Complaints to the Fair Work Ombudsman have soared in the last year with the Ombudsman’s annual report published yesterday revealing last year there were 26,366 complaints, up from 21,890 in the previous year.
Of these complaints, 28,412 were finalised and only 51 of those complaints actually proceeded to court.
Instead, most complaints were settled at a mediation stage, with the FWO‘s mediation program resolving 83% of the 608 workplace disputes it dealt with in the first four months of the 12-month pilot.
The FWO recovered a total of $39.8 million for 18,500 underpaid workers, and over 55% was recovered through voluntary compliance and just $379,416 was recovered through the courts.
However, fines were not a major contributor to the FWO’s consolidated revenue for the year, with the Ombudsman only recovering about $1.4 million in fines for itself in the last financial year compared with $1.8 million in the last financial year.
The Ombudsman also made over 12,000 “educational visits” to Australian workplaces over the past year.
Ombudsman Nicholas Wilson said the FWO had been working to reframe its services to help more people.
“The more time we can direct towards industries or regions with greater compliance issues or vulnerable employees, the closer we can align our services to our goal of promoting harmonious, productive and co-operative workplaces,” Wilson said.
“That is why we introduced an education phase before every wage audit campaign and strengthened our culture of voluntary complaint resolution.”
Wilson pointed to the number of complaints finalised through Assisted Voluntary Resolution, where inspectors work directly with employees and employers to reach a fair and acceptable result without formal investigation, which rose 19 % to over 9,750.
“While litigation is used sparingly and carefully, we don’t shy away from taking action against employers who engage in serious, wilful and repeated non-compliance,” he said.
“However, our goal is to change long-term behaviour by providing tailored information about what people need to pay, or be paid.”
Charles Power, partner at law firm Holding Redlich, said the FWO’s external legal bill had gone down and the Ombudsman was now dealing with a lot of its investigations in-house and only litigating when it had a strong case.
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“The FWO does not litigate unless it has a good case and so if it is going to be effective it has got to explore alternatives to litigation,” Power says.
He says the typical process for the FWO when it receives a complaint for underpayment or some breach of industrial law is to write to the employer concerned and encourage them to sort it out in order to avoid a formal investigation.
“That process does not really apply much pressure on employers and so the notion that there would be a more proactive mediation program really makes sense because there is often a lot of misunderstanding on both sides about what the dispute is about and so a competent person to extract relevant information could really assist,” he says.
“In the past what used to happen was industry groups, unions and employer associations went down to the state tribunal and it was sorted out by the industry themselves but with the increasing significance of the State Ombudsman in enforcing compliance this focus on mediation is inevitable and necessary.”