So, Wesfarmers has underpaid its employees by some $15 million. It is now very obvious the workplace relations system is too complicated.

At a recent CEDA event Attorney-General Christian Porter, who is also the Industrial Relations Minister, gave what I consider to be a landmark speech on workplace relations. He didn’t march off into the world of industrial relations ideology. He instead stated that the government will, step by step, identify and resolve the problems that currently exist by engaging with the business community and with unions. We applaud him, as we in the world of small business just want the system to be less complicated and easy to understand for us and our employees. We want compliance to be easy, not a game of Russian roulette.

The lesson for political parties from both Labor’s lost 2019 “Change the Rules” election and the Coalition’s lost 2007 “WorkChoices” election is that workplace relations campaigns based around ideology will be rejected by voters. In the end, both of these campaigns created negative reactions in voters and also muted the valid calls from business and unions for a simpler and fairer system.

We have said for many years that the workplace relations system is too complicated. Vested interests have disingenuously disagreed, and argue that “if you can’t do it you shouldn’t be in business” and “it isn’t that hard”. Those statements come from those who make money out of the complications of the system; mainly various unions, some industry associations and, of course, a large number of lawyers.

The latest example of a company underpaying wages is a case in point. If Wesfarmers, with all its corporate resources and external IR support, can’t get it right, then what chance do the rest of us have to comply?

Here are some of the other organisations and businesses recorded on the Fair Work Commission website for underpaying employees: the ABC, Maurice Blackburn, Caltex, 7-Eleven, Subway, Bunnings, Sunglass Hut, The Ironing Shop, The Barry Café, FoodCo, Muffin Break, Jamaica Blue, United Petroleum, Coffee Club, Thales Australia, Shangri-la Hotel, Hello Juice, Sushi 79, Safecorp Security, Tokyo Sushi, Westside Petroleum, PappaRich, JB Hi-Fi, Crust Pizza, Minor DKL Food Group, Michael Hill Jewellers, Beaurepaires and more.

The telling point here is the first two names – the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (which underpaid 2500 employees) and the specialist workplace relations law firm Maurice Blackburn (which underpaid 400 employees). Both got their pay wrong. So, for those that scream wage theft and demand jail time for business owners, the question is “who will go to jail from Maurice Blackburn?” Will it be one partner or all the partners? Will Ita Buttrose go to jail or will it be the general manager of the ABC, or both?

If it is true, as the unions argue, that the system isn’t too complicated, then it can only mean Maurice Blackburn deliberately underpaid their workers. Because if anyone would get it right it would be the legal attack dog of the unions, the law firm that claims to represent the worker and claims to know all the rules. Wesfarmers and the ABC have huge HR departments and payroll teams so did they deliberately underpay their staff? No, they didn’t. Neither did Maurice Blackburn, and neither did most of the companies mentioned above. Some did and have been duly prosecuted, but they are the exceptions not the rule.

The system is plainly too complicated. We support Porter in his step-by-step approach to see what changes to the system are needed, and then to make it easier to comply.

A balanced approach will also hopefully stop the strident accusations of ‘‘WorkChoices revisited’’ every time a Coalition government tries to do something. The necessary changes need to be introduced through a structured process. A balanced crossbench in the Senate also augurs well.

There would not only be greater transparency if the system were simplified, but regulation would also become easier. Simple systems create fewer mistakes and the dishonest few have less chance to game the system and a greater chance of being caught and brought to justice.

We want a system where the employer and employee can look at the same smart device and easily find the relevant information. A system in which information is easy to understand will mean a more harmonious workplace.

With constant changes in technology and the disruption of so many business systems, maybe we can have an Uber-IR system that provides the information we need instantly and without ambiguity? That would be nice.

Extracted from AFR