The role of unions

Learn about the benefits and features of unions in the workplace, and about unions entering the workplace.

Unions in the workplace

Unions play an important role in the workplace.

Some of the key roles include being able to resolve workplace issues by being a voice for employees and acting as a bargaining representative during bargaining negotiations.

Other key features of unions include:

  • working with management to help resolve workplace issues
  • being an advocate for employees
  • ensuring employers are meeting their minimum obligations
  • looking into suspected breaches of:
    • workplace laws
    • discrimination laws
    • workplace safety laws.

Bargaining with unions

Bargaining is a process where employers and employees negotiate the terms and conditions of an enterprise agreement.

Employers and employees can be represented by a bargaining representative during this process. Normally the bargaining representative for employees will be a union official.

All bargaining representatives and other parties involved in the process have to bargain in good faith.

They also have to follow rules about disclosing benefits that they might get from a proposed enterprise agreement that they're a bargaining representative for. This means that if unions and employers are bargaining for an enterprise agreement, and either of them will get (or could get) a financial benefit from something in the proposed agreement, they have to make sure that everyone else in the bargaining process knows about it. This includes employees who will be covered by the agreement.

If either the union or employer has to disclose a benefit, they have to create a 'disclosure document' that says:

  • which term/s in the proposed agreement is beneficial
  • they type of benefit and how much
  • the name of each person who will benefit.

A union who creates a disclosure document has to give it to the employer, who then has to provide it to the employees. An employer who creates a disclosure document has to give it to their employees.

The Registered Organisations Commission external-icon.png provides detailed information and advice about these rules. They are the independent regulator of unions and employer associations. Read more on their corrupting benefits page external-icon.png.

The Fair Work Commission provides information on:

Right-of-entry in the workplace

To enter the workplace, a person needs to be a 'permit holder' and have a valid right-of-entry permit. A permit holder must be an:

  • elected officer of the union, or
  • employee of the union.

A permit holder also needs to be a fit and proper person, as determined by the Fair Work Commission (the Commission).

Permit holders can enter the workplace if a worker wants to speak to them. They can also enter if they think there is a breach of workplace laws, including:

When a permit holder enters a workplace, they can talk with workers if:

  • the workers are at the workplace and want to talk with them, or
  • they suspect a breach and they're entitled to represent the employee. 

There are rules for when a permit holder enters a workplace.

Entry permit requirements

Permit holders must show their right-of-entry permit:

  • when they arrive at the workplace, if the employer asks to see it
  • when they want to access documents.

From 1 July 2019, all new right-of-entry permits must include a photo and signature of the permit holder.

Permit holders with a valid permit issued before 1 July 2019 can keep using their existing permits until 1 October 2019. From then, they'll either need to:

  • get a new right-of-entry permit from the Commission, or
  • show their current permit and photo ID.

Acceptable photo ID needs to be either:

  • an electronic or a physical Australian driver licence
  • an electronic or a physical Australian proof of age card
  • an electronic or a physical identification document from Australia Post (such as a KeyPass or ‘Digital iD’), or
  • an Australian passport.

The photo ID also needs to be current or expired less than 2 years ago in the case of forms of physical identification.

Right-of-entry permits are valid for 3 years and expire as soon as one of the following happens:

  • the permit is 3 years old
  • the permit holder stops being a union employee or official, or
  • the Commission suspends or revokes the permit.

To find out more about right-of-entry permits, go to Fair Work Commission – Entry permits external-icon.png.

Notice of the visit

Permit holders entering a workplace must give written notice at least 24 hours and less than 14 days before their visit.

The Commission can give permit holders an 'exemption certificate', which allows them to enter with less notice. The Commission will allow early entry if they think that any evidence may be:

  • altered
  • hidden, or
  • destroyed.

The notice must show the rules that everyone needs to follow when the permit holder enters the workplace.

What permit holders can do in the workplace

Where there's a suspected breach, permit holders can:

  • inspect any work, process or object that relates to the suspected breach
  • interview any person related to the suspected breach
  • meet with workers
  • access records relating to the suspected breach.

Permit holder can only interview or meet with workers who are:

  • entitled to be represented by the union
  • willing to meet with the union.

Permit holders aren't allowed to see the records of non-union members, except with:

  • the non-member's permission, or
  • an order from the Commission.

Discussions have to be during meal or other breaks. Permit holders can't talk with workers during paid work time.

Accessing documents and records

A permit holder can inspect and copy any record or document that's directly relevant to the suspected breach where:

  • it's kept on the premises, or
  • it's accessible from a computer that's kept on the premises.

The records must substantially relate to a union member, unless the permit holder has a Commission order to access non-member records.

The permit holder must show their right-of-entry permit when they want to access documents.

Access to meeting rooms for discussions and interview

When an employer agrees, permit holders can have access to meeting rooms.

If the employer doesn't agree, permit holders can hold discussions and interviews where the workers normally take their breaks.

Visiting remote workplaces

When a permit holder visits remote workplaces, accommodation and transport may not be reasonably available. If this happens, they can ask the employer to help arrange accommodation and/or transport with them.

Sometimes, the employer and the permit holder can't agree on an arrangement. In this situation, the employer needs to provide or arrange accommodation or transport if:

  • it doesn't cause undue inconvenience for the employer
  • the permit holder gives a reasonable amount of notice.

The employer can charge a fee for the accommodation or transport. It can't be more than it cost.

Rules for entering a textile, clothing or footwear industry workplace

There are important differences to the rules when unions enter workplaces in the textile, clothing and footwear industry.

Unlike other permit holders, unions representing outworkers can:

  • look into suspected breaches of outworkers terms in an award or registered agreement
  • enter the workplace without giving advanced notice or the workers being there
  • talk to any workers who work on the premises and want to speak to the permit holder
  • access records of workers who aren't union members.

While permit holders don't need to provide advanced notice, they still need to provide notice in writing. The notice needs to be before or as soon as possible after they enter the premises.

Stopping a permit holder from entering

Permit holders who've followed the right-of-entry rules shouldn't be stopped or delayed when entering the workplace.

If a person stops or unnecessarily delays the permit holder, they can be fined under the Fair Work Act.

Source reference: Fair Work Act 2009 s.481 - 483AA and 521A-521D external-icon.png

Tools and resources

Related information

Have a workplace problem?

Problems can happen in any workplace. If you have a workplace problem, we have tools and information to help you resolve it.

Check out our Fixing a workplace problem section for practical information about:

  • working out if there is a problem
  • speaking with your employer or employee about fixing the problem
  • getting help from us if you can't fix the problem.

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