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Is Australia's award system so complex major corporations capable of handling millions of customers and billions of dollars can't manage to pay employees properly?
That's the spin flowing freely in the wake of Australian supermarket behemoth Woolworths admitting it had underpaid about 5,700 staff by up to A$300 million.
Woolies - Line - Companies - Year - Employees
Woolies joins a conga line of companies this year admitting to shortchanging employees, from household brands Qantas, Commonwealth Bank, Bunnings and the ABC to the fine-dining empires of celebrity chefs Neil Perry and George Calombaris.
The head of the Business Council of Australia has suggested these "inadvertent payroll mistakes" are due to an overly complex industrial relations system, with "122 awards, multiple agreements, multiple clauses."
Head - Australian - Retailers - Association - Need
The head of the Australian Retailers Association agrees there's a need to "simplify the system." Woolworths' chief executive, Brad Banducci, has chimed in with his desire "to come back and talk about the lack of flexibility in awards when interpreted literally."
Here's why this blame-shifting is wrong.
Australia - Workplace - Relations - System - Years
Australia's workplace relations system has already been significantly simplified in the past 15 years.
We used to have an interlocking web of federal and state industrial relations laws and tribunals. The system had evolved without much logic over a century, from the creation of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration in 1904. For a national company, it meant workers in some states might be covered by state awards and others by federal awards, with differing pay rates and conditions.
Coalition - Government - John - Howard - Problem
In 2005, however, the Coalition government of John Howard tackled this problem with its Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Act. The Work Choices "flexibility" agenda was bad news for workers, but it did implement a national workplace relations system.
The benefit of this was recognized when the Labor government of Kevin Rudd repealed Work Choices but kept the national system with the Fair Work Act in 2009.
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