Employment legal centre JobWatch is warning the Fair Work Commission will struggle to cope with a big increase in bullying claims if proposed legislative changes go ahead.
Under the reforms to the Fair Work Act, workplace bullying complaints will be heard by the Fair Work Commission and the commission will be required to list any application for consideration within 14 days.
Failure to comply with an order of the Fair Work Commission could result in a maximum penalty of $33,000.
In its submission to the Senate committee considering the bullying proposals, JobWatch, warns the commission may not be able to “deal with what will undoubtedly be a massive influx of stop bullying applications”.
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JobWatch predicts the commission will be swamped by over 10,000 complaints a year based on WorkSafe Victoria receiving more than 6000 complaints about workplace bullying in the year leading up to July 2011.
“If this figure is extrapolated across all Australian states and territories, even by a conservative estimate, the FWC is going to receive hundreds, if not thousands of stop bullying applications per year, possibly even more than 10,000,” JobWatch stated in its submission.
SmartCompany contacted the Fair Work Commission, which declined to comment on the claims.
Employment law expert Peter Vitale says there will “unquestionably” be a big increase in bullying claims to the commission.
“These provisions create another avenue of access to the tribunal for people who are dissatisfied with their working environment, and that makes no judgement as to whether or not it is a reasonable claim, any time you create a new avenue of complaint you are likely to get a lot of people looking to use that,” he says.
Vitale warns this means employers are “almost certainly” going to have to deal with more bullying claims.
“It seems to me the real difference is that employees might look to the commission as a first port of call rather than their employer’s internal processes,” he says.
“In a lot of these cases, employees are inherently distrustful of what is likely to happen internally. The draft bill appears to contemplate that the commission would be reluctant to make orders if there has not already been an internal process, but that does not stop people making complaints of course.”
Vitale says he believes the number of bullying claims under the proposed new system will be “in the many thousands” but it is difficult to be more precise.
But Vitale says bullying in the workplace seems to be actually declining even though complaints are set to soar.
“Anecdotally, I would say that bullying in the workplace is actually probably on the way out to some extent, the facts are that employers are much more aware of it as an issue and are doing a lot more about it, and employees are much more aware that they have avenues of redress when they feel they are being bullied,” he says.
“While the number of complaints is going up I don’t think that necessarily reflects that it is becoming more of an issue in the workplace.”