SPECIAL REPORT: Right Of Entry: Abbott’s Strategy To Get Unions Out Of Workplaces
Access to the workplace by representatives of workers is an indispensable element of the right to join a union and have legally enforceable conditions of employment. Unless union officials are able to enter workplaces and conduct investigations, there is very little pressure on employers to comply with the terms and conditions of awards and agreements. Likewise, the effective exercise of the rights to union membership, union representation, safe and healthy workplaces, workplace democracy and the right to collectively bargain cannot effectively be exercised unless members and potential members can have effective access to their union officials.
Tony Abbott knows this and intends to make union access to workplaces much more difficult.
Union membership to be Disclosed to Employer
Coalition Policy seeks to restrict union access to workplaces by requiring that an employee who is a union member must request a union visit before that union will be allowed on-site, thereby disclosing their union status to their employer. The possibilities for discrimination, harassment and bullying are clear where the employer is anti-union.
This approach is contrary to the traditions of Australian industrial relations practice which recognise that identification of union membership may undermine or nullify important employment rights.
This policy would also make it difficult for unions to access workplaces to recruit new members – traditionally one of the main reasons for union visits and an essential activity if unions are to be effective.
Restrictions on Investigative Powers of Union Officials
Coalition Policy proposes to limit rights to investigate breaches of awards or agreements by union officials to only cases which involve union members. Currently, unions can access information in relation to non-members if it relates to a suspected breach of an award/agreement. This recognises that if an employer gets away with underpaying non-members – this will affect the rights and employment security of members. E.g If unions can only search the employment records of members, any investigation will automatically disclose their identity. Also, employers who can underpay non-members with little risk of discovery will have a strong incentive to de-unionise the workplace.
For this reason the labour inspection model in this country has long recognised the dual labour investigative role of government agencies and representatives of workers. This model has worked successfully in the past and into the present. Under the current legislation, both the government regulator and unions have each successfully recovered many millions of dollars for workers. Abbott’s policy would provide greater protection to exploitative and dishonest employers.
The activities of unions are funded by unions themselves, not the public. There is no sound reason to limit the investigative functions of unions. We perform an extremely useful social function at no cost to the public revenue.
Abbott says union access “disrupts” workplaces
The coalition justifies this crack- down on union rights by claiming that the current system causes disruption to workplaces.
There are three objections to this argument:
First, some level of disruption is generally unavoidable in the exercise of any right or power. The disruption is no different to any disruption arising from complying with a government reporting requirement or having a government inspector or official come to the business premises to carry out an inspection.
The Act already provides tight regulation of right of entry to protect employer interests.
Abbott’s policies would be in breach of International Labour Organisation conventions which recognise the rights of workers to freely associate and to be represented. The conventions recognise that the rights to representation require that unions be granted facilities to ensure that they can carry out their duties promptly and effectively.
Tony Abbott claims that his industrial relations policies would make minimal changes to current entitlements. An examination of his right of entry policies shows that this is not true.
His policy document although light on detail, gives a firm basis for concerns about the Coalition’s real intentions should it win Government in September.
We will provide a more detailed report as negotiations progress.