The industrial relations (IR) framework in the NSW public sector is the means by which salaries and conditions of employment, including hours of work are set in awards or other industrial instruments.  It also provides a means to resolve disputes between unions and employers about conditions of employment and individual claims, such as unfair dismissal. As a senior executive you are likely to interact with the IR framework on the following matters:

  • Strategy: Determining the approach for consulting with employees and relevant representatives as part of the planning process for an agency or program change.
  • Policy and systems: Ensuring your agency has IR-related policies and systems and procedures for handling grievances, work health and safety and performance management.
  • Prevention: Ensuring your agency has effective arrangements with relevant employee representatives to meet consultation requirements.
  • Individual employee related matters: Making decisions on individual employee grievances, misconduct or unsatisfactory performance.

Your agency’s human resources team - which may include IR experts - can assist you with any specific requirements you have when dealing with IR matters.

NSW Industrial Relations in the Department of Premier and Cabinet

NSW Industrial Relations (NSWIR) in the Department of Premier and Cabinet from 1 July 2019, provides strategic and expert advice and counsel on industrial relations issues, including wages policy, conditions of employment and the broader implications of industrial relations policy and practice on delivery of government services.

The NSW Public Sector Wages Policy 2011 (NSWTC 14/18) applies across the public sector, including to government sector agencies, State Owned Corporations including their subsidiaries and independent statutory bodies. The policy provides that increases in public sector employee remuneration do not increase costs by more than 2.5 per cent per annum.

NSWIR convenes and chairs the Wages Policy Taskforce, which is responsible for implementing the Government’s wages policy. Any proposed changes to frameworks for remuneration or conditions of employment must be submitted to the Wages Policy Taskforce.

Industrial Relations Secretary

The Industrial Relations Secretary acts as the employer of Public Service employees for industrial purposes – that is, for matters that come before industrial tribunals. These functions are delegated to agency heads in certain circumstances, for example where the:

  • matter does not involve significant costs as a component of the agency’s funds
  • issue in dispute is clearly a local matter and has no sector-wide implications - for example, it would not create new industrial standards and does not have the potential to flow-on to other areas of the sector
  • response complies with relevant government policy including wages policy.

For more information on delegation of functions, see the NSW Treasury circular: Manual of Delegations 2014 (NSW TC 14/19).

Regulatory environment

Employment in the public sector tends to be more regulated than elsewhere and most employees fall within the NSW industrial relations system. This includes employment in the Public Service, the Health Service, most school employees including Teachers and the NSW Police Force.  The NSW IR system is characterised by arbitration of salaries and conditions of employment through the Industrial Relations Commission, as distinct from the national workplace relations system with its emphasis on enterprise bargaining underpinned by minimum standards. Generally, State Owned Corporations come under national workplace relations system and the Fair Work Act 2009, as do some parts of public transport.

Union membership in the public sector

In Australia, union membership in the public sector  is 38.5 per cent compared 10.4 per cent in the private sector.  Large concentrations of union membership tend to be in front-line areas of the health system, transport, education and among uniformed emergency services agencies. These groups can influence the government’s approach to how employees are managed,  especially where  employees are highly valued by the public.  Unions often approach ministers or members of parliament, seeking their support on behalf of groups of public sector employees. Unions often also have some level of public campaigning capacity. Back office areas and central agencies tend to be more sparsely unionised but you will most likely still encounter some form of consultative arrangement involving one or more unions. In most public sector workplaces, there will be a procedure for dealing with individual employee grievances and these are often regulated through awards or agreements arrived at with unions through the industrial relations system.

Consultative arrangements

Your agency may have a joint consultative committee (JCC) or similar forum where your agency regularly meets with union representatives about local industrial relations matters. The intention is usually to provide employee representatives with information, an opportunity to express their views and to have those views properly considered. This often includes providing updates on agency initiatives that can affect employees day to day. Or it could be part of the consultation process in a restructure. The JCC may also deal with specific matters raised by employees such as rostering that could affect a group of employees and are not in the nature of an individual grievance.

For more information on consultative arrangements, see the NSW Government’s policy: Consultative Arrangements Policy and Guidelines 2012 (TC 14/23). 

Work health and safety

As a senior executive, you may have legislated duties relating to work health and safety. These include a duty of care for the health and safety of those in your workplace, including visitors and duty to consult. Consulting in this context involves sharing information with anyone likely to be directly affected by a work health and safety matter and giving them the opportunity to express their views and contribute to any decisions about it. In many workplaces, health and safety issues are prominent when dealing with worker representatives such as unions.

For more information on your obligations, see the topic: Work health and safety

Employee misconduct and unsatisfactory performance

As a senior executive, you are responsible for your employees' ethical behaviour and performance. Where employees are alleged to have engaged in misconduct, you may be asked to decide on an appropriate response. A range of responses may be available including systemic action designed to prevent misconduct from occurring. In specific cases, you might need to decide if the evidence of alleged misconduct is strong enough and if it is, what action should be taken. This could involve taking action under legislation that includes terminating a person’s employment. Your agency should have policy and procedures for doing this and it is important that they are followed. Employees who are subject to this kind of action may be able to appeal against it through an external tribunal like the Industrial Relations Commission of NSW or the Fair Work Commission. You need to make sure that your decision is fair and can withstand external scrutiny. Similar considerations apply in the case of under-performing employees where the agency’s best efforts have not been successful in getting an employee’s work performance to required standards.