Australia: Government Seeks to Redefine Parameters of Paid Parental Leave Entitlements to Prevent Employee "Double-Dipping"

By Naomi Sheridan and Annureet K. Grewal

Australia's federal government recently introduced the Fairer Paid Parental Leave Bill 2015. If approved, the new law will amend the Paid Parental Leave Act 2010 to redefine the parameters of paid parental leave entitlements. 

Presently, under Australian law, certain working parents are entitled to receive paid parental leave from the federal government to care for a newborn or recently adopted child.  Specifically, eligible working mothers are entitled to receive up to 18 weeks' paid leave at the national minimum wage.1  In addition, employers may provide for additional paid parental leave benefits, such as maternity leave pay, by way of their registered agreements, employment contracts and/or pursuant to workplace policy.
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Australia: Tribunal Defines "Place of Work" for Off-Duty Misconduct Purposes, Finds Unfair Dismissal Due to Procedurally Defective Investigation

By Naomi Sheridan and Elaine Lee

Australia's Fair Works Commission ("FWC")   recently handed down its decision in Keenan v. Leighton Boral Amey Joint Venture.  In this case, the FWC defined "place of work" with respect to an employee's off-duty conduct, and found the employee's dismissal was unlawful because the employer had failed to conduct a procedurally fair discipline process.   

Factual Background

Despite being a team leader for Leighton Boral Amey Joint Venture (the "Company"), the complainant reportedly consumed a large amount of alcohol before, during, and after the Company's Christmas party, which ran from 6:00-10:00 p.m. in a hotel ballroom.  Many employees continued to socialize after the function officially ended, moving their drinks and conversation upstairs to the hotel's public bar.  Over the course of the evening, both during and after the work function, the employee engaged in multiple instances of misconduct, including swearing at colleagues, asking personal and intimate questions of female colleagues and sexually harassing a female co-worker. 
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Australia: Get Set For A 2.5% Increase to Minimum Wages Effective July 1, 2015

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Australia's national minimum wage and modern award pay rates are set to increase by 2.5% starting July 1, 2015.  On June 2, 2015, the Minimum Wage Panel (the Panel) of the Fair Work Commission announced an increase to the minimum rates. The increase will affect over 1.86 million employees in Australia whose salary is at the minimum rate. 

Each financial year, the Panel reviews the national minimum wage and the minimum wages set out in modern awards. The modern awards vary depending on the industry or the type of job, and cover employee entitlements not only to minimum pay rates, but also to allowances, loadings and other conditions of employment.  Most employees in Australia are covered by one of the 123 modern awards.

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Asking Questions that Relate to the Diversity or Sensitive Personal Information of a Job Applicant or Employee May Be a Breach of Australia's Discrimination and Privacy Laws

By Naomi Sheridan

iStock_000005609395XSmall_employment_job_application.jpgAn administrative tribunal in the Australian state of Queensland recently confirmed that employers with Australian operations must be careful about the personal information they ask job applicants and employees to provide or risk breaching discrimination and privacy laws.

The Willmott v. Woolworths Ltd [2014] QCAT 601 (11 November 2011) case involved the largest grocery store chain in Australia and a member of the public who considered applying for a position with the company. After reviewing the company's recruitment website, the applicant took offense to some of the questions that were listed and filed a complaint with the Anti-Discrimination Commission of Queensland.  

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Australia: What Employers with Australian Operations Should Know about Extension of Australia's Employment Laws Outside its Exclusive Economic Zone

By: Naomi Sheridan

iStock_000008165511Small_globe_keyboard_computer.jpgAt one time or another, many companies with international operations may look to transfer employees between the company's offices. There are many reasons why companies do so.  A company might have an international secondment or assignment program, for instance, that provides employees with the benefit of gaining experience living and working in a new market.  In other situations, a company may require the skills and experience of a particular employee in a part of the business that the company wants to establish or grow, or a company might simply desire the specific skill-set of a foreign manager or executive.  In each of these situations, there is likely to be consideration of immigration and local employment laws by the employer (often tied to the visa terms), but the impact of the laws in the employee's country of citizenship are often overlooked in these situations.  Failure to consider the applicability of Australian laws when transferring employees outside of Australia can have significant consequences for the employer.   

In particular, there are two aspects of Australia's employment-related laws that should be reviewed:  Australia's Fair Work legislation and the Superannuation Guarantee (compulsory retirement benefit) laws.

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Australian Supreme Court Decision Holds Important Lesson for Companies with Australian Operations Regarding Use of Post-Employment Restraints

By Naomi Sheridan

On December 20, 2013, in Pet Tech Pty Ltd v Batson [2013] NSWSC 1954, Justice Young of the New South Wales (NSW) Supreme Court ruled that businesses that want to enter into enforceable post-employment restraint agreements in Australia must ensure those agreements are written in accordance with Australian law.  The decision holds an important lesson for any company with Australian operations.    

Pet Tech Pty Ltd brought proceedings against one of its former sales agents attempting to prevent the employee from using or retaining information that the company considered to be confidential.  Post-employment restraints like this are not uncommon in Australia, particularly for executive, management and sales employees.  However, in this case, the court noted that it was required to interpret the enforceability of a "very strange" agreement because the document appeared to be an "American document which has been adopted to Australia unthinkingly."  Accordingly, Justice Young said that "whatever its effect under American law might be I have to deal with its effect in New South Wales."  As such, the court advised the company "to get some local lawyers to draft an actually enforceable contract" to cover employees in the future.   

Because the company had failed to have its employees sign agreements that were legally compliant with Australian law, the court determined that the relevant clause upon which the company sought to rely came "very close to being void."  The clause in question which stated, "[the employee has] the burden in any dispute of showing that information is not [the company's] confidential information," placed the onus of disproving that something is not confidential information onto the employee.  The court found this clause to be problematic because "it virtually means that whatever the [company] says must be accepted by the court unless the contrary is proven."

Another important point the court highlighted was the fact that the agreement purported to not only bind the plaintiff company but also "its parents, subsidiaries and affiliates" (including the company's related U.S. entity), which is not an uncommon provision contained in U.S. confidentiality agreements. The court said that "a contract with more than one part is either a joint contract, a joint and several contract or a several contract.  . . .  if there is no specification as to whether the contract is joint or otherwise it is taken to be a joint contract.  The contract accordingly must be construed as one with not only the plaintiff but also jointly with its parents, subsidiaries and affiliates.  Under rule 6.20 of the Uniform Civil Procedure Rules 2005 all these people must be plaintiffs before the contract can be enforced."

As such, the use of broad post-employment restraint documents in Australia which purport to extend coverage to a company and its related entities should be carefully drafted to clearly spell out the document's intention should a dispute arise. Alternatively, as this case appears to indicate, companies that engage in these types of disputes will need to include relevant related entities as parties to the dispute.   

Pet Tech Pty Ltd presents a number of important lessons for U.S. companies doing business in Australia, and reinforces that it is extremely important to ensure that a company's employees are subject to terms and conditions of employment that are compliant with applicable local laws. 

In Australia, significant consequences can result from a company's failure to have legally compliant contracts.  If a business has related companies and/or a number of employees working in Australia, employers should undertake a review of the language in its current contracts.  The law in Australia is complex when it comes to post-employment restraints, non-competes and the protection of confidential information, intellectual property and proprietary information.  Accordingly, businesses should not adopt a one-size-fits-all approach.  Unless contract terms are properly drafted, they are unlikely to be enforceable.    

Australia Beefs Up Its Anti-Bullying Laws

By Naomi Sheridan

Australian workplaces have long been subject to anti-bullying laws, but effective January 1, 2014, workers have an additional avenue in which to bring workplace bullying complaints against employers.

Australian workers have been able to lodge workplace bullying complaints under workplace health and safety laws to the various health and safety authorities in each state of Australia. Now, the Fair Work Commission (the Commission) also has jurisdiction to deal with workplace bullying complaints as a result of the former government's pre-election amendments to the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) (the Act). The Commission has already received a small number of bullying claims, with some lodged as early as January 1. The Commission has not released the number of complaints it has received under the new amendments and is unlikely to do so ahead of its standard quarterly data release which will occur next in March.

Under the new system, a worker is now able to lodge an application to obtain an order that workplace bullying cease if it is found to be occurring in the workplace.

Under the Act, a worker is bullied at work if an individual or group of individuals repeatedly behaves unreasonably towards the worker or a group of workers of which the alleged victim is a member. The Act clarifies that reasonable management action that is carried out in a reasonable manner does not amount to bullying.

While the Commission cannot award damages for bullying claims under the amendment, it can order that bullying cease. If an employer does not take appropriate action, the worker can apply to the federal court, which can order fines against a corporation of up to $51,000 or against an individual of up to $10,200 (Australian dollars).

Workers may also lodge a workers' compensation claim with respect to any alleged illness or injury flowing from workplace bullying.

If recent unfair dismissal statistics are any indication of what is to come, Australian employers should expect to experience a steady rise in bullying complaints through this new system.

Any company with Australian operations should consider implementing the following steps:

  • Ensure that you have an up-to-date anti-bullying policy in place for your Australian workplaces.
  • Ensure that your anti-bullying policy contains an internal complaint procedure.
  • Ensure that all workers are regularly trained on equal opportunity matters including workplace bullying.
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The Implied Term of Mutual Trust and Confidence and an Employer's Compliance with Its Own Policies

By Ben Dudley, Partner, and Adam Lambert, Solicitor, Sydney.

The Federal Court has recently handed down a decision which found that a 'serious' breach of a redundancy policy by an employer amounted to a breach of the implied term of mutual trust and confidence, even though the relevant policy was expressly excluded from being incorporated into the contract of employment.

Employers will need to carefully review and consider the interaction between their policies and contracts of employment.

Employers should consider taking advice on steps available to minimise risks in this area, including by careful drafting of relevant policy and contractual documents.

Read the full post here.

High Court Clarifies 'Adverse Action' Law

By Chris Gardner, Partner, and Sonia Millen, Senior Associate.

The High Court has confirmed that employees who act inappropriately but do so under the guise of union activity are not immune from disciplinary investigation and action.

The High Court unanimously overturned the Full Federal Court decision - a decision of great concern amongst employers.

The High Court decision has brought greater clarity to the breadth of the general protections provisions in the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) and has implications well beyond the issue of inappropriate workplace behaviour by employees who are union representatives.

The Board of Bendigo Regional Institute of Technical and Further Education v Barclay - [2012] HCA 32

Read the full post here.

Employers' Right to Refuse Flexible Work Arrangements: Recent Developments

By Kate Jenkins, Partner, Trish Low, Senior Associate, and Melanie Smith, Solicitor.

In its recent review of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth), the Review Panel considered submissions on the operation of the right to request flexible work arrangements. The Act currently provides that certain employees responsible for the care of a child under school age, or a child with a disability who is under 18, can request a change in working arrangements to assist with their carer responsibilities. Employers can only refuse such a request on reasonable business grounds.

The Review Panel recommended that the right to request flexible work arrangements be extended to allow a wider range of people with caring responsibilities access to the provisions (e.g., for elder care). The Review Panel also recommended amendment so that an employer can only refuse a request for flexible work arrangements after the employer has held at least one meeting with the employee to discuss the request.

While the government has not yet indicated whether it will adopt and implement these recommendations, two recent cases provide some guidance on the considerations that are relevant when a decision to refuse a request for flexible work arrangements is made.

These cases demonstrate that employers have scope to refuse requests for flexible work arrangements where the arrangements conflict with the employer's genuine and reasonable operational needs.

Read the full post here.