Protections at work

The Fair Work Act gives all employees protected rights, called ‘general protections’, at work.

These protected rights include:

Protected rights

Workplace rights

A person has a workplace right if they:

  • have a benefit, role or responsibility under a workplace law (for example, the Fair Work Act 2009 (FW Act), Sex Discrimination Act 1984, or state/territory work health and safety laws or workers' compensation laws), a workplace instrument (for example, an award or registered agreement), or a workplace order made by an industrial body (for example, the Fair Work Commission)
  • can start or take part in a process or proceeding under a workplace law or instrument (for example, a dispute settlement procedure under a registered agreement)
  • can make a complaint or enquiry to a person or body to seek compliance with a workplace law or instrument (for example, the Australian Human Rights Commission)
  • are an employee making a complaint or enquiry about their employment (for example, an employee asking their employer about their pay rate.

Industrial activities

A person has the right to belong or not belong to an industrial association (for example, a trade union or employer association). A person also has the right to take part or not take part in industrial activity. It’s unlawful for a person to take adverse action against another person for these kinds of reasons.

Industrial activities include doing or not doing the following:

  • being involved in setting up a union or employer association
  • organising or promoting lawful activities for or on behalf of a union or employer association
  • encouraging or participating in lawful activities organised or promoted by a union or employer association
  • representing the views, claims or interests of a union or employer association
  • following lawful requests made by a union or employer association
  • paying a fee to a union or employer association
  • asking a union or employer association to represent you.

Discrimination

Employees and prospective employees have the right to be free from discrimination based on protected attributes.

To find out more, visit Protection from discrimination at work.

What am I protected from?

Adverse action

Adverse action is unlawful if it’s taken for a prohibited reason or reasons.

Adverse action includes doing, threatening or organising to do any of the following:

  • firing an employee
  • injuring an employee in their employment (for example, not giving an employee their legal entitlements, such as pay or leave)
  • changing an employee's job to their disadvantage
  • treating an employee differently than other employees (for example, treating someone differently based on their sex or gender)
  • not hiring someone
  • offering a potential employee different (and unfair) terms and conditions for the job, compared to other employees
  • ending or refusing to enter into a contract with an independent contractor
  • discriminating against an independent contractor in the terms and conditions offered to them
  • altering an independent contractor's position to their detriment
  • refusing to make use of an independent contractor's services
  • refusing to supply goods or services to an independent contractor
  • an employee or independent contractor taking unlawful industrial action against their employer or principal contractor.

It's unlawful for a person to take adverse action against another person because they:

  • have a workplace right
  • have or have not used a workplace right
  • propose or don't propose to use a workplace right
  • belong or don't belong to a union
  • do or don't take part in industrial activity
  • have a protected attribute.

It's also unlawful for a person to take adverse action against another person:

  • to prevent the other person using a workplace right, or
  • because a third person has used or proposes to use a workplace right for the second person’s benefit or a group of people that the second person is part of.

Example: Adverse action

Greg’s employer finds out that he reported a workplace issue to the Fair Work Ombudsman because he didn’t think he was getting paid the minimum wage. Greg is demoted and has his duties substantially changed because he contacted the Fair Work Ombudsman. This is adverse action against Greg because he used his right to ask about his pay. It is unlawful.

Coercion

Coercion means forcing someone to do something against their will, for example, through fear, intimidation or threats.

A person can't be forced to:

  • use (or not use) a workplace right
  • propose to use (or not use) a workplace right
  • use or propose to use a workplace right in a particular way.

For example, if an employee refuses to vote for an enterprise agreement, the employer can't:

  • threaten to fire the employee
  • organise to demote the employee
  • change their roster.

The coercive behaviour may still be unlawful even if it wasn't successful in forcing someone to do something against their will.

Undue influence or pressure

Undue influence or pressure is when an employer uses their power to try to influence or pressure an employee to change their conditions of employment.

It's unlawful for an employer to place undue influence or pressure on an employee to:

  • enter or not enter into an agreement or arrangement under the National Employment Standards or an award or registered agreement
  • agree to or terminate an individual flexibility arrangement
  • accept a guarantee of annual earnings
  • agree or not agree to a deduction from their pay.

The undue influence or pressure or coercive behaviour can be unlawful even if it doesn't succeed.

Example: Undue influence or pressure

David’s registered agreement allows for him to make an agreement about cashing out some of his annual leave.

David's manager, Jenny, approaches him about cashing out his annual leave.

Jenny says that if David takes leave they’ll need to close temporarily. She says that they are a small business and they can’t cover his absence. David feels obliged to agree with Jenny’s request to cash out his annual leave.

Depending on how Jenny raised the issue with David, this might be considered undue influence or pressure. However, if Jenny made it clear that David didn’t have to cash out his leave and that she was just exploring all possible business options, her request is unlikely to be considered undue influence or pressure.

Misrepresentation

Misrepresentation is when someone knowingly or recklessly makes a false or misleading representation to a person who would likely rely on that representation. It’s against the law.

Example: Misrepresentation

Kath is a long-term casual employee. She is pregnant with her first child and asks her manager about her parental leave entitlements. Kath's manager tells her that only full-time employees are entitled to parental leave – even though he knows that isn't true. This is a misrepresentation and is unlawful.

Source reference: Fair Work Act 2009 s.334-378 external-icon.png

Resolving general protections issues

For employees:

Contact the Fair Work Commission (FWC) first if If you've lost your job and you think you were fired because of:

  • discrimination
  • a reason that is harsh, unjust or unreasonable
  • a protected workplace right.

You have 21 days starting from the day after you were dismissed to lodge an application with the FWC. Check the information at the FWC's website external-icon.png to find out if you can apply for:

  • unfair dismissal external-icon.png (not available if you lost your job because of a genuine Redundancy)
  • a general protections dismissal
  • unlawful termination.

For other general protections issues, consider whether the action taken against you was unlawful after reading the information on this page.

See our Fixing a workplace problem section for practical advice on:

  • talking to your employer about fixing a workplace problem
  • getting help from us if you still can’t resolve the problem.

For employers:

Take general protections issues seriously. After you’ve read the information on this page, speak with your employee to address the problem.

We have resources to help you:

Boosting Apprenticeship Commencements wage subsidy

If an employee has agreed to start an apprenticeship or traineeship with an employer, it’s important the employee is aware of their general protections at work. These rules still apply to employees under the Boosting Apprenticeship Commencements (BAC) wage subsidy, which provides employers with wage subsidies for new apprentices and trainees.

For example, the following rules continue to apply under the BAC wage subsidy:

  • an employer can’t force or misrepresent to an employee that they need to start an apprenticeship or traineeship in order to stay employed
  • an employer can’t adversely act against an employee (including terminating employment) if they refuse to start an apprenticeship or traineeship.

You can find more information on termination on our Unfair dismissal page.

For more information about the BAC wage subsidy, including eligibility and payment amounts, go to Boosting Apprenticeship Commencements external-icon.png on the Department of Education, Skills and Employment website.

Tools and resources

Related information

Help for small business