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 Permits are issued with strict conditions and can be withdrawn if these conditions are not met.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