A push to bolster workers’ rights in the Territory through the ACT Human Rights Act (HRA) has been tabled in the Legislative Assembly.
Labor backbencher Bec Cody moved amendments to the HRA in what she described as an Australian first, saying current legislation is not specific enough, and that workers’ rights need to be seen in the same light as human rights.
“Workers’ rights are vaguely covered in both the HRA and the Discrimination Act, but there is nothing specific,” Ms Cody told Region Media.
“By amending the HRA to include workers’ rights, we are making sure that we are protecting workers with specific clauses [within the Act]. It is about reinforcing that workers’ rights are human rights.
“Everyone deserves the right to be able to have a job, choose their own occupation or profession freely, to just and favourable conditions of work.”
However, lecturer of workplace law at the University of Canberra Jane Diedricks says that workers’ rights in the ACT are covered extensively under existing legislation.
Ms Diedricks told Region Media that both the Fair Work Act (FWA) and Discrimination Act were quite detailed and provide a number of forums and avenues to address violations of a worker’s rights. She said that although she had not seen the bill, an important part of this legislation was the need to adequately define which workers needed further protection under the HRA.
“Wage theft is something that is addressed in the FWA, which ACT employees do have access to, and of course discrimination laws. ACT workers also have access to those mechanisms,” Ms Diedricks said.
“In discrimination law, we actually have a very robust avenue for all workers in relation to bullying and things like that, so I think the key issue here is defining what worker we are talking about and then we would be able to make a very firm decision as to whether we need another protection provided under the HRA.
“What I have noticed in media reports is that there are suggestions that some people are falling through the cracks. I think what the bill will need to carefully define is who those people are.”
She warned about unintended consequences, saying that access to justice needed to be as easy as possible.
“This is one of the issues that is coming up quite a lot now. We want to make access to justice as streamlined as possible,” she said.
“One of the ways we ensure access to justice is to ensure that those avenues or pathways are really clear so people know where they can have their wrongs redressed. So in that regard, if we are adding another forum we are going to have to be really confident that it is something we actually need and will not further confuse people.”
Ms Cody said that because every piece of legislation that goes through the ACT Assembly needs to comply with the HRA, adding workers’ rights to the Act would add a further layer of protection for all employees in all pieces of future legislation.
She also said that there was a precedent in the ACT for employees using the HRA to defend their rights as workers.
“I don’t have a list of those cases but I have been informed that there were cases run in the ACT previously where employees did use the HRA as it currently stands to help support them in their ability to be protected,” she said.
In 2008, the ACT Human Rights Commission tried to stop defence contractor Raytheon Australia from being granted an exemption from the Discrimination Act. Raytheon was seeking to exclude employment to some nationalities in order to comply with US regulations prohibiting the distribution of defence data to nationals of certain countries.
The exemption was eventually upheld.
The inclusion of economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR) was previously flagged by the ACT Bill of Rights Consultative Committee in 2003 before the HRA became law in 2004, but it was subsequently left out of the final bill.
The bill was introduced to the Assembly on Wednesday and has been referred to the Justice and Community Safety Committee for examination. The Committee will report back to the Assembly by the end of February 2020.
The Greens have given tentative support for the bill, telling Region Media that they have long backed the inclusion of more ESCR in the HRA, but they “need to look at the drafting details in Ms Cody’s bill, but are certainly starting from a supportive place”.
The Canberra Liberals say they are looking over the details of the bill and will await the outcome of the committee report.