Therese MacDermott, Consultant
It is fairly well known to HR and legal practitioners that the extent of race based employment discrimination is not accurately reflected in the number of complaints lodged by individual workers. This makes the role of the regulator, in pursuing breaches of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) (the “FW Act”) that are linked to race, a significant aspect of enforcement and compliance.
The Fair Work Ombudsman (“FWO”), since its inception, has assiduously prosecuted egregious underpayments and other conduct amounting to substantial non-compliance with core employment obligations.
In a recent case, following an audit of its work arrangements, an employer was found to have breached the FW Act in a number of respects, including by failing to pay the minimum award rates and other allowances for overtime, weekend work and public holidays and in relation to its record keeping obligations.1
The respondents admitted the underpayment and record keeping contraventions in relation to a number of its employees. However, the case proceeded on the outstanding issue of whether, in addition to the established breaches, the respondents had taken adverse action against particular employees because of their nationality or descent. Ultimately, the Court found that the employer contravened the prohibitions on discriminatory treatment in the FW Act. It held that the failure to pay particular workers correctly and other treatment was adverse action based on race.
In establishing the causal link between the treatment and the prohibited ground (in this case, race), many adverse action cases have turned on the state of mind or motivation of the decision-maker in order to ascertain the real reason for the decision-maker’s conduct. Many employers have been able to discharge the onus of establishing that a prohibited ground was not a substantial and operative factor for the treatment by establishing that the prohibited ground had nothing to do with the reasons the decision was made.
However, in this case, the Court did not accept that the second respondent (the decision-maker) was confused about the award obligations and concluded that the Malaysian national extraction and Chinese race of the employees in question was the substantial and operative reason. The Judge found that the employer failed to provide any convincing or credible explanations for the treatment consistent with the absence of race as a substantial and operative reason for the action.
This case is significant as it is the FWO’s first racial discrimination litigation. It is also a reminder to employers to ensure that decision-making within their organisations is not impacted by any prohibited grounds so as to bring into question compliance with the FW Act. Decision-makers must be able to provide credible explanations for the treatment of workers that is disassociated from any discriminatory treatment or other proscribed bases.