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The important role of Union delegates

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At Andersons, we firmly believe that the men and women who become Union Delegates perform an invaluable service to all staff, and their efforts undeniably lead to fairer and safer workplaces.

The Delegate is a workplace volunteer and colleague and is the person other Union members come to at a workplace when they believe they have a problem or difficulty at work. The Delegate then works with the member to either fix the problem or help the member understand their rights and obligations within the workplace.

The Delegate is a very important part of any Union as they are the first point of contact for members who have problems or need advice. If the problem is big or serious, or if the advice is too complex, the Delegate then puts members in touch with the Union directly.

Although Delegates receive no payment from the Union for the role they play, in some workplaces they may be entitled to additional privileges including the use of the work phone, time 'off the job' to conduct meetings, etc..

For a new Delegate, some key tasks include:

  • Being identifiable to members and acting as a first point of contact for members with workplace issues;
  • Distributing Union material and publications (including bulletins);
  • Ensuring Union notices are pinned up in the workplace and kept up to date;
  • Identifying new people on the shop floor for contact and potential recruitment;
  • Keeping an eye out for changes to personnel or personnel details.

This last two dot points are particularly important for the long term viability and progress of the Union and the benefits it can bring to its members.

Delegates should also be constantly on the lookout for workplace hazards and risks to health and safety, and should inform the Work Health and Safety ("WHS") committees about safety issues that may arise. In fact, it is expected that Delegates either directly participate in these committees, or notify the committee of issues that come to their own or their members' attention.

It is not expected that a Delegate knows everything about the intricate workings of the specific workplace; nor are they expected to be an expert in industrial relations and WHS laws and processes. Delegates can and should learn more each day as they perform their role. Even the most experienced Delegate should adopt an attitude that there is still more to learn and more to contribute.

But with experience comes the confidence to be more proactive in the workplace. More experienced Delegates sometimes find themselves:

  • Advising members of workplace rights and entitlements;
  • Handling issues (including disciplinary matters) on behalf of members by negotiating with supervisors or managers;
  • Meeting with members to discuss industrial and workplace issues, or collective agreement campaigns;
  • Monitoring implementations of collective agreement provisions and company policies.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it shows some of the important responsibilities of Delegates.

Under Federal Industrial Relations legislation, Delegates rights include:

  • Engaging in the ordinary duties of being a Delegate without detriment or discrimination in their employment;
  • Formal recognition by the employer that elected or appointed Delegates speak on behalf of their colleagues;
  • Bargaining collectively on behalf of those they represent;
  • Being consulted with by the employer in relation to workplace changes;
  • Meeting with their Union at the workplace during break time;
  • Consulting with colleagues during work-time in relation to a concern or dispute;
  • Accessing reasonable facilities (such as telephone, facsimile, photocopying, internet and e-mail) for the purpose of carrying out ordinary delegate duties.

A specific Award or Enterprise Agreement may even allow paid time for the Delegate to attend Union education, as well as other rights and entitlements.

If a Delegate feels they have been mistreated by their employer or even other colleagues because of their involvement with the Union or their role as a Delegate, they should seek legal advice immediately. The WHS laws which became effective at the beginning of 2013 contain strict provisions to deal with discriminatory, coercive and misleading conduct in relation to WHS matters.

Therefore if a Delegate performs a role relating to the health and safety of workers, and is subjected to discrimination by their employer, the employer has likely committed an offence under the WHS laws. The employer may be liable to pay severe fines, or even face criminal prosecution.

Also, the new law now allows Union officials (that is, paid Union appointed representatives or employees) to attend worksites to investigate non-compliance in relation to WHS matters. So if it appears there is a serious risk to the health and safety of employees or others at a workplace, the Delegate should call the Union and encourage an official to attend the worksite.

Furthermore, under the Federal Industrial Relations legislation, strict protections exist to prohibit discrimination against an employee who happens to be affiliated with a Union, or performs a function associated with their role as a Union Delegate.

At Andersons, we believe that the important role of Union Delegates should be strongly supported within all industries and workplaces. All efforts should be made to ensure they can go about their business without fear of victimisation or discrimination, for the benefit of all workers.

If you want to know more about Union Delegates or you feel there has been a contravention of WHS or industrial relations laws at your workplace, contact today's blog writer.

Please note, this Blog is posted in Adelaide, South Australia by Andersons Solicitors. It relates to South Australian legislation. Andersons Solicitors is a medium sized law firm servicing metropolitan Adelaide and regional South Australia across all areas of law for individuals and businesses.

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