INDUSTRIAL relations is not a subject that is normally at the front of mind for your average Wheatbelt farmer.
But at last week's Women in Farming Enterprise (WIFE) seminar, one of the key messages was that in the past decade, Australia has seen massive changes in the industrial relations (IR) framework and farmers needed to be aware of how those changes affect them.
Practical Employee Relations adviser Tara Vermeersch, Cascade, told the seminar that IR legislation basically set the framework for the minimum conditions of employment for all people employed in Australia.
The changes introduced by the Fair Work Act 2009 have meant more employee entitlements and the introduction of modern awards.
Under Fair Work, each industry now has its own set of awards and the new award for agriculture is the Pastoral Award 2010 which sets a safety net of minimum pay and conditions for those employed on farms across the country.
Although it sounds simple, WA farm businesses face an added complication.
Ms Vermeersch said WA was the only State which continued to operate under a dual system of a State and Federal IR framework.
This basically means some farm businesses fall under the Federal system, which incorporates the new Pastoral Award 2010, while others are still under the State system which is governed by the Farm Employees Award 1985.
"Neighbouring farms, separated only by a fenceline, can have different obligations to their employees, depending on which system they fall into," Ms Vermeersch said.
"It is so important for farmers to find out where they fit."
Ms Vermeersch went on to say the Federal System, with the new Pastoral Award, was the 'scarier' one to be involved in at the moment because of its added clauses surrounding hours of work, overtime, allowances and wages.
"I would say the Pastoral Award is affecting more farmers in WA than they realise," she said,
"And importantly, if we ever find ourselves under a Labor Government, both State and Federal, WA will probably relinquish its IR coverage to the federal system, and the Pastoral Award will then apply to all farmers in WA."
Understating the governing legislation was imperative, according to Ms Vermeersch, especially in the agricultural industry where 'the gentleman's handshake' was commonplace in setting the conditions of employment.
"Even if you go that one step further, and have a letter of offer with all the 'express terms' (ie hours, accommodation, pay, meals etc) written down and signed off on, that does not constitute the entire contract," she said.
"This is a common misconception. You have to think of the express terms as just the tip of the iceberg and under the water, rarely seen or acknowledged, are the terms of the Fair Work Act, or the Minimum Conditions of Employment Act, and the relevant awards, which are implied into the relationship and cannot be contracted out of.
"Even if both parties agree on the express terms and the employee signs off on them, the employer is responsible for ensuring those terms are compliant with the relevant award.
"Otherwise you are basically attempting to contract out of those obligations at a common law level and precedent has shown that doesn't work."
Ms Vermeersch added there was some flexibility allowed in some parts of the awards.
"For example, often farmers pay a higher flat hourly rate to casuals and don't pay overtime," she said.
"Which can be acceptable, but only if what you pay them overall in their time working for you, is equivalent to or greater than what they would have been entitled to receive under the correct conditions of the award."
Ms Vermeersch recommended farm business owners obtained all the relevant information and ensure they were compliant with the system they operated under to protect themselves against claims or complaints down the line if the employee-employer relationship was to breakdown.
"You have to remember employees have six years to make a claim so if you don't have a full understanding of what is required your business is at risk," she said.
"Even though some of these changes are overwhelming, it is bringing us up to parity with the rest of the country, and maybe this is an opportune time for the industry to start redesigning the way work is performed during the intense seasonal periods to improve fatigue management and safe working practices for our employees."
p To find out more or which system your farm business falls into please see www.fairwork.gov.au or www.wairc.wa.gov.au.