Only weeks after the installation of Prime Minister Scott Morrison the sand has been poured and the political football that is industrial relations has been set up for the kick. Passage of the Ensuring Integrity Bill (‘EI Bill’) has been listed for the Senate this week, Industrial Relations Minister Kelly O’Dwyer describing the Bill as offering protection for the Australian people. But what are these protections and do they justify the limitation of human rights?

The EI Bill does nothing to protect working Australians from wage theft, insecure employment or wage stagnation, nor does it protect Australian business owners from the effect of uneven competition where competitors routinely flout labour law or from large organisations with the means to structure their business so as to avoid fair labour obligations. What the EI Bill does do is threaten to further limit Australian workers’ right to freedom of association.

Freedom of Association is a fundamental human right, at the heart of any democratic system and protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The substance of this right is set out in International Labour Organization (ILO) treaties, primarily the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention 1948 (No. 87) and the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention 1949 (No. 98).

In accordance with ILO principles workers’ organisations have the right to freely determine their constitution and rules, to freely elect their representatives, to ‘organise their administration and activities and to formulate their programmes.’ The lawful exercise of this right must not be restricted or impeded by interference from public authorities, organisations ‘shall not be liable to be dissolved or suspended by administrative authority’.

The EI Bill represents an explicit threat to these principles, seeking to expand the circumstances under which a person may be disqualified from holding office in a registered organisation; introduce criminal sanctions for disqualified persons to continue to influence the activities of the organisation; expand the grounds for which the registration of an organisation may be cancelled; expand the grounds by which the Federal Court may order an organisation be put under administration; and introduce a public interest test for union amalgamations.

The EI Bill has been subject to scrutiny by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights which determined that a number of the proposed amendments were likely to be incompatible with the right to freedom of association.

In accordance with the Australian Charter of Employment Rights the AIER is opposed to the passage of the Ensuring Integrity Bill. The Charter provides:
• Workers have the right to form and join trade unions for the protection of their occupational, social and economic interests.
• Workers have the right to require their union to perform and observe its rules, and to have the activities of their union conducted free from employer and governmental interference.
• Every worker has the right to be represented by their union in the workplace.

The AIER hopes crossbenchers can withstand the pressure to limit the human rights of Australian workers. The AIER is concerned that renewed antagonism within industrial relations will ensure a failure to achieve a system based in fairness. The AIER calls for genuine tripartite relations in the field, with all parties respecting the legitimacy and role of the other. The integrity of the system depends on it.