Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for the right of workers to form and join unions and associate freely domestically and internationally, to bargain collectively and to conduct legal strikes. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and provides for reinstatement of workers fired for union activity.
The law requires that employers act in “good faith” when a majority of employees want a collective agreement, although it places some restrictions on the scope of collective bargaining. Prohibited terms include requiring payment of a bargaining services fee, enabling an employee or employer to “opt out” of coverage of the agreement, and anything that breaches the law. Furthermore, the law prohibits multienterprise agreements or “pattern bargaining,” although low-paid workers can apply for a “low-paid bargaining stream” to conduct multienterprise bargaining.
When deciding whether to grant a low-paid authorization, the Fair Work Commission (FWC) looks at factors including the current terms and conditions of employment, the bargaining strength of employees, and whether employers and employees are bargaining for the first time. A bargaining agent may represent either side in the process. The law designates collective agreements as being between employers and employees directly; trade unions are the default representatives of their members but, with some exceptions, are not official parties to collective agreements.
The law restricts strikes to the period when unions are negotiating a new enterprise agreement and specifies that strikes must concern matters under negotiation, known as “protected action.” Protected action provides employers, employees, and unions with legal immunity from claims of losses incurred by industrial action. Industrial action must be authorized by a secret ballot of employees; unions continued to raise concerns this requirement was unduly time consuming and expensive to implement. The law subjects strikers to penalties for taking industrial action during the life of an agreement and prohibits sympathy strikes. The law permits the government to stop strikes judged to have caused “significant economic harm” to the employer or third parties. Some provinces have further restrictions. For example, in New South Wales the state government may cancel a union’s registration if the government makes a proclamation or calls a state of emergency concerning an essential service and the “industrial organization whose members are engaged in providing the essential service has, by its executive, members, or otherwise, engaged in activities which are contrary to the public interest.”
The government effectively enforced applicable laws. Penalties for violations of freedom of association and collective bargaining protections for individuals and for corporations were generally sufficient to deter violations. The FWC is the national independent industrial relations management institution. Its functions include facilitating dispute resolution; if dispute resolution is unsuccessful, the parties may elect the FWC to arbitrate the dispute, or the applicant may pursue a ruling by a federal court.
Unions reported concerns that the scope of collective bargaining had been narrowed in recent years, including through decisions by the FWC, which also affected the right to strike.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, including by migrant workers.
The government effectively enforced applicable labor laws and convicted four defendants in one case involving forced labor. Most forced labor cases were addressed through civil law.
Some foreign nationals who came to the country for temporary work were subjected to forced labor in sectors such as agriculture, cleaning, construction, hospitality, and domestic service. There were reports that some domestic workers employed by foreign diplomats in Australia faced conditions indicative of forced labor.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
There is no federally mandated minimum age of employment. State minimums vary from no minimum age to age 15. With the exception of Victoria, all states and territories have established 18 years as the minimum age for hazardous work.
There are laws and regulations pertaining to hazardous work across sectors. For example, under the law in Western Australia, an underground worker may not be younger than age 18 unless he or she is an apprentice or a cadet working underground to gain required experience; a person handling, charging, or firing explosives may not be younger than age 18; and a person may not be younger than age 21 to obtain a winding engine driver’s certificate.
Federal, state, and territorial governments effectively monitored and enforced the laws. Penalties for violations of related laws included fines and were sufficient to deter violations.
The Office of the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) actively sought to educate young workers about their rights and responsibilities. Compulsory educational requirements effectively prevented most children from joining the workforce full time until they were age 17. Although some violations of these laws occurred, there was no indication of a child labor problem in any specific sector. There were some reports of commercial sexual exploitation of children (see section 6, Children).
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
Federal, state, and territory laws provide for protections against employment discrimination. The HRC reviews complaints of discrimination on the ground of HIV/AIDS status under the category of disability-related complaints.
The law requires organizations with 100 or more employees to establish a workplace program to remove barriers to women entering and advancing in their organization. The law requires equal pay for equal work. The government continued efforts to encourage persons under the Disability Support Pension (DSP) program to enter the workforce when they have the capacity to do so, including by requiring compulsory workforce activities for DSP recipients younger than age 35 who can work for more than eight hours per week.
The government enforced laws prohibiting employment discrimination; however, employment discrimination against women, indigenous persons, and persons with disabilities occurred. According to the government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency, the full-time gender pay gap was 15.3 percent. The International Labor Organization noted its concern that, despite several government initiatives, indigenous peoples continued to be disadvantaged and that employment targets were not met.
Persons with disabilities also faced employment discrimination. In 2016-17, the latest year for which such data were available, approximately 33 percent of the complaints about disability discrimination received by the HRC were in the area of employment and 34 percent in the area of goods, services and facilities.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
Effective July 1, the FWC increased the national minimum wage for adults working full time (38 hours per week) to A$719.20 ($517), based on a minimum hourly rate of A$18.93 ($13.60). There was no official estimate of the poverty income level.
By law maximum weekly hours are 38 plus “reasonable” additional hours which, by law, must take into account factors such as an employee’s health, family responsibilities, ability to claim overtime, pattern of hours in the industry, and amount of notice given. An employee may refuse to work overtime if the request is “unreasonable.”
Federal or state occupational health and safety laws apply to every workplace, including in the informal economy. By law both employers and workers are responsible for identifying health and safety hazards in the workplace. Workers can remove themselves from situations that endangered health or safety without jeopardy to their employment, and authorities effectively protected employees in this situation. The law includes an antibullying provision. The law also enables workers who are pregnant to transfer to a safe job regardless of their time in employment.
The government effectively enforced laws related to minimum wage, hours of work, and occupational safety and health. The FWO provides employers and employees advice on their rights and has authority to investigate employers alleged to have exploited employees unlawfully. The ombudsperson also has authority to prosecute employers who do not meet their obligations to workers. FWO inspectors may enter work sites if they reasonably believe it is necessary to ensure compliance with the law. The number of FWO inspectors was sufficient to enforce compliance. Inspectors can order employers to compensate employees and sometimes assess fines. Penalties were generally sufficient to deter violations, but there were some reports violations continued in sectors employing primarily migrant workers.
Workers exercised their right to a safe workplace and had recourse to state health and safety commissions, which investigate complaints and order remedial action. Each state and territory effectively enforced its occupational health and safety laws through dedicated bodies that have powers to obtain and initiate prosecutions, and unions used right-of-entry permits to investigate concerns. In New South Wales, for example, an individual can be sentenced a maximum of five years’ imprisonment, receive a maximum fine of A$300,000 ($215,500), or both, and a business can be fined up to A$3 million ($2.15 million) for exposing an individual to serious injury or illness.
Most workers received higher compensation than the minimum wage through enterprise agreements or individual contracts. Temporary workers include both part-time and casual employees. Part-time employees have set hours and the same entitlements as full-time employees. Casual employees are employed on a daily or hourly wage basis. They do not receive paid annual or sick leave, but the law mandates they receive additional pay to compensate for this, which employers generally respected. Migrant worker visas require that employers respect employer contributions to retirement funds and provide bonds to cover health insurance, worker’s compensation insurance, unemployment insurance, and other benefits.
There continued to be reports of employers exploiting immigrant and foreign workers (also see section 7.b.). As part of the FWO’s Harvest Trail inquiry into the exploitation of overseas workers in the agricultural sector, the FWO continued to operate a system for migrant workers to report workplace issues anonymously in 16 languages.
There were reports some individuals under “457” employer-sponsored, skilled-worker visas received less pay than the market rate and were used as less expensive substitutes for citizen workers. The government improved monitoring of “457” sponsors and information sharing among government agencies, particularly the Australian Tax Office. Employers must undertake “labor market testing” before attempting to sponsor “457” visas. A 417 “Working Holiday” visa-holder inquiry recently found the requirement to do 88 days of specified, rural paid work in order to qualify for a second-year visa enabled some employers to exploit overseas workers.
Safe Work Australia, the government agency responsible to develop and coordinate national workplace health and safety policy, cited a preliminary estimate that 115 workers died while working during the year. Of these fatalities, 37 were in the transport, postal, and warehousing sectors; 32 in the agriculture, forestry, and fishing sectors; and 20 in construction.