Investigation into The Australian Workers’ Union
7 April 2022
This statement has been prepared in response to media inquiries received by the Registered Organisations Commission on 6 April 2022:
On 21 February 2021 the Registered Organisations Commission (ROC) commenced an investigation under s.331 of the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act 2009 (RO Act) into The Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) concerning the compliance by the AWU and its branches (excluding its Victorian Branch) with the record keeping obligations relating to its registers of members.
The RO Act requires organisations to keep a register of their members as at 31 December each year, to retain those records for 7 years, and to regularly remove unfinancial members from the register. It also requires organisations, as part of their annual return of information to the ROC and annual operating report, to accurately report the number of members of the organisation.
The investigation followed the identification by the regulator of anomalies by the AWU in the reporting of the number of members recorded on its register in its annual reports and operating reports during the nine year period from 31 December 2009 to 31 December 2017 (see AR2016/161). During extensive correspondence since those anomalies were raised, the AWU has conceded that it was unable to provide accurate historical membership figures since 2009. The extent of the inaccuracies in each year is still unknown. The AWU has asserted that its current membership system since 2018 is compliant with all statutory requirements.
The investigation, which is advanced, but continuing, relates to possible contraventions of the following Civil Penalty provisions of the RO Act:
- section 172: Non-financial members to be removed from the register
- section 230: Records to be kept and lodged by organisations
- section 231: Records to be held for 7 years
- section 254: Reporting unit to prepare operating report.
At an Estimates appearance before the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee on 6 April 2022, in response to questions from the Committee, witnesses appearing for the ROC made reference to the AWU having admitted to just under 25,000 contraventions of the RO Act. Those admissions have been made in the context of this investigation.
This includes admissions made by the AWU on 17 March 2022 where the organisation identified 24,064 potential contraventions of section 172 of the RO Act during the relevant period, predominantly arising from what it has asserted to be errors in the register of members maintained by its Queensland branch.
Separately the AWU has also admitted during the course of the investigation that it may have contravened section 231(1) of the RO Act on nine occasions during the relevant period by failing to keep a copy of its register of members as it stood at 31 December in each of the nine years between 2009 and 2017.
The ROC is finalising its investigation and will make further comment once its investigation has been completed.
In August 2020 the Federal Court ordered the AWU to pay $148,100 in relation to separate contraventions of sections 230 and 172 of the RO Act, which arose from specific conduct engaged in by the AWU’s Victorian Branch: Registered Organisations Commissioner v Australian Workers’ Union (No 2)  FCA 1148. In the circumstances of those earlier findings, this investigation excludes further consideration of matters relating to the Victorian Branch.
The ROC informed the AWU in April 2020 it would investigate concerns relating to the AWU’s membership records, but taking a pragmatic regulatory approach, that the investigation would be deferred until the resource and other implications for registered organisations and regulators arising from the COVID-19 pandemic become clearer.