Rights and responsibilities at work

Congratulations, you’ve got a job! This is a great achievement.

Getting a job is hard, and so is keeping a job. Communication in the workplace in Australia
may be very different from what you are used to. Your relationship with your employer
or with your colleagues may seem confusing. And most of all you may not know your rights.

The Footscray Community Legal Centre has some videos (scroll down the page) about situations that can happen at work and what you can do about them: minimum pay and entitlements, sham contracting, workplace injury, discrimination, bullying, sexual harassment and your rights if you lose your job.

Also, below are some fact sheets (in different languages) with tips that may help you when you start a new job:

-        English: http://www.fairwork.gov.au/find-help-for/young-workers-and-students

-        Arabic - http://www.fairwork.gov.au/ArticleDocuments/726/arabic-starting-a-new-job-guide.pdf.aspx

-        Chinese - http://www.fairwork.gov.au/ArticleDocuments/727/chinese-starting-a-new-job-guide.pdf.aspx

-        Sinhalese - http://www.fairwork.gov.au/ArticleDocuments/744/sinhalese-starting-a-new-job-guide.pdf.aspx

-        Vietnamese - http://www.fairwork.gov.au/ArticleDocuments/752/vietnamese-starting-a-new-job-guide.pdf.aspx

In Australia, the rights of workers are protected. This includes equal access
to jobs and training, fair wages, and the right to work in a safe environment.

Equal opportunity means for example that if you have the right skills for a job and
have been successful at the interview,the employer has to give you the opportunity,
regardless of whether you are a man or a woman, are a new migrant or from a migrant background,
are Christian or Muslim, and are married or single.

You also have a right to be paid what is called ‘award wages’. These ‘award wages’ are
the result of negotiation between industry and unions and represent what is a fair pay
for a job.

If you feel you have been unfairly treated at work, you can contact the Footscray Community Legal Centre Employment Law Project. They provide free employment-related legal information, advice, advocacy and referral to refugees, asylum seekers and newly arrived migrants (who are from a non-English speaking background and have lived in Australia for less than 10 years).  Clients must live, work or study in the Western suburbs of Melbourne.

There are some very useful websites to help you understand your rights at work:

  • Job Watch: An employment rights legal centre which provides assistance to Victorian
    workers about their rights at work.
  • The Fair Work Ombudsman: This website gives advice and helps you understand
    your workplace rights and responsibilities. The role of the Fair Work Ombudsman is
    to work with employees, employers, contractors and the community to promote
    harmonious, productive and cooperative workplaces. The Fair Work Ombudsman
    investigates workplace complaints and enforces compliance with Australia’s
    workplace laws.
  • If you have started a new job and you want to make sure you have been provided
    with all the necessary information from your employer, the Fair Work Ombudsman
    offers a useful checklist (pdf).

‘Workplace culture’ is the way things should be done and the way people behave toward their workmates.

All workplaces are different. Employees (you!) will experience different behaviours, cultures and expectations in every job. However, there are general guidelines to Australian workplace culture that can assist you as a new employee.

Understanding your workplace

Watch and Listen to see what others in your workplace do. This is an important way to absorb the culture of your workplace. For example, watch and listen to how employees greet each other in the morning.

  • What do they say?
  • Do they shake hands or wave?
  • What questions do they ask of each other and what do they talk to one another about, or do they simply start work?

It is important to keep thinking about your workplace and how you feel at work. Ask yourself: What is different about the Australian workplace culture to other workplaces or environments I have experienced?

This will help you reflect and think about your own expectations and behaviour at work.


Communication in every workplace is different. The way people speak, act, look and behave differs between offices, warehouses, workshops, factories, classrooms, shops, restaurants and kitchens.

For example, jobs which require contact with the public or customers e.g. hospitality (restaurants, cafes, kitchens and bar work) and retail (clothing and goods stores) expect a high level of professional communication and excellent spoken English to talk to and engage with customers. Other jobs, in a factory or warehouse, require more direct communication with less ‘talk’ and more ‘doing’.

Generally Australian workplaces are relaxed, friendly and talkative environments. Co-workers may speak to each other in a direct way; they say what they mean.

However, when making suggestions or requests, be polite. For example:

“Would you be able to…?” rather than “Do this…”

“I think it would be a good idea to…” rather than “A better idea is…”

Dress and Body Language

In most workplaces, employees are expected to wear neat, clean clothes. The type of clothes you wear at work will be different depending on the job and workplace.

If you work in an office you might be required to wear a suit or ‘office wear; trousers/skirt and a shirt.

If you work as a cleaner you might be provided with a uniform.

If you work in a factory or warehouse jeans and a t-shirt might be appropriate.

Behaviour at Work

In Australian workplaces it is very important to:

  • Be on time and ready to start work at your starting time. For example, if you start 9am you should be there early enough to start working at 9 am, no later. In Australia, not being on time is seens as a great lack of respect for your employer and your colleagues.
  • Call your employer to let them know if you are going to be late, or if you are unable to work. This must be before your shift starts, not after. It is OK to call your supervisor (before you are meant to start work) and say you can’t work due to illness, or family emergency.
  • It is not acceptable to say you can’t work for reasons such as doing something for a friend, picking up the kids from school, or if you have a social event to go to. In Australia you are generally expected to take care of your private life outside of work hours.
  • Personal phone calls – in most workplaces, it is not acceptable to make or answer personal phone calls on your mobile phone during work, unless told you can do so by your supervisor.
  • Breaks – It is also generally not acceptable to eat or smoke except during approved breaks. Ask when and how long your lunch break is.
  • Payroll – Ask your supervisor when you get paid. If you are short of money, it is not acceptable to ask your boss or any other workers for money.

Often if they need to communicate bad news (for instance that they won’t be able to come to work for a day), people prefer not to say anything as they do not want to upset their boss. Because we would all prefer to avoid conflict, many people leave the conversation very late, or do not mention it at all.

You must always let your employer know if you need to come to work late, leave early, or miss a day. Read Zarah’s story (pdf) to see what can happen if you don’t communicate with your employer.

Why you need to tell your employer

  • The employer can plan the workday without you, either bringing in a replacement or re-organising other workers. The more notice he/she has of the bad news the better he/she can prepare and the better outcome for the work on that day.
  • The employer will respect you more for considering the impact of your decision on them and the work. This shows you are taking responsibility.
  • The employer will have an understanding of the reason behind your decisions and may even be helpful to you.

If you are working for a recruitment agency

If you are working via a recruitment agency, the need to communicate is even more important. The reason is that you may have more than one employment opportunity with an employment agency and so if you do not want to work for one of their clients, you still want to be considered and put forward for work with others clients.

If your employment agency contact considers you to be reliable and honest, they will trust that your reasons for not working are valid and important and will give you an opportunity again.

It is important to remember that people have many things going on in their lives. If a supervisor or workmate is rude or impatient with you, there may be outside work factors making them act this way. Think carefully before you respond. What you may feel is a personal insult could be totally unrelated to you and your actions.

However, you do not need to suffer harassment or unreasonable rudeness. Issues that may come up at work include racism and sexism. If you feel that you are being treated unfairly because of your ethnicity, the fact that you are a migrant, or because you are a woman, don’t just quit, do something about it!

There are things you can do that will make it possible for you to stay in your job, and to address these issues. For instance, you can go to your manager and report it. In big organisations, there should be a Human Resources (HR) Department or person that you can go to.

‘Your rights at work’ (above) provides more information on where you can go for help. You may also want to check ‘What is a union?’ in the Frequently asked questions.