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Unions are often formed to represent the particular interests of employees within a certain trade or industry. Due to principles regarding freedom of association in Australian law, all employees have the right to join or refuse to join a union. Similarly, under the Fair Work Act 2009 you, as an employer, cannot dismiss an employee because they belong or don’t belong to a particular union.

Unions are often a useful lobbying tool in that they represent employee rights and bargain with employers about working conditions or salary rates that may require updating. As an employer it is advisable that you approach unions positively and understand that they represent your employees who may find it difficult to voice opinions to you on their own.

As an employer, it is illegal to put pressure on an employee or take adverse actions against an employee for his/her union activity or lack thereof. Adverse actions include:

  • Terminating an employee’s employment; and
  • Putting an employee in a worse position than they currently are in by changing their working conditions or their position within the business.

A union official also has the right to enter a workplace to investigate certain matters including complaints that have been made by employees. To investigate a suspected breach of a workplace regulation, at least one member of the union must be affected and the union must give written notice to you before entering the premises of your business.

The rights and restrictions of union representatives

Generally, union representatives have the right to:

  • Talk to anyone about a suspected breach who agrees to be interviewed and is represented by the union;
  • Inspect any work that is relevant to the breach;
  • Access documents and records that relate to the breach. Such records may include time sheets, pay slips, work rosters and leave records.

While union representatives are allowed to enter your business premises as often as they like to investigate suspected breaches, there are certain restrictions against their rights. These include the fact that union representatives cannot access the files of non-union members without the permission of that non-member or the permission a Fair Work Commission order. A union representative must also speak with employees during break times and not during paid work hours.

When bargaining with unions both employers and the unions must do so in good faith. It is important that negotiations are made in good faith as this will create workplace conditions that are suitable for both employers and employees.


While it could be in your best interests to maintain a healthy, cooperative relationship with a union that represents your employees, you may wish to get legal advice if you suspect that something is not right.

If you wish to read more about employers’ rights and other employment law matters, please see:


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