Workplaces to face big changes and different trends in 2024

There's a lot of changes in store for Australian worker rights this year.

There's a lot of changes in store for Australian worker rights this year. Photo: Getty

Workplaces are always evolving, and 2024 looks to be a big year for changes big and small.

Changes to workplace regulations will take place alongside the continued tug of war between work-from-home advocates and employers keen for an office revival.

Ian Neil SC, a barrister specialising in employment and industrial law, said the pandemic sparked a workplace “revolution”, demonstrating that advances in technology mean it is no longer necessary for all employees to work together physically, or even at the same time.

But pushback from employers following the end of pandemic restrictions saw the number of Australians regularly working from home fall by 3 per cent between August 2021 and August 2023.

Recruitment agency Robert Half research shows about 87 per cent of companies had implemented mandatory office days for staff by August 2023.

Management consultant company Gartner found employees who have been affected by return-to-office mandates now have more awareness of the financial, time and energy costs associated with going to a workplace daily, putting pressure on employers to offset the costs or make being in the office more enjoyable.

No matter how inconvenienced you may feel by a return-to-office mandate, Neil said there really isn’t anything you can do if your attempts to negotiate a flexible working arrangement with your employer fall flat.

“In the end, all employees have an obligation to obey the lawful and reasonable directions of their employers,” he said.

“And there would be almost no circumstance, [apart from] a serious risk to health and safety, in which direction to return to work to come back to the [office, warehouse or factory] … in which such a direction would not be both lawful and reasonable.”

Pay transparency

From February 27, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) will publish the gender pay gaps for every Australian employer with 100 or more employees.

The efforts are expected to help put an end to pay secrecy, which is a big contributor to the gender pay gaps in which women in Australia earn an average of $26,393 less per year than men, WGEA data reveals.

Experts have told The New Daily that apart from the clear benefits for women, pay transparency will also men help by lessening the pressure on them to spend more time at work and away from family due to “harmful” gender norms, and could help employers doing the right thing assure workers they are being paid fairly.

Closing loopholes continues

Neil said one of the most important changes coming to workplaces this year will be the second instalment of the Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Closing Loopholes) Act.

The act’s first amendments to Fair Work Legislation were made in December, and involved changes such as strengthening protections against discrimination for workers experiencing domestic violence.

Neil said the second wave of amendments, the terms of which are still to be negotiated, are more contentious.

One of the issues to be addressed that has perhaps made the most headlines deals with changes to employee-like work in the gig economy.

Gig workers are set to be protected from being unfairly deactivated from platforms, and minimum standards regarding pay and conditions could be brought in place.

At least 45 per cent of gig workers report earning less than minimum wage. Photo: AAP

Employer groups have warned the consequences of regulating the gig economy will include an increased cost to customers and decreased work opportunities for gig workers.

Neil said another amendment, which is set to reform the definition of casual employees and their conversion to permanent employment is also facing pushback from employers.

“The sorts of changes which are being looked at this year are changes that are likely to have wide ramifications,” he said.

Workplace sexual harassment to be treated like physical injuries

New laws are now in place to tackle workplace sexual harassment, with the onus put on employers to proactively prevent inappropriate behaviour.

The issue of workplace sexual harassment is widespread; a 2022 Australian Human Rights Commission survey found one in three Australians surveyed had experienced workplace sexual harassment in the previous five years.

Just a third thought their employer was doing enough to combat the issue, and only 18 per cent of incidents were reported.

Following recommendations from the landmark Respect@Work report, employers can be held liable for sexual harassment conducted by an employee or agent in connection with work unless they took all reasonable steps to prevent it from occurring.

If a dispute cannot be solved through conciliation or mediation, employees who fall victim to sexual harassment may receive compensation, bringing the consequences in line with those for physical injuries that occur in the workplace.

workplace harassment

A report by former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins will have significant impacts on how sexual discrimination and harassment will be dealt with in the workplace. Photo: AAP

“The impact that the positive duty has had on reducing workplace injuries over the last several decades has been profound,” Neil said.

“And one would expect it to have the same influence on incidents of sex discrimination and sexual harassment.

“In essence, it’s nothing new. It’s just treating the psychological impacts of sex discrimination and sexual harassment in the same way as other workplace injuries.”

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