Workplace bullies could face fines of up to $33,000 under a Gillard government push to allow victims to complain directly to a national body rather than state health and safety authorities.
Business groups argued the aim was worthy but the changes could add an extra layer of complexity.
Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten said the plan would allow the Fair Work Commission, an independent umpire in workplace relations, to try to solve the disputes or refer the matters back to state bodies.
He said the the commission would have to begin considering a complaint within 14 days, in a bid to sort out disputes more quickly.
But Mr Shorten was tight-lipped about the prospect of giving the Fair Work Commission extra funding to support the new system.
‘‘Let’s just talk through the issues,’’ he said.
The move is the latest plank in the changes to workplace relations the Gillard government is championing this week.
It follows a proposal to allow more workers the right to seek flexible hours, although bosses will not be forced to agree to such requests.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard told her Labor colleagues at a caucus meeting on Tuesday there had been some shocking examples of workplace bullying.
According to current advice provided by the Fair Work Commission, an employee who is suffering bullying or harassment by colleagues needs to seek assistance from the relevant state or territory occupational health and safety authority.
Mr Shorten said state regulators did the best they could with the resources they had, but every state did something different and workplace relations was increasingly a national issue. He described the existing process as ‘‘clunky’’ and too slow.
The new scheme would allow people to directly seek the help of the national Fair Work Commission.
If the matter was serious, the Fair Work Commission would be able to refer it to state regulators or make orders itself.
Mr Shorten said the commission may be able to respond to the problem with conciliation, but it would also have the power to issue civil penalty orders and fines.
Currently, penalties varied from state to state. Mr Shorten said the federal government was ‘‘looking at fines up to $33,000’’ in some circumstances but would consult with business about the penalties.
Rather than replacing the state bodies, Mr Shorten said they should value the additional tools to tackle the problem.
He said he did not need state approval to change the Fair Work Act. A new national definition of workplace bullying will also be adopted.
The definition, in line with a parliamentary committee recommendation, will say: ‘‘Bullying, harassment or victimisation means repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety.’’
Mr Shorten said: ‘‘We should be capable, some 112 years after federation, to have one definition of bullying.’’
In an attempt to head off business concerns, the government says its amendments will recognise that bullying does not include reasonable management practices including performance management conducted in a reasonable manner.
Master Builders argued the new scheme could cause confusion and red tape for the building and construction industry.
“Eliminating workplace bullying is a crucial goal for the industry,’’ the group’s chief executive, Wilhelm Harnisch, said.
‘‘But there is a concern the proposed amendments will add another layer of complexity and will not align with the state and territory codes of practice currently proposed for managing the risk of bullying.’’
Mr Harnisch called for the proposed amendments to ‘‘not only cover the behaviour of employers and employees, but also third parties including union officials’’.
Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox said the bullying plan would cause more problems than it solved.
‘‘Bullying is a serious issue, but it is a work health and safety issue and should not be mixed up with industrial relations,’’ he said.
‘‘Workplace bullying is a problem that primarily falls within the jurisdiction of work health and safety laws, which have a strongly preventative focus, and not industrial laws. The government’s proposal is likely to increase the confusion and increase disputation.’’
Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Peter Anderson said adding an extra federal body to receive complaints ‘‘potentially allows forum shopping and adds a layer of complexity for business and enforcement agencies’’.
‘‘The Fair Work Commission is not a court and cannot prosecute breaches or enforce its decisions,’’ he said.
‘‘On health and safety matters, state inspectorates and courts exercise that power.’’
A spokesman for Mr Shorten said the Fair Work Commission would be able to make orders directed at a person bullying a colleague.
He said a continuation of the bullying would be a breach of those orders and this could attract a civil penalty.
Australian Council of Trade Unions president Ged Kearney welcomed the changes, saying lost productivity from bullying was estimated to cost billions of dollars.
‘‘This may lead to swift conflict resolution instead of allowing the issue to fester and possibly lead to unfortunate or tragic circumstances,’’ she said.
‘‘But no matter what the laws, employers must be accountable for providing safe workplaces in which bullying does not occur in the first place.’’
Labor MP Amanda Rishworth, who oversaw a parliamentary inquiry into workplace bullying, said it was hard to detail the exact prevalence of workplace bullying as she believed reported incidents were the ‘‘tip of the iceberg’’.
The amendments to the Fair Work Act are expected to be brought to Parliament in the autumn sessions.