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Timeline of Industrial Relations 

Key dates and legislation


Master & Servants Act 1828 (England) permitted employers to prosecute any employee who refuses to work, or who loses or damages the employer's possessions. Maximum penalty 6 months prison.


Eight hour day, stonemasons became the first NSW workers to win an 8 hour working day.


Rise of unionism. NSW's first trade unions commenced forming and recruiting members.


Trades & Labour Council of NSW formed on 25 May 1871.


Trade Union Act 1881 recognised NSW trade unions for the first time as being distinct corporate organisations.


NSW Labour Bureau established and was the first NSW Government agency to deal with employment-related issues, predominantly focused on providing job opportunities and accommodation for the unemployed. In 1895 the Bureau was absorbed into the NSW Department of Public Instruction.


Factories and Shops Act 1896 was the first comprehensive regulation of working conditions in factories, shops and other industrial establishments. The legislation restricted the working hours of women and children.


Early Closing Act 1899 restricted the length of working hours for all employees.

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Truck Act 1900 required the payment of wages in money, and prohibited employers from influencing how employees spent wages. 


Industrial Arbitration Act 1901, first 'modern' industrial relations statute came into force in December 1901. A separate arbitration court was established, with binding arbitration powers. Apprentices Act 1901 created the basis for the administration of all apprenticeships in NSW and reduced the hours of apprentices to a maximum of 48 per week. Shearers' Accommodation Act 1901 set standards for the accommodation of shearers and others engaged in pastoral occupations.  


Basic wage set for male employees only. The Federal Harvester Case established a basic wage for male workers on the basis of their 'breadwinner' status. In the 1912 Fruitpickers Case the Federal Commission rejected an argument that male and female basic wage be equal. These decisions were followed by all Australian industrial relations tribunals.


Industrial Disputes Act 1908 replaced the 1901 Industrial Arbitration Act and introduced "Wages Boards" that could determine pay and conditions applying across all industries.


The Attorney General continued to administer industrial relations legislation until 1911, when the Minister for Labour and Industry took up this responsibility.


The Department of Labour & Industry was created, marking the first time employment relations were regulated by a separate government department in NSW. Industrial Arbitration Act 1912 replaced the 1908 Industrial Disputes Act. The Industrial Disputes Act 1912 saw the introduction of the wages boards, which regulated pay and conditions for workers.


Eight Hours Act 1916 created a standard 48 hour working week. 1919 Basic female wage was established. The basic female wage was 54% of the male basic wage.


Forty-four Hours Week Act 1926 reduced the standard working week to 44 hours. Workmen's Compensation Act 1926 introduced NSW's first 'modern' compensation scheme for workers injured at work. Rural Workers' Accommodation Act 1926 replaced, modernised and extended the coverage of the Shearers' Accommodation Act 1901.


Shop registration was introduced. The licensing of shops and the regulation of shop trading hours was introduced under the Factories and Shops Act 1901.

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Industrial Arbitration Act 1940 replaced the 1912 Act. This legislation further modernised the framework for NSW industrial relations.


Annual Holidays Act 1944 introduced a standard entitlement to 2 weeks holiday leave for each completed year of service. In 1958, this entitlement increased to three weeks leave per annum.


Forty hour working week introduced. Amendments to the Industrial Arbitration Act 1940 reduced the standard working week to 40 hours.  


Long Service Leave Act 1955 introduced a standard entitlement to 13 weeks long service leave after 20 years of service.  


Equal pay. NSW became one of the first Australian States to legislate for equal pay for male and female workers. 


Unfair contracts regulated. Amendments to the Industrial Arbitration Act 1940 enabled the NSW Industrial Relations Commission to alter or void any contracts involving work performed in any industry. These provisions then covered most forms of individual contracts for the performance of work, including franchise arrangements.


Long service leave improved and extended. Standard entitlements increased to 3 months leave after 15 years service. New legislation was introduced extending long service leave entitlements to the metalliferous mining industry.  

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State Equal Pay Decision. The NSW Industrial Relations Commission handed down its equal pay decision.


Annual holiday entitlements increased. Following a test case decision by the NSW Industrial Relations Commission, the Industrial Arbitration Act 1940 was amended to introduce a standard entitlement of 4 weeks leave for each year of service.


Employment agents regulated. Amendments to the Industrial Arbitration Act 1940 introduced a scheme for the licensing of private employment agents. A portable long service payments scheme for workers in the building and construction industry in New South Wales was also established and administered by the former Builders Licensing Board - now part of the Department of Fair Trading.


Anti Discrimination Act 1977. Discrimination in employment on the grounds of sex, race and marital status was made unlawful. Grounds for unlawful discrimination were subsequently expanded to include age, disability, sexual harassment and family responsibilities as well as race, homosexual, HIV and transgender vilification.


Transport industry workers covered. Amendments to the Industrial Arbitration Act 1940 enabled the NSW Commission to regulate contracts of carriage (couriers) and contracts of bailment (taxi-drivers). The Department of Labour and Industry was abolished and a new Department of Industrial Relations and Technology was formed.

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Re-named the Department of Industrial Relations.
Industrial Arbitration Act amended to provide a standard 12 months unpaid maternity leave. Later expanded to include paternity and adoption leave and, in 2000, to allow leave to be taken by regular and systematic casual employees.


Apprentices Act 1981 replaced the Apprentices Act 1901 with a modern system for the regulation of apprenticeships in NSW.


Employment Protection Act 1982 created minimum redundancy entitlements for NSW workers under awards.  


Occupational Health and Safety Act 1983. New occupational health and safety (OH&S) regime introduced, placing greater OH&S obligations on employers and employees and focussed upon injury prevention strategies, employee involvement in OH&S matters and new penalties for breaches of the legislation.


Long service leave entitlements increased to two months leave after 10 years of service.


As a result of an amalgamation with the Ministry of Employment in 1986, the Department became known as the Department of Industrial Relations and Employment.


Workers Compensation Act 1987. Fundamental reforms to the workers compensation system were introduced to reduce costs to employers. Amendments to the Industrial Arbitration Act 1940 introduced new protections against dismissal for employees whilst receiving workers' compensation benefits. 


Essential Services Act 1988 protected the NSW community from disruption to essential services.


Industrial & Commercial Training Act 1989 replaced the Apprentices Act 1981 and introduced an integrated administration system for apprenticeships and traineeships. Entertainment Industry Act 1989 replaced various arrangements under the Industrial Arbitration Act 1940 with a new scheme to partially self-regulate the licensing of NSW theatrical agents and employers under the auspices of the NSW Entertainment Industry Council. John Fahey, the Minister for Industrial Relations and Employment in the Greiner Government, prepared an Information Paper announcing an overhaul of NSW's Industrial Relations system.

The occupational health and safety functions were transferred out of the Department to join with the State Compensation Board and form the Workcover Authority of NSW.

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Re-named to become the Department of Industrial Relations, Employment, Training and Further Education, to reflect a focus on vocational education and training.


Unfair dismissal laws reformed by amendments to the Industrial Arbitration Act 1940 introduced to allow individual access and compensation for NSW workers who were unfairly dismissed. 


Industrial Relations Act 1991 introduced enterprise bargaining, voluntary unionism and increased penalties for industrial action.


NSW anti-discrimination legislation was amended to make awards and agreements subject to anti-discrimination legislation.


Employment, Training and Further Education functions were transferred out to the Department of Training and Education Coordination and the name changed back to the Department of Industrial Relations.


Industrial Relations Act 1996 replaced the Industrial Relations Act 1991


Regulations made excluding certain classes of employees from unfair dismissal jurisdiction.


Report of the Pay Equity Inquiry confirms that work in certain female dominated industries was undervalued.

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NSW Industrial Relations Commission adopts the Equal Remuneration Principle as a wage fixing principle. 

Industrial Relations Amendment Act 2000 makes wide ranging amendments to the Act including:

  • Right of federal award employees to make unfair dismissal claims to NSW Industrial Relations Commission;
  • Parental leave rights for casual employees; and
  • Establishing in victimisation proceedings a rebuttable presumption that any detrimental action taken against any employee was victimisation.


Amendments to the Industrial Relations Act 1996 limits applications under unfair contracts provisions.

First pay equity decision increases rates of pay in public sector librarians' award on basis that there had been a history of undervaluation of work in a traditionally female dominated industry.


Ethical Clothing Trades Act sets up Ethical Clothing Trades Council to advise on compliance with work related obligations to outworkers in the clothing industry. The Industrial Relations Act 1996 was amended to provide for recovery of moneys unpaid or underpaid to outworkers.

Report on review of the first five years of the Industrial Relations Act 1996 tabled in Parliament.

Industrial Relations Act 1996 amended to regulate the conduct of industrial agents, who are neither legal practitioners nor officers or members of industrial organisations.


Industrial Relations Act 1996 amended to extend the adoption leave provisions of the Act (12 months unpaid leave) to parents who adopt children under 18 years of age. Department of Industrial Relations abolished and the new Office of Industrial Relations (OIR) was created under the Department of Commerce.

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1 July 2005: The Ethical Clothing Trades Extended Responsibility Scheme comes into effect. The mandatory code protects outworkers and requires clothing retailers to source clothes from manufacturers who abide by NSW award conditions when using outworkers.

7 October 2005: The Workplace Surveillance Act 2005 prohibits spying on employees using technologies including video cameras, email and tracking devices.

19 December 2005: The NSW Industrial Relations Commission handed down its General Order in the Family Provisions Case 2005. This case varied all NSW awards to include:

  • Extended use of sick leave for caring responsibilities when a family or household member is sick.
  • Casuals can access unpaid leave to meet their caring responsibilities.
  • Increase simultaneous unpaid parental leave to eight weeks
  • Extending unpaid parental leave from 52 weeks to 104 weeks
  • Permitting an employee to return from parental leave on a part-time basis until the child reaches school age.


28 February 2006: In the Secure Employment Test Case, the NSW Industrial Relations Commission establishes a right for casuals to convert to permanent employment after a period of six months of employment.

March 2006: The Public Sector Employment Legislation Amendment Act 2006 protects more than 186,000 NSW public sector staff employees of the Crown from the impact of the previous federal government's Work Choices legislation.

10 March 2006: The Industrial Relations Amendment Act 2006 extended powers of the NSW Industrial Relations Commission to hear disputes referred to it pursuant to common law agreements between employers and employees.

27 March 2006: The previous federal government's Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Act 2006 commences.  Rights and responsibilities for employers who are 'constitutional corporations' employing staff in NSW are now under federal jurisdiction.

NSW industrial relations laws continue to apply to unincorporated businesses, such as sole traders, partnerships or trusts, and corporations that do not engage in significant financial or trading activities (eg not-for-profit organisations).

14 November 2006: High Court of Australia hands down its decision on a challenge by all State and Territory Governments, upholding the constitutional validity of the previous federal government's Work Choices laws.

23 November 2006: The Legislative Council Standing Committee on Social Issues hands down its final report, finding that Work Choices should be repealed. Failing that, the Committee called on the NSW Government to take action to 'ameliorate' its effects.

1 December 2006: Industrial Relations (Child Employment) Act 2006 commences to protect the employment and conditions of young people aged under 18 employed by constitutional corporations. NSW Industrial Relations Commission commences proceedings to set principles for establishing whether such a child has suffered a net detriment as compared to the state award that would apply to the child's work.

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7 June 2007: Legislation introduced to State Parliament to ensure workplace entitlements for Sydney workers are protected during the APEC holiday. Industrial and Other Legislation Amendment (APEC Public Holiday) Bill 2007

24 November 2007: Federal election is won by the Labor government, who announces that it intends to implement its Forward With Fairness industrial relations policy, with transitional legislation expected early 2008.


13 February 2008: The Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008 was introduced into Parliament. The Bill included amendments the Workplace Relations Act 1996 to make a number of changes to the framework for workplace agreements, and to enable the process of award modernisation to commence.

25 November 2008: Deputy Prime Minister and Workplace Relations Minister Julia Gillard introduced the Fair Work Bill into the Commonwealth Parliament.


1 July 2009: The Commonwealth Government's Fair Work Act 2009 commences, repealing the Workplace Relations Act 1996. Components of the new Fair Work Act and Fair Work Regulations apply to all corporations and businesses in the national workplace relations system.

Changes that commenced on 1 July 2009 include:

  • New unfair dismissal laws
  • New national agencies, Fair Work Australia and the Fair Work Ombudsman, which replace the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, the Workplace Authority and the Workplace Ombudsman
  • New enterprise agreement options
  • Good-faith bargaining requirements
  • Transfer of business laws
  • New union right of entry laws

December 2009: The NSW Government announces that NSW will join the national industrial relations system from 1 January 2010, meaning that the Commonwealth's Fair Work Act 2009 will cover every private sector employer and employee in NSW.

The NSW referral bill was passed in NSW Parliament on 1 December 2009 and The Commonwealth Parliament voted to pass the State Referrals bill on 2 December 2009.

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1 January 2010: Final parts of Fair Work Act commence. This includes the new modern award system and the ten new National Employment Standards (NES).

1 July 2010: In many modern awards, pay rates and some loading / penalty rates will start to be phased in. Changes to pre-existing rates may be phased in over 5 annual instalments. Fair Work Australia’s first national minimum wage order to be completed.


1 July 2012: The Public Sector Employment and Management (Mental Health Commission and Other Matters) Order 2012 No 270 transferred the industrial relations powers in the Public Sector Employment and Management Act 2002 from the Director General of the Department of Premier and Cabinet to the Director General of the Department of Finance and Services. The transfer excluded powers relating to special temporary employees.

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