Isolating workers

Sharan Burrow

The ACTU has warned that many Australian employees could find it practically impossible to exercise their basic right to access information and assistance from a union, if the Howard government succeeds in passing new laws to restrict the right of unions to enter workplaces.

Releasing the ACTU submission to a Senate Committee Inquiry into the Government's Right of Entry Bill, ACTU President Sharan Burrow said the government wanted to give employers an effective veto over whether employees can talk to a union representative at work.

"The practical effect of these laws would be to strip many ordinary employees of their basic right to access a union at work. This will not do a single thing to make Australian workplaces more productive, but it will make many Australian workplaces less fair," said Ms Burrow.

'The government's proposed new laws would introduce severe restrictions on how employees can contact a union in the workplace including:

  • Giving employers exclusive power to choose the location an employee can see a union representative - for example in a room or area where they can be seen or over-heard by their manager or employer.
  • Requiring employees that want a union to investigate a suspected underpayment or breach of their conditions be identified to their employer - even if they don't want to be identified or fear retribution for raising the issue.
  • Banning a union representative from entering a workplace to discuss union membership with employees more than once every six months - even if the employees want, request or require more frequent visits.

'There is simply no justification for the government's plans to further restrict the right of employees to access union representation at work."

The federal government's own research, which interviewed more than 8,000 Australian employees regarding their attitudes to unions, showed more than 76 per cent of all employees (including more than 63 per cent of non-union members) valued the presence of a union in the workplace. (OEA 'Freedom of Association - A Survey Report', p. 174, April 2004.)

Currently, the Industrial Relations Commission issues and administers permits allowing union representatives to enter workplaces to speak to employees. Permits are issued with strict conditions and can be withdrawn if these conditions are not met. But of the 2,442 permits issued since 2001 just 15 (0.6 per cent) have had to be revoked by the Commission as a result of a breach.

In its submission to the Senate Inquiry the ACTU argues that the government's proposed legislation would:

  • Make it harder for all employees to access information about their rights and entitlements.
  • Unreasonably restrict the rights of employees to access union representation.
  • Make it more difficult for unions to ensure workplaces are safe and that all employees receive their legal entitlements.
  • Unreasonably expose employees who fear harassment or dismissal from their employer if they choose to seek information or assistance from a union.
  • Increase the amount of laws covering union right of entry from the current 5 pages to 30 pages creating a legalistic nightmare for business, employees and unions.

'The government's proposals are unnecessary, impractical, punitive and unfair. They contravene international laws that protect the right of employees to freely join a union and participate in its activities without harassment or unnecessary interference. Similar proposals were rejected by the Senate in 1999 and they should be rejected again,' said Ms Burrow.


This is a slightly edited version of an ACTU media statement. The ACTU contact is Susannah Greenleaf (ph: 0418 479 455; Fax: 03 9663 8220). The full ACTU submission can be downloaded here (pdf).


See also:

Suggested citation
Burrow, Sharan, 'Isolating workers', Evatt Journal, Vol. 5, No. 1, February 2005.<http://evatt.org.au/news/isolating-workers.html>