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Monday, 9 October 2006
Page: 75

Senator SIEWERT (5:23 PM) —The Australian Greens will oppose the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment Bill 2005. We see this as yet another attack on Australian workers. In the last 12 months, the Howard government has fundamentally changed the way Australians are employed, and this is yet another go at watering down safety standards for workers of Australia. The bill proposes to dramatically reduce the role of unions in relation to occupational health and safety arrangements in Commonwealth workplaces. It will affect the powers of Comcare and those of health and safety representatives in Commonwealth workplaces. As has already been stated by other senators, this government has had three separate attempts to pass this legislation. Now that the government has the numbers in the Senate, it unfortunately seems that it will be successful this time.

We do not believe there is a need to change the system. On any real measure of health and safety performance, the current Commonwealth OH&S system is effective and efficient. It has a good track record of protecting employees and costs less than other similar compensation schemes. It has the best safety record in Australia: 30 per cent fewer injuries than New South Wales and 24 per cent fewer than Queensland, for example. Workers compensation premiums for the Commonwealth are much lower than those paid by the states; for example, compared to New South Wales they are three times lower, and Western Australia, Victoria and South Australia pay twice as much.

The existing Commonwealth system is the best in Australia. We believe that short-changing safety will cost us dearly. International research and experience clearly shows that when employers manage occupational health and safety without worker representation the results are much worse. This costs the employers in lost time and productivity and ultimately in increased payouts for disability and damages. Of course, it also costs the workers and their families through added dangers in the workplace and the consequences of them on their health, wellbeing and livelihoods. It costs the nation in lost productivity in our economy, in the burden of caring for those made sick or disabled in the workplace and in our international reputation. These are ideologically motivated decisions that, to my mind, make no sense.

As has been articulated previously, this bill empowers employers to control the election of employee health and safety representatives. This is a role which would have previously been undertaken by a union or by a person specified by the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission. The bill makes it much harder for Commonwealth employees to get union assistance on OH&S issues. This is likely to lower health and safety standards in some areas of great importance to the national interest—for example, the defence forces, the Federal Police, scientists, researchers and technicians, and the staff of government departments and agencies.

The bill removes all references to unions in OH&S and replaces them with references to employee representatives, defined as either a registered organisation or a workplace staff association, which will now be required to be invited into the workplace by an employee. The bill goes further to remove the need for government agencies to negotiate occupational health and safety agreements with unions and employees, replacing them with what it calls ‘management arrangements’. The bill requires that an employee must invite an employee representative to initiate an occupational health and safety investigation before a dangerous or unhealthy situation can be dealt with. Previously a union could make a request directly to Comcare to investigate a workplace where they had safety concerns.

The bill also requires employee representatives involved in developing occupational health and safety management arrangements to be issued with a certificate by the CEO of Comcare. The certificate will only be valid for a 12-month period and will require the employee to be re-registered when it expires.

The bill includes changes to introduce ‘in writing’ requirements, meaning that health and safety management arrangements which are developed by an employer in consultation with an employee will now have to be in writing. The in-writing provisions of the bill mean that these written instructions resulting from the safety management arrangements will not be legislative instruments. Once they are written, they are immediately in effect. As a result these written instructions will not be subject to parliamentary scrutiny—they will not be disallowable.

What are the implications? The more stringent certification process is likely to be a strong deterrent to employee occupational health and safety representation. In the past, all OH&S representation was—by virtue of being through a union—confidential. Now a third party has been imposed—that is, Comcare—which decides whether or not this representation can be confidential and then issues a 12-month certificate. What happens if they decide that the representative cannot keep their identity confidential? What happens if they lose their job as a result? What happens when 12 months is up—will the certificate be renewed?

I cannot see what these arrangements could possibly hope to achieve other than to make representation more difficult and to give the Commonwealth the power to administratively interfere in health and safety representation—to reduce the number of investigations and complaints. Is there any evidence that spurious occupational health and safety investigations are costing us time and money? Is it anything like the amount of time and money bad occupational health and safety costs us in lost productivity, lost workdays, lost limbs and lost lives? This can only be bad for the safety of our workplaces and the health of Australian workers.

The exclusion of unions from occupational health and safety consultation, irrespective of whether this is an indirect consequence or deliberate intention of the legislation, can only weaken occupational health and safety for Commonwealth employees. International research and experience clearly shows that when employers manage occupational health and safety without union representation the results are much worse. In the past unions have played a significant role in occupational health and safety training and education. Now what will happen? Who will do the training? Will they have enough knowledge and ongoing connection to our workplaces to make it relevant?

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 the wider Work Choices agenda—possibly through reducing the already low levels of industrial action in Australia, by world and OECD standards—are far outweighed, even overwhelmed, by even a small increase in occupational health and safety costs. Anyone doing a rational cost-benefit analysis of these changes would be aghast.

As has been stated in this debate, there are around 3,000 work-related deaths a year in Australia. There are at least 2,300 deaths per year as a result of workplace exposure to hazardous chemicals. That figure does not take into account the impact of asbestos—estimated to cause 40,000 to 60,000 deaths by 2020.

Each year, 480,000 Australians experience a work related illness or injury. Each year, 140,000 Australians are compensated for work related injuries that result in their missing more than a week of work. When you compare the Commonwealth occupational health and safety system with the state systems, you see that quite clearly the Commonwealth has the best record. If you look at the figures for injuries resulting in five or more days compensation per 1,000 employees, you see that in 2000-01 the Commonwealth had 12, New South Wales had 18.1, Queensland had 15.4 and Western Australia had 14.8. There are similar figures for the year 2002-03. The Commonwealth system is by far the most cost-effective system in Australia. Workers compensation premiums for 2000-01 as a percentage of payroll were: the Commonwealth, one per cent; New South Wales, 2.8 per cent; Queensland, 1.8 per cent; and Western Australia, my home state, three per cent. Again, for the following year, 2002-03, there were very similar relationships between costs. Quite clearly, this is a safe, cost-effective system. Why change it?

Union participation in occupational health and safety, as I mentioned earlier, is extremely important. The current best practice Commonwealth occupational health and safety system clearly benefits from the role of unions. Under current arrangements, all employees elect their occupational health and safety representative in a union-run ballot. Given that Commonwealth OH&S reps have the power to issue their employers with an improvement notice to rectify unhealthy or unsafe situations, equipment or practice, there would be a potential conflict of interest if the employer were to conduct the elections as this bill proposes.

The union has access to the names of these reps and plays an active role in supporting the reps and occupational health and safety committee members. Unionised workplaces are twice as likely to have undertaken a health and safety audit within the last 12 months and are much more likely to have a health and safety committee—59 per cent of unionised workplaces versus only 19 per cent where there is no union support.

Research shows that workplaces with occupational health and safety committees have fewer compensation claims and the intentional or unintentional exclusion of unions can only weaken OH&S for Commonwealth employees. This government has a clear agenda to do away with employee representation in the workforce. If this is not simply union bashing, I do not know what is. This is a slippery slope for Australian workers. Their hard-won rights and conditions are at risk and now, again, so is their safety.

Unions play a significant role in improving occupational health and safety and have done so since organised workplaces began. As the most representative and independent organisations of workers they can seek to change policies and practices of both employers and governments. Unions seek to safeguard the occupational health and safety of their members and other workers by negotiating with employers to eliminate occupational health and safety risks and by conducting education and training programs for workers and job delegates. They protect workers who have the courage to stand up and bring a safety issue to the attention of their employer. They campaign for improvements to occupational health and safety programs and work practices. They take part in the administration and enforcement of occupational health and safety legislation. Unions have also devoted considerable energy to ensure injured workers are properly represented in workers compensation and common law damages claims, as seen in recent high-profile cases.

We are concerned that the rights of the 250,000 employees working in federal government departments to obtain help from unions on health and safety issues will be watered down. The National Occupational Health and Safety Commission in their April 2001 review of the effectiveness of OH&S management systems identified that independent representation of employees being encouraged and supported is a significant factor contributing to the effectiveness of these systems.

These unnecessary changes to occupational health and safety laws also appear to violate Australia’s ILO obligations including the Occupational Safety and Health Convention 1981 and the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention 1949.

The existing Commonwealth occupational health and safety system is the best in Australia. The current system is efficient and cost-effective. Changing the system will cost the Commonwealth and the community. There is much to be risked and nothing to be gained by changing the system. The current best practice occupational health and safety system benefits from the role of unions. These changes are ideologically motivated and wrong-headed and will not improve the system; they will make it worse.