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Monday, 4 September 2006
Page: 116

Senator SIEWERT (8:56 PM) —The Australian Greens oppose the OHS and SRC Legislation Amendment Bill 2006 as we believe this is yet another attack on Australian workers. In the past 12 months, the Howard government has fundamentally changed the way Australians are employed and now, to our eyes, it wants to water down safety standards. This is another in a long list of bills relating to safety that are already before this chamber or that will be coming in the next few days. For example, the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment Bill 2005, we believe, has the effect of watering down safety standards by substantially reducing or removing union involvement when unions play such a key part in promoting safety and improving safety standards in the workplace. This is despite Senator Abetz saying in June during the debate on the motion for disallowance of the Workplace Relations Regulations 2006:

In relation to occupational health and safety, a matter of great concern to every Australian, whose jurisdiction is it? Everybody knows, or should know, that it falls fairly and squarely within the jurisdiction of the states and territories.

At that stage he was attempting to wash his hands of some level of responsibility about the particular issue we were debating. However, when one looks at this bill and other like bills, it is quite obvious that the Commonwealth is trying to gain control of health and safety in the workplace and at the same time reduce employers’ responsibilities and undermine health and safety in the workplace. Under this bill in particular, more workers will come under the Commonwealth provisions which, we believe, offer less protection and less requirement for compliance by employers and, as I said, aim to take more Commonwealth control and undermine the better protection that is offered by the states and territories. If we look at the impact on our community of the short-changing of safety, I believe it will cost us dearly and we will rue the day that we have further undermined the health and safety of our workplaces with this string of legislation.

International research and experience clearly shows that, when employers manage occupational health and safety without worker representation, the results are much worse: it costs the employers in lost time and productivity and ultimately increased payouts for disability and damages; it also costs the workers and their families—I will go into a bit more detail on the added dangers that workers face in their workplaces and the consequences on their health, wellbeing and livelihood—and it costs the nation in terms of the productivity of our economy, the burden of caring for those made sick or disabled in the workplace and a decreased international reputation.

In fact, on my perusal of the figures, which I think I have highlighted in this place before, the impact on the economy of time lost to health and safety problems versus time lost to industrial action is 20 to one. The very minor gains the government may hope to make through their wider Work Choices agenda in supposedly increasing productivity will definitely be lost to health and safety if our current health and safety regime is undermined. As has already been highlighted in this place, the situation in Australia, although getting better, still needs to improve significantly. There are still far too many Australians dying in industrial accidents and suffering long-term—sometimes short-term—health effects. Workplace injury and illness has been estimated to cost the Australian economy over $34.3 billion a year, or five per cent of GDP. There are more deaths in the workplace than on the roads. Best estimates are that workers compensation insurance covers only about 25 per cent of the overall economic cost. The AMP estimates that $8 billion of Australian corporate profits are lost to occupational health and safety costs each year. They are pretty significant impacts that lax health and safety procedures result in.

As I have said, I believe the aim of this legislation is to reduce the responsibilities of employers for occupational health and safety by putting it under the Commonwealth provisions rather than the stricter state and territory provisions. But there is no evidence to suggest that health and safety will improve and that death, injuries and disease will decrease if a company’s compliance obligations are reduced. In fact, the evidence suggests that occupational health and safety accidents, injuries, disease and deaths may increase if employer obligations are reduced. I will quote from a statement by the Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry, which concluded, in part:

There is persuasive support for the view that the extent of compliance with occupational health and safety obligations is strongly influenced by a reasonable expectation of the likelihood of being inspected, prosecuted, convicted and having a meaningful penalty imposed. The presence of occupational health and safety inspectors is important.

This is, of course, very important to this debate because putting even more workers who will be affected by this bill under Commonwealth regimes will put them into a situation where there are fewer inspectors and less compliance reporting and checking than under the state systems. A number of figures have been quoted. Figures were quoted in the opposition senators’ dissenting report to the inquiry on this bill, and other figures quote that the Commonwealth has a very small occupational health and safety inspectorate of 20 inspectors, while Victoria, for example—and there is a slight difference between some of the figures, but the variations are about the same—has 236 inspectors. That is a significant, tenfold difference in the number of inspectors. I have already highlighted that the number of inspectors is important to ensure compliance.

Let us look at the number of workplace interventions. Under Comcare there have been 245 and under, for example, Victoria’s WorkSafe there have been 43,719. The number of safety prohibition and improvement notices is 17 under Comcare and 12,492 under Victoria’s workplace safety provisions. The number of prosecutions under Comcare is none and the number under Victoria’s process is 110. You can see that there is a significant gap between what happens at a state level and what happens at a Commonwealth level. I know that the union movement and a number of other organisations are severely concerned about the impact of moving those numbers of workers from the state process to the Commonwealth process and the implications of that for inspection and compliance and for occupational health and safety.

Then we come to the fact that this series of bills also undermines union movement involvement in the provision of occupational health and safety. During another debate in this place recently over occupational health and safety changes I quoted a number of international studies that show the link between stronger occupational health and safety and worker representation. There are very clear links between improved occupational health and safety standards and reduced injury and death rates where joint arrangements are in place with trade union representatives and worker representation. Study after study shows this, yet what is the Commonwealth doing? It is moving to reduce union involvement and worker organisation representation in occupational health and safety. Clearly, again, this is part of the government’s agenda to weaken occupational health and safety, to weaken union representation and to bring the state and territory system, which is in fact the stronger system, under Commonwealth control, despite the fact, as I have said, that in the debate Senator Abetz said that occupational health and safety is the jurisdiction of the states and territories.

This is not the way to go about providing better occupational health and safety in Australia. If this government is truly interested in improving occupational health and safety, a philosophy I would strongly support, this is not the way to go about it. The way to improve occupational health and safety is not to bring in a system with fewer inspectorates, a reduced level of compliance and ability to check it, and a reduced level of worker involvement in occupational health and safety. The Greens oppose this bill and urge the Senate to oppose it too.