A Year of Fair Work

1 July 2010

By Nicholas Wilson, Fair Work Ombudsman

Today, (July 1) the Fair Work Ombudsman celebrates the passing of its first full year of operation under the new Fair Work Act.

While this is an important development, I’ll be taking a slightly longer view about the success of my work.

Back in February, we passed an important milestone. Since March, 2006 - which marks the point our inspectors first became independent - the Fair Work Ombudsman had recovered more than $100 million in underpaid wages for more than 77,000 employees.

So what, you might say. Money that people deserved in the first place, would be my response. The scale of the recoveries undertaken by Fair Work Inspectors over the past four years is staggering and has been underpinned by an Australian-first strategy in workplace relations to use the Courts, and subsequently the media, to demonstrate the consequences of non-compliance.

If you took $100 million in dollar coins and laid them end-to-end, the trail would stretch from my office in Melbourne to our office in Townsville.

Mostly, the underpaid were marginalised, vulnerable workers in casual jobs.  Many employers underpaid as the result of a lack of information or made mistakes interpreting the information they did have. However, some deliberately, callously took the opportunity to keep for themselves what was rightfully owed to their employees. We prosecuted more than 250 of those and obtained over $5 million in Court penalties as a result.

I am enormously proud of our recoveries. We make no charge for these recoveries, and never will. While I would love to say that every last cent has gone to the deserving employees, unfortunately I can’t. We can’t find about 5000 workers who are owed about $1.3 million. They might have changed address or returned overseas or even worked under an assumed name. Yes, it happens, and we don’t make judgments about these situations. If you happen to know one of the people to whom we owe money, would you mind pointing them in our direction? Seriously!

In the first year of the Fair Work Ombudsman, my role has changed markedly, taking me and my staff far beyond our starting point of underpayment recoveries. My staff work nationally with employers and employees to understand what is fair and right and to resolve problems of basic, but important moment in workplaces.

The people we work with are the four out of five private sector employees not members of unions, as well as their employers, who also are invariably not members of employer groups.

We work very closely with unions and industry associations and constantly recommend people join them to access their extremely helpful and valuable advice and representation.

Since July 2009, we have moved into some new realms and occasionally into direct debate with those same unions and industry associations when we need to investigate their behaviour. In every case, we do this totally independently. The law I work under ensures the Minister for Workplace Relations is not able to direct me about an investigation.  When people bring their workplace problems to us, they can be confident of impartial consideration without preference and, above all, without direction from anyone – except me!

Because the Australian Parliament has created the offences of unlawful industrial action or preventing someone from joining a union or preventing the lawful entry of a union to a workplace, I am unashamedly committed to impartially investigating the circumstances, and where needed, to take the alleged offences to Court. That is my role and that is our justice system.

This year the Fair Work Ombudsman commenced legal action against several unions for unlawful industrial action and we will see in due course what the Courts do about our complaints. Occasionally when we do this, we get called names, or our motives are questioned, but that does not deter how we approach our work.

We are independent, impartial and accountable.

I thought long and hard about whether my office should, for the first time ever, seek an injunction against the teachers’ union for their proposed industrial action on the NAPLAN tests. I made that decision, no-one else, and most certainly did not consult our Minister. I balanced the competing arguments, including that the action might be professionally motivated and not related to industrial claims.

Since July last year, my office has, in an Australian first, had the power to investigate claims that adverse action in the workplace was motivated by unlawful discrimination. In our first nine months, my staff considered more than 575 discrimination complaints, although around half were not within our jurisdiction. I expect we will shortly commence our first prosecution for discrimination.

At the end of my first year, I am very proud to be the Fair Work Ombudsman, as are the 1000 staff who work for us nationally.

Independent, impartial, accountable … and fair!

Media inquiries:

Craig Bildstien, Director, Media & Stakeholder Relations,
0419 818 484

Richard Honey, Media & Stakeholder Relations Adviser
(03) 9954 2716, 0457 924 146

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