The award modernisation process provided a wonderful opportunity to really simplify workplace relations compliance and the abilities of both employers and employees to understand the rules of employment in Australia and in their industry and in their particular circumstances.

It was successful in reducing thousands of federal and state awards to 122 modern awards which is great.

However, it has done little to simplify the actual content of awards or to get consistency between different awards which could apply side by side in a business. In fact, the process has failed miserably in really “modernising” awards…….and, as for the 4 yearly review which commenced in 2013/14, the government amended the legislation to get rid of that requirement as the Fair Work Commission really couldn’t start the second one before they finished the first…….and the first one is still going.

In the recent George Columbaris underpayment case, his supporters have blamed the complexity of the Restaurant Industry Award 2010 as a factor in non-compliance. That doesn’t hold any water in our view for a business of that size (especially as George has a long history of campaigning against penalty rates so he obviously knew about them) but there is no question that it is true in small businesses.

Most people open a business with the best intentions and want to do the right thing. As their businesses grow, they need people and that’s when they are confronted by the complexities of our workplace relations system. We help them deal with these complexities every day and, even though we do (and are better at it than most), we are challenged from time to time in understanding just what an award clause really means.

To illustrate the point of the complexity, let’s go a step beyond the restaurant industry into the construction industry which, by the way, is really important because of our reliance on infrastructure to drive the economy. Here is a little sample of what you’ll find in the Building and Construction Industry On-site Award 2010:

That is just a snapshot but illustrates how ludicrous it is to expect a small business owner who knows excavators (not employment law) to comply.

It also shows how patently unfair some of these conditions are.

These are the issues that the award modernisation should be dealing with – simplification and fairness in a modern workplace. One of the objectives of modern awards prescribed in the Fair Work Act 2009 is “the need to ensure a simple, easy to understand, stable and sustainable modern award system for Australia that avoids unnecessary overlap of modern awards”.

That unfortunately is not happening because the players are still living in the last century – we won’t get a different outcome using the same old tired IR process which created the award complexity problem in the first place…….and that is why the first four yearly review is still going with little to show in the way of “modernisation”.

One option for businesses (employers and employees) who want to have something simpler, easier to understand and fitting with their workplace is to put in place an enterprise agreement. This is a complicated process but one that can be beneficial for all parties by doing at the enterprise level what award modernisation has failed to deliver. We can help you through the process.

Next we will look at what the award modernisation process could deliver with just a bit of common sense.