By David Bates

For years the team here at Workforce Guardian have argued Australia’s unique (read: bizarre) system of modern awards make life exceptionally difficult for employers, and SME (small to medium enterprises) employers in particular. 

In case you’re not familiar with modern awards, here’s a brief summary:

  • These are ‘legal instruments’ which impose complex minimum terms and conditions of employment for workers in particular industries and occupations, such as penalty and overtime rates, hours of work restrictions and allowances
  • There are roughly 130 modern awards currently in operation, with new ones being rolled-out by the Fair Work Commission (FWC) on a fairly regular basis as part of their current ‘4 year review’ into Modern Awards
  • Some awards are industry-based (such as the General Retail Industry Award 2010), while others are occupation-based (such as the Clerks-Private Sector Award 2010)
  • Modern awards apply as a matter of law and not choice. Employers are legally-responsible for identifying which modern awards apply to their employees and ensuring compliance. Unfortunately, the vast majority of employers have never heard of them, meaning most are unaware their businesses face massive penalties should they ever be randomly inspected by the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO).
  • Every modern award is different, leading to some fairly ridiculous outcomes. For example, highly-paid award-free executives are free to cash-out a portion of their annual leave, while for most lower-paid award-covered employees, cashing-out annual leave is unlawful.

The FWO, FWC and employer advocates like Workforce Guardian all talk constantly about the importance of ensuring full-compliance with modern awards. After all, the law is the law whether we like it or not. 

Australia’s unions also relentlessly attack any employer who fails to comply with the hopelessly complex modern award system. For recent examples, think wage underpayments at 7-11 and alleged sham contracting at Pizza Hut. But it seems not every unionist believes employers always need to comply with modern awards.

Take Bill Shorten for example.

Under oath at the Royal Commission into Trade Union Corruption and Governance he made a remarkable submission. When challenged about the deal he struck with a company called Cleanevent, he admitted awards were just the ‘gold standard’, or in plain-English, just something to for us all to aspire towards. 

Wrong, wrong, wrong.


Isn’t it amazing how unionists like Mr Shorten demand employers comply with modern awards when it suits them, but then admit how difficult this actually is in reality when they’re put under oath.