Compliance changes must not put business at risk

With many business owners at breaking point in 2020, criminalising underpayments and increasing civil penalties for non-compliance risks tipping the scale against people in small and family enterprises.

ACCI CEO James Pearson said people with small and family businesses should be concerned about announced changes to workplace compliance laws which seek to criminalise underpayment and increase fines.

“With the best will in the world and substantial investment of money to get compliance right, under our current workplace laws mistakes can still easily be made, but nobody wins when a business closes because of the size of a fine or because the employer has been imprisoned.

“The whole community benefits when businesses grow and employ more staff. Conversely, if employers hold back from hiring or shut up shop because they are concerned about the risk they face of imprisonment, it will adversely affect the entire community.

“If our workplace laws are to be fair and balanced then any steps taken to address compliance must also tackle the ambiguity and inflexibility in our workplace laws in order to ensure small and family business owners are protected from unreasonable criminal persecution.

“It is crucial the government’s Omnibus legislation addresses the labyrinth of complexity in workplace laws including our modern awards, many of which cover industries which have been hardest hit by the pandemic, such as retail and food and accommodation. This is key to addressing compliance and tackling underpayments.”

Underpayments often occur in large part due to fundamental misunderstandings about awards and grey areas which give rise to multiple interpretations of the same entitlement, leading to genuine mistakes and accidental payroll errors.

For example, a restaurant or cafe owner must be across 24 award classifications, each with different rates of pay which change depending on the time of the employee shifts, how long they work for and when an employee takes a break. Such as:

  • Waiters and waitresses who are called ‘Food and beverage attendants’ can pick up glasses and wipe tables but must be paid more if they answer the phone, greet a guest or “attend a snack bar”
  • Kitchenhands who are called “Kitchen Attendants” are allowed to do “general pantry duties” but must be paid more if they are “engaged in specialised non-cooking duties”.
  • Administration staff who are called ‘Clerks’ can photocopy, file and deliver messages but must be paid more depending on whether they deliver the message verbally, or in writing and depending on the accuracy and speed of any typing.

“If the Government’s IR reforms are to be fair and balanced, then addressing these issues should also be a part of any reform package,” ACCI CEO James Pearson said.

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