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Federal Government considering a major overhaul of industrial relations laws

By Charles Power

The Federal Government recently initiated a process to consider changes to Australian industrial relations laws in a number of areas.

A discussion paper raises the prospect of new criminal penalties imposed for worker exploitation, to complement existing offences for serious criminal forms of labour exploitation, including forced labour, servitude and debt bondage in the Criminal Code 1995 (Cth).

Criminal sanctions will apply where employers engage in unlawful conduct that is clear, deliberate and systemic.

Greenfields agreements

Under the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) (FW Act) a greenfields agreement is an agreement that relates to a new business, activity, project or undertaking, prior to the employment of employees.

At present, a greenfields agreement may be made between an employer (or employers) and a union (or unions) able to represent the industrial interests of a majority of employees who will be covered by the agreement. In such cases, the parties must sign the agreement before submitting it for approval to the Fair Work Commission (FWC).

All agreements made under the FW Act, (including greenfields agreements), must include a nominal expiry date that is not more than four years after the day the FWC approves the agreement.

While all enterprise agreements must include a nominal expiry date, the FW Act provides that enterprise agreements continue in place unless terminated or replaced.

In practice, many large greenfields projects will extend beyond the nominal expiry date of their enterprise agreement.

Where an agreement has passed its nominal expiry date, employees can access protected industrial action, if bargaining has commenced for a new agreement and the action is authorised by a protected action ballot.

The Government is looking at a change that will allow longer project agreements to enable industrial certainty for employers and investors.

Other areas being considered by the Government include a review of the Building Code applicable to Commonwealth funded building work, casual employment, the Small Business Fair Dismissal Code and several aspects of enterprise bargaining.

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