The Fair Work Ombudsman is delivering more assistance and support for small business as they weather the uncertainty and change of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic but the core focus on identifying and prosecuting businesses of all sizes that are breaching compliance requirements will continue.  Key amongst this focus is proactive auditing and compliance activities in industries with vulnerable workers and a history of compliance concerns.

Fair Work Ombudsman Sandra Parker has announced the regulator’s strategic priorities for the year ahead, with the key focus supporting workplaces as they manage the ongoing impacts of COVID-19.

Speaking at a Council of Small Business Organisations Australia (COSBOA) roundtable meeting recently, Ms Parker said the contract cleaning sector was a new compliance and enforcement priority this year.

“Intelligence indicates that contract cleaning is part of an industry with large proportions of migrant workers, low paid and part-time workers, who we know are at higher risk of exploitation. The sector also has a significant history of non-compliance, which, combined with an expected quick recovery due to increased demand for COVID-19-safe cleaning practises, makes it a sector to monitor closely.”

In addition to continuing ongoing monitoring and compliance activities in areas of fuel retail, fast food, restaurants and cafes and horticulture remain a key focus of activities in 2021-22.

“The FWO continues to find high levels of non-compliance in the fast food, restaurants and café sector, with a significant number of requests for assistance from vulnerable workers in the industry. The horticulture sector, which has a track record of significant non-compliance, also remains a priority with its reliance on visa holders who may be exploited and complex labour supply chains,” Ms Parker said.

Ms Parker said that investigating large corporate underpayments remained a priority for the regulator.

“We are investigating more than 80 corporate sector employers for underpayments of workers. We recently commenced litigation against Woolworths, where we seek to recover backpayments we allege may be owed to about 19,000 employees. We expect to take further high-level enforcement action against a range of large corporates this year, and urge them to prioritise compliance,” Ms Parker said.

Ms Parker said the regulator recognised the crucial importance of small businesses to the nation’s economic recovery from COVID-19, and would continue to prioritise assistance to these employers.

In 2020-21, the Fair Work Ombudsman had more than 60,000 calls to its Small Business Helpline and over 160,000 views of its Small Business webpage and Small Business Showcase.

“Our resources are complemented by the Employer Advisory Service, which provides eligible small businesses with free, tailored, written advice about employee entitlements under the National Employment Standards and award provisions. We hope the new service will give small businesses increased confidence to understand and comply with their obligations under the Fair Work Act.”

Compliance and enforcement activities in franchising, and the sham contracting unit’s work, continue.

Ms Parker said that while there are encouraging signs of economic recovery, the situation remains precarious in many sectors and regions with the serious impacts of the pandemic placing some under financial strain.

“We are here to help with free advice on lawful obligations, while also enforcing the laws to ensure vulnerable workers – and compliant employers – are not disadvantaged by those doing the wrong thing. We will continue to consider a business’ sophistication, financial position and viability as relevant public interest factors when deciding on appropriate enforcement action in the year ahead,” Ms Parker said.

For more information see:

Elisha Radwanowski BCom(HRM & IR)