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Thursday, 12 February 2009
Page: 1179


Dr STONE (2:55 PM) —I rise to support the Employment and Workplace Relations Amendment Bill 2008. This bill covers a number of matters to do with supporting individuals and families who, through circumstances not of their choosing, have come to depend on government financial support. Most significantly, the amendments will increase the weekly workers compensation death benefits paid to each prescribed child from $75.10 to $100.10 per week. The use of the wage price index will allow for an annual increase in benefits. The wage price index uses total hourly rates of pay, excluding bonuses, to measure changes in the employee’s wage. It will maintain parity with wage rates.

The bill will also amend the Social Security Act 1991 in order to improve some administration and procedural matters to do with the future use of the wage price index. The method of calculating the amount of youth disability supplement will also be clarified. This supplement is added to a person’s rate of youth allowance. The amendments will also clarify the definition of a partner with a rent increased benefit. The bill will also amend the Social Security Act 1991 to extend to sickness allowance and the single parenting payment the provisions which prevent a person from receiving payment if they are also in receipt of an assurance of support. Where some people do not have an assurer willing or able to support them—for example, a newly arrived migrant—they may qualify for the sickness allowance or parenting payment.

Let me return to matters relating to work related fatalities and compensation. The 270 workers who died in 2005-06 represent 2.6 deaths per 100,000 workers. The highest number of work related deaths, I am sad to say, was amongst those working in agriculture, forestry and fishing and in the transport and storage industries. The construction industry had the next highest number of deaths at work. The first category of death in agriculture, forestry and fishing was over four times the national average of deaths in all other industries. Vehicle accidents were the cause of 40 per cent of the working for income deaths. Of the total of 270, only 15, or six per cent, of these deaths were women, no doubt reflecting the fact that the majority of workers in agriculture, forestry, fishing, transport and construction are men.

The statistics also show that the rate of incidence of work related deaths for workers 65 years and older is nearly four times the rate for all other workers. Half of these deaths of older men were in agriculture, forestry and the fishing industry. It is a sad fact that farm owners and operators tend to be older than the national average of all those in work and it is a cultural tradition that the older generation on a family farm continue to assist in farm work for as long as they are physically able, but the reality is that there are more deaths in this category. We also know that children are more likely to be killed in farm accidents. The data is now quite old, but it was found that between 1989 and 1992 there were 165 bystander deaths of children under 19 and 99 of these deaths occurred on farms. That was outside the farmhouse. Of these deaths of children, 54 were attributed to drownings, nearly half of them, and most of them also occurred on farms. Fifty-five per cent of all work related deaths involve vehicles and over half of these vehicle related deaths involve trucks, semitrailers and lorries. The transport and storage industry was the workplace for 46 of the bystander deaths.

Clearly the farm related deaths require more education about the dangers of operating machinery and the dangers of the potential for electrocution, falls and drowning in dams and channels that often cannot be adequately fenced off. In the Goulburn-Murray irrigation region a number of steep-sided channels are now being lined with plastic. The state owned water authority responsible for this work has only recently agreed to a study of the dangers that this channel lining represents for children, livestock and wildlife. We need to look at ways to reduce the potential for drownings that no doubt will follow.

The work related deaths in agriculture may rise this year as many farms in south-eastern Australia are trying to stay viable in their 10th year of drought and after terrible fires. Typically the farms are operating below the optimal number of farm workers as wives or husbands seek supplementary off-farm income and non-family farm workers have to be let go. With less salaried farm labour, farm children are taking up more of the work needed to keep the property running, adding to the dangers and likelihood of accidents. The previous coalition government’s Drought Force policy was an excellent initiative in trying to keep farm labour on properties when the owners could no longer afford to pay wages. A worker about to lose his or her job on a farm or in a small business due to the impact of drought and in an EC declared area can go to Centrelink and volunteer to continue to work on that or a similarly affected farm in return for the Newstart allowance and a significant training bonus. There are over a hundred farm workers now retained on farms in my electorate of Murray because of the support of this Drought Force program. I am pleased to say that the Rudd Labor government has not cancelled the program the way it has cancelled so many other rural and regional initiatives, but Drought Force is rarely publicised and Centrelink staff are often inadequately briefed about the availability of this important assistance in the EC declared areas.

I have no doubt that the retention of this essential farm labour has helped to save lives on the farms, not just through a reduction in likely accidents as overworked owner operators try to do the job of two or three in very difficult circumstances. I am also convinced that the retained labour has helped many to avoid or deal with the clinical depression that comes when people work for too long and too hard with little respite and real anxiety about a future that they cannot control. I ask that, in the interest of saving lives and preventing injury, and in order to preserve the food and fibre production capacity of this country, this government extend the Drought Force program to all those currently affected by any natural disaster in Australia, including those who are currently being flooded in Queensland and being burnt out in Victoria. Obviously the plight of Victoria’s farmers who have lost everything in the ongoing fires needs such special consideration in relation to their on-farm labour. I also want to thank the Minister for Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, who has just announced that the exceptional circumstances program that was to come to a conclusion in a month or two in a lot of Victorian areas is to be extended for another 12 months. I have no doubt that the announcement of that extension today will do a great deal to help rural communities in Victoria look more positively towards their future.

Given that unemployment rates are rising and will rise further, and there is little alternative employment in rural and regional areas for a dismissed farm worker, an extension of the Drought Force program to all eligible farm labourers in areas declared a natural disaster would be an excellent employment support initiative and an economic stimulus with major benefits for both the individual and the hard-hit regional communities.

There are also significant changes needed to help overcome the number of deaths in the road transport sector. You will recall that this industry sector had the biggest number of deaths after agriculture, forestry and the fishing industry. The small-business transport owner operators are reeling under the poor application and complexities of new regulations which were supposed to give them safer driving conditions. These regulations relating to rest and drive times were also supposed to be harmonised between states. Instead, the solo drivers transitional period work and rest hours in New South Wales continue to be different to those in Victoria, at least until 28 March and possibly for longer. In New South Wales a driver is allowed to stay at the wheel for 14 hours followed by a seven-consecutive-hour break. In Victoria some drivers may only work for 12 hours before taking the same break. This difference leads to great confusion and potential for prosecution for interstate drivers, especially from the Murray and Goulburn Valleys, where Australia’s biggest regional transport hub is found. Being on the New South Wales-Victoria border, much of the work of the transport businesses in this region involves interstate haulage. You can imagine the problems for a driver trying to calculate the hours of driving and rest allowed when the trip starts in Shepparton and ends in Sydney.

VicRoads has issued information to transport operators which includes advanced fatigue management regulations advice. This advice includes a spreadsheet which states that in any period of 24 hours the maximum work time is 16 hours but 15 hours in Victoria and New South Wales with six hours of continuous rest. In a period of 14 days, 154 hours maximum is allowed for work with two seven-hour periods of continuous rest between 10 pm and 8 am. And in 28 days of work 288 maximum work hours are allowed, including four 24-hour continuous rest periods. This information on the spreadsheet is then qualified with the VicRoads statement that each case will be considered on merit based on fatigue advice, and the further statement that these advanced fatigue management regulations are less prescriptive than the regulations on standard hours and basic fatigue management for solo drivers. I think you can imagine the extra stress this complexity and confusion adds to a solo driver in a cutthroat business like trucking.

The drivers’ professional response to their work is also sorely tested when they are pulled over on a highway or at a weighbridge for a regular check and state transport officials act in a belligerent and totally inappropriate manner, assuming always that the driver is less than law abiding and competent. I have many reports of verbal abuse and threats made to drivers who have been acting completely within the somewhat confused law and whose vehicles are fully roadworthy and comply with the load limits. A number of these episodes of abuse and unprofessional behaviour from road transport officials have been formally reported, but with little change in the officials’ behaviour, no doubt leading to frustrations affecting driving safety as the truck drivers pull away and expect nothing better. Excessive time lost at weighbridges can also lead to the temptation to try and make up the time by speeding on the roads. This can, with loss of licences, jeopardise the viability of the owners, who often are in a very cutthroat business environment. It is no wonder, then, that the working conditions for transport drivers are becoming increasingly difficult and stressful and that accidents are occurring. Many of these accidents lead to deaths of both the drivers and others on the road.

Much of the transport work is carting fresh and manufactured food to the warehouses of the big two supermarkets, Coles and Woolworths. This duopoly continues to squeeze the prices paid for the transport of its products. As well, the duopoly often puts unrealistic and inflexible time limits on the travel between the food manufacturers or farms and the interstate metropolitan warehouse destinations. If the delivery timeslots are missed, the transport businesses can face severe penalties and in fact can lose their contracts altogether.

The paperwork associated with the drivers’ daily entries in the new national driver work diaries is also causing great confusion and anxiety. Clearly the format was not tested in the field, and the drivers understand that there is a $608 fine for every incorrect notation even when it is accidental. For example, drivers have been told that writing just ‘VIC’ instead of the word ‘Victoria’ in full will subject them to a $608 penalty. Filling in the time zone as ‘Holbrook’ instead of ‘New South Wales’ is understood to incur another $608 penalty, and so it goes on. This is an absurd situation, adding stress to workers who need to remain calm, closely focused and with full concentration as they drive a B-double or even bigger rig up and down our roads, which are crowded with other vehicles going about their business or carrying families. On behalf of my local transport sector, I call on the national and state governments to consult much more closely with the industry to streamline and harmonise regulations and to impose a code of conduct and training in appropriate professional behaviour for those whom they employ to monitor truck drivers as they go about their business.

I also wish to refer to one of the very unfortunate consequences of declining incomes for rural workers both on and off farms. That decline in income—I could call it poverty—is due to years of drought and the squeezing of returns for fresh and manufactured produce. In the future, of course, the decline in incomes will also be a reflection of the fires, which have destroyed many years of hard work and investment.

It costs some $15,000 to $20,000 a year in Australia to keep a student at university remote from their home base. Decisions to defer or not take up university offers are now being taken in my electorate of Murray in family after family. The parents simply cannot pay these away-from-home living costs, because the means test indicates that they may be asset rich but, unfortunately, they are very income poor. There is no adequate government support to allow these rural students to access the tertiary education which would give them a better future. I support the measures in this bill to better support disabled youths—I think that is a very important area that we need to pursue—but I call on this government to also consider the loss of fully developed human potential when rural students cannot take up the offer of a university place that they have earned through hard work in their secondary studies.

I want to support the measures in this bill. They cover very important areas of our Australian community responsibility to the disabled, to those who have lost their lives at work and to the dependants who have been left when their loved one has been killed. We can, however, do a great deal more to make sure that lives are not lost—in particular, in the areas of industry, such as agriculture, forestry, fisheries and construction, where the majority of deaths continue to occur. I want to say, too, that we have great stresses now—quite obviously in Victoria but also in the flooded areas of Northern Australia—where there are going to be shortcuts taken as those in agriculture cannot afford to employ labour or have to take one of their partners out of the farm to work elsewhere. I think it is the appropriate time to very seriously consider how this government might better support the maintenance of the rural workforce so that the farm sector has a greater chance of recovery and fewer accidents and deaths are likely to occur because people are simply exhausted and cannot do the job they know needs to be done to keep safe. I commend this bill to the House and I hope my recommendations may be seriously considered by this government.