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Monday, 29 March 2004
Page: 27484


Mr ORGAN (7:39 PM) —The Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment (Employee Involvement and Compliance) Bill 2002 is clearly yet another example of this government's lack of concern for workers and irrational determination to reduce the power of trade unions. Trade unions have a long and proud history in this country of protecting workers from unsafe workplaces and of standing up for workers against management or bosses who place more value on profit then they do on life itself. Such an attitude can never be condoned, and it is the area of seeking safer workplace practices for workers which causes unions the most concern and brings them into conflict with management, especially when it is a case of balancing cost versus safety.

The then Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Mr Abbott, told us in his second reading speech on 26 June 2002 that:

The amendments in this bill will provide enhanced protections for Commonwealth employees at work and reflect the government's commitment to achieving safer workplaces.

Noble sentiments indeed. The minister said that it would do that by shifting the focus on occupational health and safety regulation in Commonwealth employment away from imposing solutions and towards enabling those in the workplace to work together to make informed decisions about workplace safety. When this government talks about moving away from imposing solutions to such vital workplace issues, workers of Australia should be very concerned, especially when we consider the disgraceful record of the Howard coalition government in defending and enhancing workers' rights and conditions.

The government aims to supposedly improve workplace occupational health and safety by replacing the current prescriptive elements requiring an employer to develop an OH&S policy in consultation with unions with a situation where developing safety management arrangements is done in consultation with employees. So, instead of using occupational health and safety expertise built up by unions and their membership over many years, the government intends to throw employees back on their own resources, albeit supported by training courses. Instead of requiring a comprehensive OH&S policy, the Commonwealth will now require itself—because the Commonwealth is really the body which the minister refers to as `the employer'—to make safety management arrangements. These arrangements will include non-mandatory and non-exclusive matters like risk identification and assessment, training and—guess what—a health and safety policy. Talk about a circular argument. And note that reference to risk assessment; it is a subject I will return to a bit later in this speech.

Of course, it is not all down to employers and employees. The government is too smart for that. In June 2002 the minister also told us:

... the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission is gaining the power to advise on matters to be included, and employers will be required to heed such advice in developing safety management arrangements.

The problem is that the element of compulsion is not included. The explanatory memorandum to this bill makes this quite clear. It says:

While employers would not be compelled to comply with advice from the Commission in relation to safety management arrangements, they may find themselves in breach of their duty of fundamental care to their employees if they choose to ignore the Commission's advice ...

And this, the minister claims in his explanatory memorandum, will deliver reduced injury rates, reduced costs of workplace injuries and lower workers compensation insurance costs to government, business and enterprises. How or why that should be is not explained in the so-called explanatory memorandum, or, if it is, the explanation is so convoluted that it defies an ordinary person to find it. Indeed, I suspect there is no logical or valid explanation, because the explanatory memorandum goes on to say that benefits to employees include the `possibility' of safer workplaces. `Possibility' is what it says—not reduced injury rates, not reduced costs of workplace injuries, just the possibility of safer workplaces. And will this bill provide `enhanced protections for Commonwealth employees at work and reflect the government's commitment to achieving safer workplaces'? It does not from my reading of the provisions.

Let us now turn to the intention to remove unions from the process. In his second reading speech the minister told us:

This bill will enhance consultation between employers and employees by facilitating a more direct relationship between them.

The explanatory memorandum is a fair bit more forthright. It says that the claimed `improved protection of the health and safety of Commonwealth employees at work' will be achieved by:

Recognising the primacy of direct employer and employee relationships by facilitating genuine consultations between employers and employees through a more direct relationship, in part by removing mandatory third party intervention.

That piece of gobbledegook is code for cutting unions out of the OH&S process. Let us just recall that the government's intention in this piece of regressive legislation is to shift the focus on OH&S regulation in Commonwealth employment away from imposing solutions and towards enabling those in the workplace to work together to make informed decisions about workplace safety. Working together to make informed decisions: that is a likely story—I do not think.

Working together implies no more than that it requires a level of equality which simply does not exist between employers and employees. Employers have power; employees do not. It is as simple as that. That is why trade unions began in the first place, and it is why they continue to exist, despite this government's best efforts to marginalise them. Who has the power to draw up safety management arrangements in a workplace when one of the key issues is risk assessment? Employers. It is inherent in the idea of risk assessment. Do not think for one moment that this bland phrase means reducing the risk to workers—that is not what it is about at all. Risk management is a simple equation: how much will it cost to remove the risk versus how much will it cost if we get caught? Under this bill that equation results in $242,000 in the case of civil breaches. In other words, if a safety improvement costs more than $240,000, it is not justified because it is cheaper to cop the fine—and that is the government's commitment to achieving safer workplaces. It does not look as shiny and as bright as they try to present it as being. Perhaps that is why the ACTU was not impressed by the proposed changes—except for the increased penalties, like that $242,000 I mentioned a moment ago, which is up from $100,000 under the present act.

I note the report of the then Senate Employment, Workplace Relations, Small Business and Education Legislation Committee tabled in May 2001. Paragraph 1.26 of that report comments:

The Committee majority sees the intention of the legislation to exclude from the health and safety committees that will be established in workplaces, union officials who are necessarily representing members in a workplace.

This bill is about getting rid of unions from the occupational health and safety process within Australia—it is nothing more and nothing less.

The Community and Public Sector Union, the union which represents a huge number of Commonwealth employees, is onto this scam. It has pointed to a paper `Workplace arrangements for health and safety in the 21st century', presented by Professor David Walters to the July 2003 conference on OH&S regulation held by the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission. In his working paper, Professor Walters outlines international research that quite clearly shows the following things: firstly, active and organised workers' representation is effective in ameliorating workplace hazards; secondly, better standards are achieved in unionised workplaces than in non-unionised workplaces; thirdly, trained representatives stimulate and participate in workplace OH&S structures and procedures, tackle new OH&S issues and get things done; fourthly, work force participation in health and safety decisions was one of several factors related to lower claim rates; and, fifthly, empowerment of the work force was one of the factors shown in Canadian studies to be one of the organisational factors consistently related to lower injury rates. Empowerment in this situation included the presence of unions and shop stewards, union support for worker members of joint health and safety committees and general worker participation in decision making.

As the CPSU concludes:

It is clear from the available research that health and safety outcomes are dependent on high levels of worker participation and union support. Based on the research outlined above, removing the role of unions and replacing this with a management-driven process means current levels of health and safety in the workplace will decline.

The Community and Public Sector Union know why the government is pushing for this so-called reform. They say:

The justification offered for this change is the standard ideological position of the government to reduce participation of workers through their unions and restore management prerogative. In this case in particular, the evidence is powerful that the proposed changes will lead to less safe and less healthy workplaces.

As a unionist of long standing, I have to agree with the CPSU. Prior to being elected to this place, I was a union delegate at the University of Wollongong for a number of years. At that institution, the management, workers and unions had a long history of working together to address occupational health and safety issues. Most of that work was noncontentious, with all parties realising the importance of the issue. For over a decade, I was involved in discussions about OH&S issues regularly. Whether it was in regard to dangerous workplace sites where, for instance, ponding of water on regularly used pathways could result in falls—and I know because I was a victim of such a fall—or whether it was bad lighting or other workplace environmental issues, the fact was that these were important issues that needed to be addressed. A process needed to be put in place to address them and the university, with the aforementioned parties, had put in place and refined such a process over a long period of time. For example, chemical laboratories on campus had got on top of the OH&S issue in large part very early on. With staff and lots of students having to deal with dangerous chemicals and radioactive materials, the University of Wollongong—and, I would suggest, universities throughout Australia—was forced to ensure that worker and student safety was paramount at all times. Prevention is better than cure—we often hear that said—and in these increasingly litigious times this still remains very relevant to this debate.

At the University of Wollongong in the eighties and during the nineties, I know from my own experience that we had OH&S committees at institutional level and department and unit level. They remain in place and in my experience are constantly being refined and improved upon, usually as part of various quality management and legislated programs. Whilst some members of these committees were union members, many were not. The involvement of the unions, however, was very important, as previous speakers in this debate have pointed out. For example, the unions protected workers who may have been afraid to raise certain occupational health and safety issues with their immediate supervisors—this happens—especially if there were blatantly dangerous practices. Workers could take such issues to the union and protect themselves from personal repercussions. Does this new system ensure this? I suspect not.

The fact is that most occupational health and safety issues are already dealt with one on one in the workplace—between workers and fellow workers or between workers and management or supervisors. The involvement of the unions as a third party is not mandatory and often does not occur, because it is not needed. There are plenty of examples where issues come up every day and workers between themselves or with their supervisors deal with them. There is no mandatory involvement of the union in such issues, as the government would have us believe. But the unions are there as a safeguard—and a very necessary safeguard.

With a large turnover of management personnel common in many institutions throughout Australia, the aspect of continuity and corporate knowledge is also an issue in regard to OH&S. At the University of Wollongong, for example, we had one member of staff who had worked in the geology department and their labs for over two decades and developed extensive experience and expertise in the occupational health and safety area. Through both personal interest and regularly working with dangerous materials and environments, he took on various institutional responsibilities in this area. He took on many of these responsibilities not in order to seek any sort of reimbursement but merely because he felt a responsibility and he was the only one willing to put his hand up at the time. As a permanent employee, he also had a commitment to the institution. And he just happened to be a member of a union. He was the chair of the OH&S committee for many years. In cases where issues came up, staff and management knew of his expertise and would consult him. His skills and expertise were available to the university at no great cost, apart from allowing him to attend various meetings and perhaps a training session every now and then. I suggest that this system—the system presently in place—was and is a relatively cheap and efficient means of dealing with occupational health and safety issues on campus and in various institutions and organisations throughout Australia. You have union and non-union members working together with management and achieving results. For the government to now seek to cut unions out of the equation is just plain stupid.

My experience in working at the University of Wollongong and before that at industrial sites such as the Port Kembla steelworks, the Kemira coalmine and the Thirroul brickworks made it quite clear to me that workplace safety is always a priority. It must be resourced and workers and management must have the power to enforce rules and regulations, because nobody wins when it comes to workplace accidents and deterioration in working conditions. As I said, it is everybody's responsibility. Yet, as we have seen in recent years, the May 2002 commitment by the Workplace Relations Ministers Council to implement a strategy to make workplaces free from death, injury and disease has not worked. The only thing this legislation has going for it is an increase in penalties, and that is not a lot of use when the purpose they are intended for has been so watered down. This bill is nothing more than a further attack on trade unions, for no logical reasons, and I therefore reject it.