Employees fighting for rights

Written on the 2 December 2010

AUGUST 2010

GENERAL protection provisions are widely accessed by employees, with recent court decisions demonstrating the coercive powers available to protect them.

The general protections provisions of the Fair Work Act state that an employer must not take any ‘adverse action’ against an employee because the employee has exercised or proposes to exercise a ‘workplace right’.

According to Harmers Workplace Lawyers, there’s an increase in claims made under these provisions by employees and unions.

Partner Shana Schreier-Joffe, says a ‘workplace right’ has a broad meaning that encompasses everything from union activity right through to an employee’s right to make fairly commonplace enquiries or complaints with respect to their employment.

“These could include salary enquiries, flexible work requests as well as requests for further information regarding planned disciplinary action, so it’s easy to imagine how widely these provisions can be applied,” she says.

Recent decisions by Fair Work Australia show employer actions such as informing an employee their role may be made redundant, instituting a disciplinary enquiry, investigating complaints against the employee or issuing a ‘show cause’ letter, may constitute adverse actions under the Act.

Schreier-Joffe says a recent case, Jones v Queensland Tertiary Admissions Centre (29 April 2010) illustrates how employees may be able to effectively prevent or delay an employer’s legitimate disciplinary action, despite a mere allegation that the employer has acted in breach of the provisions.

“Prior to a hearing by Fair Work, the employee applied directly to the Federal Court for an interlocutory injunction, asserting a breach of the general protection provisions. As a result the court granted an interim injunction to prevent any further action against Ms Jones prior to a final hearing of the matter, though later all claims made by the employee were rejected by the court,” she says.

Another recent case, Automotive, Food, Metals, Engineering, Printing and Kindred Industries Union v Phillips Engineering Aus (15 June 2010), demonstrates the power of the court not only to stop but also to reverse a termination of employment prior to a full hearing, where it appears a breach of the general protections provision has occurred.

“In this case the court determined the evidence strongly supported a finding that the employer had terminated the worker’s employment because of union activities and that its statement that there was not enough work for the employee was made to mask its real intent,” says Schreier-Joffe.

“Our advice to businesses is not to underestimate the wide-ranging reach of these provisions or the powers of the court or Fair Work to act where they feel adverse action has occurred.

“If an employee can demonstrate they have exercised an employment right as well as show some kind of adverse action taken by their employer as a result, then the onus rests with the employer to prove otherwise. Employers need to be able to document and prove that the adverse action was justified and unrelated to the employee exercising their workplace right.”


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