Everyone at work is protected by a series of basic legal rights. Some protect you against the worst kinds of exploitation and unfair treatment. Some give you positive rights that provide some choice, and some voice, in your working life. Some are there to ensure your employer keeps his or her side of the basic bargain – you work and in return you get paid and receive other benefits.
Most large employers are careful that their general employment practices stay within the law - unfortunately changes to the law mean that workers now have fewer protections. Many large employers have a personnel or human resources department and should therefore have the expertise to ensure that they know and implement their legal obligations. But that does not mean that everyone in the organization will always follow company policy.
There are still good and bad large employers. Some will treat their staff well, have a relatively good relationship with the unions and offer wages and conditions well above the legal minimum. Others stay just on the right side of the law, discourage union involvement and worker participation. These companies consider even small advances in worker entitlements and rights as red tape and burdens on business.
Many small firms are good employers. Small business organizations claim that their staff are like "family". But many others are not good employers. Such employers do not comply with awards, and other relevant legislation - some depend on poor wages and conditions for the success of their business. Others simply do not know their legal obligations as employers, or do not know how to respond to a difficult situation.
Issues Covered by law
Because of our State and Federal system, workers in Victoria are covered by a range of different laws.
For All Workers
- The right to join a union
- Wage rates (either minimum wage, Award rates, or rates as per an Enterprise Agreement)
- Protection against Discrimination (for reasons of sex, sexual orientation, disability, marital status, carer status, pregnancy, age, physical features, religion, political beliefs, membership of trade union, etc)
- Protection from Sexual harassment
- A safe and healthy workplace (Occupational Health and Safety legislation)
- Workers compensation
- Employer paid superannuation contributions
- Protection against unfair dismissal (subject to certain conditions, including employment of six months)
All workers are entitled to the above conditions, either under state law or the Fair Work Australia federal law.
For permanent workers:
- Protection against unfair dismissal (if employed for at least six months - or 12 months if the employer has fewer than 15 employees) See information and advice on the Fair Work Commission website, here.
- Annual leave
- Public holidays
- Sick leave
- Maternity (parental) leave - 1 year's unpaid leave (for either the mother or the father)
- Long service leave
For casual workers:
- Casual loading - to compensate for annual leave, sick leave and the like - IF covered by an Award or Enterprise Agreement. These loadings were often removed in AWAs - Australian Workplace Agreements - and never properly restored.
- Limited access to long service leave - legal advice should be sought to clarify if an entitlement exists in individual cases.
- Protection from unfair dismissal (if the person has been regularly employed over the previous six months, or 12 months if the employer has fewer than 15 employees)
For workers on Awards or Registered Agreements:
- Penalty rates (weekend, overtime, casual rates, etc)
- Meal breaks
- Hours of work
- Redundancy payments and entitlements
- Training leave
- Processes for dispute resolution
- Personal Carers leave
- Annual leave loading and additional leave for seven day shift workers.
All workers are entitled to 10 National Employment Standards Conditions (for more information on these, go to the Fair Work Ombudsman website).
For more information regarding the above, go to
- The ACTU website, especially the Rights at Work section of the Australian Unions website, and the ACTU site for students WorkSite. The ACTU also has Helpline, phone 1300 362 223.
- The VTHC website - young people can call the VTHC Young Workers Centre for information and advice on 1800 714 754
- FairWork Commission website - which has information on Awards and Agreements, Terminations and how to apply for unfair dismissal, and more. There's a Helpline - phone 1300 799 675
- Fair Work Ombudsman - for information on pay, awards, employment conditions, leave, termination and more. The site has a number of Best Practice Guides for the workplace
- Job Watch - an independent organisation that provides employment rights information for workers.
Occupational Health and Safety
All workers in Victoria are covered by occupational health and safety legislation. Occupational health and safety is mainly a jurisdictional responsibility. This means that for most workers in Victoria, the relevant piece of legislation is the Victorian Occupational Health and Safety Act (2004) . Find out more on the OHS rights of workers in Victoria.
However, if you are employed by a Commonwealth Government department or by Government Business enterprises, eg: Telstra, Australia Post, Reserve Bank, Defence Industries then the relevant act is the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Act 1991 and Standards - For information to the Comcare site
Workers compensation is also a jurisdictional matter. Most workers in Victoria are covered by the Workplace Injury Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2013. Again, those working for a Commonwealth department or in a Commonwealth business enterprise come under the Comcare system.
Unions and employment rights:
Resolving disputes is normally much easier in a company where unions are recognised. In these workplaces, there will be agreed processes in place for resolving both individual and collective grievances. There will be procedures for dealing with disciplinary issues. Workers in unionised workplaces have a better chance of knowing what their rights are and of being represented at the workplace.
How to raise an issue:
It can be much more difficult to raise an issue in a non-unionised workplace. While all workers have legal rights that can be enforced, this does not mean that doing so will be easy. The employment relationship is fairly one-sided, especially if you are on your own. If your employer wants to treat you badly because you have tried to raise a problem or an issue, then as long as they don't do it too openly, they will probably get away with it - unless you have the support of your fellow members and union. You have the right to be represented by union officials.
Depending on the issue, you may be able to raise the problem with an outside body (for example wit health and safety issues). If an issue is an occupational health and safety issue, then there are provisions under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, 2004 which allow a health and safety representative to deal with issues directly, call in assistance from an outside person, such as the union OHS Officer, or a WorkSafe inspector.
People should stand up for their rights. Bad employers need to be tackled. Many problems can be resolved at the workplace with the help of your union and the support of fellow members. Get active!
Sometimes, if the problem can't be solved at the workplace, then action needs to be taken to another level, for example to the Industrial Relations Commission, or the Equal Opportunity Commission. The issue may end up in court. Action can end up being very lengthy - but nevertheless even long and difficult cases may end up clarifying the law and so help thousands of other people. By being a member of a union, you will get advice and support and in some instances, the Union will provide the legal resources to run the case at no cost to the member.
For more information on OHS legislation, go to the Law section of the website.
To view the full text of all Victorian legislation, click here.
- The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights .
- The International Labour Organisation site, with information on international labour standards , and the Declaration of Human Rights at Work.
Last Amended January 2022