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Monday, 29 March 2004
Page: 27488


Mr WILKIE (7:55 PM) —I rise to speak on the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment (Employee Involvement and Compliance) Bill 2002. I would like to commend the previous speaker, the member for Cunningham, on his comments. Clearly this bill is nothing but union bashing and achieves no worthwhile outcomes for occupational health and safety in the workplace for Commonwealth employees. The health and safety of Commonwealth employees in their workplaces—whether those are departments, statutory bodies or government business enterprises—is a serious matter. This bill is fundamentally flawed, because it seeks to remove a crucial and influential mediator in regulating an employer's duty of care to their employees. I am referring of course to the role of unions in workplaces. This bill is trying to legislate them out of existence on occupational health and safety committees. Since 1996 the Howard government has been trying to chip away at the role unions play in our workplaces. Here we see another example of this anti-union stance.

The unions have a historical legacy in Australia. Their function and responsibilities have achieved many positive outcomes for workers. Achievements such as minimum basic wages, annual leave entitlements, equal pay, superannuation and parental leave are just a few examples of the battles fought and won by unions on behalf of workers. The 1983 accord between the ACTU and the ALP started a new phase of industrial relations in Australia. Award entitlements and enterprise bargaining were just two successful outcomes of that accord. Of course, since then the Howard government's introduction of the Workplace Relations Act has undermined the accord and reduced workers' entitlements under awards. That act seeks to limit the unions' capacity to organise and pursue interests on behalf of their members.

The Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment (Employee Involvement and Compliance) Bill 2002 is another example of this government's attempt to reduce the ability of unions to represent their members by eliminating union involvement in matters of occupational health and safety. As the ACTU Assistant Secretary Bill Mansfield said to the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations, Small Business and Education Legislation Committee when considering the provisions of this legislation:

Unions have made a significant contribution to improving the standards of occupational health and safety. In association with management, unions have introduced preventative strategies through their members' activities at workplace level and through the activities of officers of the unions, who have particular responsibilities in occupational health and safety matters.

Mr Mansfield went on to say:

I believe unions can lay claim to being in part responsible for the success of the existing workers compensation and occupational health and safety arrangements in the Australian government employment area, which has a low incidence of injury and a low level of premiums.

Mr Mansfield went on to refer to statements from the occupational health and safety manager at Telstra, the largest agency covered under this legislation. He said:

... the performance of Telstra in occupational health and safety was in no small regard related to the involvement of unions in the occupational health and safety arrangements in that organisation.

I too can claim success in negotiating on behalf of workers in my previous employment with the Western Australian prisons department. I was the occupational health and safety officer at the Canning Vale Prison representing the WA Prison Officers Union. I will give a small example of the sorts of issues I dealt with where clearly you needed a union representative on board. One year in the middle of winter an enormous storm came through Perth. The front gate of any prison is the key area of involvement for prisoners and people coming in and out of that prison and it has a large communications room from which everything operates. This room is duplicated inside the prison for safety and security reasons. In this particular case it was raining so hard that water was flowing through the roof and down the walls on the inside of this very small control room, where an officer was working. The water was flowing down through the electricity control panels; it was flowing through the top, down the back of the board and coming out at the bottom. There were buckets positioned around this small room of about eight feet by eight feet to try to collect all this water. There were TV screens that were monitoring activities that were going on throughout the prison, and water was dripping off the roof into these television sets, two of which actually exploded.

The senior officer who at that time was in charge of the front area, because he was so concerned about what management might do if he closed down the prison's front office, left this member of staff in that room operating this equipment, even though at any time while he was trying to operate the switches he could have been electrocuted. I was called to the front gate, saw this situation and said, `You can't operate this sort of environment where someone could be killed at any moment.' I went to the superintendent and said, `Look, we need to close this down and get someone with a walkie-talkie out the front to relay messages to someone inside. We have to close down this area until it stops raining and we can fix the roof and we have to operate all securitity arrangements from inside the prison.' The superintendent agreed with that, and so that is what happened. But had there not been a union delegate there who could go in and negotiate on behalf of the workers this poor person would have just been left in there to operate those controls, which would have been totally unacceptable.

In prisons at the moment we have all sorts of issues with occupational health and safety, primarily relating to the fact that, through privatisation, we have companies now running detention centres, whether they be Commonwealth or state. I believe minimum staffing levels are often not being adhered to, thus placing people at severe risk of permanent injury or even death. We need to have union representation on those sites to guarantee the safety of our workers.

Another example of a union successfully and responsibly representing occupational health and safety measures is the Construction Skills and Training Centre, CSTC, in Welshpool in my electorate of Swan. The CSTC was founded in 1993 following the successful application for funding from the Australian National Training Authority by the then Builders Labourers, Painters and Plasterers Union of Workers. The CSTC's mission statement is to provide the building and construction industry in Western Australia with a work force that meets world's best standards in safety, productivity, innovation and standards of workmanship. Its courses are nationally accredited and the training centre has achieved a significant number of quality assured training certifications. The most recent achievement was the Australian Quality Training Framework in 2003, awarded by the Training Accreditation Council. It also has achieved international ISO9001 certification, which recognises good performance, productivity and well-met customer expectations.

The Construction Skills and Training Centre is owned and operated by the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, the CFMEU. The CFMEU is Australia's main trade union and has over 120,000 members nationwide. The CSTC operates over 27 courses on a regular basis and covers areas such as occupational health and safety. It runs courses for St John Ambulance first-aid, health and safety committees, noise, confined spaces and safe removal of asbestos. It runs building and construction vocational courses for crane operation, dogging, rigging and scaffolding as well as supervisory courses along with custom made training as requested by employers.

The Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment (Employee Involvement and Compliance) Bill 2002 seeks to remove the essential and crucial role that unions play in negotiating safer workplaces for employees. The bill aims to remove union representation on occupational health and safety committees and allow for non-union appointments. I seriously doubt that this would truly represent the appropriate interests of workers. Where is the mechanism in this legislation to stop management appointing stooges to these occupational health and safety committee roles? Management appointments may find a person unqualified or unsuited to make occupational health and safety decisions being forced onto a committee. This person may be coerced into following management procedures rather than reflecting the true wishes of the work force. This amendment replaces the consultative role of unions in the development of occupational health and safety policy and agreements. Instead employers will develop, with employee consultation, safety management arrangements.

Before I move on to the vague and indistinguishable nature of the prescribed safety management arrangements in this bill, I again condemn the removal of mandatory union intervention on occupational health and safety committees. Research from the Commonwealth Public Sector Union, the CPSU, shows a direct link between the level of union involvement in the workplace and the level of safety. In nearly 60 per cent of workplaces with union representation a health and safety committee is operational; in contrast, in non-unionised workplaces only 19 per cent have an operational health and safety committee. Those workplaces with operational health and safety committees have reported a lower incidence of work related injuries and they are far more likely to conduct safety audits. Further, CPSU research shows that independent staff representation—not management appointees—on committees increases the effectiveness of occupational health and safety systems in workplaces.

The CPSU best represents the interests of Commonwealth employees and it is unequivocally opposed to this particular amendment. This is the most accurate advice the Howard government has received: Commonwealth employees are advocating through their union that the amendment to reduce the union's role in occupational health and safety committees is not acceptable. However, the government has chosen to ignore this advice—to ignore the voice of Commonwealth employees, the CPSU—and to blindly blunder ahead in its campaign of union destruction.

This bill seeks to remove the union's role in occupational health and safety matters unless an individual employee requests intervention. This is not conducive to fair representation. An employee will feel intimidated by management if they seek to involve their union to represent their case. Management would surely put a black mark against an employee's name if they should dare to seek union intervention to best represent their interests, especially if the matter moves to a higher authority such as the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission. An independent union representative on occupational health and safety committees in workplaces no doubt achieves results; it allows for a fair and knowledgeable representation, and its mandatory role should not be amended in this bill.

The second aspect of the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment (Employee Involvement and Compliance) Bill 2002, which I referred to briefly earlier, relates to the vagaries of the amendment concerning the proposed workplace consultation arrangements. There is no precise detail about how occupational health and safety committees intend to go about their business in the workplace. The bill makes reference to consultation with `employees of the employer' but fails to mention how this process works—and, in fact, whether they will be listened to. The hard work of the ACTU and the ALP in developing the accord in 1983 was based on the foundation of consultative arrangements, and I am concerned that after 20 years of the system working so well these new arrangements will undermine this proven consultative process. The proposed workplace consultation arrangements will limit the obligation of the employer to consult with employees. The bill does not clearly explain how the employees to be consulted will be selected or how they will ultimately be responsible to the employees they are representing during their involvement in consultation.

The Senate Employment, Workplace Relations, Small Business and Education Legislation Committee, when considering the provisions of this legislation, did not receive the draft guidelines in respect of the development of safety management arrangements until the day it was finalising its report and was therefore not able to examine these proposed changes with due diligence. The amendment needs to be referred back to the Senate committee to ensure its proper consideration. Research has shown that the current systems of representation and consultation on occupational health and safety committees are well-ordered arrangements that have been instituted over many years. They have worked well and successfully achieved safe and healthy workplaces for employees. The adage `If it ain't broke, don't fix it' certainly applies here. It concerns me that these arrangements could be replaced by ad hoc committees, with people who have little experience or even interest in the running of effective occupational health and safety regimes in the workplace. The provisions in the safety management and consultative arrangements amendments in this bill need to be modified to make them more broadly acceptable to unions, and the vague `safety management arrangements' need to be clarified.

Finally, the amendment which seeks changes to the compliance regime to allow for more flexibility should be supported. It will allow a dual system of enforcement of the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Act, providing for civil remedies but still allowing for criminal law remedies for serious breaches of the act. It will allow for a speedier process of enforcement of occupational health and safety policies when noncompliance occurs, because the standard of proof is easier to satisfy in civil matters. In our increasingly litigious society, this is a positive step forward in achieving enforcement. Since 1992, of the 50,000 accidents that have been reported to the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission, 1,770 investigations have proceeded but only nine prosecutions have followed. In these nine cases, the prosecutions took between 16 months and five years. It is a lengthy process and one which of course neglects the needs of those who have suffered the most or who are the most at risk. As the ACTU said to the Senate committee in their submission:

The basis of OHS law is the limiting of workers' exposure to risk, not simply penalising the consequences of that exposure. If only the consequences are singled out it is not consistent with the objectives underpinning OHS law. For example, should someone be killed in a freak accident, quite possibly no one would be prosecuted in such a case. Compare this to an employer who knowingly and recklessly exposes workers to a wellknown risk, but luckily no one is hurt. In the latter case a criminal prosecution may be reasonable because it is the exposure to the risk, not the consequence of exposure, which should be dealt with by the criminal law. This is a basic philosophy of OHS legislation which is being challenged if these changes are made.

This amendment is to be commended. It will not only allow for employers to be fully responsible for limiting employees' exposure to unsafe or risky situations but will make them plan and assess workplaces more stringently. Subject to the amendments suggested and the favourable consideration of the objectionable provision by the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education Legislation Committee, I commend the bill to the House.