The International Labour Organization used evidence from Australian labour reform to help improve work conditions in India.
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Research on workplace rights and the Australian Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) has influenced the work of the UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO). The work was undertaken by researchers from the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Employment and Labour Relations Law (CELRL).
In 2015, the Indian Government rolled back its plans to weaken the enforcement powers of labour officials and exempt small factories from national health and safety laws. The government’s decision was prompted by ILO advice that was informed by CELRL’s research with the FWO. This move protected more than 487 million workers.
Based on the same research, the ILO changed its approach to enforcing labour law compliance in 2017. It moved from primarily complaint-based enforcement to a strategic approach designed to deter non-compliance – similar to the model adopted by the FWO. The ILO has developed training tools to support the changes.
The ILO promotes decent work globally by setting labour standards and developing programs and policies. It brings together workers, employers and governments from over 187 member states.
For the ILO to meet its mandate, it needs evidence about which policies and programs are effective.
Developing the solution
Between 2010 and 2012, Professor John Howe, Professor Sean Cooney and Dr Tess Hardy at the CELRL at Melbourne Law School worked with the FWO to examine its compliance and enforcement activities and policies. The FWO monitors and enforces Australian workplace rights such as pay, leave and employee entitlements.
The study analysed how the FWO could use its limited resources more effectively. At the time, the FWO prioritised responding to complaints.
The researchers analysed what other countries, such as the USA, were doing. They recommended that the FWO adopt “strategic” enforcement and compliance activities instead. For example, the team found that employers who exploit workers are often part of larger businesses or franchises. They advised the FWO to encourage big businesses to take responsibility for compliance in their supply chains. This has proved successful in the cases related to shopping trolley collectors working at Coles and Woolworths supermarkets in Australia.
This research led to ongoing consultation with the ILO.
In one case, the consultation helped secure fairer work in India’s small factories. Between 2014 and 2015, the Indian Government proposed the Indian Code on Wages and Small Factories Bill. The law would bring all factories employing fewer than 40 workers under a new regulatory regime, exempt from national health, safety and labour laws such as the Factories Act, Industrial Disputes Act and the Minimum Wages Act. Under this regime, factories would monitor and investigate themselves on matters of workplace health and safety.
The law aimed to improve the ease of doing business and reduce the regulatory load on the Indian Government, But the ILO was concerned that it could be misused by factories to exploit workers through longer hours, reduced pay and weakened safety compliance. The ILO also saw that the law could undermine the Indian Government’s ability to monitor compliance.
The ILO used CELRL’s research into the Australian FWO to show the Indian Government that compliance could be achieved more efficiently by using strategic enforcement than by changing inspector powers through the law. The Indian Government redrafted its proposed laws, which subsequently passed in 2019.
Howe J, Hardy T (2017) Business responses to Fair Work Ombudsman compliance activities. Melbourne, Australia: Centre for Employment and Labour Relations Law
Howe J, Hardy T, Cooney S (2014) The transformation of enforcement of minimum employment standards in Australia: a review of the FWO’s activities from 2006-2012. Melbourne, Australia: Centre for Employment and Labour Relations Law
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First published on 1 March 2022.
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