Ensuring integrity or ensuring inequity?
The so-called Ensuring Integrity Bill would subject unions to harsher and more rigorous standards than any other Australian organisation, including corporations and big business.
The re-introduced Bill, currently before the Senate, was rejected in 2017 but now largely relies on the votes of six crossbench senators.
Under the proposed Bill, employers, MPs and the Registered Organisations Commission (ROC) would be empowered to seek to deregister unions or disqualify union officers.
The Bill purports to “ensure the integrity of registered organisations and their officials, for the benefit of their members”.
RMIT Professor of Workplace Law Anthony Forsyth described the Bill as a “massive over-reach”.
Professor Forsyth said the Bill would provide ammunition for employers in industrial disputes, where the balance of power is already firmly in their favour due to the “extensive range of weapons” they have access to.
In an example of how the Bill would operate, Professor Forsyth said:
“An employer could seek to have a [union] official removed because they have been involved in a technical breach of the protected industrial action rules under the Fair Work Act, but a union could not seek disqualification of a company director who had breached the same legislation by, for instance, presiding over the underpayment of workers.”
Despite claims to the contrary from Attorney General Christian Porter, officials from the Attorney General’s Department have confirmed the Bill would allow unions to be deregistered for a single breach of the Fair Work Act.
Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) President Michele O’Neil said the Bill was an unprecedented attack on the democratic freedoms of working people.
“All Australian workers benefit from the work of unions,” Ms O’Neil said.
“If unions are shut down or silenced, who will stand up to the powerful, make sure workers are safe, ensure fair pay and conditions and fight to improve workers’ rights?
“The only people who would benefit from these laws are the Morrison Government and unethical employers, who would be able to get away with wage theft and unsafe work practices.
“The average union member is a 46 year old woman who is a nurse.
“The Morrison Government and some in business would like to paint a very different picture because unions stand up to the powerful in our country.”
Economists have also warned that the Bill will fuel ongoing wage stagnation due to the impacts on workers’ bargaining power.
Federal MP for Moreton and former IEUA-QNT Organiser Graham Perrett spoke against the Bill when it was debated in the House of Representatives in July.
“Trade unions have a proud history in Australia,” Mr Perrett said.
“Workers rely on the union movement – be they union members paying fees or those workers who work alongside union members and get the benefits of what they fight for.
“If it were not for unions…we would not have maternity leave, superannuation, equal pay for women, health and safety, workers compensation, sick leave, long service leave and redundancy pay.”
Concerns raised over human rights impacts
The implications of the Bill have been questioned by the parliamentary Human Rights Committee – comprised of a majority of Coalition MPs.
The Committee suggested the Bill was incompatible with the right to freedom of association.
In the Bill’s explanatory memorandum, circulated by Attorney General Christian Porter, it claims that any diminution of human rights is a reasonable trade off for the benefits of the legislation.
“The Bill is compatible with human rights because any restriction is for a purpose that falls within one of the permitted grounds for restriction under the relevant article, and because the measures will be effective in achieving better governance of registered organisations,” the memorandum states.
“To the extent that the Bill may limit human rights, those limitations are reasonable, necessary and proportionate.”
Current industrial laws already in conflict with international labour standards
While the Bill seeks to add another layer of regulation upon unions, Australia has long been at odds with international labour standards.
Australia’s right to strike laws are some of the most restrictive in the world among democratic countries.
For the past 30 years, the United Nations’ (UN) International Labour Organisation (ILO) has urged Australia to revise industrial laws to reflect international labour standards.
Crossbenchers hold crucial votes
With a vote on the Bill expected in November, six crossbench senators will largely determine if it succeeds in becoming law.
Members can send a message to these Senators urging them to consider the impacts of the Ensuring Integrity Bill via the below Facebook links.
- Senator Jacqui Lambie
- Senator Rex Patrick
- Senator Stirling Griff
- Senator Pauline Hanson
- Senator Malcolm Roberts