Research report: What small businesses want from the Award system

As part of its review of Modern Awards, the Fair Work Commission has released a research report into the interactions that small businesses have with the award system, and their suggestions for improvement.

The Sweeney Research report is titled Citizen Co-design with Small Business Owners. The authors explain that the term 'co-design' refers to '...a process of engaging directly and meaningfully with citizens in the development of public services with which they will have a direct exchange. It is based on the premise that citizens who are the recipients of public services know what their needs are/will be and should therefore have involvement in determining the satisfactory delivery of those services. In this instance, the citizens are members of the small business community.'

The researchers engaged with 47 small business (1-19 employees) across a range of industries in metropolitan and regional locations in Victoria and New South Wales.

Participants reportedly described their requirements of the award system as 'certainty, efficiency, ease and support' -- and they were critical of the current modern awards in meeting these needs. The report states that participants found that modern awards are 'convoluted, complex, ambiguous and of questionable relevance'.

Participants were shown an 'exemplar' modern award that Fair Work Commission staff have prepared in an attempt to improve the form of the current awards. Participants found that the exemplar represented a significant improvement due to the following key factors:

  • reduced length;
  • clearer table of contents, i.e. with the amendment listing removed;
  • increased use of tables;
  • inclusion of examples;
  • simpler language; and
  • a reduced need for interpretation and calculations (of wages).

A number of suggestions were made by participants to further simplify the award structure and make modern awards less legalistic and easier to interpret.

The Fair Work Commission's timetable for the 4-year modern award review involves three stages: jurisdictional issues, common issues, and the review of individual awards. The Commission is now at the stage of dealing with individual awards, and has stated that it anticipates that the review process will run until mid-2015.