Last Updated: Friday, 20 October 2017, 11:43 GMT

The Global State of Workers' Rights - Australia

Publisher Freedom House
Publication Date 31 August 2010
Cite as Freedom House, The Global State of Workers' Rights - Australia, 31 August 2010, available at: [accessed 21 October 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Workers can organize and bargain collectively. Strikes are legal only during the period when a contract is being negotiated, and strikes in essential services – such as law enforcement, air-traffic control, and sanitation – are regulated by federal and state laws. Almost all unions are affiliated with the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

Australia is a founding member of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and has a long history of trade unionism. However, union membership is declining. Today, only about 20 percent of all workers are union members, down from more than 40 percent two decades ago. Experts attribute this decline to changes in the structure of the economy and the adoption of laws that provide a certain level of protection for rights in the workplace regardless of union membership.

The WorkChoices Act (WCA) of 2006, an initiative of Prime Minister John Howard's Liberal Party-led coalition government, was unpopular not only with the labor movement, but also with religious and community groups. They contended that the WCA made it more difficult for workers to strike and easier for employers to force employees into enterprise-level workplace agreements, as opposed to engaging in collective bargaining with unions. After coming to power in the December 2007 elections, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's Labor Party government moved to repeal the WCA, and Parliament voted to do so in March 2009. In July, lawmakers passed the Fair Work Act (FWA), which recognizes legal roles for unions and employer organizations, protects workers from dismissal based on union membership (or nonmembership), and sets guidelines for industrial action. However, critics argued that the law did not comply with ILO standards on the right to strike.

Australia is a commonwealth of six states and two territories, and the federal government has limited authority to enact labor laws or measures that define employment relationships. The constitution largely confines its purview to "conciliation and arbitration for the prevention and settlement of individual disputes extending beyond the limits of any one state." The states and territories are responsible for labor issues including occupational health and safety, job security, and wage rates. As a result, labor laws vary across the country. Furthermore, Australia is a common-law country, and courts at all levels can interpret labor statutes and render decisions that influence labor-related matters.

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