By David Bates

Lately the papers have been filled with articles about the alleged underpayment of employees working at 7-11 stores around Australia.

Let’s just get a few things straight before we go any further:

  • 7-11 stores are franchised. So just because some franchisees may have been breaking the law, we shouldn’t punish those other franchisees who’ve done the right thing by their worker
  • Underpaying employees is both unlawful and unjust. That said, finding the right wages to pay is often a hopelessly complex task made even harder by the appallingly inaccurate advice often given by the Fair Work Ombudsman’s (FWO) Fair Work Infoline
  • Franchisors – like 7-11 – have a moral (though not necessarily legal) obligation to help their franchisees comply with Australia’s hopelessly complex employment laws. 

With the above points in mind, let’s revisit the fantasyland the FWO believes all employers live in. 

The FWO seems to think employers have huge amounts of spare time to peruse fact sheets, guidance notes, or wait on hold to speak to Fair Work Infoline operators.

They also seem to think all employees are reasonable, all employers are part-time employment lawyers, and that Australia’s employment laws make sense.

Here’s a hint: they don’t.

And if you don’t believe me, then you can visit the Fair Work Commission’s own website where you can read more than 100 pages of information and correspondence about the ‘allegedly inconsistent’ (read: completely and utterly incompatible) clauses that have been found in Modern Awards and the 10 National Employment Standards (NES). 

Or, if you prefer, read page 21 (of 985) of the Productivity Commission’s Draft Report into our nation’s workplace relations system, where the Commission concluded Modern Awards are “relatively inflexible and are often ambiguous, imposing costs for employers and employees. (Even the Fair Work Ombudsman is sometimes unclear about the interpretation of clauses).” 

That last sentence will certainly ring true for the hundreds of well-meaning employers who call the Fair Work Infoline expecting an accurate and plain-English answer to their question, only to find themselves disappointed when they hang up.

Those 7-11 franchisees who have deliberately underpaid or exploited their workers deserve to be prosecuted. But Australians should also direct some of their outrage at the laws and institutions that all too often make employer compliance virtually impossible.