New laws: ‘Right to disconnect’ and stronger reps’ rights

The Federal Government has passed three tranches of industrial relations laws to get wages moving and provide better protections for working people.

But all of these improvements didn’t just materialise in parliament. They follow years of campaigning by union members dedicated to ensuring fair wages, secure jobs and better working conditions.

IEU members have been front and centre during debates on all these new laws – sharing their powerful stories with politicians, in Senate hearings and to the media about the changes needed in our schools, preschools and kindergartens.

Closing Loopholes #2: Right to disconnect

Passed in February 2024, the latest round of reforms delivers important gains for workers across many industries: a new ‘right to disconnect’ rule is especially relevant to school staff who are drowning under unrelenting workloads.

The right to refuse work-related contact outside normal hours builds on similar protections won by IEU members in Western Australia and Queensland through collective bargaining in 2023.  

Employer requests, parental queries and student contact often encroach on the personal time of staff. The growth of mobile technology and assumed 24/7 connectivity have only made this worse. But principals aren’t permanently ‘on call’. They need valuable downtime. 

While there is still much to be done to address workload pressures in schools, a ‘right to disconnect’ will help overworked school staff by providing a right to refuse to monitor, read or respond to employer or work-related contact after hours or on weekends.

School communities – including employers, parents and students – will need to come together to ensure a clear understanding and compliance with these important new parameters.

Closing Loopholes #1: Stronger rights for union reps

The Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Closing Loopholes) Bill 2023, passed in December 2023, includes changes that grant stronger rights for union representatives in the workplace (called delegates under the legislation).

These changes include access to paid training during normal working hours as well as reasonable access to communications with members and potential members. This can mean sending emails about union matters to staff lists that include non-members, and inviting non-members to attend union meetings.

The new laws prevent employers from unreasonably refusing to deal with union reps, from misleading them and from hindering, obstructing or preventing the exercise of their rights under the Fair Work Act.

From July 2024 new enterprise agreements and all modern awards will be required to have specific clauses on delegates’ rights.

Along with delegates rights, this new legislation also included criminalisation of intentional wage theft and increased civil penalties for inadvertent wage theft and superannuation theft.

Tranche 1: Secure jobs, better pay

The first round of changes was an early Christmas gift in December 2022. The Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Secure Jobs, Better Pay) Act 2022 means:

  • more options for multi-employer bargaining to get wages moving (this is important for IEU members in the early childhood education and care sector)
  • limits on the use of fixed-term contracts and the promotion of secure jobs
  • long-overdue action on pay equity and measures to reduce the gender pay gap and prohibiting pay secrecy, and
  • a stronger independent umpire to help resolve long-running disputes and enforce genuine, good faith bargaining.

Taken together, all three rounds of reforms represent the biggest changes to workplace laws in the past 25 years, and go a long way to restoring fairness and creating a level playing field.

Monica Crouch Journalist

This update is part of the March 2024 edition of Headlines enewsletter. Headlines is distributed to IEU principal members three times per year. You can read past editions of Headlines on our enews homepage or stay across all our updates via on LinkedIn.