I am pleased to introduce the Fair Work Commission’s annual report for 2017–18.
The Commission has had another busy and productive year, particularly in relation to access to justice programs, the continuation of the 4 yearly review of modern awards, and engagement with the people and businesses that use our services.
Access to justice
Access to legal advice improves access to justice. It reduces anxiety and confusion, and avoids unnecessary costs for all. In 2017–18, the Commission’s Pro Bono Program and Workplace Advice Clinics continued to provide assistance to individuals and small businesses that cannot afford legal advice.
To enable us to reach more people, these services are being expanded into a broader program, the Workplace Advice Service, which commenced on 30 July 2018 in New South Wales and Victoria. The new service will progressively expand its reach across the country and the extent of assistance available.
The new service is made possible by the generous support of community legal centres, legal aid bodies, law firms and legal practitioners. I thank them for their ongoing support, without which this valuable service to the community could not be provided.
Review of modern awards
Section 156 of the Fair Work Act 2009 requires the Commission to review modern awards every four years. The current review, which began in 2014, has resulted in a very large and complex program of work, which I expect to be completed by the first quarter of 2019.
Modern awards provide a safety net of minimum conditions of employment, including pay rates, allowances, hours of work and overtime rates for approximately 2.3 million Australians. At present, two review processes are running in parallel—one for award-specific issues, and one for common issues that affect most or all of the 122 modern awards.
Award‑specific issues concern substantive changes in relation to particular modern awards.
Common issues dealt with in 2017–18 included family and domestic violence, family friendly work arrangements, casual and part-time employment, and access to blood donor leave. The Commission has also continued to work on producing awards in plain language to remove ambiguity and make it easier for employers and employees to understand awards and apply them in the workplace.
Information relating to proceedings for the 4 yearly review is published on the Commission’s website, giving all interested parties access to the materials.
Agreement approval process
The Commission deals with more than 5,000 applications for approval of enterprise agreements each year. In 2017–18, the Commission received 5,287 applications to approve enterprise agreements, the second most common type of application received.
Since we introduced a triage process in 2015–16, there has been a significant increase in the proportion of applications identified as not meeting all of the statutory requirements at the time of lodgment. Dealing with non‑compliant applications tends to be more time‑consuming and complex than dealing with compliant applications.
Rather than dismissing such applications, Members seek to assist the parties to agreements to address concerns through written undertakings. Extra time is required to approve agreements with written undertakings, because the Commission must seek the views of all bargaining representatives before accepting an undertaking and granting approval.
Those factors have negatively impacted on the overall timeliness of the Commission’s agreement approvals over the past 18 months. As a result, we did not meet our portfolio budget statements target of a median enterprise agreement approval time of 32 days in 2017–18.
Increased resources have been allocated to this area and in 2018–19 we will focus on working with employer and employee representatives to ensure that they have the information necessary to make compliant applications.
In the year ahead, we are determined to improve our services to the Australian community.
On 30 July 2018, I launched our plan for the coming 12 months to improve access and reduce complexity for our users, called What’s Next. Building on the achievements of our Future Directions change program, What’s Next demonstrates our commitment to ongoing innovation and reform. It is a commitment driven by the needs and experiences of those who use our services—to continue to deliver an outstanding dispute resolution service to the Australian community.
A key indicator of access to justice is whether small business and individual users are able to resolve disputes simply and quickly, without the need for paid representation. We will look at ways to provide more support for applicants and respondents in the early stages of unfair dismissal and general protections cases, including ensuring that the first contact with the Commission for an employee applicant or an employer respondent will be a telephone call from a trained staff member. Early, personalised support can help address the uncertainty and confusion many self-represented employees and employers feel at the start of a claim about dismissal.
We will also commence a major review of all of our information resources to ensure that everyone who uses our services is provided with the information they want, at the time they need it, and in the most useful form. Starting with unfair dismissal information, the review will include our Rules, forms, correspondence, formal directions and the guidance material on our website, to ensure that they are accessible, accurate and consistent. We will consult broadly throughout this process and incorporate user‑testing and evaluation to make sure we get it right.
Full details of our What’s Next plan are available on our website at www.fwc.gov.au.
A number of long-serving Members retired in 2017–18. I take this opportunity to acknowledge their contribution to the Commission and to the Australian community.
The Commission has a long and proud history of providing outstanding services to the Australian community. This is in large part due to the dedication and hard work of its Members and staff. I thank them for their continued enthusiasm and commitment to improving our services. I also thank our stakeholders, including the law firms and community legal centres whose support is vital to the success of our access to justice initiatives.
Justice Iain Ross AO