Australia Considers Protecting Time Off for Climate-Related Protests

By Katie Nadworny November 22, 2019
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​Verity Paterson works as a senior producer at the socially progressive digital creative agency Liquid Interactive in Brisbane, Australia, and she's worried about the environment. "It's definitely in my lifetime that things are going to look extremely different," Paterson said. "I haven't been to the Great Barrier Reef yet. I'm worried that by the time I organize that holiday, I will have to be very selective where I choose to go because so much of it is in trouble."

So, when Paterson heard about the worldwide climate strike planned for Sept. 20, she knew she would attend. There was one potential problem, though: Sept. 20 was a Friday, and Paterson was scheduled to be at work.

"Usually when I have protests coming up for climate-related things, I put out a group message: 'This is coming up, if anyone wants to come,' " Paterson said, referring to a group chat among her co-workers. "But I didn't do it this time because I did feel kind of awkward that it was during work."

An amendment moving through Australia's parliament could potentially address this conflict. The Fair Work Act from 2009 protects, among other things, the ability of employees to take collective action for work-related issues, and the amendment would widen that coverage to include climate-related causes. 

The basis of the bill is to give protection to employees who undertake an "industrial action" for the purposes of opposing climate change, said Nicola Martin, an attorney at McCabe Curwood in Sydney.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Introduction to the Global Human Resources Discipline]

Expansive Amendment

The amendment is a bit out of left field, Martin said. "As a whole, the bill seeks to say climate change should be able to be something employees can take protected industrial action on. Why it's so unusual is because it's not about an issue affecting the employees of a particular employer."

The unclear overlap between employment matters and social issues makes the potential effectiveness of the amendment unclear. "There's a real question mark over whether it's the purpose of the Fair Work Act," Martin said. "The law is about the employment relationship between an employer and employee, and to come in and expand protection to social issues is a concern."

Paterson was able to leave early on the day of the Sept. 20 climate march, without using her official leave time. "I got in touch with my direct manager to say that this was coming up on that Friday, and I asked if I could take off the half day to do that," Paterson said. "I didn't take a whole day off because it only started from lunchtime, so I just said, 'I want to go to lunch and not come back that day.' … He was fine with that."

Even if the amendment had been passed before the march, Paterson still might have needed to request permission to leave for the day. "Say the bill had become law before that strike actually occurred," Martin said. "It would have just allowed people to say to their employer, 'I'm going off to take protected climate change industrial action tomorrow, I expect to be paid, and I'll be back on Monday.' However, with all other forms of protected industrial action, there's quite strict procedural requirements in order for employees to be able to take protected industrial action. I don't think the bill works as currently framed—there needs to be some checks and balances before protected industrial action can occur." 

Martin hasn't seen a similar amendment proposed to the Fair Work Act since its inception in 2009. "Even without the amendments that are being proposed, it may well be that climate change issues are issues that employees and unions are going to start demanding are addressed in enterprise agreements," she said. Enterprise agreements, also known as collective bargaining agreements, can address a wide range of work-related issues. "I don't see any reason why you actually need a bill to be passed in order to collectively bargain on those types of issues and enterprise agreements," Martin said. But, if the bill passes, "it would be significant."

Katie Nadworny is a freelance writer in Istanbul. 

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