By David Bates

Australia’s Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO), Natalie James, has established herself as a relentlessly prolific writer of press releases. And they make good reading too.

Ms James doesn’t stick to the typical public sector waffle about stakeholder consultation, milestones and - my personal favourite - deliverables. She’s a refreshingly plain-speaker when it comes to her agency’s prosecution of employers and its enforcement of our nation’s hopelessly complex employment laws.

In her press release of 25 June 2016 about the ongoing underpayment of trolley collectors at Woolworths, she wrote: ‘You see no evil when you hold your hands over your eyes!’ (Yes, I too loved the use of an exclamation mark on a Government-funded press release.)

Or how about this ominous warning from her press release of 23 June 2016:

‘Be warned if you have labour hire obligations within your workplace. We have a growing arsenal of options to help us make workplace fair and you don’t want to get caught in the crossfire when we go after corporations who do the wrong thing. Get your house in order … ”

Yes, that’s an actual quote.

Perhaps it’s not really surprising then that the FWO’s recent allegations against one employer were described as ‘outrageous and baseless’ by Federal Circuit Court Judge, Alexander Street. There is, after all, always the risk of overreach when you begin describing unlawful workplace practices as ‘evil’ and describing your agency as having an ‘arsenal’ that could catch unsuspecting employers in the ‘crossfire’. Talk about unnecessary theatrics! (Sorry about that exclamation mark).

The truth is, Natalie James and I have much in common. We both clearly believe employers are required to comply with employment laws. We both believe unrepentant employers should face the full force of the law. And we both believe the vast majority of employers are genuinely committed to doing the right thing by their workers.

Where we clearly differ is on how we can best help employers – especially those running small businesses – to comply with their myriad obligations. I believe in education, support, helpful and accurate advice and a genuine understanding of the difficulties small business owners face every day. I don’t believe threatening employers with injury in the ‘crossfire’ is very helpful at all.

Let’s consider some other FWO statistics gleaned from two other recent press releases:

30 June: An FWO compliance ‘campaign’ in Victoria’s Loddon-Elmore-Campaspe region found;

  • 41% of employers were not complying with their legally-enforceable record-keeping and payslip obligations, and;
  • A massive 55% of employers were not fully-compliant with their obligations

15 June: An FWO campaign in the Cascoyne and Mid-West region found 44% of employers were not compliant with all their obligations.

Given that it’s now been seven years since the Fair Work Act took effect, tax-payers are right to ask why so many employers still remain completely unaware of their obligations. Are they simply too busy running their business and trying to comply with endless red tape, or are they instead just pure ‘evil’.

I’ll let the facts – and the press releases – speak for themselves.