History and timeline of industrial relations in NSW

Although the story of industrial relations in NSW began in 1856, when the stonemasons struck for and won the right for an eight-hour day, the involvement of the NSW Government in employment relations did not commence until almost forty years later, during the 1890s economic depression. In 1892, the Government Labour Bureau was set up under the Dibbs Government. From its inception, the Bureau was largely responsible for assisting the '...unemployed in finding work and [providing] assistance to families impoverished by unemployment. From 1892 to c1911, the Bureau provided welfare and assistance through the administering of sustenance relief payments - known as the 'susso' - and also by operating a type of employment agency for the unemployed known as the Central Labour Exchange.

In 1893, the NSW Government established a co-operative farm for unemployed workers on the former Pitt Town Common, which was known as the Pitt Town co-operative farm. The Government Labour Bureau was responsible for establishing and administering this 'socialist experiment' at the former Pitt Town Common, along with similar schemes at Bega, Wilberforce and Randwick, under an Act passed in 1893 to establish and regulate labour settlements on Crown Lands (56 Victoria Act No. 34).

These co-operative farms were established in response to the 1890s economic depression, but tended to be short-lived. The experimental farm at Pitt Town, for example, was closed in 1896. The aim of the Pitt Town co-operative farm had been to provide work for unemployed city workers during the long depression years of the 1890s, but the scheme failed because the farm was isolated from the city, and there was no infrastructure for city workers unused to rural working conditions. In 1896, the site of the former co-operative farm at Pitt Town was used as the Casual Labour Farm to train unemployed city workers as farm labourers. This scheme, administered by the Department of Labour and Industry, was in operation until 1910.  

In 1895, the Government Labour Bureau came under purview of the Department of Public Instruction, administered by the Minister for Public Instruction and Minister for Labour and Industry. The Department of Labour and Industry was established in the following year and was responsible for a range of legislation including the Apprentices Act 1894, the Factories and Shops Act 1896 and the Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1899.

In 1901, the Government Labour Bureau was transferred to the control of the Department of Public Works, along with the Labour Commission which had been appointed in 1900 with the purpose of '…organising, classifying and controlling all labour not in employment.' Concurrent with the establishment of the Department of Labour and Industry in the 1890s, were the stirrings of an industrial disputes resolution system for NSW, which culminated in the establishment of the Industrial Commission in 1926. The Industrial Commission was intended to arbitrate disputes over pay and work conditions, and was instrumental in the resolution of strikes. Legislation relating to employment and industrial relations passed at the turn of the twentieth century included the Early Closing Act 1899, the Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1899, the Truck Act 1900 and the Industrial Arbitration Act 1901. The Arbitration Court, established in 1902 under the Industrial Arbitration Act, was administered by the Department of Attorney General and Justice. According to Labour Historian Greg Patmore, 'The NSW compulsory conciliation and arbitration system arose from the failure of collective bargaining and voluntary arbitration. Its administrative structure went through a period of experimentation (and its) final form adopted in 1926 was an Industrial Commission and conciliation committees.'

The Industrial Disputes Act 1908 gave the Crown a right to intervene into Arbitration Court cases and also allowed for ministerial intervention into legislation. The successive Presidents of the Arbitration Court from 1902, later the Industrial Commission from 1926, were independent arbiters who could settle disputes between employers and employees. The Attorney General continued to administer industrial relations legislation until 1911, when the Minister for Labour and Industry took up this responsibility. The Industrial Disputes Act 1912 saw the introduction of the wages boards, which regulated pay and conditions for workers. Another office within the Department, the Board of Trade, regularly held meetings and inquiries into living conditions from 1914 and throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

Into the twentieth century, the Department of Labour and Industry continued to play a pivotal role in employment relations in NSW, including the regulation of working conditions and wages, and ensuring occupational health and safety in the workplace, under the Factory and Shop Act 1912. One of the key roles of the Department under the Act was to provide information and advice about working conditions, as outlined below. As such, the Department had a different role to the Industrial Commission, which acted as an independent arbiter in cases of dispute between employer and employee.

In 1923, the Department of Labour and Industry undertook construction of its headquarters at 132 George Street in The Rocks. Sir George Fuller, the Premier of NSW at the time, laid the foundation stone on 28 September 1923. The Department of Labour and Industry had occupied this site on the corner of George and Argyle Streets from 1906, as well as an adjacent building at 134–136 George Street that was used as the State or Central Labour Exchange. The new purpose-built headquarters was intended to have dual functions, operating as the Central Labour Exchange, as well as the Immigration Bureau. At that time, the Department of Labour and Industry was responsible for immigration to NSW, the Immigration Bureau having been transferred to the Department in 1919.

The year the foundation stone was laid for the new building at 132 George Street was a turbulent one for labouring classes of Sydney, and the new building represented a threat to both striking and unemployed workers. The Royal Commission into Strikes commenced that year, and the introduction of the Empire Settlement Act 1922 and the Juvenile Migrants Apprenticeship Act 1923 paved the way for the passage of a new and competing workforce to Australia: the 'boy migrant'. In the early years of the twentieth century, the State Government sought to boost immigration to NSW, under the Dreadnought Scheme.

The Dreadnought Scheme, set up in 1911 and administered by the Department of Labour and Industry, facilitated the migration of 'boy migrants' and young men from Britain to be trained in farming and agriculture.  The Pitt Town farm was renamed Scheyville for William Schey, who was Director of the State Labour Bureau from 1905 to 1912. Scheyville provided the main accommodation for the Dreadnought Scheme, which was in operation 1911–15, and then from 1919 to 1939. The Randwick Labour Farm (at times referred to as the Randwick Labour Depot) was established in 1905; it was initially associated with the Casual Labour Farm at Scheyville and later the Dreadnought Scheme.

The role of the Department of Labour and Industry evolved as the twentieth century progressed, and as the pace of industrialisation increased. The Factories and Shops Act 1912 and subsequent amendments to it, had a significant impact on the way that workplaces were set up and monitored. So while the Department still concentrated on providing assistance to the unemployed, through the administering the 'susso' and unemployment relief works, it had a new focus: accident prevention in the workplace, particularly industrial accidents. Under changes to the Factories and Shops Act in 1915, inspectors were appointed State-wide to carry out factory inspections.  

District offices were established at Newcastle. Broken Hill, Goulburn, Lismore, Orange, Tamworth, Wagga Wagga and Wollongong. In addition to carrying out factory inspections, district inspectors (known as Country District Officers) were '…required to carry out work as Inspectors under the Industrial Arbitration Act and the Early Closing Acts, as well as that pertaining to the Departmental policy of Country Labour Exchanges'.

In 1940, the Department became the Department of Labour and Industry and Social Welfare until the mid-1950s, when the Department of Child Welfare and Social Welfare was established.

The health and safety function of the Department took precedence from the 1940s onwards, particularly in the period following World War Two when there was a boom in the manufacturing sector. Under the Factories, Shops and Industries Act 1962, the definition of a 'factory' was widened to encompass '…cool stores, packing houses, ship-building yards, dock yards, wool stores and premises used for the manufacture of dairy products'. By the 1960s and 70s, the Department continued to carry out factory inspections and convened advisory committees on safety standards, but was also engaging in preventative measures by holding conventions and forums on workplace safety, and by distributing occupational health and safety posters, and screening educational films with such titles as 'Don't Loose Your Grip' and 'Don't Be Sawed'. The Department was also responsible for regulating shop trading hours, proclaiming public holidays and prosecuting industrial law breaches where necessary, functions that the present Office of Industrial Relations continues today.

The Consumer Protection Act 1969 led the formation of the Consumer Affairs Division within the Department of Labour and Industry in 1969. The Consumer Affairs Division incorporated the Consumer Affairs Bureau, the Weights and Measures Office and the Prices Branch. In 1977, the Department of Consumer Affairs was created as a separate Government Department.

In 1979, the Department of Labour and Industry was abolished and a new Department of Industrial Relations and Technology was formed. The following year it was renamed the Department of Industrial Relations. 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. The occupational health and safety functions were transferred out of the Department in 1989 to join with the State Compensation Board and form the Workcover Authority of NSW.

In 1989, 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. Occupational health and safety inspections and regulations were taken over by a new statutory body known as Work Cover. In 1995 and 1996, the Department of Industrial Relations advised the Carr Government and the Minister for Industrial Relations, Jeff Shaw, on the development of what ultimately become the Industrial Relations Act 1996. During the tenure of Mr Shaw as Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations, portfolio responsibility for the Industrial Relations Commission of New South Wales was transferred to the Attorney-General's Department.

In 2003, the Department of Industrial Relations was abolished and the new Office of Industrial Relations (OIR) was created under the Department of Commerce. The commencement of the Federal Work Choices legislation in March 2006 reduced the number of employers and employees who were directly covered by the State industrial relations system, by moving employees of constitutional corporations are now covered by the federal workplace relations system. The reliance by the Commonwealth Government on the 'corporations' power in the Commonwealth Constitution was upheld by the High Court in the Work Choices case.

While the election of the Rudd Government in 2007 meant that the Commonwealth was committed to replacing Work Choices with a new Forward with Fairness system, the reliance on the constitutional corporation status of the employer as the marker of which system an employer and its employees belong to did not change.

The Forward with Fairness reforms saw changes to the controversial aspects of Work Choices legislation, while keeping some of the main elements, such as the 'federalisation' of workplace relations.

In 2009, the Office of Industrial Relations became NSW Industrial Relations (NSW IR), part of the Department of Services, Technology and Administration.

The NSW Government agreed to join the national workplace relations system in December 2009.

The Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) commenced on 1 January 2010, with the introduction of 10 National Employment Standards (NES) and a national system of industry specific modern awards underpinning the work of most Australians. A key function of NSW IR has been to assist those NSW businesses who had remained within the state system at the commencement of Work Choices (mainly sole traders and partnershps) to transition to the national system.  These businesses are fully covered by the national system on 1 January 2011. 

In addition, NSW IR continues to provide best practice employment advice via its website and workshop and presentation program, assisting workers and employers in NSW.

In April 2011, the name of the Department of Services, Technology and Administration changed. NSW Industrial Relations is now a division of the Department of Finance and Services.

On 1 July 2012, the branch from the Department of Premier and Cabinet responsible for administering industrial relations policy and advice relating to the NSW public sector became part of NSW Industrial Relations. This branch is known as Public Sector Industrial Relations.

On 12 September 2012, NSW Industrial Relations was transferred to the NSW Treasury.

On 2 April 2019 a new Minister for Public Service and Employee Relations was sworn in by the NSW Governor. Related Machinery of Government changes post NSW State election transferred NSW Industrial Relations to the Department of Premier and Cabinet Cluster as part of it's Community Engagement branch.

Timeline of 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.


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.


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.


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


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).


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.


Two months long service leave made available after 10 years of service to all workers including casuals.


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.


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.


Industrial Relations Act 1996 replaced the Industrial Relations Act 1991.


Report of the Pay Equity Inquiry undertaken by the Industrial Relations Commission confirms that work in certain female dominated industries was undervalued.


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


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.


Industrial Relations (Ethical Clothing Trades) Act 2001 establishes 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 money owed to unpaid or underpaid outworkers.


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.


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.

The Workplace Surveillance Act 2005 prohibits covert surveillance of employees using technologies including video cameras, email and tracking devices.

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.


In the Secure Employment Test Case, the NSW Industrial Relations Commission establishes an State award provision for casuals employed on a regular and systematic basis to convert to permanent employment after a period of six months.

The Public Sector Employment Legislation Amendment Act 2006 transferred 186,000 NSW public sector employees to direct Government employment thereby ensuring the continued application of the State industrial relations system.

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

The Commonwealth Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Act 2006 commences. NSW employees who work for 'constitutional corporations' were transferred into the federal workplace relations jurisdiction on 27 March 2006.

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).

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

Industrial Relations (Child Employment) Act 2006 requires employers that are constitutional corporations not bound by State industrial instruments to provide certain minimum conditions of employment to children whom they employ under federal workplace agreements, or other arrangements entered into on or after the Work Choices laws commenced.


The Shop Trading Act 2008 (later renamed the Retail Trading Act) deregulates shop trading hours while retaining restricted trading on Good Friday, Easter Sunday, the morning of Anzac Day, Christmas Day and Boxing Day.


The Commonwealth Fair Work Act 2009 commences 1 July 2009, repealing the Workplace Relations Act 1996. The Act applies to all constitutional corporations and their employees.

The Industrial Relations (Commonwealth Powers) Act 2009 passes the NSW Parliament transferring unincorporated employers into the national industrial relations system from 1 January 2010.


Final parts of Fair Work Act 2009 commence; including the new modern award system and ten National Employment Standards.

The Public Holidays Act 2010 replaces the Banks and Bank Holidays Act 1912 and provides for public holidays that apply in the State (including provision for additional and substituted public holidays to be declared in any year for the whole or part of the State), as well as the declaring of local event days to signify days of special significance to the local community.

The Industrial Relations Advisory Council Act 2010 establishes the Industrial Relations Advisory Council to provide a regular forum by which representatives of the Government, employers and employees may consult on industrial matters of state-wide concern.


The Industrial Relations Amendment (Public Sector Conditions of Employment) Act 2011 amends the Industrial Relations Act 1996 to require the Commission to give effect to certain aspects of government policy on public sector employment.

The Industrial Relations (Public Sector Conditions of Employment) Regulation 2011 requires the Industrial Relations Commission, in accordance with 146C of the Industrial Relations Act 1996, to give effect to the Government wages policy limiting increases in employee-related costs to 2.5% when making or varying awards or orders relating to the remuneration or other conditions of employment of public sector employees.


The Industrial Relations Amendment (Industrial Organisations) Act 2012 enables the Minister to appoint an administrator for a State industrial organisation if there is an ongoing investigation into or evidence of gross misconduct by its officers.


The Government Sector Employment Act 2013 repeals the Public Sector Employment and Management Act 2002 and replaces it with legislation to modernise government sector employment.

The Entertainment Industry Act 2013 repeals the Entertainment Industry Act 1989 removing licensing and bond requirements for entertainment industry agents and managers who were also consolidated into a single category known as Performer Representatives.


The Retail Trading Amendment Act 2015 allows shops to open on Boxing Day provided that the shop is staffed only by persons who have freely elected to work on the day. It also creates new offences for opening a shop on a restricted trading day in circumstances of aggravation ie. any of the employees in attendance have not freely elected to work; and coercing shop keepers to open their shops on a restricted trading day.


The Industrial Relations Amendment (Industrial Court) Act 2016 abolishes the Industrial Court (also known as the Industrial Relations Commission in Court Session); transfers its functions principally to the Supreme Court but also to the District Court and the Industrial Relations Commission; appoints as a Judge of the Supreme Court, the former President of the IRC; and reconstitutes the Industrial Relations Commission so that it consists of a Chief Commissioner and Commissioners.