When the Australian union movement chose Your Rights at Work as the slogan of the campaign to get rid of WorkChoices, it wasn’t plucked out of thin air.

Make no mistake: WorkChoices was an attack on a basic human right.

Today, on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it’s worth reminding ourselves of what we take for granted here in Australia, and how easily it can be ripped away.

The first trade unions emerged in the developed world during the Industrial Revolution, and for many decades unionists fought to have their rights protected by law. Further rapid development in the 20th century led to millions more workers around the world mobilising into unions, where they faced official persecution and harassment from governments who were often closely-aligned with powerful business interests. Democratic trade unions were also an anathema to totalitarian regimes.

This was the background to the inclusion in 1948 of Article 23 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work, and to protection against unemployment.

It goes on to say that everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
The Declaration enshrines the foundation of a living wage, supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

And finally, it declares that everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of their interests.

In one way or another, all of these rights were threatened by WorkChoices which, at its core, opposed any kind of collective action.

Even prior to WorkChoices, Australian law fell short of the internationally accepted standards for freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively. The Howard Government arrogantly ignored repeated requests from the International Labour Organisation to review and amend the Workplace Relations Act.

Under the Howard Government we saw workers’ rights gradually whittled away, beginning in 1996 with the introduction of Australian Workplace Agreements, continuing through the waterfront dispute, the Building Industry Royal Commission, and a series of other legislative changes, culminating in the WorkChoices laws of 2006.

WorkChoices breached the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the following ways:

  • Australian Workplace Agreements were used to undermine unions and collective bargaining
  • Workers on individual contracts were often worse off than before
  • Freedom of association in the construction industry was restricted
  • Employers had a free rein to refuse to negotiate with unions
  • The net effect of all this was that wages and conditions for many workers went backwards. For the year to the end of September, productivity fell and wages share of the economy hit a 44-year low while profits reached their highest level ever recorded.

    At its core, the union and community “Your Rights at Work” campaign was about the restoration of these fundamental human rights. The Fair Work Bill, passed last week by the House of Representatives, delivers on that campaign and begins turning the tide back in favour of workers’ rights.

    New AWAs are now banned, and the Fair Work Bill will make collective bargaining the foundation of our industrial relations system. It will provide a safety net of 10 national employment standards, augmented by an additional 10 in awards. Rights for workers of membership to and representation by unions will be strengthened, and employers will no longer be able to refuse to negotiate in good faith with unions where employees choose to be so represented.

    But there are some remaining challenges. While the Australian Building and Construction Commission remains, building workers’ have fewer rights than the rest of society. Apart from punitive ability to drag workers in for interrogation, the Act that oversees the ABCC places undue restrictions on collective bargaining and industrial action. It is an affront to Article 23.

    The declaration is a living breathing document. The UN still monitors human rights and union rights, as part of its broader agenda to promote democracy, peace and stability. As we saw in Zimbabwe last week, when the nation’s union leaders were arrested, labour rights cannot be taken for granted. Those political conservatives who are wedded to the ideology behind WorkChoices should remember that in their blind hatred of collective action they are attacking a basic human right.

    Workers’ rights are human rights and will continue to be a barometer of a healthy democracy.

    This is why last year’s election result and its resounding rejection of WorkChoices was  a victory not just for working Australians, but for human rights.

    With the passage of the Fair Work Bill we will reclaim ground but as with many other rights-based campaigns, including those for the rights of indigenous Australians and for refugees, eternal vigilance is necessary.

    ACTU President Sharan Burrow is also President of the International Centre for Trade Union Rights and a member of the Governing Body of the International Labour Organisation