Employment class action lawsuits are a common cause of action in North America, and while we have traditionally seen fewer in Australia, there has been a recent uptick in occurrences. What does this mean for Australian employers? Without large numbers of cases and their precedents to study, how you plan for and prevent class actions may be an ‘unknown’ for many employers. Given the unique bet-the-company issues for employers arising from class actions – we have outlined some risks and strategies.

The Australian context

Whilst uncommon in Australia, there are high-profile examples of employment class action lawsuits.

Indeed, proceedings brought during the 1998 Waterfront Dispute were brought on behalf of approximately 1,400 employees under the Federal Court of Australia’s class action regime. Another example dating back to the days of Australian Workplace Agreements involved proceedings brought on behalf of over 700 academic and general employees of a university.

More recently, two employment class actions have been commenced targeting companies who provide marketing services for large and well-known brands, alleging contravention of minimum labour standards.

Why is the class action landscape changing now?

There are many reasons for the uptick in claims, and those relevant to employment include:

  • diminishing union membership across the private sector, but an increase in individual rights and prominence of plaintiff law firms organising class actions
  • an increased public awareness of minimum labour standards and broadly applicable laws, such as the general protections provisions, brought into focus as a result of a number of well documented scandals
  • an increase in the activity of litigation funders willing to venture outside their traditional stomping ground of commercial litigation.

We also predict that there will be many more such actions in the future, particularly given the ramped up penalties for franchisors and holdings companies found to have been complicit in the underpayment of employees or failure to keep proper employment records by their franchisees and subsidiaries.

Learnings from the US

At Seyfarth, our team of workplace law experts analyse and breakdown the mosaic of US class actions each year compiling a report that highlights the trends. In 2017 they recognised:

  1. Settlements skyrocket
    The monetary value of settlements rose dramatically, with the top 10 settlements in employment-related categories totalling a record high of US $2.72 billion — nearly US $1 billion more than 2016. In Australia, settlements are already causing an increase in insurance premiums for directors.
  2. A favourable landscape
    Evolving case law precedents and new defence approaches resulted in better statistical outcomes for employers in opposing class certification requests for the second straight year. In one of the most active categories, wage & hour litigation, employers won 63% of decertification rulings, a success rate up almost 20% from 2016.
  3. More enforcement
    With the federal government in transition, 2017 results were heavily influenced by Obama administration holdover policies and personnel as government enforcement litigation increased. This balloon is expected to burst in 2018 as the Trump administration settles in further, pulling back these policies and positions; yet, at the same time, it is expected that the private plaintiffs’ class action bar will step up their lawsuit filings and “fill the void”.
  4. Pivotal rulings
    Several key decisions in 2017 of the Supreme Court were arguably more pro-business and pro-employer than in the past. In May 2018 the Supreme Court profoundly changed the class action playing field with its highly anticipated ruling on the Epic Systems, Murphy Oil, and Ernst & Young trilogy of cases which found workplace arbitration agreements with class action waivers were lawful and enforceable.

To access the full report, and additional commentary visit www.workplaceclassactionreport.com.


For a discussion on the ‘best of breed’ strategies in class action and litigation globally – contact one of our partners.

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Social, technological and economic forces impacting the workplace will continue to pose challenges for employers, employees, unions, policy makers and regulators in 2018.

Disruption

In 2016 the CEDA reported that 40% of Australia’s workforce could be replaced by automation within the next 10 to 20 years. Of course, automation has been happening since the industrial revolution – but the nature, pace and scale of automation is now being fuelled by digital disruption. These changes are happening now, or their seeds are being sown in many a workplace.

The Government recently established the Senate Select Committee on the Future of Work and Workers. Expect its report in June.

Corporate accountability for workplace breaches

This is one for boardroom ‘risk buckets’. Expect to see increased activity from the Fair Work Ombudsman targeting holding companies and franchisors following the enactment of the Protecting Vulnerable Workers legislation in September 2017. These changes bring home accountability to holding companies and franchisors for certain workplace contraventions by their subsidiaries and franchisees. These changes take individual and corporate responsibility for workplace compliance to a new level.

Wage growth and bargaining

There are mixed views here with economists tipping a return to healthy wage growth. Low wage outcomes have been reflected in collective bargaining. Tight economic conditions have seen many an employer “bunker down” to avoid high wage outcomes – effectively acknowledging the medium to long term impact of high cost outcomes is not worth the short term expediency of buying workplace peace. More than ever, collective bargaining and “workplace strategy” is grabbing the attention of the C-Suite, given their outcomes significantly impact the bottom-line and with compounding effect.

In the area of major project infrastructure, labour shortages will intensify in 2018. This will see a return to high cost “greenfield” agreements to incentivise project stability. Expect higher than average wage outcomes for skilled and semi-skilled labour, at least in some sectors.

Sexual harassment claims

In the wake of high-profile sexual harassment allegations against prominent individuals both here and abroad, expect to see an increase in the number of claims made in 2018. The tolerance for sexual harassment has never been lower and incentive to bring a claim has never been higher.

CFMEU and MUA merger

Make no mistake – the proposed merger of the CFMEU and MUA will be high impact. The construction and mining sectors’ reliance on port services bears this out. In circumstances where massive shipments of infrastructure hit our shores for major project construction, the nationwide impact of greater CFMEU-style control will be tangible.

Litigation funded union claims

Expect to see large union claims backed by litigation funders. These funders, typically from the UK, bankroll large scale litigation punting on a profit from the outcome. For unions, such financial backing facilitates litigation with the aim of extracting large financial settlements. This will encourage claims on a scale rarely seen in Australia, with medium and large employers with “deep pockets” in their sights.

Modern slavery and supply chain reporting

Another issue for the boardroom. Globally, there is a growing commitment to eliminate the exploitative practices of modern slavery which includes forced and child labour. Corporates are reviewing their respective labour supply chains lest they are exposed to allegations of being complicit in slavery. Details can be found in A Modern Slavery Act for Australia.

Change of government?

Federal elections inevitably shine a spotlight on the workplace. Expect the same if an election is held in 2018. The ALP has already expressed its concerns with the current workplace regime – despite it being largely a product of its own making. The “tilt of bargaining power away from workers and to employers has gone too far” according to Shadow Minister for Workplace Relations Brendan O’Connor.

Many an employer would beg to differ. Workplace laws have moved like a pendulum with changes to government in Australia, albeit remaining relatively static under the Abbott /Turnbull Governments. But it seems the pendulum will continue in its current trajectory under Labor. The Government will seek to remain a small target on workplace relations in 2018 as the recent Cabinet changes reflect. For employers, the regulatory environment will only get tougher should we see a Labor Federal Government.


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A colleague in our office has been trying to update her new bank details with a service provider. Her attempts to provide that information and resolve the issue have been challenging to say the least.

Interactions included numerous unsuccessful calls to their customer service line, navigating through complex main menu options, voice recognition failings, and the final assault, enduring the repetitive melody of some 16th century/German-born composer during lengthy wait times. Continue Reading Are your HSE reporting processes a game of snakes and ladders?

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