A Beginner’s Guide to Industrial Relations

I keep reading that industrial relations in Australia is scary, complex and confusing.

I do not believe that to be the case. What you are about to read is the beginner’s guide to industrial relations in Australia.

Just like Ikea and Lego instructions, the Fair Work Act can be a little bit daunting the first time you look at it.

The trick to understanding it is to keep going. After time things will become easier, and it will start to make sense.

The Fair Work Act

The Fair Work Act is the main piece of legislation that everything else branches out from.

For those who came in late, the Fair Work Act 2009 replaced the Workplace Relations Act 1996.

This Fair Work Act did make things simpler for the business owner. It replaced the complex Federal and State award system with 122 new Modern Awards. (I will get to them later)

If it wasn’t for the Fair Work Act, we also wouldn’t have the following:

National Employment Standards

The National Employment Standards or NES are 10 standards that cover all federal system employees.

They are:

  • Maximum weekly hours
    An employee can work a maximum of 38 ordinary hours in a week.
  • Requests for flexible working arrangements
    Certain employees have the right to request flexible working arrangements. Employers can only refuse these requests on reasonable business grounds.
  • Parental leave and related entitlements
    Employees can get parental leave when a child is born or adopted.
  • Annual leave
    Annual leave (also known as holiday pay) allows an employee to be paid while having time off from work.
  • Personal carers leave and compassionate leave
    Sick and carer’s leave (also known as personal leave or personal / carer’s leave) lets an employee take time off to help them deal with personal illness, caring responsibilities and family emergencies.
  • Community service leave
    Employees, including casual employees, can take community service leave for certain activities such as:
    * voluntary emergency management activities
    * jury duty (including attendance for jury selection).
    With the exception of jury duty, community service leave is unpaid.
  • Long service leave
    An employee gets long service leave after a long period of working for the same employer.
    Most employees’ entitlement to long service leave comes from long service leave laws in each state or territory. These laws set out:
    * how long an employee has to be working to get long service leave (eg. after 7 years)
    * how much long service leave the employee gets.
    In some states and territories long serving casuals are eligible for long service leave.
  • Public holidays
    Public holidays can be different depending on the state or territory you work in.
    It’s important to know when public holidays are because employees can get different entitlements on these days.
  • Notice of termination and redundancy pay
    A notice period is the length of time that an employee or employer has to give to end employment.
    Redundancy happens when an employer either:
    * doesn’t need an employee’s job to be done by anyone, or
    * becomes insolvent or bankrupt.
  • Fair Work Information Statement
    Employers have to give every new employee a copy of the Fair Work Information Statement (the Statement) before, or as soon as possible after, they start their new job.

You can find out more about the NES by following this link

Modern Awards

Before the Fair Work Act, a business owner had to figure out if they were covered by a State or Federal awards.

The Modern Awards took the confusion and complexity out of that by creating 122 industry based awards.

Modern Awards cover a majority of employees in Australia and are industry specific.

Modern Awards set down things like classifications, penalty rates, allowances and so on.

Unfair Dismissal

This section of the Fair Work Act prevents an employer from terminating an employee on grounds that are considered “harsh”, “unjust” or “unreasonable”. They also protect employees from a redundancy that is not genuine.

Despite what the naysayers repeat, the unfair dismissal provisions of the Fair Work Act haven’t slanted things in favour of the employee.

What it has done is made things a little bit fairer for both sides.

For a “small business”, 14 or fewer employees, a new employee has to serve a “qualifying period” of 12 months before they are able to access the unfair dismissal ‘protections’ of the Act.

Once they have been employed for more than 12 months, the Small Business Fair Dismissal Code has been created to help with dismissals.

For businesses with 15 or more employees, a new employee has a minimum qualifying period of 6 months before they are protected by the Act.

General Protections

From the Fair Work Commission website:

The general protections are intended to:

  • protect workplace rights
  • protect freedom of association
  • provide protection from workplace discrimination, and
  • provide effective relief for persons who have been discriminated against, victimised, or have experienced other unfair treatment.

A person (such as an employer), must not take any ‘adverse action’ against another person (such as an employee), because that person has a workplace right, has exercised a workplace right or proposes to exercise that workplace right.


The Fair Work Act also contains provisions for it to deal with workplace bullying applications.

The Fair Work Commission can hear an application when the following takes place.

  • a person or a group of people repeatedly behaves unreasonably towards a worker or a group of workers at work


  • the behaviour creates a risk to health and safety.

Reasonable management action isn’t considered bullying.

Enterprise Agreements

While Modern Awards specify the industry-wide standards for wages and conditions, an enterprise agreement covers the enterprise itself.

Enterprise Agreements are an agreement between the employer (enterprise) and it’s employees.

For example, Acme Widgets is covered by the Manufacturing and Associated Industries and Occupations Award 2010, the same as other businesses in the manufacturing industry. The Acme Widgets Enterprise Agreement 2017 would only cover Acme Widgets, and relevant employees.

Now that you have read the article, I hope that you aren’t as scared or put off by industrial relations in Australia as you were before you read it. As I said at the start, keep at it, ask for help if you get stuck, and remember that things will get easier and simpler.

Confused by industrial relations?

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photo credit: Looking Glass Sacred Heart Mission via photopin (license)