The commemoration of Anzac Day in Paris this year looks set to be disrupted by industrial action by staff at the Australian Embassy, who recently voted to strike on 25 April in protest at attempts by DFAT to impose a non-union workplace agreement on non-diplomatic staff.

Traditionally, despite Australia’s embassies being subject to Australian law, DFAT has recognised local labour laws in hiring staff, although where Australia’s IR framework provided for better outcomes than local requirements, embassy workers tended to get the best of both countries’ systems. Under French labour law, in all but the smallest workplaces, agreements must be negotiated with trade unions or appropriately-authorised representatives of workers.

According to embassy sources, however, under the previous Government, DFAT – which despite repeated opportunities has declined to comment – sought to impose a non-union agreement on more than 50 local staff (including some non-diplomatic Australian staff), as well as firing permanent workers and replacing them with temporary staff, which in France is only permitted for short periods. A wage freeze has also been imposed, as part of efforts to curb embassy expenditure after significant over-expenditure in previous years.

Australian public servants, incidentally, will be familiar with this tactic. Under the Howard Government, even before WorkChoices, there was a systematic attempt to drive Public Sector Unions out of the bargaining process with public servants. DFAT corporate management – headed by James Wise – evidently wanted to use its freedom under WorkChoices — and away from the prying eyes of the unions – to abolish the existing workplace agreement in the embassy and substitute a non-union agreement before the new Government repealed WorkChoices.

DFAT even offered $5,000 bonuses to encourage workers to sign up. Bolshie locals, unsurprisingly – they’re French, after all — were having none of it, and in March voted to strike on the One Day of the Year to maximise the effect of their dissatisfaction.

DFAT’s non-union approach is now against the law both in Australia and France. It’s back to the negotiating table for DFAT Corporate and embassy managers.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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