Workforce management’s grim record for 2021

Grant Custance

Company directors, HR managers, and senior executives in public sector departments, received more bad news last week. Just when they would have been hoping they had seen the end of the most tumultuous year in workforce management since before the introduction of Bob Hawke’s Prices and Income Accords of the early 1980s, it got worse. Again.

In fact, there were two pieces of bad news for anyone who may be at risk of jail or a heavy personal and or organisational fine for unacceptable workforce management.

The first horsemen of the HR apocalypse came in the form of a decision handed down by the top workforce regulator in Australia, the Fair Work Commission, where it deemed that BHP could not mandate COVID vaccination at its Mt Arthur mine in the NSW Hunter Valley, because, essentially, the company hadn’t done a thorough job of communicating its policies with its employees.

Grant Custance
Grant Custance: The Nimbus Cloud chief executive

According to the ABC’s report of November 11, “About 50 workers have been stood down without pay at BHP’s Mt Arthur thermal coal mine in the New South Wales Hunter Valley as the mining giant implements a vaccines mandate.”

The issue escalated from there, and according to the ABC, last week, the FWC “…said BHP’s decision to enforce the vaccination requirement at the Mt Arthur mine was not reasonable because it didn’t consult its workers properly before it introduced the mandate.”

For perspective, and as media and commentators have noted, this decision does not mean other companies or organisations can be stopped by their staff or unions from mandating vaccines.

But it does point to a major issue around how new COVID strains, will continue to make an already confusing and complex Australian workplace regulatory system, even harder to manage in 2022.

But it’s not just COVID we need to worry about. Yet again, in the past few weeks, more examples emerged of large, high profile, very profitable Australian companies being sued for good old fashioned, mass scale wage theft and bullying.

As the ABC reported on “AM” last week, The NAB is being by the Finance Sector Union for alleged wage theft and bullying, while the AFR reported that “More than 26,500 junior doctors have signed up for class actions against public health services in NSW and Victoria, arguing they are overworked, underpaid and being forced to put their patients’, and their own, health at risk.” Technology solutions from nimbus can’t stop workplace bullying, but we have helped hundreds of high-profile organisations avoid wage theft claims, improving workplace culture, trust, and staff longevity.

Then we discovered, again via the press, that according to a report from Staffing Industry Analysts “…about 65 per cent of temporary visa holders in Australia have experienced wage theft and one in four have experienced other forms of labour exploitation, according to a report from The Migrant Workers Centre.”

What’s going on? Have we lost control of the workplace?

We must, as policy makers, workforce management experts, CEOs and company directors, take charge this issue and resolve it urgently in 2022. Otherwise, the ongoing spectre of wage theft and generally confusing workplace conditions and rules (including COVID related ones) will continue to undermine our economic recovery.

The cracks are already appearing. We are are starting to see the Australian version of the American “Great Resignation”, where staff, actually able to have a say in negotiations over pay and conditions due to a lack of immigration, are leaving their lowly paid jobs in droves.

None of this is good for the economy, or productivity.

So, the question therefore is, after so many examples of this issue over the past few years, often leading to millions of dollars in fines from the workplace regulators or courts on high profile brands, what is the solution?

And what are the implications for employers in an economy of increasingly mobile staff, who, for the first time in two decades, actually know they are in a position to negotiate how and where they work?

The solution is several fold.

Firstly, this latest FWC decision highlights the supreme importance of communicating clearly, in real time, if possible, and in reporting, to staff and their managers, what is happening in their workplace – we need to do a better job of paying remotely based staff better. We need to do a better job of communicating COVID vaccination policies.

Moreover, there needs to be a fundamental rethink of how Australian organisations create the workplace Australians deserve. Australian workers deserve more than being ripped off and underpaid, and they have a right to know if they their workplace is COVID safe.

COVID and wage theft has changed the workplace forever.

We believe there should be a national workplace summit in 2022, led by the Federal government, and supported by the States. It should include representatives of all key stakeholders, including the regulators, unions, and of course, the technology sector, and the outcome must be a new way of looking at growing workplace productivity, and transparency.

What’s at stake is the health and prosperity of the Australian workforce. Surely, we can treat that as an urgent national issue. If we don’t, we risk millions, if not billions of dollars of fines for hundreds of companies and damaging the trust and productivity of the workforce.

Grant Custance is the founder and chief executive of nimbus, an Australia-based global leader in workforce management software

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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