Workplace protections

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Understand workplace protections and the role of unions in the industry.

Bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination

Everyone who works in the building and construction industry has the same workplace protections. This includes employees working on-site and those off site in depots or offices.

These protections include:


Bullying in the workplace can take different forms. What may seem like normal behaviour to one person may cross the line for someone else.

Bullying at work happens when:

  • a person or group of people repeatedly behave unreasonably towards another worker or group of workers
  • the behaviour creates a risk to health and safety.

Example: Bullying at work

Billy works for a large construction company that is working on a major project in the city.

There are more than 100 construction workers on this site, who vary in age and experience.

Billy notices that there is a group of older employees that are regularly teasing and harassing a group of young apprentices on site. Some of the behaviours include:

  • name calling
  • hiding their tools
  • making them do tasks not part of their job.

As this has been going on for several weeks, Billy wants to know what the law says on bullying at work. He reads our Bullying and harassment page and sees some of things that are happening on-site may be considered bullying.

Billy makes a report to his foreman about this behaviour. He also contacts his health and safety representative at work and makes a report about what is happening on-site.

While the Fair Work Act provides a definition of bullying, we can only give you general advice about handling bullying in the workplace. For more information, see Other help available.

Sexual harassment

All workers in the building and construction industry have a right to a workplace that is free from sexual harassment. This includes those doing construction-related work but also others such as suppliers, designers, contractors and site visitors.

Sexual harassment is:

  • an unwelcome sexual advance or request for sexual favours to the person who is harassed
  • other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature in relation to the person who is harassed.

Sexual harassment doesn’t have to be repeated or continuous. It can be a one-off incident.

Example: Sexual harassment in the workplace

Jason runs a small carpentry business with 5 employees. Jason has recently secured a new project and has decided to expand his staff.

Jason hires a recently qualified carpenter, Ellie.

While on-site, Jason notices one of the older male employees, Bruce, behaving inappropriately around Ellie, including making sexual jokes and references. Bruce says his behaviour is just light-hearted and comical, but Jason believes it’s making Ellie uncomfortable.

As Jason is new to dealing with workplace issues like this, he takes our free Difficult conversations in the workplace – managers course to skill up.

Jason then has a meeting with Ellie off-site at the office. In this meeting, Ellie discloses that Bruce has been making rude and sexual comments, including commenting on her body and appearance. She says that Bruce has also been sending her unsolicited text messages repeating the sexual comments late at night.

Jason thinks this is sexual harassment based on what he has read on our Sexual harassment page.

Jason talks to Ellie about how she wants to approach the issue. Jason visits the Respect @ Work website for more information about how to handle the situation.


The Fair Work Act prohibits an employer from taking adverse action against an employee – or a prospective employee – because of a protected attribute.

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

  • firing an employee
  • changing an employee's job to their disadvantage
  • treating an employee differently than others, or
  • not hiring someone.

Protected attributes include:

  • gender
  • age
  • race
  • religion.

The above aren't exhaustive lists – a full list of protected attributes and more information can be found at Protection from discrimination at work.

Similar protections under the Fair Work Act apply for independent contractors and prospective contractors.

Other visitors to work sites can be covered by other protections outside the Fair Work Act. These visitors can include:

  • government inspectors
  • union officials
  • designers.

More information about other protections outside the Fair Work Act can be found from the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Example: Discrimination at work

Alan is a trade qualified carpenter. He has recently started work on a large new project where several other companies are also doing work on-site.

While working, an employee from another company, Harry, inspects Alan’s work more than the work done by other employees doing similar duties. This happens on multiple occasions and across multiple weeks. Harry also makes patronising comments about Alan’s workmanship.

Alan thinks Harry is doing this because he was born overseas and didn’t get qualified in Australia.

Alan raises this issue with his employer. Alan shows his employer the information on the Protection from discrimination at work page explaining what discrimination can look like. The employer supports Alan’s belief that Harry’s behaviour is likely discrimination.

Harry’s behaviour is raised with the project owners and with his manager. A meeting is then scheduled with Harry to discuss his actions.

If this issue isn’t resolved at the workplace level, Alan could next make a complaint with the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC). The AHRC accepts complaints about workplace discrimination covered by federal discrimination laws. This includes discrimination based on race and social origin.

Read more about what constitutes bullying or harassment and who to contact on our Bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination at work page.

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Role of unions

Unions are bodies that represent the interests of workers in particular industries or occupations. For example, construction or plumbing.

Unions play an important role in the workplace. Some of their key functions include being able to:

  • resolve workplace issues by being a voice for employees
  • act as a bargaining representative during enterprise agreement bargaining (EA or EBA) negotiations
  • apply to the Fair Work Commission (the Commission) to take industrial action.

The Commission is the national workplace relations tribunal and registered organisations regulator.

Other responsibilities of unions include ensuring employers are meeting their minimum obligations and looking into suspected breaches of:

  • workplace laws
  • discrimination laws
  • workplace safety laws.

Joining or not joining a union

Workers can’t be pressured to join or not join a union.

Employees also can’t be subject to adverse action for participating or not participating in union activities. For example, industrial action. Learn more via our Industrial action fact sheet.

Adverse action can include:

  • firing or not hiring an employee
  • changing an employee’s job to their disadvantage
  • treating an employee differently than other employees
  • ending or refusing to enter into a contract with an independent contractor.

More information on adverse action can be found at Protections at work.

Union members also have freedom of association protections. These protect their right to form or join or not join a trade union or association. More information can be found at Union membership.

Example: Adverse action for not joining a union

Hassan is working on a large commercial project. He’s just finished his induction led by the head contractor.

As the induction ends, the site union delegate enters the room and asks each worker if they are members of the union. Hassan says that he’s not a union member.

The union delegate then gives Hassan a union membership form and tells him that the project is a ‘union site’. According to the union delegate, this means that Hassan has to join the union if he wants to work on the worksite.

Hassan isn’t sure what to do.

After work, Hassan finds our website and our Union membership page. He learns that every employee has the right to be or not be a member of the union. This is called freedom of association. Hassan also learns that it’s unlawful to take ‘adverse action’ against a person for choosing not to joining a join.

Hassan contacts us the next day for further advice.

Entry permits for union officials

Entry permits allow union officials and employees to enter worksites to:

  • investigate suspected contraventions of:
    • the Fair Work Act
    • related workplace instruments (such as awards or agreements)
  • hold discussions with employees.

Right of entry permits are issued by the Fair Work Commission (the Commission).

The Commission is the national workplace relations tribunal and registered organisations regulator.

To be eligible for an entry permit, a person has to 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 Commission.

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:

Tip: Find an entry permit database

An entry permit gives a union official the right to enter a workplace.

The Commission has a free database you can search of all current entry permit holders. Access it at Find an entry permit.

Find out more at Right of entry.

Example: Union gives advice on workplace health and safety (WHS) laws

Josh is a plasterer on a large construction site for an office building under construction.

When on-site, Josh notices several things that he thinks may be unsafe. He wants to raise a report but doesn’t know a lot about WHS regulations.

Josh contacts his union and reports to them his concerns. At a later date, the union organises to do a site inspection to look for any health and safety risks.

The union official does a site visit and notes several issues. This report is then passed on to site management.

If anyone has concerns about how a right of entry incident has occurred, they can contact us for more information.

Learn more from our Role of unions page.

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Industrial action

Industrial action is when an employer, employee or group of employees take action to settle a dispute about working conditions.

There are 2 different types of industrial action:

  • protected industrial action
  • unprotected industrial action.

When an employee takes part in protected industrial action, an employer mustn’t threaten to dismiss or discriminate against the employee.

Industrial action can include when employees:

  • don’t come to work
  • fail or refuse to perform any work at all
  • delay or put a ban or limit on the work they do
  • are locked out of a workplace by their employer.

Anyone wanting to take industrial action can lodge an application with the Commission. Go to Fair Work Commission – Industrial action to find out more.

Example: Unprotected industrial action

Marco is working on a large commercial construction project. His employment is covered by an enterprise agreement that hasn’t passed its nominal expiry date.

Marco is working on-site when a union member tells him to stop work to protest in response to another employee’s employment being terminated.

Marco wants to show his support for the employee, so he stops work for 3 hours. Marco’s employer deducts 4 hours from Marco’s pay.

Money is deducted from Marco’s pay because he participated in unprotected industrial action. The industrial action isn’t protected because it:

  • isn't related to bargaining for a new enterprise agreement
  • hasn't been authorised by the Fair Work Commission.

This means Marco’s employer must deduct a minimum of 4 hours from Marco’s pay for the day.

Learn more at Industrial action.

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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