The Australian Retailers Association has announced it will seek changes to the General Retail Award to make it less complex and more flexible, after Woolworths’ $300m underpayment was revealed last week.
Russell Zimmerman, head of the ARA which includes members such as Woolworths, Bunnings, Dymocks, Chemist Warehouse, JB Hi-Fi and the Good Guys, told the Australian Financial Review that they were seeking not to cut wage rates, but make the workplace relations system “less complex”.
“If the award system was less complex, a lot of these errors wouldn’t occur,” Zimmerman said.
“I mean if big retailers can’t get it right, how are small mum and dad retailers supposed to?”
The AFR reports that the Woolworths’ underpayment came due to an oversight in accounting for an employee’s individual hours. The company set salaries to account for ordinary hours and reasonable overtime, based on an average roster, but the underpayment came from not checking the wages paid against the actual hours worked.
As such, Woolworths’ CEO Brad Banducci would like to see a reduction of the award’s complexity.
“This is a very complex issue which needs an industry-level dialogue,” Banducci said.
“At the right time, we’d like to come back and talk about the lack of flexibility in [awards] when interpreted literally.”
In support of Banducci’s sentiment, NSW Business Chamber chief executive Stephen Cartwright said he “defied anyone to say they’re 100 per cent compliant”.
“The awards are so complex that I suspect if you went into just about any workplace in the country, and you’re an expert in workplace relations you could find a breach in some part of the business.”
Cartwright added that there should be a level of flexibility returned to awards, such as employers not having to worry about the award’s provisions if they paid a salary 25% higher than the highest in the award.
“If you go back to the clerks award in NSW … for decades it used to have [such a] clause,” Cartwright said.
“The industry was happy with that, the union was happy with that … but those sort of provisions went missing when we consolidated the awards to the modern awards at a national level and so you have these bizarre outcomes happening now.”
Unions have cast doubt on the motives behind calls for the change, with ACTU secretary Sally McManus bringing up Woolworths’ nationwide logistics chain as evidence that they deal with complex systems.
“It’s not a question of what businesses can do, but what they think they need to do, and what they think they can get away with,” McManus said.
Meanwhile, supermarket rival Aldi is reportedly confident it has no issues with compliance as it regularly checked salaried staff’s pay.