PC report questions bullying processes

Cover of PC workplace-relations-draftAustralia’s Productivity Commission (PC) has released its draft report into the Workplace Relations Framework.  All morning talk radio has been discussion the issue of penalty rates but there are safety-related elements that should not be forgotten. Bullying is the most obvious of these.

The overview of the Draft Report hints that the level of resources required to administer the bullying provision in the Fair Work Commission (FWC) may be excessive given the tidal wave of applications did not eventuate. The PC writes

“While some have questioned whether anti-bullying provisions needed to be incorporated into the Fair Work Act given the other avenues for addressing the issue, the expected barrage of claims has not materialised. In fact, over 2013-14, the FWC received only 197 applications for an order to stop bullying (FWC 2014), with 21 finalised by a decision. Of these, only one application resulted in an order to stop bullying. However, the provision is resource intensive for the FWC as evidence provided by applicants can be extensive, if not always substantive.” (page 30)

PC says that it is still too early for “a final judgment on the effectiveness of the provision” but the hints exist that the bullying provision is not long for the FWC.

Penalty Rates

The penalty rates argument has an occupational health and safety (OHS) component that is worth noting.  PC lists in the overview some “compelling grounds for premium rates of pay for overtime, night and shift work” including:

“Long hours of work involve risks not only to an employee’s health and safety but also for the community.” and

“There are proven adverse health effects from night shift and rotating shift work.” (page 23)

However looking at the OHS issues through the perspective of penalty rates encourages the application of “danger money“, a term that is frowned upon but is a legitimate perspective. Penalty rates can be legitimised as a compensation for family disruption and other social pressures. PC writes in the overview that

“Penalty rates have a legitimate role in compensating employees for working long hours or at unsociable times. They should be maintained.” (page 4)

But the Productivity Commission is on shakier ground when trying to address overtime, shiftwork and nightwork.  The employer is not eliminating or minimising the proven workplace health and safety risks. Instead they are paying the employees to work in “unsafe” conditions. This is contrary to OHS principles and could be contrary to OHS laws.

Costs of Bullying

As one expected from the Productivity Commission, there is a good attempt to quantify the cost of workplace bullying.  There are various tables in the Draft Report which estimate bullying costs companies and societies billions of dollars each year.  These figures are likely to pounced on by anti-bullying sellers to advance their market share for training but PC writes that

There are considerable difficulties in estimating costs, so much so that one recent review of the literature noted:

“… in monetary terms, the calculations and assessments of costs involved with bullying can only be as good as the research on which they are based, and the many uncertainties exposed in previous studies means that such cost estimations at best represent what has been referred to as well-informed guesses. (Hoel et al. 2010, p. 142)”

Nevertheless, this study still strongly argued that it made ‘good business sense for organisations to prevent and stop workplace bullying’.” (page 277)

This blog cannot do justice to the PC’s draft report in the couple of hours since its release.  Above are some of the immediately obvious issues that are most relevant to OHS but workplace safety is constantly affected by industrial relations, business costs and politics.  These elements are likely to be written about extensively by the mainstream media in coming days but the bullying sections and OHS context of penalty rates are likely to be undeservedly overlooked.

Kevin Jones

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