Prepare for workplace relations changes now

by 04 Mar 2008

NOW IS the time to start preparing for the changes Labor’s Workplace Relations Agenda will bring, a national law firm recently advised.

Transitional workplace laws and details of the intended national employment standards were recently introduced into Parliament by the Labor Government, and although the national employment standards will not come into force until 2010, employers need to consider their contents now when developing workplace agreements, employment contracts and policies.

“There’s an opportunity now to really turn your mind to your own arrangements,” said Rachel Bernasconi, a senior associate at Blake Dawson.

“The changes will affect organisations very differently and companies may find themselves covered by different awards. Minimise the disruption when these changes do start by acting now.”

Speaking at a recent seminar in Sydney, she said that redundancy, parental leave and annual leave are just some of the areas that will be affected by the new agenda, and with awards fully back in force, employers will have quite a different industrial legislative environment to work in by the time the agenda comes into play in 2010.

The new National Employment Standards (NES), which will come into effect on 1 January 2010, is a statutory safety net of 10 standards which are applicable to all federal system employees. These replace the current Australian Fair Pay and Conditions Standard.

They will consist of four entirely new obligations on employers in the areas of redundancy pay, long service leave, request for flexible working arrangements and community service leave.

While the NES don’t actually form part of the transition Bill and are only in draft form at this stage and open to comments until early-April, now is the time to start planning for the application of the standards, according to David Lloyd, partner at Blake Dawson.

“I’d describe the transitional period until 2010 to be a bit like living through renovations. I think there are many positives in having time to get ready for the standards and that perhaps might be contrasted to what happened with WorkChoices, where employers had only a couple of months to get ready for the commencement of the WorkChoices standards.”

The first obligation to affect employers is entitlement to redundancy pay. The standard sets out the redundancy scale from the 2004 federal test case which provides up to 16 weeks pay on redundancy depending on the length of service of the employee.

According to Helen McKenzie, also a partner with Blake Dawson, this standard stands to affect employers most.

“Most award employees have had redundancy entitlements in their awards, but for non-award people, it’s more common for it to be set out in policy or some people have it in employment contracts like the variety of redundancy formulas that I’ve seen,” said McKenzie.

Long service leave will also become a national standard. At this stage, the details relating to the accrual and level of entitlements have not been set out in the standard, but the government has stated that it is committed to developing a uniform national standard in due course.

“If you’re entering into a new workplace agreement post-January 2010, then long service leave will not be able to be bargained away as it currently can be,”said Bernasconi.

The third new standard is a right to request flexible working arrangements for employees who have responsibility for the care of a child.

“An employer may only refuse such a request on reasonable business grounds. That is not defined nor are the times around flexible working arrangements. It does appear from the standard that an employer’s refusal in relation to a request for flexible work arrangements will not actually be subject to any third-party review or intervention which is quite an interesting development,” she said.

Finally, there will be a new entitlement to community service leave. This will entitle an employee to be absent from work to perform jury service or any other eligible community service activities which may be prescribed by regulation.


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