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Issue #1583      February 27, 2013

Editorial

Right of entry an inviolable right

For decades trade union officials freely entered workplaces, checked working conditions, inspected wages and working hours books of all employees, attended to safety issues, assisted members with problems and ensured that employers were complying with their legal obligations. They were free to talk to workers during meal and other breaks and actively recruit and organise in the workplace. They exercised one of the most fundamental basic trade union rights – right of entry – which is central to the ability of trade unions to organise, defend and recruit members. The Australian government is obliged under international law to legislate for and guarantee right of entry.

Employers have long opposed the right. To them it is a barrier to union-free workplaces. Without unions, employers would be free to pick off workers one by one, slash wages, abolish penalty rates, increase hours of work, demand unpaid overtime, abolish annual and sick leave, casualise whole workforces, take short-cuts with health and safety, and do whatever else they wished to maximise the exploitation of their workforce and profits.

The Howard government’s WorkChoices gutted long-standing right of entry provisions. Despite Labor’s pre-election promise to tear up WorkChoices, the Rudd government’s Fair Work Act (FWA) (Julia Gillard was Workplace Relations Minister responsible) retained most of its restrictions on the right of entry. Union officials require a government-issued permit to enter a workplace. They must give employers 24-hours’ written notice with reasons before seeking to enter, and the allowable reasons are limited. Who they can meet is restricted, where and when they can meet is determined by the boss, ability to inspect work areas and gain access to records (eg to check for underpayment of wages) is also very limited. Breaches of these anti-union provisions can result in suspension or loss of permit and hefty fines on individuals and their union. (See Right of entry – Rudd govt’s restrictive anti-union laws Guardian #1448, 24-03-2010)

The FWA, in line with its intentions, has seriously hindered the ability of unions to carry out their work. “The problem we face is that the employer chooses a designated meeting area. Often this is far away from workers’ normal crib rooms, making it difficult to have contact with them and recruit or identify any issues,” CPA President Vinnie Molina told The Guardian. “Workers feel intimidated and fear for their jobs if they choose to attend those meetings. Often they do not want to miss their meal break. The boss keeps track of who attends those meetings.” Mr Molina, who is a full-time organiser in the building and construction industry in Western Australia, has had his permit temporarily revoked for attempting to defend members of his union, the CFMEU, and has been subjected to heavy fines for such crimes as “trespass”.

“Basically WorkChoices and now the FWA restrict the ability to organise and recruit by making access and contact with workers on the site difficult. It means workplace issues cannot be resolved or addressed as they arise. Many conditions have been undermined: basic rights such as clean and decent crib rooms, toilets, coffee and tea or even cool water in summer are issues faced by workers every day. Another difficulty is that many employers ignore the official’s rights, refuse access to the workplace, especially if an official suspects occupational health and safety (OH&S) breaches.

“Prior to WorkChoices, union officials did not need to give notice, they conducted meetings where workers had their normal breaks or they walked through the workplace talking to individual members and dealt with issues. Recruitment, organising, and dealing with OH&S issues, underpayments, lack of superannuation or long service leave contributions have become more difficult. In short, the legislation has been drafted to undermine the right to organise in violation of ILO conventions. It also provides employers with all the support and resources to sue unions if they dare to breach the oppressive laws.”

The Liberals are determined to abolish what remains of the right of entry. “The complete ditching of right of entry will mean the ditching of the basic human right to belong to the collective and organise,” Mr Molina said. “If right of entry is abolished, safety on the job and basic conditions will be further undermined. Unions will have to look at new ways to organise and recruit. This means the organising will have to be done outside the job, car parks, home visits, before and after work and or at the pub.”

Next article – Findings ignored … again

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