In brief - In dealing with unregistered unions, employers in Queensland should ensure direct communication with their employees as a means of preserving the relationship with them

Australia's 'Red Union' and other unregistered employee representatives appear to be changing the industrial landscape as they pursue registrations from employees within the medical, education and media sectors, prompting fresh reforms from commissions and consumer regulators alike. 

The Queensland state government recently accepted all the recommendations tabled by former Queensland Industrial Relations Commissioner John Thompson and former Attorney-General Linda Lavarch in a recent review of the Industrial Relations Act 2016 (Qld) to address this new industrial participant.

The Industrial Relations and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2022 has now been moved through Parliament, giving legislative effect to the recommendations made in Thompson's report. 

Recommendations 8-15 deal specifically with the primacy of 'registered organisations' to represent employees as a central feature of Australian industrial relations systems. Importantly, the review submits that "there is no benefit from having some provisions that give recognition to the coverage of unregistered associations when they are not asked to fulfil the responsibilities that registered organisations must fulfil." 

To protect workers, registered organisations must fulfil rigorous reporting and governance requirements. Compliance is rewarded with exclusive rights to represent the industrial interests of their members in certain industries. According to the report, 'trade unions' that are not registered, and have no intention of becoming so, are "in effect, wanting some of the benefits but none of the responsibilities". 

Where unregistered organisations have drawn on a liberal construction of the term 'association' under the Act, their ability to represent members may soon be legislated out of existence. Moreover, the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission will be able to make orders restricting such organisations' communication with potential members. Financial penalties may be imposed for non-compliance.

What can employers do now about dealing with unregistered unions?

If you need to engage with unregistered trade unions as representatives of your employees, you should keep your employees directly involved in all communications with those unregistered unions to ensure that your employees receive your communications and understand what you propose.

Some of the proforma correspondence provided by unregistered unions in response to issues like vaccine mandates have not reflected an employer's attempts at engaging with employees and, according to the Commission, consequently has negatively impacted on employer and employee relationships.

By staying in direct contact with your employees, unless there is a reason not to (eg, illness or injury), you can try to preserve employee relationships and ensure the employee has an opportunity to respond for themselves.

This is commentary published by Colin Biggers & Paisley for general information purposes only. This should not be relied on as specific advice. You should seek your own legal and other advice for any question, or for any specific situation or proposal, before making any final decision. The content also is subject to change. A person listed may not be admitted as a lawyer in all States and Territories. © Colin Biggers & Paisley, Australia 2024.

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