IMPACT trade union has welcomed new legislation, which comes into force today (Tuesday) to protect workers who expose illegal practices in the workplace. The union says the Protected Disclosures Act gives whistleblowers in all workplaces strong protections against victimisation or discrimination, including unfair dismissal.
IMPACT head of communications Bernard Harbor said: “This legislation will at last give genuine protection to workers who, in good faith, reveal illegality or suspected illegality in the workplace. The ability to prevent bad employers from sacking staff in genuine cases of whistleblowing is a particularly important development for workers and everyone who genuinely wants to tackle illegal practices at work.”
The new law provides a framework of protections for people who are victimised, or threatened with victimisation, for revealing illegal practices in the workplace. But workers must meet proper criteria to ensure that their revelations are ‘protected disclosures’ under the law.
Employers will be legally barred from victimising or sacking staff for making protected disclosures. Importantly, the law prevents employers from sacking staff pending the outcome of a case. Whistleblowers who are unfairly dismissed for making a protected disclosure will be able to seek a court order preventing the employer taking them off the payroll while a case is being heard. The maximum penalty for unfair dismissal in protected disclosure cases has also been set at five years pay – substantially more than the usual two years.
Employees will be protected from victimisation or dismissal if they have a ‘reasonable belief’ of illegality and disclose this to their employer or a person prescribed under the act. Employees will also be immune from civil and criminal legal proceedings in such cases.In line with union arguments, the scope of the wrongdoing covered is much wider than just financial misdemeanours. It includes all illegality including health and safety breaches and failure to meet laws on minimum wages and other working conditions.
The legislation will also allow for external disclosure – for instance, to the media or a politician – in some cases, although there are tougher criteria to determine whether such disclosures are protected.
Unions say employees should talk to their union representative before making a disclosure to ensure that they proceed correctly and gain the protections of the new law. ICTU is currently drawing up a model whistleblowing policy for enterprises. The Labour Relations Commission is also drawing up guidelines.