Workplace Law in Australia | Complete Explanation of Your Rights

by WRA

What are workplace laws?

Most employment in Australia is “at-will” – that means both employers and employees can choose to terminate employment contracts at any time. However, the federal government has implemented various workplace laws to protect Australian workers in all industries.

Workplace laws are crucial because they regulate relationships between employers and employees, particularly regarding matters like pay, discrimination, and workplace safety. Workplace relations laws protect Australians’ workplace rights by:

  • Giving employees and employers guidelines to operate within to ensure fair relations
  • Preventing employers from taking advantage of employees
  • Preventing employers from discriminating against employees for various reasons, such as age, sex, race, etc.

However, workplace law can be a complex subject, and it can be difficult for average workers to understand what workplace laws and regulations apply to them in their workplace.

Different types of workplace legislation Australia

There are many different types of workplace relations laws in Australia. Let’s take a look at some of these laws one by one so you can better understand how they may apply to your situation or legal needs.

Australian workplace laws

Australian workplace law

Thanks to the Fair Work Act and other related industrial relations laws in Australia, employees benefit from a robust safety net of employment conditions and minimum terms. More specifically, Australian workplace laws provide:

  • A system and framework that allows enterprise-level or union-level collective bargaining on the part of workers. This enables workers to demand fair treatment from employers under the protection of the law
  • Defense against unlawful or unfair termination of employment or unfair employment conditions
  • Protection of the various workplace rights, like the right to engage in industrial activities, the right to be free from pressure when negotiating individual arrangements, and much more

Laws like the Industrial Relations Acts in Australia and the Workplace Relations Act in Australia set out these rights and regulations. They are important for both employers and employees.

They’re important for employees so they can work safely and freely without having to fear for their safety or their legal rights. They’re also important for employers because they give businesses and organizations the tools and frameworks they need to legally terminate or remove problematic employees without getting in trouble with the law.

Notably, Australian labor relations laws and regulations are not set in stone. Australian workplace laws can evolve as set out in the Constitution depending on new needs or legal developments. 

Fair Work Act 2009

One of the most important workplace relations laws is the Fair Work Act of 2009. This legislation repealed the previous Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Act of 2005. The Fair Work Act (FWA) is supported by the Fair Work Regulations 2009.

Under the FWA the Australian government established a new framework called Fair Work Australia, which was renamed the Fair Work Commission in 2012. The Commission began operations in July 2009. This critical commission began performing several functions, like setting industrial awards, setting minimum wage limits, setting dispute resolution frameworks, hearing and determining unfair dismissal, cases, and much more.

Furthermore, this Act set up enforceable standards for identifying and stopping bullying and harassment at Fair Work enterprises. Ultimately, workplace rights from the Fair Work Act were expanded and made to be more understandable to the average worker.

In addition to providing initial frameworks and protective limits for workers and employers, the Fair Work Act underwent several changes from Parliament. These are known as Amendment Acts.

So far, the Amendment Acts have changed the Fair Work Act in a variety of ways. Some notable Amendment Acts include:

  • The Fair Work Amendment (Protecting Verbal Workers) Act of 2017
  • The Fair Work Amendment (Family and Domestic Violence Leave) Act of 2018
  • The Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia’s Jobs and Economic Recovery) Act of 2021 in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic
  • The Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Act of 2021 

National Employment Standards (NES)

While the Fair Work Act is important, it’s also important to understand the National Employment Standards or NES. These are 11 minimum employment entitlements that must be provided to all employees by employing organizations.

In other words, these are the minimum standards for employees that were set out in the Fair Work Act of 2009. The purpose of the NES is to provide no wiggle room for employers who wish to get around the Fair Work Act.

The 11 minimum entitlements set out by the NES include:

  • Entitlement to a maximum weekly hour setting, preventing employees from being overworked
  • Entitlements to request flexible working arrangements
  • Entitlement to offers and requests to convert from casual to permanent employment
  • Entitlements to parental leave and related leave
  • Entitlements to annual leave
  • Entitlements to personal or carer’s leave, compassionate leave, and unpaid family and domestic violence leave
  • Entitlements to community service and long service leave
  • Entitlements to enjoy public holidays
  • Entitlements to notices of termination and redundancy pay
  • Entitlement to a Fair Work Information Statement in addition to a Casual Employment Information Statement

Thanks to these standards, employers are not able to abuse employees. Employees can expect these entitlements to be adhered to if they work for an employer, and where a contravention of these standards occurs, employees may have grounds for successful legal action.

Workplace Health and Safety Act 2011

Then there’s the Workplace Health and Safety Act of 2011. Put simply; this Act sets out various requirements and standards to force employers to build and maintain healthy, safe workplaces. The purpose of the WHS is to:

  • Reduce the risks employees face in a place of work
  • Ensure that work health and safety issues are resolved fairly and dealt with appropriately
  • Help workers and businesses alike achieve healthier, safer working environments
  • Promote health and safety advice for workers, including education and training.
  • Ensure that there are effective ways for the WHS to be enforced and followed
  • Improve health and safety standards across the board

Overall, the WHS Act puts the responsibility for safety and health duties on business owners or employers. These are referred to in the Act as “persons conducting a business or undertaking” or PCBUs.

The WHS covers many Australian workers, including:

  • Standard employees
  • Contractors
  • Subcontractors
  • Outworkers
  • Trainees and apprentices
  • Volunteers
  • Work experience students
  • Any employers who perform work

Note that the WHS further protects the general public from unsafe work sites or conditions.

Disability Discrimination Act 1992

This older law is nonetheless still relevant to Australian employees in all industries. The Federal Disability Discrimination Act of 1992 or DDA offers explicit protection for anyone in Australia against discrimination based on a disability.

For example, if a person with a disability, such as paraplegia, is discriminated against by being treated less fairly or being paid less money, they will be protected by the DDA of 1992. Disability discrimination can be subtle or overt; it can occur whenever a person with a disability is treated less fairly due to their disability by friends, family members, coworkers, employers, and associates.

More specifically, the DDA requires employers to provide equal employment opportunities to everyone, not just fully abled individuals. Therefore, if an individual with a disability can perform the essential activities or inherent requirements for a job, they must be given the opportunity to receive that job just like everyone else.

The DDA further requires employers to choose the best person for an open job, regardless of whether or not the best candidate has a disability. Broadly speaking, the DDA protects individuals against disability-related discrimination in a variety of ways, including:

  • Job recruitment and every part of the process ranging from advertising to interviewing and more
  • Job decisions that determine who will get an open job
  • Job terms and conditions, like pay rates, leave and work hours
  • Promotion opportunities, in addition to transfer, training, or additional benefits associated with an open position
  • Dismissal, including demotion, retrenchment, or termination

Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012

Last but not least is the Workplace Gender Equality Act of 2012. This important legislation was introduced by Parliament to improve opportunities for women in the workplace.

The goals of this Equality Act our broadly to promote and improve gender equality in employment and in the workplace, as well as to support employers in removing barriers and encouraging the full and equal participation of women in work. Other major goals include:

  • The recognition of the disadvantaged position of women in the workplace and regarding employment
  • The elimination of discrimination on the basis of gender or sex in the workplace
  • The fostering of workplace consultation between employees and employers on issues such as gender equality in employment and the workplace
  • The improvement of productivity and competitiveness in Australian business through advancing gender equality in the workplace

State Government Industrial Relations Legislation

While the Fair Work Act (FWA) covers all Australian workers and Commonwealth government employees, it does not apply to state and local government employees.  To ensure these workers are protected with the same rights, standards, and protections as other workers, each of the Australian State governments has enacted their own legislation, which reflects the same protections and values enshrined in the FWA.  State and local government employees are protected by the Industrial Relations Act(s).

What can a workplace lawyer do for you?

Workplace lawyers are knowledgeable legal professionals who know the ‘ins and outs’ of Australian workplace laws. They have experience handling workplace discrimination or worker’s compensation cases, unfair dismissal, general protections, workplace bullying, unpaid and underpaid wages, and related disputes. If you have a workplace dispute, your first step should be to get professional help and advice.

Work Rights Australia is one of the nation’s leading employee advocacy and support services. We have years of experience tackling cases including worker’s compensation; employee discrimination; employee leave disputes, unfair dismissal, adverse action, and general protection cases, unpaid wages, stop bullying orders, and much more. We are not a law firm.  We are an independent employee rights advocacy and support service.  We have a panel of HR, IR, and legal specialists whom we engage and instruct on your behalf to ensure we get you the best results possible.

From start to finish, we can offer sound professional advice, support you throughout your employment dispute, and select and instruct the best lawyers and other professionals – most suited to your needs.  Call us today for a free case evaluation or fill out our online intake form to get started.

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