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Know your rights: What to do when the unions come knocking

27 March 2014

When the union knocks on your door with the intention of conducting a workplace investigation, are you obliged to let them in?

Although some employers experience difficulty in dealing with unions, for employees unions can be highly important and can help to protect morale and employer-employee relationships, which also benefit the employer in the longer term.

When a union representative requests access to your business, it is important to know your rights and obligations to ensure a beneficial relationship - rather than a butting of heads.

"Rights of entry have been around for some time but quite often businesses are not familiar with it. It can come as quite a shock when a business realises the extent of the right of entry that is available and the procedures that are associated with it," employment lawyer Mark Branagan told HR Daily on 18 March.

Employee Relations 101 I ER101 training iHR Australia v2 18.2.14

Under the current Fair Work Act, employers are required to allow union entry in matters relating to occupational health and safety. Additionally, union representatives can request transport to the workplace if the site is a remote location, such as a mine or oil rig.

If you believe a union has exceeded the amount of visits reasonably expected, you can lodge a complaint with the Fair Work Commission over the frequency of union entry.

Mr Branagan has urged employers to ensure they understand the laws governing union entry in addition to being prepared to act under the pressure of a union investigation:

"I think the Fair Work Act is drafted in reasonably plain English, and that the sections that we are dealing with here in part three and four of the Fair Work Act are quite straightforward," Mr Branagan explained.

"I urge everyone who deals with this area to read it and understand the legislation."

One area where workers may increasingly be seeking guidance and support from unions is workplace bullying, particularly with the recent changes to the Fair Work Act. At present union representatives may be involved in workplace investigations on some level, offering support and advocacy to those involved and potentially acting as support persons during interviews with workers.

However, the National Union of Workers is currently seeking to extend union involvement in bullying matters and a Fair Work Commission full bench hearing is set to take place next week on whether unions can lodge bullying complaints with the Commission on behalf of workers.

With this in mind, it is highly important that workplace investigations follow the principles of procedural fairness and are conducted by a suitably trained, impartial investigator who is prepared to liaise appropriately with the parties involved, including unions where necessary.

iHR Australia provides independent workplace investigation services and Workplace Investigation Officer training across Australia.

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