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  Issue No 81 Official Organ of LaborNet 08 December 2000  




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Speaking in Tongues

Labor Council's Mark Morey outlines the successful campaign by local government workers for a community language allowance.


Mark Morey

The Federated Municipal and Shire Council Employees' Union of Australia (New South Wales Division) (MEU) was successful in achieving the inclusion of a Community Language Allowance (CLA) of $13.14 per week in the Local Government (State) Award. The Allowance recognises the utilisation of a second language at work, by members, in addition to their job requirements.


Language aides act as a first point of contact within council for non-English speaking residents. The aide identifies the resident's area of enquiry and then provides basic assistance by conveying straightforward information in relation to council services to non-English speaking background customers in the course of their work . This may be via face-to-face discussions and/or telephone enquiries. The role of language aides is limited and clearly defined so as not to be seen as a replacement or substitute for professional interpreters .

When a council employee utilises their second language, in addition to their normal duties, to provide services to speakers of a language other than English, or to provide signing services to people with hearing difficulties, the employee is eligible to be paid the language allowance in addition to their weekly rate of pay. The NSW Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) deemed that the allowance could be paid on a regular or irregular basis, according to when the work is performed .


The MEU argued that the recognition of the demand for, and use of a workers second language in the work place had occurred as a result of the social and cultural changes across NSW and Australia. For example, at 30 June 1998, 23.4 per cent of the estimated resident population were born overseas . In addition, the 1996 census identified that 20.4% of people in New South Wales did not speak English well or at all, while at the same time, 16% of people in New South Wales spoke a language other than English. These language skills can be used in customer service areas in both the private and government sectors in order to provide customers and clients with better access to services and products . The CLA was seen as particularly relevant to workers with a second language in the inner west and western areas of Sydney where well over a quarter of residents who require the services of their local council were born overseas in a non-English speaking country.

History of the Community Language Allowance

In 1987, the NSW government launched a pilot Ethnic Affairs Policy Statement Program to encourage councils to increase the services they provided to non-English speaking background residents. The program was voluntary with the resulting policy statements becoming known as Local Ethnic Affairs Policy Statements (LEAPS). In 1989, the NSW government introduced the Community Language Allowance Scheme (CLAS), which renumerated State Government employees who used their second language, in addition to their normal duties, to assist government customers. To receive the allowance, participants were required to be accredited by the Ethnic Affairs Commission (EAC).

Agreements and awards with CLA clauses:


The MEU became aware that many of its members were using their second language skills informally within councils, especially in areas where a high proportion of residents were from a non-English speaking background. The incentive for councils to encourage staff to participate in using their second language was a result of the Local Government (General) Amendment (Community and Social Plans) Regulation. This regulation requires councils to develop and implement social and community plans to meet the needs of people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. The use of employees with a second language as language aids had become one way in which councils could demonstrate how they had met these requirements.

Council libraries were an example of where staff were using their second language skills to assist library users. For example, an Information Officer working at one council library in an area with a high Arabic population, used their language skills to assist people to access library services, to translate English texts into Arabic (including catalogues, signs and surveys) and also being called upon to assist with general enquiries made at the council. For many councils, this practice was seen as staff simply volunteering their second language and thus there was no need to pay them.

To identify the extent of this practice, the MEU completed a survey of members working in Local Government Areas with the highest populations of people who spoke English "Not Well or Not at All". After identifying where councils were using members second language skills, the MEU then surveyed councils to see if any allowances were being paid to members for the use of their skills.

Of the 30 councils surveyed, 9 were paying an allowance, 1 had covered it within the salary system, 3 stated they "did not know", 3 stated it was "not applicable" and 14 councils used staff but did not pay an allowance. Where members were receiving an allowance that allowance varied from $4.00 - $20.00 per week. In addition, many councils had developed "second language lists" of people who could be called on to provide basic translation assistance.

In summary, the MEU identified a substantial number of members who were using their second language in addition to the requirements of their employment, whilst receiving little, if any, financial remuneration for their work.


One of the main issues for the MEU was being able to demonstrate:

1. The use of second language skills;

2. That the skills were not part of the job skills; and

3. The skills were brought to position in addition to what was required.

The MEU proved there had been a change in the nature of the work and that the payment of an allowance was about recognising the skills a person brought to the workplace, in addition to the job requirements. That is, it is an additional skill attached to an employee rather than as a skill required by a particular position. In her judgement, Justice Schmidt stated:

"I particularly take the view that it is both disingenuous and wrong for a council to suggest that employees who, for instance, are asked if they possess community language skills and whether they would be prepared to assist residents who have difficulty speaking or understanding English and are later called upon to provide such assistance, are not entitled to any payment for such work, because they are not required to perform it and are merely volunteering to do so. That this attitude is persisted with at a time of increasing numbers of residents who require such assistance and in circumstances where councils must increasingly meet legislative obligations to provide such assistance, is difficult to understand."


The IRC viewed employees who possessed community language skills would typically be:

1. Native speakers of a particular language;

2. Employed in any position within a council; and

3. Are called upon to utilise these skills on an as needs basis, in addition to their normal duties.

In order to receive the allowance, the IRC identified a number of requirements. Employees who are required by council to use such additional skill(s) in the performance of their duties shall have the use of those skill(s) considered in the evaluation of the position provided that:

Council shall provide the employee with the opportunity to obtain accreditation from a language aide accreditation agency such as the Ethnic Affairs Commission of New South Wales or Institute of Languages at University of New South Wales (Such training shall form part of a council's training plan and budget, in accordance with the requirements of clause 20 of this award);

The employee shall be prepared to be identified as possessing the additional skill;

The employee shall be available to use the additional skill as required by council;

The council shall be recognised as an occasional or regular user of the additional skill as an adjunct to their normal duties.

Provided further that council shall establish a minimum level of usage of additional skill(s) for this subclause to apply. Language Aides shall record their use of a community language according to Council established policy.


The decision means that as soon as any employee is required to use the skill they are automatically eligible for the allowance.

Justice Schmidt was concerned that no training was being provided to employees using these skills, especially in relation to cultural nuances. Thus she stated there was a need for appropriate training and accreditation of employees undertaking this work and that the cost of that training and accreditation was to be the employers' obligation.


When implementing an organising strategy, unions need to find "hot beds" and activists within workplaces who are prepared to assist with the distribution of surveys and to be consulted in relation to the development and implementation of an organising strategy within the work place. It is important to:

1. Identify workplaces where workers second language skills are being use in addition to the requirement of their position;

2. Conduct a survey to identify those using their second language skills and whether they are being renumerated for their work; and

3. Identify whether or not the employer has taken any steps to identify specific staff members who are able to provide language assistance, for example, has a list of these workers been created?

The success of this campaign was a result of the MEU being prepared to see "difference" and "cultural diversity" as an asset that was being used within the workplace and hence, needed to be appropriately renumerated. It also provided MEU organisers with a "good news story" around which they could develop further organising strategies and use as an example to assist in expanding union membership within local government.


*    For more details contact Mark

*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 81 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: Back to Work
After a stretch of unemployment following the 1996 election, former Keating Minister Robert Tickner is now helping others find work.
*  Media: Reality Check
Aiden White, head of the international journalists' union, argues that online journalism presents a new set of challenges for organising.
*  Economics: In the Same Boat
In an unprecedented move, a coalition of industry, community and trade union groups have joined forces to address long-trerm unemployment.
*  International: Nepalese Hotel Workers Ask for Support
Hotel workers in the small Himalayan nation of Nepal have finally decided to vent their anger and call a general strike for Monday - over a 21 year old dispute.
*  Unions: Speaking in Tongues
Labor Council's Mark Morey outlines the successful campaign by local government workers for a community language allowance.
*  History: Fighting Words
The anti-conscription campaign of 1914-18 tore the ALP apart; but this was not the first time the labour movement took a militantly anti-war stance.
*  Politics: A New Socialism
In an extract from his new book, political economist Frank Stilwell argues the need for a new radicalism to counter the Third Way
*  Satire: Roy Slaven on the Rampage
John Doyle's history of the ABC stretches back to a 1958 evening in Lithgow on which he was "scared shitless" by Blackboard on Mr Squiggle.
*  Review: Mauled in the Bear Pit
Vengeance may be sweet but it is always made better when you are able to write a book about yourself that also provides the opportunity to dump a bucket load on those who undertook your removal.

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