Trade union conduct is constantly changing, and our team have observed trends that are reshaping the boundaries, and that have already begun to impact our clients.

Policy Measures: increased scrutiny on trade union conduct

On the policy front, the conservative government has implemented three measures addressing unlawful behaviour by unions and their members based on the findings of former High Court Justice John Dyson Heydon AC QC in the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption in 2015.

Two key measures passed in late 2016.

The Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) has been reformed and is expected to repeat the effective reform of union practices achieved by the previous ABCC in the mid-to-late 2000’s. The ABCC regulates building and construction industry participants its functions include implementing a code of practice to regulate workplace practices and taking action to prosecute breaches of workplace laws. Sanctions can be imposed to exclude companies from tendering for government funded building work. The return of the ABCC has generally been welcomed by the construction industry.

A new regulator was introduced. The Registered Organisations Commission (ROC) was established to enhance governance and financial accountability of trade unions following multiple findings of misuse of union funds. The regime draws upon statutory duties placed upon company directors under Australia’s corporations law. Financial reporting and disclosure obligations have been strengthened, and penalties for non-compliance have increased, including criminal offences for serious breaches. New whistle-blower protections have also been introduced.

Further new laws have been proposed to prohibit making or receiving corrupting payments at the direction of unions, bringing greater accountability to unions and their office holders.

Novel application of anti-bullying protections

A recent decision of the Fair Work Commission (FWC) in its anti-bullying jurisdiction provided a novel application of existing law to address unlawful behaviour by unions in industrial disputes. The decision recognises that abusive or offensive conduct directed at other workers won’t be excused in the heat of industrial battle.

The catalyst for the dispute was a change of contractor providing maintenance services at the site on terms opposed by the unions. The dispute was heated, and a picket at the site continued for almost six months. Drawing on the power to name and shame, the union-led campaign included extensive use of social media (some against individual workers), a boycott of the targeted company’s products and fundraising activities.

A key priority for the new contractor was to protect its workers from being bullied at the site and on social media. The FWC made orders against unions and officials to restrain conduct directed at workers entering or leaving the site during the dispute.

The FWC orders prevented:

  • photographing, filming, or digitally recording any of the workers (or attempting to do such things);
  • abusing or harassing workers, including calling out offensive or insulting names, including “scab” or “dog”;
  • accosting or obstructing workers;
  • holding up any signs or material at the picket which contain offensive or insulting language towards the workers; and
  • approaching a worker, any vehicle driven by a worker or a vehicle in which a worker is a passenger.

The FWC determined it appropriate to make orders protecting the identities of workers seeking orders. This should provide comfort to workers subjected to similar tactics in future.

This matter represents the first time the FWC has made anti-bullying orders against a union and picketers in relation to protest activity and represents a novel and effective use of the FWC’s anti-bullying jurisdiction by employers. Before this decision, the FWC’s anti-bullying jurisdiction, which commenced in 2014, has most often been used by individual employees against employers and managers.

Traditional employer responses to picketing have involved seeking injunctions to stop such activity, which can be time consuming and costly. The FWC’s anti-bullying jurisdiction supplements these options with a quick and cost-effective alternative to counter intimidation during union organised picketing.

The gig economy is only one of the reasons that workers of the future will not have close connections with one employer or business – another is the movement towards arranging their life so that they spend substantial periods of time not working at all.

The trend towards regularly spending long periods of time away from the workforce is highlighted in an article by Christine Long in the Sydney Morning Herald considering people who only work a few months of the year, and the renowned demographer Bernard Salt’s column in The Australian that looks at changes that millennials will bring to the workforce. Both identify movement towards:

  •  workers wanting to spend significant time doing other things – beyond the traditional two year stint in London, many millennials (and even Gen-Xers) want to spend months every year travelling or pursuing personal interests. Workers no longer feel a need to hold down a steady job the whole year or to take only four weeks leave per year
  • to achieve that goal, workers seek flexibility by negotiating specific employment arrangements or engaging with businesses strictly on their own terms – eg establishing their own service business and working where and when (and for how long) they choose
  • for the above reasons, workers will interact with organisations on a sporadic basis – they will not have long-term or even regular engagements with one business.

The stability employees once sought through steady employment with large companies, to support nuclear families, will be relegated to the history books for an ever increasing number of Australians. And as more and more millennials enter the workforce, we will continue to see business practices needing to adapt to these changes.

As we‘ve mentioned, substantial legislative reform will be necessary to make sure that these developments are properly catered for – and balanced against social expectations about minimum wages and other entitlements.

But, how will your organisation cope in the meantime? From our work with clients, and our own experience starting from the ground up in Australia four years ago, we have identified a need to:

Consider business need before engagement. Mindful of the nature of your business, your legal risk profile and appetite for change, consider if your current business need can be properly supported with workers taking substantial periods away. Carefully examine whether it is best to engage such workers as independent contractors or employees and if you’re ready for the administrative overheads involved in a change to the way workers are engaged.

Think about how the arrangements will work in practice. You need to examine the legal implications of the treatment of time away from work. If you use employment arrangements, consider how unpaid leave can be handled, as there may be impacts on length of service (which may impact things like accrued leave and access to unfair dismissal). Think about ways you might be able to build connection and loyalty so that the worker is willing to be there for you at short notice.

Re-visit your contracts and workplace policies. You will need to ensure your contracts and policies clearly and comprehensively deal with the organisation’s expectations about long-term absence and when it is prepared to enter into flexible arrangements, preferably at the organisation’s discretion.

Business continuity. While no business is assured continuity, you must consider how you will manage operations on critical processes and projects when workers want to take substantial periods away, including how you will achieve satisfactory knowledge transfer. You will need to look at whether you can support business continuity by covering long periods of absence with another flexible worker – including, perhaps, using job share arrangements or short-term engagements.

On-boarding and off-boarding. Resources should be allocated to processes to on-board and off-board workers on these arrangements. For roles that have critical safety risks, you must ensure you fully understand your duties to protect yourself from legal risk.


Our ‘future of work’ series has been considering how businesses will need to grow and adapt to changes to the way in which work will be performed in the future. Many of these developments flow from significant advances in technology that we have seen over the last 20 years – for example, increased automation, increased use of robotics and increased computing power have made many traditional roles redundant, while Increased communications potential has meant that many workers can perform their roles flexibly. We understand these developments as the law firm known for our role in transformational legal industry and labour and employment issues, we believe it is our responsibility to harness our knowledge, experience and relationships to forge a path for the Future Employer.

Subscribe to receive the next blog in our Future of Work series direct to your inbox.

We have been watching with close interest the exponential expansion of crypto-currencies. These instruments, such as Bitcoin, Ethereum and Litecoin, are methods of secure, electronic transfer of value between individuals using advanced digital encryption techniques – without any central regulation by government.

Recent research published by The Conversation suggests that crypto-currencies are showing no signs of being merely a speculative bubble. With their recent translation from purely online origins into tangible interfaces, for example, the establishment of Bitcoin ATMs in Australia, employers need to consider not only the future of work, but the future of the ways in which businesses will be able to, or might want to, reward contribution.

While crypto-currencies remain in their infancy, the likely speed of growth of direct, electronic-based, decentralised, financial interactions between individuals mean that they are likely to grow in relevance as consumers become more comfortable and familiar with their use – and possibly overcome their fear!

As more transactions occur in crypto-currencies, businesses may find that they collect some of their revenue in crypto-currency or that their contributors ask to receive reward in crypto-currency. In both these scenarios, the business will be under pressure to use a currency that may be rather different to what they have been used to.

But what does this mean for the way in which a business will interact with its contributors? There are two separate groups of contributors that need to be considered at the moment:

  1. where a business employs a worker in Australia, a business will generally need to pay the worker in “cash” for the work they have performed, as result of particular provision in the Fair Work Act. This provision was originally designed as a protective system for employees – it prevents an employer trying to implement a system where an employee is paid “in kind” a prohibition which originally from the old UK “Truck Acts”, preventing employers paying employees in goods (but that’s for a future blog to explore). Payments in kind present obvious challenges in relation to the value that is placed on the good or service that the employee would receive – requiring cash payment reduces the prospect that the employee might be short-changed.
  2. where a business engages a worker as an independent contractor, there is significantly less regulation in Australia. There are no express prohibitions on businesses giving contractors reward in something other than cash – arguably reward could be given in Bitcoin or other crypto-currency.

Obviously, as crypto-currencies become more widely accepted (though the total market capitalisation across crypto-currencies already well exceeds USD 100 billion), we may see the employment legislation develop to allow alternative payment methods – but this may well be a decades-long evolution rather than a Che Guevara style revolution.

Importantly, though, viewing the workforce through this lens reflects the trend we are seeing – as the basis on which the workforce is engaged shifts over time away from traditional employment and towards independent contractor gigs, it is likely that even without legislative reform, businesses will have increasing flexibility in the way they pay for the services that are provided.


Our ‘future of work’ series has been considering how businesses will need to grow and adapt to changes to the way in which work will be performed in the future. Many of these developments flow from significant advances in technology that we have seen over the last 20 years – for example, increased automation, increased use of robotics and increased computing power have made many traditional roles redundant, while Increased communications potential has meant that many workers can perform their roles flexibly. We understand these developments as the law firm known for our role in transformational legal industry and labour and employment issues, we believe it is our responsibility to harness our knowledge, experience and relationships to forge a path for the Future Employer.

Subscribe to receive the next blog in our Future of Work series direct to your inbox.

One of the more interesting recent developments in relation to work has been the continual rise and development of the gig economy – that is, workers developing niche areas of specialist expertise, but having careers characterised by a series of interactions with various organisations, rather than being employed by one company for many years. This doesn’t just mean a person working in multiple jobs over the course of their life, but that they are much more likely to be running their own independent business providing services to customers.

Over the last 15 – 20 years, many businesses have made the distinction between core and non-core functions, using that distinction to drive and make judgment calls about the nature and form of their relationships with those contributing to their business (including employees, contractors, suppliers or others). With the development of the gig economy, businesses will need to be more sophisticated in their analysis, taking a much more fundamental and holistic view of how they want the business actually to operate – entrepreneurs, leaders and managers need to consider how the emerging gig economy will impact on the structure of the business’s relationships with its contributors.

So, how can your business make the most of the opportunities that a gig economy offers, while also managing the legal, reputational and business risks of dealing with multiple independent contractors?

Employment and industrial law may be slow to catch up with these developments – indeed, it has only been within the last five to seven years that the industrial tribunal in Australia revisited the whole way in which awards work (with the result that a simplified system has been developed, albeit one still focussed on a traditional employment model). But sophisticated businesses with an eye on long-term success will be looking at a range of issues now to make sure they are ahead of the gig movement:

  • how to ensure that customer experience (“CX”) remains consistent over time if customers interact with different personnel each time (perhaps, for example, by using CX metrics as part of the contractor reward system)
  • how to ensure that the business is properly resourced and able to respond to urgent customer demands with a workforce that does not necessarily have any particular loyalty
  • which labour markets the business will use to source gig workers – will we have a “Beta vs VHS” winner or live with an “Apple vs Android” solution? Will the business accept the standard terms associated with using markets like Airtasker?
  • whether to develop a standard form for the engagement of contractors/gig workers, and how to ensure that the right type of engagement is used in each circumstance
  • how safety systems and processes need to adapt as the pendulum swings from workers being employees to workers only lightly touching the periphery of the business from time to time – will you need to re-evaluate your risk profile?
  • how the legal risks associated with gig workers are managed and ensuring that systems insulate the business as far as possible from legal claims, such as sham contracting
  • the increased interest by regulators in how businesses are interacting with their workers.

Our ‘future of work’ series has been considering the ways in which businesses will need to grow and adapt to changes to the way in which work will be performed in the future. Many of these developments flow from significant advances in technology that we have seen over the last 20 years – for example, increased automation, increased use of robotics and increased computing power have made many traditional roles redundant, while Increased communications potential has meant that many workers are able to perform their roles flexibly. We understand these developments as the law firm known for our role in transformational legal industry and labour and employment issues, we believe it is our responsibility to harness our knowledge, experience and relationships to forge a path for the Future Employer.

Subscribe to receive the next blog in our Future of Work series direct to your inbox.

Enterprise bargaining is down. That’s the big call out from the Department of Employment Report on Enterprise Bargaining February 2017. Comparing private sector agreement numbers from 2014 there is a reduction by a third overall, with close to 50% less in retail and construction and around 20% in most sectors.

As a result, the number of employees covered by current agreements (ones that haven’t expired) has declined. The decline is felt in respect of both union and non-union agreements.

If fewer agreements are being made or perhaps, more accurately, are taking longer to be replaced, why? The economic environment has a big part to play particularly in some key sectors. Unions are finding it harder to secure deals – obviously. Is this a function of the economic environment or is it a function of a longer more systemic trend borne out of declining union density, and therefore union organising power? Probably both.

The agreement making numbers are down, particularly in smaller enterprises. Unions are best placed to focus their resources on larger employers where the potential membership pool is larger. On the employer side, the cost of making a new agreement (2% per annum plus wage increases) outweighs the pain (union pressure/employee discontent) of not doing so. An employer’s “BATNA” (best alternative to a negotiated agreement) is the status quo. There is more leverage for employers in an environment where the termination of expired agreements is more readily available than once thought.

When this occurs employers start thinking about a concept that gets revisited every decade since the dawn of enterprise bargaining: “beyond bargaining”. How can we, the employer, operate in a sustainable, risk-free way without enterprise bargaining? The solutions here are well known, but long term and resource intensive. It relies on two key premises:

  • First, there is nothing to be gained operationally by enterprise bargaining. The “productivity lemon” has been well and truly squeezed. Employers consistently tell us this.
  • Secondly, bargaining can be avoided with manageable risk. Put another way, any risk associated with the bargaining process (read “industrial action”) does not outweigh risks associated with making an agreement which, in the longer term, risks the viability of the enterprise.

On Friday 24 March, Western Bulldogs kicked off their 2016 premiership defence with a tenacious win against Collingwood. Round 1 of the 2017 AFL season also coincided with the introduction of the WorkSafe Legislation Amendment Bill 2017 (VIC).

This Bill includes changes to the rules by which WorkSafe Victoria can prosecute alleged indictable offences against the OHS Act outside the current two year limitation period.

WorkSafe is already a contender for the premiership team for enforcement action if you look at its record of successful safety prosecutions. For example, in 2013/2014 it commenced 107 prosecutions for alleged offences against workplace health and safety laws with an 88% success rate. This has gradually increased to 119 prosecutions in the 2015/2016 period with a prosecution success rate of 94% (see page 19 of the WorkSafe Annual Report 2016).

Yet WorkSafe has kicked off its 2017 enforcement year backed by impending legislation that is designed to give it even more scope to prosecute alleged indictable offences against workplace health and safety laws outside the current two year period.

We are all for cheering on teams whose purpose is to improve health and safety outcomes at Victorian workplaces. Though we query whether the proposed changes in the Bill are designed to improve the already high performing enforcement regime in Victoria, or whether they are designed to give WorkSafe a free kick if they drop the ball with an investigation?

We acknowledge there will always be limited exceptions where WorkSafe needs the ability to prosecute for alleged offences outside of the two year period. For good public policy reasons that exception already exists in the current law that enables WorkSafe to commence prosecutions out of time with the written authorisation of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Aside from questions about the utility of yet more law to deal with situations which appear to be adequately addressed by the current law, there are broader considerations about whether the provisions in the Bill will have the desired impact. The longer a matter takes to investigate and prosecute, the less likely it is to have a successful outcome. We also see the adverse impacts of protracted safety investigations and prosecutions on the victim, their families and work colleagues.

If the ‘end-game’ is improving health and safety outcomes for Victorian workers, are better options available? Are the tax-payer resources required to implement these proposed legal changes better directed to funding collaborative programs where WorkSafe Inspectors engage early and effectively with employers and employees on critical WHS risks in their business with an explicit objective to promptly improve health and safety outcomes?

Much has been made of recent scandals arising from sexual relationships in the workplace and in most cases the relationships are said to have been ‘personal and consensual’. While not a new issue, we have seen changes to the way organisations have responded to the relationships, perhaps as a reflection that our culture is less accepting of the conduct.

Is it ever appropriate for a senior executive to conduct a sexual relationship with a workplace colleague, whether they are an employee, a representative of a client or customer, contractor or consultant to the business? Continue Reading Is a workplace relationship ever consistent with good governance

It is an indisputable fact that women are not equally represented in leadership roles or management positions in Australian companies and governments, not even close. Even in 2016, this is the case in almost all arenas of business and politics and is most certainly a global issue, although Australia even appears to lag in this indicator among developed nations. This flows through to an under-representation of women on boards of directors of Australian public companies. Earlier this year consultant Conrad Liveris found that there were fewer women in CEO and chair roles in ASX 200 companies than there were men named either John, Peter or David in such roles. What an alarming statistic! In this note we consider whether this under-representation is caused by a failure to recognise that women as much as men are able to achieve and sustain appropriate business outcomes and conclude that this is a matter that good corporate governance can resolve. Continue Reading A perspective on the unequal representation of women in leadership

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, the 2017 campaign message asks us to #beboldforchange and to “take action to drive change for women to forge a better working world”.

The campaign’s aims are admirable and worthy of support. But I find myself querying whether such a campaign really helps our workplaces become more holistically diverse and inclusive.

Much of the focus on “diversity” remains on women’s participation and inclusion in the workforce (undoubtedly a very important issue). Sadly, many organisations still have not moved beyond the numbers game – reporting annual statistics on the number of women in the workforce as a whole, on the senior management team and on the board of directors. This approach provides an easily measurable benchmark and is encouraged by compliance initiatives such as the ASX Corporate Governance Principles and the WGEA reporting obligations.

I accept that getting women in the front door is often the first challenge, and several of our clients are working on fabulous initiatives to address this challenge to achieve more gender diversity in their blue collar workforces. Ensuring sufficient numbers of women progress to senior leadership positions is also an ongoing battle.

However, does this narrow focus mean that many organisations are missing the bigger picture and the business imperatives for broader diversity and inclusion? What about ethnicity, age, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, educational background, religion, parental status and socio-economic status? How do employers bring together their diverse people resources for mutual benefit?

It is trite and well-trodden ground that without buy-in from the top, progress towards true diversity and inclusion will not be made. However, general statements of commitment at the Board or corporate policy level will also never lead to change without integration and implementation at each business function and unit level.

Our clients who are advancing the most in this space know that it is critical to create an environment at all levels of the company where diverse ideas, perspectives and backgrounds are harnessed to create value to the business. The long journey to achieving an inclusive workplace requires inquiry at every level about the specific and measurable actions to be taken to create and foster such an environment.

All easier said than done I know! We’d love to hear your thoughts on what it is for an organisation to #beboldforchange.

The Victorian Supreme Court recently issued a stunning decision awarding an employee over $600,000 comprising $210,000 for pain and suffering and the balance for lost past and future income, despite the employee having a significant pre-existing psychiatric illness and a finding that no bullying had occurred.   Continue Reading Damages in bullying claims – the stakes are rising even higher