By Rachel BernasconiPaul Cutrone, Marissa Dreher, Ben DudleyChris GardnerErin HawthorneJustine GiulianiSarah GoodhewPhilippa NoakesDarren PerryPenny StevensHenry Skene and Michael Tamvakologos

Seyfarth just celebrated ten years of service to leading employers in Australia. To mark the occasion, we invited some of our partners to share insights on the evolution of employment, industrial relations and workplace safety in Australia over the past ten years.

What have been the biggest changes in employment law, industrial relations and workplace safety over the previous ten years?

“In my view, one of the biggest changes has been the challenge for employers of all sizes to comply with increasingly complex employment laws and, more specifically, modern awards.” – Rachel Bernasconi, Partner

“The changing health and safety enforcement climate for organisations and individuals. The enforcement setting is shifting to a more assertive and higher stakes regulatory environment.” – Paul Cutrone, Partner

“An increased community awareness and engagement with respect to workplace safety, and with that, greater expectations on both organisations and the individuals within them. This change in community expectation has been reflected across Australia with the introduction of outcome-based industrial manslaughter laws, the increased use of reckless endangerment provisions (against both companies and senior managers), significantly increased maximum fines and, more recently, a heightened regulatory focus on psychosocial risk.” – Marissa Dreher, Partner

“The biggest changes have involved the courts and government grappling with what the concept of “employment” really means in modern society, and how far regulation should stray into the private relationships between parties in the 21st century. We have seen the High Court of Australia hand down decisions in relation to what “casual employment” means, as well as where the line is drawn between an employment relationship and an independent contracting relationship. And then the government has legislated to change the result of both of those cases.” – Ben Dudley, Partner

“Business leaders and HR have never been under more pressure when it comes to the workplace. A tight labour market combined with ever increasing regulation has underscored the difficulty. Related to this we’ve seen the bolstering of individual rights and a wellness zeitgeist as workplaces have never spoken more of resilience but seen less of it. The rise of the individual and a certain entitlement mentality has seemingly coincided with a decline in individual accountability with everything left to institutions (the employer being but one) to solve. For HR, “risk” has been the big theme.” – Chris Gardner, Partner

“Workplace issues have become significant business and brand risks, while increasing in complexity. Formerly, many businesses would have a siloed approach, with separate teams dealing with safety, HR, compliance, workers compensation and payroll issues. The issues that employers need to deal with have increasingly required a cross-disciplinary approach. To take some simple examples: workplace bullying and sexual harassment issues need input from HR and from safety teams. Award compliance increasingly requires legal and payroll teams to work closely together, often with external experts as well. We are also seeing a trend of claims that would previously have been addressed as employment grievances (e.g. performance management or organisational change concerns) lead to allegations of safety breaches and/or workers compensation claims.” – Erin Hawthorne, Partner

“Managing people is a first order priority for Boards and senior leaders. Employers are increasingly deploying risk-management based approaches in all facets of the employment relationship – whether ensuring their people are paid in accordance with applicable industrial instruments, meeting multi-layered work health and safety regulation, and discharging the positive legal duty introduced under the Respect@Work reforms. There is little latitude for error, with enhanced penalties for non-compliance and enforcement activity reinforcing the expectation that businesses will get it right the first time.” – Justine Giuliani, Partner

“The regulation of hazards and risks – psychosocial and sexual harassment being two examples – in the workplace that have traditionally been considered within business to be outside the ‘WHS’ sphere. And the introduction of industrial manslaughter as a consequence based offence into risk based legislation.” – Sarah Goodhew, Partner

“Ten years ago, employers were nervously anticipating the impact of new (typically, individual) claims introduced under the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) including general protections claims and applications for stop bullying orders. With that in mind, over the last ten years, employers have been very focused on managing individual claims, which has in turn led to a huge focus on workplace investigations. It is now very common to see employers skilling up their workforces (including HR and ER teams, and managers generally) to undertake robust investigation processes or seeking external investigation assistance for complex matters.” – Philippa Noakes, Partner

“For me, while so much has evolved, there are three major changes. The first is that compliance with employment obligations have emerged as a much higher order risk item for companies. This has been as a result of greater complexity in our laws, but also more active enforcement by regulators and the representatives of worker groups. Related to that, the second is that compliance with workplace obligations is a major reputational issue for company boards, much more so than a decade ago. Finally, we are seeing a significant lifting of the bar in the standards of behaviour expected in our workplaces, and a much greater preparedness for workers to assert their rights when these they feel these expectations have not been met.” – Darren Perry, Managing Partner

“Only 18 months ago, my top three would have been the ever increasing complexity of workplace regulation, the success of human resources and organisational leadership in response, and a commensurate weakening of union penetration and influence in most workplaces (with a few notable exceptions). Today, the answer is the four rounds of “Closing Loopholes” reforms. These changes dwarf anything that has happened in workplace relations since the introduction of enterprise bargaining in the early ‘90s. And those who remember (then) Minister Gillard proudly proclaiming in 2008 that the Fair Work Act shifted the “pendulum” back to the middle, should be aghast at just how far Minister Burke has managed to push it to one side. The reforms touch all points of the workplace: imposing increased regulation of engagement, individual rights to access arbitration, collective rights to commence bargaining and arbitration of actual conditions, new sector-wide bargaining and capacity to impose employment rights on contractors and labour hire workers, and universal workplace delegates rights to speak for both members and non-members. And you will not find anywhere in the reforms any new measures to improve productivity or even to require that it be taken into account.” – Henry Skene, Partner

“The introduction of industrial manslaughter for employers in most Australian jurisdictions signalled an increased focus by regulators on strengthening workplace safety and accountability. This legislative development underscores a critical shift towards prioritising the wellbeing of employees, demanding stricter adherence to safety protocols, and holding employers responsible for ensuring a secure work environment.” – Penny Stevens, Partner

“In my view, the biggest changes we’ve seen to the law are in areas where the law lagged social attitudes and has now caught up, namely:

  1. Compliance with workplace obligations and standards such as timely and correct payment is now a Board issue: Ten years ago, it would have been rare for a Board to spend time on this kind of issue. Now systemic underpayments attract a high level of scandal and can damage reputations – corporate and personal. As a result, organisations are spending much more on IT and auditing at the front end and litigation at the back end.
  2. Individuals and vulnerable individuals and groups empowered: Both generational shifts in thinking and social movements such as #MeToo have reset expectations about what is acceptable. In legal terms there is focus on practices such as confidentiality agreements to resolve harassment claims and many recommendations and changes that have come out of the Respect@Work report.
  3. Government intervention in IR: After decades of incremental or no reform, the Labor Government has shown a willingness to enter the IR landscape and make far reaching changes to the point of nearly prescribing outcomes. Companies in some industries are heavily impacted and succeeding with this level of regulatory risk and intervention requires a planned approach.” – Michael Tamvakologos, Partner

On behalf of the team, we would like to thank our valued clients. We are excited to continue working with you in 2024 and beyond.

In our next post, our partners look forward to sharing their insights on the changes and trends that are poised to significantly impact employers over the next five to ten years.


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