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Thursday, 18 August 2005
Page: 25

Ms OWENS (10:41 AM) —The Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment Bill 2005, which we are debating today, is supposed to be about the legal basis for the protection of the health and safety of Commonwealth employees in departments, statutory authorities and government business enterprises. It amends the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Act 1991, which is extremely important legislation that provides the legal basis for the protection of the health and safety of a very large group of workers in this country—those who work for government, Commonwealth departments, statutory authorities and government business enterprises. It protects the health and safety of workers, above all else.

In our national parliament today we are talking about something as basic as the safety of workers. That is extremely important stuff. When it comes to the workplace, one could argue that it is the most important stuff. Yet this bill is not about workplace safety; it is about satisfying an old vendetta, an extreme ideology—hatred of the trade union movement. It is about removing the very word ‘union’ from the legislation. It is about weakening the bargaining position of employees in relation to their safety in the workplace. The current government is prepared to trade off anything, to pay anything, to do anything to satisfy an old vendetta, an old ideology from the dim, distant past—the seventies, when there was more conflict in our workplaces than there is now. It is not about the modern workplace or modern unions at all.

I remember the seventies and the eighties. I remember the days before enterprise bargaining. I remember the days when unions were far more powerful than they are today. As an employer of the time, I too had issues from time to time with the trade union movement. I remember working as the production manager of an opera company with three unions involved on the stage—three unions, with three separate awards. At that time it was not possible to work through one day of any year without paying somebody overtime for normal hours on the stage. Musicians, for health and safety reasons, required a five-hour break between a rehearsal and a performance, yet you had to put the piece on the stage in that day. With a five-hour break it was not possible for the stage crew or the actors to work an eight-hour day. They had to work a longer day and, as a result, someone at any time was on overtime. I understood the reasons but it was hell for an employer. There is no doubt about it. Before the days of enterprise bargaining, it was incredibly tough to keep any kind of efficiency on the stages of Australia, and I imagine it was difficult to keep efficiency or work for efficiency in a wide range of other workplaces as well. They were the days before the reforms of the eighties.

But, when it came to safety, I was incredibly happy to work with the unions. They were a great partner of mine in working with my staff to keep them safe in the extremely tough environment of the stage, where speed is important and where, if you do not open on time and to budget, your business goes out the back door. Under the pressures and tight deadlines, my focus was not always on what was good for the long-term health of my employees; my focus was sometimes on what I needed to get done at that moment in order to keep the business alive.

I remember one instance, and the circumstance is still quite common today. I was managing an ensemble that was recording a film soundtrack for a German film company. The soundtrack was for a silent film called Korkarlen, by Victor Sjostrom, who was a very famous Swedish director in the 1920s. We were doing three-hour calls, as they still do in the music business. Two minutes before the end of the call, we still had a 90-second section to record. I knew that when those three hours was up every bow would go down and every instrument would go back in its case. In the classical music business, you did not go 30 seconds over the three hours and still do not. Employers hated it then, and they hate it now. Although I am not an employer anymore, I would still hate it that, come that three hours, the instruments go down.

But the reason they do that is quite simple: every employer wants them to work over the three hours. Every employer wants to them to go three hours and 10 minutes or three hours and 15 minutes. With every call there is pressure on them to go over that length. The physical demands are so great that, unless they hold that line, they simply could not come back day after day and do those three-hour calls. They cannot do eight to 10 three-hour calls in a week unless they hold that line.

The consequences of not holding that line ultimately are felt by employers too. During my period with that ensemble, two of my regular contract musicians experienced chronic problems. One of them was out of work for a year due to long-term RSI injury. He was unable to move his arm at all. He was one of the best base players in the country. With the loss of that contractor, I lost ensemble, I lost rehearsal time and I lost money, as did he. The other employee left permanently because of long-term hearing damage. I know as an employer that, while it was sometimes difficult for me and it caused some immediate problems, a trade union was actively working every day in my interests and in the interests of the employees by making sure that my skilled work force would still function efficiently and effectively next week and next month.

In respect of the recording of the film soundtrack that I referred to earlier, 95 seconds before the end, the leader of the ensemble said: ‘We have 90 seconds. Let’s do it in one take,’ and they did. So they did not go over time in the end anyway. They were able to do it because their minds were there, their skills were there, they were not tired and they were able to concentrate for the length of time to which they had agreed.

I also found that working with the unions kept issues that could sometimes occur daily out of the workplace. When you work under great pressure each day to get things done—when you are working with casuals, as you did in the industry that I was in—you do not want issues to fester in the workplace because there is too much work to be done. I found that the union were a great ally. They were there often enough, they knew the issues and they raised them with me early. So, rather than my staff being concerned about things, perhaps putting off raising issues or perhaps talking about them among themselves and stirring themselves up over issues that were easily solved, I was informed about them early enough to do something about them. We were able to keep disputes and the emotional side of issues out of my workplace. I found the union to be an extremely effective ally in keeping the efficiency of my workplace intact.

I was also grateful for the work that unions did to make sure that other workplaces did not treat my contractors badly. As any industry that works with contractors would know, you need your contractor to turn up fit for work. They quite often work for others. If the conditions get too bad in other workplaces—for example, if they are not paid enough, if they are overworked and they turn up to your place tired or if they take on more work than they can physically do—they fail. They go broke. I looked to unions then, and I still do, as one of the ways that one workplace can be protected from the bad practices of another workplace.

The stage was and still is a very dangerous place. Most people do not know that when you look at a big stage, although you might see 10 metres of height, above that there are three floors of fly towers—sometimes three rails, quite often two—that stretch up some three storeys above. In those fly towers, scenery is hung with nuts and bolts and pieces of timber. Sometimes it is kept together with hinges. They are potentially unsafe places, and workplace injuries are quite common. In my crew on the stage of the Lyric Theatre in Queensland was a head mechanist who in a previous workplace had lost an eye when he was using toggles to tie two flats together. The rope came loose and took out one eye. A second mechanist who worked on contract had lost half a foot in an accident on another stage. My head electrician was legendary in the industry—unfortunately, I have to say—for yelling out, ‘Heads,’ to warn the workers below when he fell from the third-floor tower a few years earlier. Stages are not places where hard-hats are worn—actors clearly do not wear hard-hats. So, when one is working in the fly tower, if one drops a tool or a piece of scenery, one yells out, ‘Heads,’ so everyone underneath can duck, which is pretty much what you do.

We spent a lot of time looking up on the stages in Australia and around the world, but this man saw workers below and yelled out, ‘Heads.’ He then spent eight months in hospital. He lost large parts from inside but he came back to the theatre and was one of the best head electricians in the country. I was extremely fortunate in not having any injuries during my time largely because of what I would describe as a feral approach to the safety of the workers that I employed by the union that represented them. I did come close, though, and from that experience I cannot imagine what workplaces go through when there is an injury. In our regulation today, we should consider what is best for the workers. There can be nothing worse than a workplace death.

In my world we came very close one day when one of the cables that supported the large sound doors in the back of the Lyric Theatre snapped when we were moving one of the doors—a 14.9-metre-wide door, 10 metres high, made of metal, that cut the sound between the stage and the rear stage area, operated hydraulically. The cable thrashed about violently, cut through a number of five-centimetre hessian ropes on the fly rail on its way through, and then very gently wrapped itself around the neck of my head flyman on the third floor. It left him with a very small red mark, and left us all incredibly traumatised. I lost my crew for two days that day. I have never forgotten it. We joked for days that Mal still had kept his head, but Mal did still have his head. I am well aware that, in the extremely dangerous environments of theatre stages, construction sites, wharves, mines, the forestry industry, and even in workplaces that we do not think of as unsafe, it is extremely easy for an accident to happen unless we have that group of people dedicated to making sure that it does not happen.

This government believes that unions have no role to play in protecting our workers and in keeping our workplaces safe—not for any researched reason, not for any real reason, but simply because of the fundamental belief that unions are bad and must be removed from every single aspect of workplace negotiations, and because of the even more foolish notion that individual workers without collective bargaining powers can negotiate one on one with their employers on all matters, including safety, and get a fair deal.

Anybody who has paid attention to what has been happening in parliament over the last few months might be forgiven for thinking that the most urgent issue, the most dire situation, the worst possible threat to Australia, is the trade union movement. While the government distract with talk of future IR changes, they are already setting about dismantling our IR system through almost daily attacks on unions. But an attack on a union is an attack on the right to collectively bargain, and it is a fundamental right and part of our national character.

We see a government fighting a very old battle from the seventies, when workplaces were largely inflexible and when industrial action was rife. But unions have changed a great deal since then. They are great problem solvers, quite often better than the government, and they often lead the government in finding solutions in workplaces, well ahead of legislation. We have seen the unions work incredibly quickly, in some cases ahead of government, to introduce superannuation for their workers through the establishment of industry funds. Of course, we have seen the government attack that—a great achievement of the union movement that has brought many workers into the superannuation fold—through super choice legislation, which was only about weakening the role of unions in that extremely important area.

In the last couple of days we have seen changes to the way that subcontractors and contractors will be able to negotiate collective agreements. Again, this is a response to changing workplaces where the unions have led the way, finding ways for contractors, which in many cases are just the new employees, to collectively bargain—to make sure that owner-drivers, for example, are able to buy their trucks and work in safety; that their contracts are not driven so low that they are forced to work unsafely by driving long hours, being unable to maintain their vehicles, being unable to pay off their vehicles. But then again we have seen the collective agreements that established the minimum conditions under which owner-drivers could work undone by this government in the last couple of days. We have also seen jail sentences introduced for unionists. There is no doubt that in the next six months or so we will see a few unionists in jail simply for standing up for the rights of workers and demanding the right for those workers to collectively bargain.

We see, through recent regulation and again through this bill, the skewing of the balance between the family and the workplace. I say ‘the family and the workplace’ not ‘the worker and the workplace’ because that is what industrial relations has always been about; that is what the union movement has always been about. When we talk about balance between work and family lives, there has been no stronger advocate for that than the trade union movement over the last 100 years. They are the ones that have fought so hard to make sure that workers go home alive, with all their limbs attached, physically well and in a fit emotional and physical condition, to spend time with their families. They are the ones that are aware that, daily, families set about trying to find a way to do all of the things that we as a society need them to do—to educate their children well, to accumulate assets, to save for their retirement, to save for a rainy day. The balance is skewing further and further towards profit and not the family and in all of our electorates, and certainly in mine, there is greater difficulty for the family to do what we all need them to do.

This issue of safety is at the very basis of family life. In Australia at the moment our record on workplace safety is not great at all. The death toll of 3,000 people per year through workplace deaths is not something to be proud of. Nearly 2,300 people die each year as a result of work related exposure to chemicals, and that figure will rise considerably as asbestos deaths cut in. We can expect between 40,000 and 60,000 more deaths due to asbestos related illnesses in the next 15 years. Then, of course, there are nearly half a million injuries in the workplace; nearly half a million Australian employees experience a work related injury or illness every year. Nearly three million Australians are now suffering from work related long-term health conditions.

The unions are not the enemy when it comes to workplace safety—far from it. They are a vital partner in making sure that our workplaces are safe. They are a group of organisations that have extensive corporate knowledge of the issues in a workplace. Safety issues are not necessarily well known in any particular workplace. Inexperienced workers, unscrupulous or ill-informed employers do not necessarily make for safe workplaces. The unions, because of their involvement in this area over decades, are well informed on safety issues. They see issues in one workplace which they can apply to another. It makes us all safer, and in the long run it makes our businesses safer.

The legislation as it is, which weakens the role of unions and the capacity of employees to protect their safety in the workplace, is not in the national interest or in the interests of family. And if it is not in the interests of family, it cannot be in the interests of the nation. I would urge the government to reconsider its attitude to this and to reconsider this legislation. The safety of Australian workers and their families is not a place for old ideology; it is not a place for hatred, vendettas or vindictiveness against the unions of the past. It is one of the most serious issues in the workplace. It concerns your very serious commitment to the health of workers and not your extreme ideology and hatred of unions.