Angry customers kept in check by new laws

Grumpy customers who give their barista a mouthful about a lousy cup of coffee beware - delivering a serve to the employee could soon land you in court.

From Wednesday, workplace bullies can be ordered to curb their bad behaviour or face a $10,200 fine - and lawyers warn that the new rules extend beyond bad bosses and co-workers to people on the other side of the counter.

''You do have a lot of workplaces where the public come in and out, such as restaurants and shops,'' said Drew Pearson, a partner at law firm Herbert Smith Freehills.

''Customers probably don't have a full appreciation of the impact of their behaviour and the fact that it's caught by this law.''

In June the Gillard government overhauled workplace bullying laws to allow workers to apply to the Fair Work Commission for an order to stop bullying where the behaviour is repeated, unreasonable and a risk to their health and safety.

If a customer's browbeating persists, workers can go to the Federal Court to enforce the order. It can impose a fine of $10,200.

Mr Pearson said the government had intended the laws to apply broadly to different types of workers, including contractors and work-experience students, but it was unclear whether it ''fully appreciated the extent'' of their reach. It was possible that not ''as much attention was given'' to the effect of the laws in workplaces that were more accessible to the public. ''A lot of industrial law is obviously prepared with more typical or traditional workplaces in mind,'' he said.

Insurance brokers, financial advisers, lawyers and others dealing with abusive clients were potential beneficiaries of the laws, he said, although to be defined as bullying, the bad behaviour would have to take place on a number of occasions.

The commission could order bosses to monitor customers' behaviour or to stop any bullying. A breach of that order would allow the Federal Court to impose a fine on a company of up to $51,000.

John Hart, the chief executive of industry association Restaurant and Catering Australia, said applying the laws to customers was ''a bit of a stretch'' but there was an obvious lack of clarity about how they would apply.

''If you can extrapolate a law that's designed to cover the obligations of an employer to cover customers, I think we're demonstrating quite clearly that the laws have gone too far,'' Mr Hart said.

''If we have to wait for landmark decisions and interpretations by the Fair Work Commission, it's going to make it very difficult for us to implement those requirements with any sort of certainty for employers. That is one of our real concerns.''

smh.com.au

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