Australia's National Workplace Relations System

The national workplace relations system is established by the Fair Work Act 2009 and other laws and covers the majority of private sector employees and employers in Australia.

Australia’s workplace relations laws

As set out in the Fair Work Act 2009 and other workplace legislation, the key elements of our workplace relations framework are:

  • A safety net of minimum terms and conditions of employment.
  • A system of enterprise-level collective bargaining underpinned by bargaining obligations and rules governing industrial action.
  • Provision for individual flexibility arrangements as a way to allow an individual worker and an employer to make flexible work arrangements that meet their genuine needs, provided that the employee is better off overall.
  • Protections against unfair or unlawful termination of employment.
  • Protection of the freedom of both employers and employees to choose whether or not to be represented by a third party in workplace matters and the provision of rules governing the rights and responsibilities of employer and employee representatives.

Australia’s workplace relations laws are enacted by the Commonwealth Parliament. The practical application of the Fair Work Act in workplaces is overseen by the Fair Work Commission and the Fair Work Ombudsman.

The practical application of the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act is overseen by the Fair Work Commission and the Registered Organisations Commission.

  • The Fair Work Commission  is the independent national workplace relations tribunal and has the power to carry out a range of functions in relation to workplace matters such as the safety net of minimum conditions, enterprise bargaining, industrial action, dispute resolution and termination of employment. The Commission also carries out a range of functions relating to registered organisations (unions and employer organisations) such as their registration, amalgamation, rules and applications for WHS and entry permits.
  • The Fair Work Ombudsman  helps employees, employers, contractors and the wider community to understand their workplace rights and responsibilities and enforces compliance with Australia’s workplace laws.
  • The Registered Organisations Commission monitors and educates registered organisations about their responsibilities such as record keeping, finances and elections. The Commission was established in 2017 to increase financial transparency and accountability in registered organisations.

Recent significant updates

On 26 November 2015 the Fair Work Amendment Act 2015 came into effect.

The Act amended the Fair Work Act 2009 to:

  • reform greenfields agreement making, including to apply good faith bargaining rules to negotiations and to provide an optional six month notified negotiation period,
  • introduce measures to maintain the value of monies held by the Commonwealth for underpaid workers,
  • provide that a request for extended unpaid parental leave cannot be refused unless the employer has given the employee a reasonable opportunity to discuss the request, and
  • provide that an application for a protected action ballot can only be made once bargaining for a proposed enterprise agreement has commenced.

On 13 October 2016, the Fair Work Amendment (Respect for Emergency Service Volunteers) Act 2016 came into effect. The Act amended the Fair Work Act to prohibit enterprise agreements including terms that undermine the capacity of state emergency service bodies to manage their volunteers.

The Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Act 2016 came into force on 1 May 2017 and established the independent Registered Organisations Commission.

On 11 September 2017, the Fair Work Amendment (Corrupting Benefits) Act 2017 came into effect. The Act amended the Fair Work Act 2009 to:

  • outlaw corrupt and illegitimate payments between unions and employers, and
  • require greater disclosure of legitimate financial benefits.

The Fair Work Amendment (Protecting Vulnerable Workers) Act 2017 commenced on 15 September 2017. The Act amended the Fair Work Act to include significant deterrence for unlawful and exploitative practices. The new laws strengthen protections in the Fair Work Act by:

  • providing for a higher scale of penalties (up to 10 times the previous amount) for ‘serious contraventions’ of prescribed workplace laws
  • expressly prohibiting employers from unreasonably requiring employees to make payments (ie ‘cash-back’ arrangements)
  • strengthening the evidence gathering powers of the Fair Work Ombudsman, and
  • providing stronger provisions to make franchisors and holding companies responsible for breaches of the Fair Work Act in certain circumstances.

Want to know more about the Fair Work laws?