The new industrial relations rules, which are due to be tabled in Parliament next week, have potential small business impacts that extend further than the much-touted loss of rights for employees seemingly blaring from media advertising.
On the employer side, the most attractive aspect of the reforms may be legislation exempting businesses that employ up to 100 employees from unfair dismissal laws. It is anticipated this exemption will generate jobs in small to medium businesses. However, as part of this, the Federal Government will continue to protect all employees by providing a remedy for unlawful termination, which prohibits dismissal on discriminatory grounds such as race, colour, sex, union membership and pregnancy.
For businesses with more than 100 employees, the Government will better balance the unfair dismissal laws so employees covered will be required to have been employed for six months before they can pursue an unfair dismissal remedy. This is an extension of the current three month qualifying period. For many businesses, the ability to extend the probationary period of employment has effectively meant this may already have been happening.
In the current tight economy, where it is a candidates market, there is talk the removal of these laws may make it more difficult for small business to attract quality staff. This is something refuted by The Resolution Centre's Katie Graham, who believes good people will not be turned off by this but will instead embrace the opportunity to negotiate a better contract. "I don't think each individual is worried about losing rights. For 98 per cent of workers, they would be keen to produce results for their employer," Graham says.
For small business, one of the really good things is having the right to terminate an employee on productivity results. While on the surface this may seem harsh, the reality is that the point of the new contracts is that they are meant to be agreed by two parties. Employees are able to have a professional negotiator working with them. In fact, for those employees who want to be represented by a union or group - the new IR laws do not prevent or discourage this.
According to Graham, whose business currently deals with negotiating workplace agreements, mediation and other HR issues, now is a good time for small business to sit down with employees and look at what the agreements are and what rights they have and want to retain. "Because of the current candidate shortage, you need to spend
time on HR," she says. Graham's business, and others like hers, offer a service that includes consulting, and presenting templated documents for use in drawing up employment contracts.
For small businesses unable to offer staff packages the larger organisations can, it is likely flexible contracts may attract quality staff. Whether attracted by large salaries or superior conditions, the issue then becomes retaining them.
However, while the new rules allow for different contracts for all employees, a tip is to have some degree of conformity among employees. If employers have two very different agreements in place they are at risk of employers discovering colleagues who are perceived to have superior working conditions.
Another benefit of the new laws for small business is a unified workplace relations system that replaces the current system, which has six different workplace relations systems in Australia with thousands of federal and state awards.
It has been promised the new laws will set out in legislation key minimum conditions of employment: annual leave, personal/carers leave, parental leave (including maternity leave) and maximum ordinary hours of work.
Under the new laws, an Australian Fair Pay and Conditions Standard will be introduced. The standard will include minimum award classification wages as set by the Australian Fair Pay Commission and the guaranteed minimum conditions of employment in legislation.
As they stand currently, the new laws will remove the necessity to use the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) as the compulsory body for regulation. Instead, there will be the ability to use private mediators for dispute resolution. This is a great advantage, because the AIRC can take up to four months for resolution but private mediators may turn around disputes within a week.
While there is a need to make sure the letter of the law is followed, and this includes offering all employees super choice even those who previously under state awards were not entitled the impact of the IR changes may be about as strongly felt as that of super choice: effort had to be put into preparation for the legislation but the impact is yet to be felt.
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