What recourse does my employer have if I skip work to attend a protest?

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In light of the overwhelming environmental concerns that the public has and what appears to be relative inaction by the government, many feel that they have no choice but to head to the streets to protest. From school children to CEO’s, individuals have turned out in droves – but what happens if a protest is scheduled during working hours? Does your employer have any power to stop you from going? 

The Fair Work Ombudsman has warned people they can’t simply not show up to work in order to attend planned climate protests across Australia. 

Legally, it has been recognized by Australian common law that the citizens of Australia have the right to participate in public assemblies of their particular concern or interest. The right to assemble is codified in the Summary Offenses Act of 1988. Such right is also expressly stated in the Peaceful Assemblies Act 1988. However, such public assemblies are governed by laws which are meant to ensure that such events are peaceful and do not erupt into violent emotional displays of interest. 

While the personal right to assemble exists, it does not necessarily transcend a person’s obligation to their employer during working hours. As such, the Fair Work Ombudsman has issued a statement to all Australian citizens that you cannot simply leave work, or not show up for work, to attend a public protest pertaining to your particular beliefs or interests.  

The law is clear, persons wishing to be absent from work to attend to a personal situation or interest, must give their employer notice of the absence and receive permission for the same. You then must use your own personal time or holiday time to attend the event.  

In addition, it is important to check the personal policies of your particular employer. If your employer has set out the proper manner in which to request personal leave, you must adhere to their policies. In the event that an employee does not follow the procedural requirements of their employer, for the taking of personal leave to attend a public protest, the same employer-driven sanctions can be levied against the employee as in any other personal, vacation or sick leave occurrence.

If you are attending a protest it is important to keep these legal and safety issues in mind;

  • Be alert to your surrounds
  • Follow the directives of police officers or crowd control authorities
  • If directed to do so, leave the area ie: if you have wandered onto private property and are directed to vacate, you must do so
  • Research past events promoted by the organization to determine if the events have a history of violence or peaceful actions
  • Speak respectfully to all persons in authority and respond to their requests upon being asked
  • Remain aware of a situation turning dangerous and leave immediately

Hence, it is strongly recommended that if you are interested in attending a public event during your hours of employment, that you take all of the same steps to secure time off. As such, give your employer proper notice, including the date and time of the event and the duration you plan to be absent. If your employer does not grant you permission, it is best to adhere to their decision. If you do not, you must understand that your employer will have the right to take ordinary actions as defined in your employment agreement or human resources policies. If you do receive permission, attend the event in a manner that will promote your safety and the safety of those around you.

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