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Thursday, 16 August 2007
Page: 141

Mr GAVAN O’CONNOR (11:27 AM) —The Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (OHS) Bill 2007 contains important provisions relating to occupational health and safety issues in the building industry. It is on this basis that the bill will be supported by the opposition. The historical reasons for the formation of the Australian Labor Party relate simply to the quest by working people for better wages and conditions, and the issue of improving the occupational health and safety of workers is always foremost in the minds of Labor members when considering any legislation that comes before the parliament. We on this side of the House may have real issues with the operation of the government’s Australian Building and Construction Commission; however, we will on this occasion support the attempts by the federal government to use its influence as a client and capital provider to improve the construction industry’s occupational health and safety performance.

As all members of this House know, the building and construction industry is a dangerous one to work in. Introducing the bill, the Minister for Workforce Participation quoted statistics from the Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry which indicated that, in the year 2002-03, 37 compensated fatalities occurred in the building industry. That equated to some one-fifth of all compensated fatalities. There were 12,500 compensated injuries. That is at a rate of 34 per day, which is the third highest incidence overall. The latest statistics I have been able to access indicate that in 2003-04 there were 41 deaths and in 2004-05 there were 25 fatalities. This corresponds to a fatality incidence rate of 4.7 fatalities per 100,000 employees in 2004-05, which is almost twice the rate for Australia of 2.5 fatalities per 100,000 employees. There are various reasons given for that level of fatalities: long-term contact with chemicals or substances, which accounts for 28 per cent of fatalities; vehicle accidents, which account for 11 per cent of fatalities; and falls from a height, which account for 10 per cent of fatalities.

These statistics do not reveal the pain and trauma to building workers and their families as a result of accident and death in their industry. One death or one accident is one too many. The collective effort of all in this House, all employers and all workers ought to be directed at all times to reducing death and accidents in this industry to the lowest level that is humanly possible. Every building worker—indeed, every worker—who leaves home of a morning has the expectation of coming home at the end of the day to be with their family and friends. This expectation is shared by employers and workers in all industries, but all of us know that because of the nature of some work there are real dangers present in workplaces and accidents do occur. These accidents have to be minimised at all cost. Unfortunately, some employers do not reasonably apply the expectation they hold for themselves—that is, that they will come home safely to their family and friends of an evening—to the workers employed in their enterprises. For reasons of profit, they cut corners and compromise on safety, and the inevitable result is accidents and death.

The Howard government cannot have it both ways in this debate. It cannot on the one hand under its Work Choices legislation make a worker feel insecure in their employment if they report unsafe work practices and unsafe work sites and, in some cases, penalise them for doing so while on the other hand coming into this chamber mouthing a lot of platitudes about using the Commonwealth’s influence to improve occupational health and safety performance. I would have thought the best place to tackle occupational health and safety issues would be in legislation that applies across the board and is not sector specific. The best way to ensure vigilance on safety at the workplace level is not to penalise workers for raising occupational health and safety issues or when they take industrial action on those matters.

In the case of the building and construction industry, the government has created some 200 pages of new legislation and, through various legislative initiatives, has created an astonishing level of regulation and bureaucracy in this industry. Regulation to protect the safety of workers in their workplaces we on this side of the chamber will accept. Regulation to give effect to conservative, ideological and political prejudice we cannot and will not accept. While the government tinkers with these issues, it is failing to take substantive action on a number of significant other issues that relate to illicit practice and malpractice in this industry—phoenix companies, tax avoidance and the need to protect building workers’ entitlements.

The purpose of the bill is to amend the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act to change the process of appointing federal safety officers and to extend the application of the Australian Government Building and Construction Occupational Health and Safety Accreditation Scheme administered by the Office of the Federal Safety Commissioner to cover situations where building work is indirectly funded by the Commonwealth or a Commonwealth authority. The scheme was designed to allow the government to use its influence as a client and as the provider of capital to improve the construction industry’s occupational health and safety performance. The bill also ensures that persons are accredited under the scheme at the time of entering into a contract for building work funded by the Commonwealth or a Commonwealth authority and that the Commonwealth or a Commonwealth authority takes appropriate steps to see that such a person is also accredited while the building work is being carried out. It extends the accreditation requirements to direct and indirect funding arrangements and preconstruction agreements as defined, widens the definition of ‘builder’, clarifies that section 35(4) of the act only overrides Commonwealth provisions to the extent of any inconsistency, and allows the Federal Safety Commissioner and persons working in the Office of the Federal Safety Commissioner to disclose protected information gathered on the scheme to the minister. As I stated previously, we on this side of the chamber will be supporting these measures in the bill.

On a more general note, let me restate that Labor will abolish all agencies used by the Howard government for its Work Choices laws. These agencies will be replaced by a single agency, Fair Work Australia. The Australian Building and Construction Commission will be abolished by 2010 and its functions and operations will be reoriented and relocated in a specific division within the Fair Work Australia inspectorate. We on this side of the House believe that this nation can enjoy economic prosperity and, at the same time, achieve the fundamental fairness that we all tout as being an important Australian value.

Put quite simply, our IR system will be fairer, simpler and more productive. These measures will apply to building workers as they apply to workers throughout industry. We will provide a decent safety net for all working Australians that includes regular hours of work, flexible work for parents, public holidays, overtime and penalty rates. We will balance the unfair dismissal laws to protect hardworking Australians from unfair dismissal and businesses from paying go-away money to unsuitable employees. We will institute a flexible system based on collective enterprise bargaining, modern simple awards and common law arrangements. We will not allow unfair take-it-or-leave-it AWAs which have been used to cut the take-home pay of working Australians on building sites and elsewhere in the economy.

We will establish a new independent umpire which is accessible to all Australians and has appropriate powers to resolve disputes. Of course, we know that the building and construction industry has in the past not had the best of records in this regard. However, it would be erroneous to lay all of this blame at the feet of building and construction unionists and workers because we know for a fact that in this industry there have been unscrupulous employers that have not met their responsibilities to their employees. We will establish a national industrial relations system for the private sector, which will be developed in cooperation with state governments, and we will get a simpler system to make it easier for Australian employers and employees, including the building industry, to understand their rights and entitlements. That is the nub of the industrial relations policy which will be instituted by a future Labor government and which will apply to the building and construction industry as well as others.

Let me conclude by touching on a matter I have raised before on the floor of this House, and that is the persistent denigration of construction workers and their union representatives in this place by government members. I make these remarks on behalf of all those workers in Geelong’s construction industry who not only have supported families affected by death and injury in their own ranks but have extended that hand of support to others in the general community. In a speech in 2005 on the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Bill 2005 in the House I outlined the very real community involvement of Geelong building workers in supporting the disadvantaged in Geelong. I mentioned the breakfast program at the Whittington Primary School, rebuilding a school canteen when the school could not afford it, a house renovation for an injured building worker’s family, a memorial pergola at a school for two children who were killed in an accident, ongoing support for the family of a building worker killed in an accident, support for unionists from other industries who have fallen on hard times—and the list goes on.

I draw the House’s attention to an article that appeared in the Geelong Advertiser of 11 August concerning a Geelong family that was suffering because of another accident. This related to Charlene Cavanagh, who was allegedly hit by a drunk driver. According to the report, she may well have thrown herself in front of her very young child, Jadan Cavanagh, to protect the child in the accident. This particular story warmed the hearts of members of the Geelong community as well as those of people in the construction industry. According to the report, construction workers working on the Westfield development went into gear and in two days raised $3,000 to support the family through this traumatic time. The report said:

The occupational health and safety representative for the site, Darren Brockway, plumbing union representative Russell Menzies and electrical union representative John Long unloaded $700 worth of toys and clothes for Jadan and also presented Ms Fraser—

that is, Jadan’s grandmother—

with $1780 cash and a $1000 Champions IGA voucher.

That is a not unsubstantial amount raised in two days by building and construction workers in Geelong for another Geelong family facing difficulty. I cannot count the number of times that government members have got up in this place to drive the boot into construction industry workers, and I want to put on the public record here today my opposition to their comments and my commendation of the actions taken by construction workers in Geelong on behalf of the disadvantaged on many occasions, including this most recent one. We will be supporting this bill.