this month.

The Commission will also create short, three-page summaries of the awards in the aged care, clerical, retail, hospitality, restaurant and hair and beauty sectors, which will outline key award provisions and provide explanations, examples and links to resources.

“Awards in these industries were selected because they have a high proportion of employees paid at the award rate and have substantial small business coverage,” the Commission said.

In addition to these changes, the Commission will also seek to implement a national pro-bono legal advice service for employees and small business employers, which will provide free legal advice and assistance, and even representation in some cases.

“Independent advice delivered through these programs can help employees and small business employers make informed decisions, and can help them understand the implications of continuing with a claim that is unlikely to succeed,” the Commission said.

The Commission will also implement an online case management system called eCase to better help employees and employers access their case files and also help better schedule time for hearings. Furthermore, the Commission is also engaging a team of behavioural insights specialists to help train Commission staff to help target and deliver service more efficiently.

Steps in the right direction

Speaking to SmartCompany, Billson welcomed the release of the 12-month plan, labelling it a “sincere and meaningful step in the right direction”.

“The commitment to continue to engage with small businesses and the people that drive them is vital to ensuring that regulatory and policy settings are responsive to the needs of small business and helpful to ‘energising enterprise’ in Australia,” he says.

However, other business leaders were less enthused about the report, with Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive James Pearson saying “much more” needs to be done.

“Australia’s workplace relations laws (the Fair Work Act) assume all employers are large, sophisticated, well-resourced and unionised. This is simply not the case for most Australian businesses,” he said in a statement on Monday.

The Australian Chamber is calling for the Fair Work Act to be simpler and clearer, and for less focus to be put on dismissal processes over the reason for a dismissal in the first place.

Small Business Ombudsman Kate Carnell said the report was a “good start” but invited the Commission to engage with the Ombudsman to initiate a complete overhaul of its systems.

“We look forward to seeing these changes implemented over the next 12 months and would welcome the opportunity of working with the Commission on what we hope is the start of a major overhaul of its systems and processes to make it fair for all,” Carnell said.

NOW READ: Plumber’s unfair dismissal case goes down the drain after using work phone to access dating sites and porn

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