Fair Work Commission vice-president calls for change to commission’s approach

A vice-president of the Fair Work Commission has criticised the commission’s approach to the industrial relations system and said most Australian businesses are not “conflict-ridden basket cases”.

In a presentation to the national conference of Australian Mines and Metals Association in Melbourne, Graeme Watson challenged the “adversarial mindset” of workplace regulations and pushed for employees and employers to work together to balance fairness and economic growth.

“Employers do not routinely mistreat their employees. But that is all we ever hear about.

“There are many very good examples of highly productive enterprises with a positive workplace culture. They are not driven by conflict dynamics and the workplace relations laws have much less relevance to them,” he was quoted as saying in The Australian Financial Review.

Over the past few years unfair dismissal cases have skyrocketed, more than tripling in five years. Watson says this calls for a rethink of the current system.

“Why can’t we make the standards of fairness clearer so that there is greater compliance, and less litigation?

“Why not aim for more tribunal obsolescence because fairness is applied more consistently. Surely that is what the objects of the Fair Work Act are really about?” he says.

Executive director of the Council of Small Businesses of Australia Peter Strong told SmartCompany small business owners already communicate and work with their employees to establish appropriate solutions.

“We’re standing next to the people we employ, so we already do that. The employees know how their business is going and if it goes belly up they will lose their jobs.

“Let’s concentrate on small business and get big business to follow our lead,” he says.

Strong says there needs to be a shift in the political discussion around small business and industrial relations.

“There is a myth about the workplace that we have to break down and that is that it’s a constant war.

“Some people in politics want to demonise us, while there are others who want us to be perennial victims, but they’re both wrong. We need to send a message to workers which says don’t go to work expecting a fight,” he says.

Strong says over 90% of businesses are good places to work, but small businesses also need to make sure they can survive economically.

“This is why we’re asking for a small business award of our own.  It needs to be simple to understand and to follow. The workplace relations system is designed for paymasters, but no one in small business is a paymaster, if it’s designed for non-paymasters it will be better.

“There are also more unfair dismissals out of big business compared to small – 80% of the unfair dismissal cases come from big businesses and this shows their system is broken, but small business is not,” he says.

Strong says it’s pleasing to see Watson “speaking the small business language”.

The comments from Watson and Strong come as the Coalition is considering the creation of an independent appeals jurisdiction for the Fair Work Commission.

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