The Workplace Tribunal’s recent landmark decision that saw supermarket giant Coles increase the wages of tens of thousands of employees highlights a growing social awareness for the protection of employment rights. As the case progressed, the details of the employment agreements became a heated topic of debate on news platforms and social media alike. However despite the plethora of voices surrounding the case, the Tribunal’s decision demonstrates the increasing public interest on business practices in our Twittering society.

More importantly, this case illustrates the issues both employees and businesses face in determining their legal rights.

A little background

In 2011, Coles signed an agreement with the Shop Distributive & Allied Employees Association which saw staff working during the day paid at a higher rate but did not award a penalty rate for staff working outside of working hours and on weekends. As a result, workers such as home-delivery drivers, casual staff and weekend stockists,received only the standard weekday payment and no penalty rate.

This discrepancy was soon discovered, leading to the payment schemes being consequently challenged by various parties including investigative journalists, the Fair Work Commission and affected employees. A full bench of the Fair Work Commission found that the deal with the union had undercut minimum award wage rates, underpaying tens of thousands of workers.

The legal perspective

In this case, the legal question that tipped the decision was that of the “Better Off Test” under the Fair Work Act 2009. The test considers whether the employees that are covered under the agreement are better off as compared to their current award: an aspect that the agreement Coles struck with the Union failed to satisfy.

Despite the decision, Coles is not alone in the string of big businesses to sit in the tribunal hot seat in 2016. Other key employment law cases include Uber’s employment tribunal hearing (pending decision) and the Fair Work Ombudsman’s report on supermarket chain Woolworths’ serious underpayment of their trolley collection workers.

This growing number of cases has resulted from new employment platforms and positions which are catalysed by emerging industries and technology. Many of these positions cannot be classified by traditional employer and employee agreements and may be spontaneous in nature, driving the increasing need for legal clarification on employment rights.

Small businesses and independent workers in particular may be at risk of being deprived of their rights given the unclear nature of how many of these industries operate. Case in point: Uber’s relationship with their drivers.

What can I do?

The Coles decision represents a significant step to regulate changes in Australia. Small businesses and individuals need to be aware of their legal rights when reviewing their working conditions and wages.

LawPath’s experienced employment experts can help you review your employment agreement and advise you on the best course of action.

What are your thoughts? Contact a LawPath consultant on 1800LAWPATH to learn more about employment law and obtain a fixed-price quote from one our network of 600+ expert lawyers or any other legal needs.

Jennifer Wang

Jennifer is a Paralegal, working in our content team, which aims to provide free legal guides to facilitate public access to legal resources. With a keen interest in media and IP law, her research focuses on the evolving role of the law to navigate new and emerging information platforms.