Sidoti urges Williams to enforce anti-discrimination laws

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Sidoti urges Williams to enforce anti-discrimination laws

Federal laws should be amended to ensure that employers who discriminate against trade union members are brought to book, according to Human Rights Commissioner Chris Sidoti.

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Federal laws should be amended to ensure that employers who discriminate against trade union members are brought to book, according to Human Rights Commissioner Chris Sidoti.

In a report to federal Attorney-General Daryl Williams, Sidoti said current federal law was inadequate in that, although membership of trade unions was a ground for discrimination under the Act, that discrimination was not unlawful and there was no enforceable penalty for those who did discriminate.

The members of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission attempt to conciliate complaints, and then make recommendations, but these are not binding.

Sidoti wrote the report as a follow-up to a case he investigated where three men claimed they were harassed and forced out of employment with a metals company after they joined the National Union of Workers.

The workers, employed by O’Brien Metal Products Pty Ltd, joined the union in concern over perceived unsafe working conditions. No-one in the workplace had ever been in the union before.

The men – the union delegate, co-delegate and an ordinary member - told Commissioner Sidoti that months before they joined the managing director had warned them that 'if a union rep walked in the door, he would shut up shop and close down, and re-open somewhere else, or under another name'.

Closer to the time, they were again told that unionism on site meant the company would 'play by the book, reduce people's wages that are above award wages, ban smoking, mobile phones, and stop talking, altogether make life a lot harder for us'.

Despite company witnesses telling Commissioner Sidoti management had given its 'blessing' to workers joining the NUW and had not made the threats, the men reported treatment after joining the union ranging from being 'cold-shouldered' to having phone calls stopped, while they continued to be put through for non-union members.

The company said the workers’ unionism was 'irrelevant' to their redundancies, and their selection was made only because of changes to work practice. But Commissioner Sidoti noted the company’s 'cavalier' approach to the retrenchments – not consulting the union despite strict procedures laid out in the award.

After the retrenchments, other workers began a strike, which ended in a NSW Industrial Relations Commission hearing. Then Vice-President, Justice John Cahill, recommended the men’s employment be continued and negotiations on the retrenchment commence.

One of the men didn’t return to work, saying he 'knew' he would be harassed by the company. The others went back to what they said was constant threats, harassment (including a drum containing fire being tipped on one man’s leg on the picket line), and demeaning behaviour (being followed around and taunted after returning from a sick day), until they resigned.

Commissioner Sidoti said on the balance of probabilities, trade unionism had brought about or contributed to their departures, and he recommended a $5000 compensation payment for each man.

The company is now under liquidation, so its lawyers were unable to say whether any action had been taken following Sidoti’s original report.

Commissioner Sidoti said discrimination on the basis of trade union activity, religion, political opinion, social origin, medical record, criminal record and sexual orientation could be addressed by enacting 'comprehensive federal anti-discrimination law. . .to ensure effective protection from discrimination . . . through enforceable remedies'.

His report, which the Attorney-General will table in Parliament, is on the HREOC website, at www.hreoc.gov.au/human_rights/other/index.html

 
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