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Better protection for workers as new Fair Work law passes Parliament

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THE Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James has welcomed the passing of new laws that will significantly enhance its capacity to take action in cases of exploitation of vulnerable workers.

The Fair Work Amendment (Protecting Vulnerable Workers) Bill 2017 passed the Parliament on 5 September.

It includes a range of measures including an increase in the maximum penalties for employers who deliberately flaunt the minimum wage and other entitlements under the Fair Work Act 2009.

The new laws will apply from the day after the Bill receives royal assent, except for the new franchisor and holding company liability which will start six weeks later.

The new law will hold certain franchisors and holding companies responsible for underpayments by their franchisees where they knew, or reasonably should have known, about the contraventions and failed to take reasonable steps to prevent them.

The laws will apply to franchisors that have a significant degree of influence or control over the franchisee’s affairs.

The laws apply new, higher financial penalties to ‘serious contraventions’ which are 10 times the current maximum penalties. A court could impose these higher penalties where an employer knew they were breaching their obligations and this conduct is part of a systematic pattern of behaviour. In such cases maximum penalties of $630,000 and $126,000 per contravention could apply to corporations and individuals respectively.

The new laws will double the maximum penalties for record-keeping and pay slip breaches, to $12,600 per contravention for individuals and $63,000 for companies, and triple existing penalties in cases where employers give false or misleading pay slips to workers, or provide the Fair Work Ombudsman with false information or documents. Last financial year two-thirds of the FWO’s court cases involved alleged record-keeping or payslip contraventions with nearly one third involving allegations of false or misleading records being provided to the FWO.

Amendments moved by the Senate will also provide that where an employer has not met their record-keeping or pay slip obligations, the employer will have to disprove a wage claim put before a Court unless the employer has a reasonable excuse for not keeping records or issuing pay slips.

Ms James also welcomed the strengthening of laws governing “cashback” arrangements with the legislation specifically prohibiting unreasonable requirements for an employee to pay money to their employer or another person. These protections will now also extend to prospective employees unreasonably required to pay their own money to get a job.

“New evidence gathering powers contained in the legislation will allow the Fair Work Ombudsman to require a person to provide information or documents to the FWO or to attend before senior FWO officials to answer questions on oath or affirmation that relate to underpayment of workers,” Ms James said.

There are strong protections for individuals in relation to these evidence gathering powers including; supervision by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and the Commonwealth Ombudsman, rules preventing the evidence a person gives from being used against them personally, the right to have a lawyer present if they attend to answer questions and the right to claim reimbursement of reasonable expenses.

Ms James reiterated previous statements that this power will be deployed as a last resort – while most employers work with the FWO to address concerns that may have arisen about an employee’s entitlements and provide FWO with the information it needs to resolve such matters, those engaging in deliberate breaches of the law often do not cooperate.

“We will always welcome new tools, resources or powers that will help the agency address serious cases of non-compliance and exploitation in the workplace, especially when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable members of our community,” Ms James said.

“My Agency will continue to be fair and balanced in its approach and will to operate in accordance with our compliance and enforcement policy.

“However, employers who know their obligations and systematically fail to meet their workplace obligations should be on notice that we will use all the powers at our disposal,” Ms James said.

Ms James said she looked forward to working with the community, including franchisors and their advocates and advisers, to help them understand the new laws and the ways they can contribute to building a culture of compliance with them.

“Now is the time for franchise systems that care about their reputation to take steps to ensure their employees receive their lawful entitlements,” Ms James said.

"The Fair Work Ombudsman will work with any franchise that is serious about doing the right thing by its workers."

Summary of key changes

  • Certain franchisors and holding companies become responsible for underpayments by their franchisees or subsidiaries where they knew, or reasonably ought to have known, about the contraventions and failed to take reasonable steps to prevent them
  • A new category of serious contraventions has been introduced, with penalties that are ten times the current maximum where employers knowingly contravene and it is part of a systematic pattern of contravening conduct
  • New penalties for providing Fair Work inspectors with false or misleading information or records, and new prohibitions for hindering or obstructing them
  • The prohibitions against unreasonably requiring employees to make payments, commonly seen as cashback arrangements, have been strengthened and extended to prospective employees
  • Maximum penalties for record-keeping and pay slip breaches have been doubled, and the maximum penalty for false or misleading employment records has been tripled.  New penalties apply for giving false or misleading pay slips
  • Employers who do not meet record keeping or pay slip obligations and cannot show a reasonable excuse, will need to disprove wage claims made in a court
  • The Fair Work Ombudsman’s evidence-gathering powers have been strengthened

www.fairwork.gov.au

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AMCS welcomes Queensland Plastic Bag Ban and Container Refund Scheme

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THE Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) welcomes the Plastic Bag Ban and Container Refund Scheme Law which passed through Queensland’s Parliament last night.

The Waste Reduction and Recycling Amendment Bill, which introduced these measures, was passed with bipartisan support.

James Cordwell, AMCS Marine Campaigner said:

“This new law sets the gold standard for waste reduction in Australia. With the tide of ocean plastic pollution on the rise, Queensland is showing leadership in tackling this problem.”

“Queensland is the most polluted state in Australia, according to the Keep Australia Beautiful Litter Index, with the incidence of litter 41% higher than the national average.”

“Our coastlines are being littered with millions of plastic pieces. Eleven items of plastic, on average, are found along every metre of beach from the Sunshine Coast to the Gold Coast.”

“Plastic pollution is choking and entangling our turtles, marine mammals and birdlife. It fills up their stomachs, reducing the space for food, which often results in starvation.”

“This new law has the potential to reduce Queensland's plastic litter by half - drastically cutting the plastic that ends up in our oceans, entangling or choking marine wildlife. To realise this potential the Queensland  Government must implement world’s best practice regulations and community education in coming years.”

“Education is vital. You can have a fantastic system, but if the community isn’t adequately informed on how it works and how they can participate, you’re heading for failure.”

“This is a win-win initiative for Queenslanders, capable of saving marine wildlife and cleaning up our coasts. We look forward to working with the Queensland Government to ensure the new laws are implemented successfully,” said Mr Cordwell.

www.amcs.org.au

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Red meat industry to discuss growing exports into the UK today

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HOW will Brexit impact on imports of Australian beef, lamb and goat into the United Kingdom? At a hearing in Canberra today, representatives of the Australian red meat industry will have their say on growing premium meat exports into the UK market.

The Trade Sub-Committee of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade will hear how to increase red meat exports into the UK, overcoming current European Union barriers to this trade, for its inquiry into Australia’s trade and investment relationship with the UK.

A broad cross-section of the agricultural sector will share their experience on marketing and exporting meat to the UK and European markets.

In 2016, 7,699 tonnes of mostly high quality Australian beef was exported to the UK out of Australia’s total exports of 20,841 tonnes into the EU. For Australian sheep meat 12,378 tonnes of mostly lamb was exported to the UK out of Australia’s total exports of 16,471 tonnes into the EU in 2016.

Chair of the Sub-Committee, Senator Bridget McKenzie, said: “The Committee wants to hear from producers and exporters about their role in any future negotiations for a proposed Australia-UK Free Trade Agreement and how that agreement may assist exporters with growing demand for premium cuts of Australian red meat”.

 

Public hearing details: 10:05 am - 11:15 am, Wednesday 6 September, Committee Room 2S1, Parliament House, Canberra

Representatives of the Australian red meat industry

  • EU and UK Red Meat Industry Taskforce
  • Red Meat Advisory Council
  • Australian Meat Industry Council
  • Sheepmeat Council of Australia
  • Australian Lot Feeders’ Association
  • Goat Industry Council of Australia
  • Cattle Council of Australia

The hearing will be broadcast live at aph.gov.au/live

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Turnbull Government ban on excessive card surcharging extended to all businesses

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EXCESSIVE card surcharging will be banned for all businesses from today, 1 September, continuing the Turnbull Government’s ‘taking action now’ approach to delivering fairer financial services for Australians.

Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison said, "This action will ensure Australians are not ripped off when they make purchases with their cards. This will give consumers the confidence that any surcharge on card purchases will now have to reflect the true cost of the transaction, not an artificially inflated sum designed to profit gouge.

"The extension of the ban to all businesses from today follows the regime applying to large businesses from 1 September last year.

"This is practical action from the Turnbull Government and delivers immediate results for Australian households.

"For example, major airlines have abandoned their unpopular flat fee surcharges and replaced them with charges that comply with the new restrictions.

"Smaller businesses were granted extra time in which to prepare for the ban, but from today all those businesses will need to cease any excessive surcharging. If they continue to impose a charge for card payments, they must restrict it to their reasonable cost of acceptance of the payment.

"Businesses have been on notice for more than a year to review their surcharging practices and make sure they understand and comply with their obligations.

"Consumer watchdog the ACCC will act as a strong cop on the beat to police these rules. If people find that they are being hit with an excessive surcharge when they go to the shops, buy tickets online or book a holiday, they should not hesitate to contact them on 1300 302 502.

"Many businesses choose not to impose surcharges. Where they choose to impose a charge for card payment, this should be made clear to the consumer.

"As a guide, where a charge is imposed, consumers should expect to pay around 0.5 to 1 per cent for payment by debit card, 1 to 1.5 per cent by MasterCard and Visa credit cards and 2 to 3 per cent for American Express. If charges exceed these ranges, the matter can be raised with the ACCC for investigation.

"A surcharge includes any charge based on type of payment method used. This would include for example, charges imposed for ‘low value’ transactions. Merchants that face some fixed costs for accepting low value transactions should ensure that any charges they apply do not exceed their cost of acceptance.

"Banks have been required to provide statements with average costs of accepting each payment method to inform business decisions on surcharging.

"The Turnbull Government is getting on with the job of acting now to deliver a fairer playing field for Australian families and businesses when it comes to financial services. Our sole focus is on delivering real outcomes, not years of talk." Mr Morrison said.

Further guidance for businesses and consumers is available on the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission website.

 

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Scientific cooperation through treaties and supporting the IMF

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AT A PUBLIC hearing today the Joint Committee on Treaties will examine three agreements aimed at encouraging scientific cooperation and collaboration. It will also look at changes to the International Monetary Fund’s arrangements to borrow from Australia.

Agreements with the USA, New Zealand and Israel will promote closer relationships between the scientific community and businesses within Australia and these countries.

Committee Chair, Stuart Robert MP, said that providing a formal legal framework to streamline cooperative ventures will ensure that Australia is an attractive partner to those leading the important scientific projects driving innovation and technological breakthroughs.   

“These treaty actions are expected to boost Australia’s innovation system, attract investors and promote commercialisation in the global market,” the Chair said.

Australia is a strong supporter of the IMF, and the new arrangements for borrowing will renew an agreement that has been in place since 1997.  

Mr Robert said, “The IMF provides a safety net for countries in economic difficulty and its continued stability is important to world security. This agreement continues Australia’s commitment to its work.”

 

Public hearing details: 11:00 am to 12:30 pm, Monday, 4 September, Committee Room 2R1, Parliament House, Canberra

11:00am-11:45am: Treasury (IMF New Arrangements to Borrow–amendment)
11:45am-12:30pm: Department of Industry, Innovation and Science (Science agreements with USA, NZ and Israel)
12:30pm: Close

The hearing will be broadcast live at aph.gov.au/live.

Interested members of the public may wish to track the committee via the website

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