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Wednesday, 29 March 2006
Page: 182

Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR (11:28 AM) —I rise to oppose the OHS and SRC Legislation Amendment Bill 2005 and associate my comments with the member for Shortland, who quite rightly has said that the motives behind this and associated legislation are as much about removing the status of unions in workplaces in occupational health and safety matters as about anything else.

On the terms of the bill there are some provisions that I think are quite sensible. I accept that the bill allows corporations licences—self-insured—to be covered. Those currently self-insured under the Safety Rehabilitation and Compensation Act are to be covered under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 1991. I also know that the bill seeks to ensure that relevant Commonwealth authorities that may be licensed are also covered. There is an issue as to whether or not that is a good thing. There are merits in the arguments there. However, as I stated earlier, the concern I have with much of the occupational health and safety legislation being put forward by the Commonwealth in this term, at least, is that there is also a very pernicious motive or intent—that is, to diminish the standing of unions that are registered under the Workplace Relations Act or the Work Choices act.

That to me is a dreadful consequence. The member for Shortland was correct when she said that there was a real problem in seeking to weaken employee representatives. I also note that there has been an expunging of the word ‘union’, as if by taking ‘union’ out of every piece of legislation you can actually remove them from the face of the planet. I know that that would be one of the wet dreams of the Prime Minister, but the reality is that the unions have been in this country since prior to Federation and will be here well after the Prime Minister is gone and buried—indeed, well after all of us are gone.

Whilst I can quite understand a tory government, a conservative government, an anti-union government, not wanting to do any favours to organisations that try to represent working people, particularly those that are affiliated to a political party that sees itself as the government’s opponent, I cannot understand the extent and nature of the assault upon these organisations. Show me a country with an absence of unions and you will usually find either a fascist dictatorship or a Soviet style communist regime which seeks to smash any organised workforce. The greatest assaults upon organised labour have occurred in extreme countries of either the supposed Left or Right. That is the reality.

Whilst those comments seem a long way away from this legislation, the ideology behind the government in expunging the word ‘union’, in trying to write unions out of legislation and in attempting to diminish the role that unions play in—of all things—occupational health and safety smacks to me of ideology being put ahead of commonsense and human decency. Whilst we may argue, and we will forever argue, about whether in fact unions play a constructive or not a constructive role in society, and whilst there will also be arguments about their role in the workplace, I find it very difficult to believe that members on the other side do not accept that unions have played a constructive role in preventing injury or death in workplaces.

Senator Murray is obviously quite a well-known, high-profile senator who has spent a lot of his energies in the areas of industrial relations and, incidental to that, OH&S matters. He has said time and time again and in many a report—and in a recent report on the OH&S proposed changes—that unions at the workplace provide a net benefit. I am paraphrasing, but effectively Senator Murray said that unions at the workplace play a constructive role and indeed are a net benefit to workers in this area.

And the converse is true: the absence of unions in many a workplace increases the likelihood of an injury. I am not suggesting that there are not non-unionised workplaces that have good health and safety records, because of course there is a multitude of factors that determine whether a place is safe or not. A good employer who focuses on health and safety will help ensure that the workplace is safe—or will at least assist in that process. I think that is clear.

It is also clear that the involvement of employees and the level of training and education given to employee representatives—including OH&S delegates—and employees at large about the potential dangers of the workplace and the need to alert the employer or others to dangers that may arise leads to a safer workplace. A culture that focuses upon OH&S matters is more likely to lead to a safer workplace. There is no doubt in my mind that a multitude of factors determines whether one workplace is safer than another down the road. It is axiomatic that—all other factors being equal—a union role in OH&S matters at a workplace will lead to a net benefit not only for the employees but also for the employer. No employer would wilfully place their employees at risk, one would hope. Certainly the majority of employers would not do that. Employers whom I know have relied upon unions to play their role in contributing to a safe workplace.

Senator Murray was correct when he said that unions taking a role in OH&S matters leads to a safer workplace. To expunge the term ‘union’ from the legislation and to diminish their role in this area—in other words, to place a greater onus on employees to alert an OH&S problem to their employer—will only lead to greater danger. Unfortunately, many people do not always feel comfortable in alerting their employer to potential problems associated with safety in the workplace because, not always at the higher level but often at the middle level, there is resistance. There are countless examples of employees knowing that there is a particular danger to someone’s health or safety in the workplace but not alerting their employer to that danger in fear of retribution. They fear being told, ‘Get on with your job; that’s not your role. Your role is to stand on that assembly line’—or to work in that shop or to attend that phone or whatever other functions they may have. In other words, their role is not to attend to potential danger to themselves or to their fellow employees. In some workplaces, if it had not been for the courage of an employee in raising a concern, an injury or even a death would have occurred.

To remove structures that have proved to be beneficial to workers’ safety and health while they work is a travesty. Whilst some provisions in this legislation are sensible on the face of them, the whole combination of government legislation in the area of OH&S seems more about diminishing the role of, and reducing the status of, registered organisations of employees than anything else. You would think that the Work Choices act was sufficient for the minister and for the Prime Minister in trying to destroy the rights of workers in this country, but to then move on to reducing the role of unions in the area of OH&S shows how belligerent, arrogant and extreme this government is.

I put up Senator Murray because he has made comments on industrial relations that I have not agreed with and that the Labor Party has not agreed with. In fact, Senator Murray was involved quite heavily in the negotiations for, and ultimately the enactment of, the Workplaces Relations Act 1996. Senator Murray made the point that OH&S will suffer if you try to take unions out of the equation unnecessarily or, indeed, wilfully. I think the government have chosen to do that in this instance. Removing references to unions is trying to suggest that they do not exist by not placing them in the legislation. For example, where previously a union could make a request to Comcare to investigate a workplace, an employer must now invite an employee representative to initiate this investigation. Changing that onus may seem okay on paper, but that is to pretend that the actual employee representative has enormous authority to start with. They do not. When people alert an employer to a potential problem, they might be wrong. They may well be wrong. They may make a mistake. They may think something is unsafe when it is not. But let us err on the side of that mistake. Let us err on the side of being too cautious in the workplace, not on the side of being too fearful to raise the matter because it may attribute to anything these days—it could indeed lead to a dismissal.

The point is that we do not want our workforce cowed by legislation and fearful of the consequences of them raising a particular matter, especially a matter related to OH&S. I am afraid that the bill before us is seeking to weaken—maybe it is not the intent, but this is the consequence—the resolve of employees at the workplace to raise matters of concern. Any person who has worked at the workplace level, who has actually been in the real world and not just in the bubble of IR, knows that that is the fact, knows that you do need employees courageously willing to say, ‘I think we’ve got a problem here,’ and to say that to a superintendent who may be more concerned about the amount of work that is going to be completed that afternoon or that week. But they must be willing to say it. If you remove the protections afforded to them, if you create a culture where it is better to say nothing than to say something about OH&S, then I am afraid we are going to have more injuries and more deaths.

I know that is not entirely the substance of the provisions of this bill, but there are parts of this bill to be enacted that do move the OH&S environment, if you like, at the workplace level in that direction—and it is the wrong direction. Whilst I will always expect us to disagree with the government on so many things in the industrial relations area and whilst I accept that we are never going to reach agreement on all sorts of areas—and that is quite evident from the debate on the Work Choices act that we will have until election day—I would have thought that in relation to occupational health and safety the government would have shown maturity, would have been less blinkered by ideology and more concerned about the workforce, would have listened to the independent advice on the constructive role unions play in health and safety matters and would not have sought to diminish them and traduce them in the way in which they have decided to in this bill.