Australia/ 5.1 General legislation  

5.1.6 Labour laws

Labour law has been a highly contested area in Australia over the past decade.  The Commonwealth is able to make laws in relation to industrial relations based on the corporations power in the constitution, but the states also make such laws, particularly in relation to workplace safety, hours of operation and so on.  The Howard Government moved to make substantive changes to existing labour laws such that provisions governing dismissal, the rights of unions in the workplace, the role of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission in resolving disputes, and the position of the states in the industrial relations framework were all called into question.  The outcome was a piece of legislation entitled Workplace Relations Amendment Act 2005, commonly known as Work Choices, and an Act, which undid a number of the provisions of the Workplace Relations Act 1996.  Key among these were the deeming of unfair dismissal laws as invalid for workers in companies with more than 100 employees; the removal of the so-called ‘no disadvantage test’ which had hitherto protected workers who were affected by changes in industrial legislation and, of particular concern to the unions, the curtailing of the right to strike, of the rights to enter workplaces and, most contentious, the removal of the role of unions in the industrial bargaining process by requiring workers to lodge agreements directly with a new Workplace Authority, rather than the Industrial Relations Commission which had been the traditional recipient.  Employees were encouraged to enter Australian Workers’ Agreements, rather than be part of collective agreements. 

The legislation was hugely contentious for both individual employees, and the union movement.  It became a key issue in the Federal Election of 2007, as the Australian Labor Party (ALP) vowed to abolish it.  Labor under Kevin Rudd subsequently won the election, with Work Choices being one of the biggest issues of the campaign, and repealed the entirety of the Workplace Relations Amendment Act 2005 (as amended from the Workplace Relations Act 1996) shortly after assuming office.  The new Fair Work Act 2009 was the resultant mechanism put in place to govern Australia’s labour laws.   For further details of the Act see

All Australian employees, including cultural workers, are covered by this framework. However, these laws do not apply to those who are self-employed, freelance or engaged as contractors. Foreign cultural workers are allowed to work in the performing arts and film and television sector only if they have been granted a special purpose Entertainment Visa.  To obtain this visa they need to be sponsored, usually by their prospective employer or producer, who in some cases may need to demonstrate they are not able to employ an Australian national in the role.

Chapter published: 27-12-2013