Restoring balance: ‘Right to disconnect’ and stronger rights for union reps

IEU members welcome transformative changes to industrial relations laws that aim to reduce stress and burnout and enhance union representation in the workplace.

In a landmark overhaul of workplace laws, the federal Labor government has introduced reforms granting the ‘right to disconnect’ from unreasonable work-related communications outside of standard working hours.

This move is part of the federal government’s broader “Closing Loopholes” legislation aimed at enhancing workers’ rights through the Fair Work Act.

After persistent advocacy by unions and their members for fair pay, job security, and improved working conditions, these changes mark a victory for teachers and support staff. They set a precedent for workers’ rights in Australia.

IEU members have been active, engaging with politicians, participating in Senate hearings and appearing in the media and social media to emphasise the necessity of these reforms in educational settings, including primary and secondary schools, preschools and long day care centres.

Understanding the ‘right to disconnect’

Passed in February 2024, as part of the ‘Closing Loopholes #2’ changes to industrial relations laws, the right to disconnect delivers important gains for working people across many industries, but is especially relevant to school staff who are drowning under unrelenting workloads. It empowers employees to decline work-related contact after hours unless it is deemed unreasonable to do so.

This new right comes into force on 26 August 2024; for businesses with fewer than 15 employees, it commences on 26 August 2025.

IEU members, in collaboration with the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), have highlighted the undue pressure of extended work hours and the encroachment of work obligations into personal time. The government has acknowledged these concerns and enacted legislation to address them.

Refusing, responding and “reasonable”

Imagine wrapping up a busy day and sitting down to dinner with family or friends. Your phone buzzes and it’s an email from your principal, asking you to send details about a class you took earlier in the week. How should you respond?

Under the new legislation commencing in August, if you receive work-related messages or calls from your school or employer outside your working hours, you can refuse to respond, unless that refusal is unreasonable. This right extends beyond your employer to include third-party work-related communications, such as those from parents or students.

Whether a refusal is unreasonable will depend on several factors, including the reason for the contact, how the contact is made and the level of disruption it causes, whether the employee is paid to be available outside normal working hours, the nature of the employee’s role and responsibility and the employee’s personal circumstances.

While the practical application of this right will be clarified through future legal interpretations, we anticipate exceptions may apply in urgent health and safety situations or when employees are compensated for their availability.

Protection from retaliation

The reforms also introduce protections against employer retaliation for employees exercising their right to disconnect, ensuring staff can maintain a healthy work-life balance without fear of adverse consequences.

If an employer seeks to penalise you for exercising your right to disconnect, talk to other members and see if it’s happening to them too, and contact the union so we can help. This right is a vital step towards safeguarding the wellbeing of school staff.

The reforms also include a dispute-resolution process so employees and employers can resolve issues around the right to disconnect.

The Fair Work Commission plans to implement ‘right to disconnect’ terms in all modern awards by 23 August 2024.

Stronger rights for union reps

Imagine you’re an IEU rep at your school where an important issue has arisen regarding how staff are paid, but you are concerned about using the school’s email system to understand the extent of the issue and organise a meeting.

As a result of the new tranche of changes that are now in place, reps now have the right to reasonable access to communication tools, making it easier to organise meetings with your colleagues to discuss important workplace matters during work hours. For union reps, these changes translate into more accessible and effective representation.

These legislative changes strengthen the rights of union reps (referred to as delegates in the legislation) to advocate for the industrial interests of their members. Key rights for union reps under the updated legislation include:

  • Representation: Delegates can now represent both union members and potential members, especially in disputes with employers.
  • Communication: There is a provision for reasonable communication with members and potential members regarding industrial interests.
  • Workplace access: Delegates are entitled to reasonable access to the workplace and its facilities to represent industrial interests effectively.
  • Training time: Delegates can access reasonable paid time during normal working hours for union-related training, with an exception for small businesses.

The term ‘reasonable’ in these contexts will be evaluated based on various factors, including the employer’s size, nature, and the resources available at the workplace.

What employers cannot do

Employers are now prohibited from:

  • unreasonably refusing to engage with workplace reps
  • making false or misleading statements to a workplace rep, and
  • hindering or obstructing the exercise of a rep’s rights.

Should an employer infringe upon these prohibitions, there is a civil remedy provision. The burden of proof lies with the employer to demonstrate that their actions were reasonable.

Union communication

Moreover, the reforms enable reps to communicate union-related information to all staff, including non-members, and to invite them to union meetings. This broader reach is crucial for fostering a more inclusive and informed union environment.

By July 2024, all new enterprise agreements and modern awards must include specific clauses that outline these rights for delegates, further cementing their role and the protections afforded to them.

These legislative enhancements are a significant stride forward in supporting the rights of union representatives, ensuring they can serve the best interests of their members with greater authority and security. This makes crystal clear your right to talk union business at work.

What the reforms mean in practice

The recent reforms in workplace laws are a game-changer for teachers and support staff. They are not just about legal rights; they’re about improving quality of life, respecting personal time and strengthening union representation in the workplace. Here are some of the key gains:

Control over personal time: With the ‘right to disconnect’, the obligation to check and respond to work-related messages after hours is gone. This means your time outside work is yours to enjoy, uninterrupted by the demands of the workplace.

Stronger representation: Union reps have been granted more robust tools to share union information and advocacy. These enhanced rights ensure reps can organise, communicate, and advocate effectively for the collective interests of staff without unnecessary barriers.

Reminder of your rights: These new rights serve as a protective shield, allowing you to disconnect from work without the worry of repercussions.

For union reps: The reforms are a call to action. They provide you with a stronger platform to support and represent your colleagues, ensuring your voices are heard and your rights are upheld.

These changes foster a supportive and sustainable work environment in which the wellbeing of teachers and support staff is a priority.

The IEU is proud to have played a part in the passage of these important new laws. We urge you to enjoy your well-deserved personal time and embrace the enhanced ability to advocate for a better workplace.

See also IE magazine, ‘Big wins in new IR laws’, packaged with this edition of Newsmonth.

Neal Bent
Industrial Officer