MANY Australian employers will be unaware that discussions taking place some 16,000km away reveal real and significant impacts for the duties and costs they face.

Each year international treaties, which can shape Australian laws, are discussed when the world’s governments, employer organisations and unions meet through the International Labour Organisation (ILO) at the United Nations in Geneva.

When a government ratifies an ILO convention (treaty) it agrees to bring its laws into line with globally-agreed rules. Key aspects of Australia’s workplace relations system, including redundancy, termination and unfair dismissal laws, are a direct product of ILO treaties.

This year saw discussion towards a treaty on workplace violence and harassment. Recent events such as those leading to the #MeToo movement made this particularly timely.

The International Trade Union Confederation, led by former ACTU President Sharan Burrow, published a campaign toolkit to coordinate unions globally in lobbying governments for a comprehensive treaty and guidance.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry represented not only Australian employers, but employers in more than 180 countries. We argued that an effective treaty needs to be clear, widely supported and capable of practical implementation.

Employers emphasised strong opposition to workplace violence and harassment and willingness to take reasonable steps to drive appropriate behaviours. Employers also sought effective recognition that it is every individual’s responsibility to refrain from violence and harassment at work.

However, those discussions proved very difficult. The proposed text sets out responsibilities that assume all employers are unionised and well resourced. It foresees, for example, union participation in the design, implementation and monitoring of various HR policies. This prescription is at odds with the reality of the hundreds of thousands of small and family businesses in Australia.

Overly broad definitions of ‘world of work’ and ‘worker’ would see employment responsibilities extended beyond places where employers can exercise control, and to people who are not actually working or in a workplace. For example, consultation requirements on policies would extend to job seekers, job applicants and ‘laid-off workers’.

Regrettable contention arose around whether LGBTI persons should be included in a list of vulnerable persons needing protection. The employer group made it unambiguously clear that business supported protection from violence and harassment for LGBTI persons and indeed all people in our workplaces. Employers were also disappointed to face opposition when attempting to seek clarity that protections from violence and harassment would extend to employers and non-striking workers.

2019 provides opportunity to address these concerns when discussion of the proposed treaty concludes in the ILO’s centenary year. If the ILO is used to pursue ideology and political agendas it can produce outcomes that are a million miles away from the issues small businesses and vulnerable workers face. However, if the ILO’s work is genuinely directed at raising standards where laws are inadequate and working people face a high risk of harm, it can provide a real opportunity to make a difference to the lives of many.

This means all participants in the treaty process must put aside any self-serving agendas to achieve the consensus required to deliver fair and workable protections for everyone who needs them: all workers and all employers.