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Monday, 9 October 2006
Page: 83


Senator CAROL BROWN (5:57 PM) —I rise to speak on this important and continuing debate before us concerning health and safety. OH&S is a vital issue in the Australian workplace and it is imperative that the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment Bill 2005 be opposed. Much of this bill has already been rejected or amended by the Senate. Labor has opposed these provisions twice before and does so again for a third time. We do so because we believe this is bad legislation for Australian workers.

The bill proposes changes to the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Act 1991. This act provides a legal basis for the protection of the health and safety of Commonwealth employees in departments, statutory authorities and government business enterprises. The bill reduces the safety of Commonwealth employees at work, which is exactly why senators need to reject this bill. Any bill which reduces the safety of Australian workers should be opposed outright by this chamber.

The proposed legislation argues that there is no case for government agencies to negotiate occupational health and safety arrangements with employee representatives from the trade unions; they do this through the introduction of management arrangements. This is a bad bill because it will remove the right of trade unions to conduct elections for health and safety representatives. In fact, such is the hatred of the Howard government for the trade union movement that the bill seeks to remove any—all—references to unions.

The government introduced these provisions in the 2000 bill, which was referred to the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations, Small Business and Education Legislation Committee. I would like to take a moment to remind senators of the view of Labor senators on that particular bill. As they pointed out:

... an ideological stance on matters relating to occupational health and safety is neither a constructive policy development nor a prudent one.

Such a policy disregards the main issues at stake. As the Committee was advised:

—despite any government or anybody’s ideological position or thinking whether unions are irrelevant or not, the academic research shows that even in countries like the United States, where the level of unionisation was 15 per cent, actively involving unions in occupational health and safety processes in workplaces and consultation improves the occupational health and safety outcomes.

It improves the occupational health and safety outcomes!

I think it would be really important that this government notes that, in fact, that is the role that workplace representatives have and that we are about getting occupational health and safety outcomes. It is not an adversary situation; it is about working together to get good occupational health and safety outcomes and decrease our toll. That is what we are on about.

Senator Murray in the Australian Democrats report from the same inquiry said:

A key area of concern to us is the place of unions in the maintenance and advancement of workplace health and safety. Unions supplement the regulatory and inspectorial roles of State H&S departments in an irreplaceable way.

This bill is wrong because it ignores the clear truth that trade unions have an excellent record in representing their members in matters of health and safety and in providing sound education and training on OH&S matters. Later I will detail the argument that trade unions have been central to the development of safe systems of work and that to remove them from direct access to the workplace would turn the clock back to the bad old days where, you will recall, safety was an all too regular battlefield. We should not lose the momentum we gained and bridges that were crossed in recent decades that have made the workplace a much safer place to be. Employers benefited from these gains. Lost time was reduced, accidents were reduced, death and serious injuries were reduced and workplaces became more productive as a result. Safe workplaces are important to both workers and employers. It is a win-win result.

It is quite alarming that this bill has clearly been designed to sweep aside more than 30 years of excellent occupational health and safety practice. This bill seeks to remove one of the cornerstones on which both Commonwealth and state legislative practices stand so firmly—that is, trade union involvement in the OH&S workplace practices and processes. How any government could seek to legislate away such a fundamental workers’ right is almost beyond my comprehension. But such is the extreme ideological view of trade unions held by the Prime Minister that this government is willing to compromise the health and safety of the workforce. If it takes that to get one over on the unions, then so be it.

Not one Australian worker expects to die at work today as a result of illness or injury sustained through their work. Yet, the heartbreaking reality is that, as we debate this bill, somewhere in Australia there is likely to be a family grieving the loss of a loved partner, son, daughter, mother, father or friend. We are still never fully prepared for that tragic day when another worker loses their life through serious injury at work. So why would any government put workers’ lives at risk? It simply defies belief and no amount of argument from the senators opposite will persuade me that this bill does not potentially increase risk in the workplace.

The place of trade unions in the safety equation is well established by fact, and government sophistry will not change these facts. The mortality rate from industrial accident and disease is one of every nation’s greatest tragedies. It has been said many times before but it is worth saying again that there are more deaths at work in Australia than there are deaths on Australia’s roads. We are all too well aware of the latter and spend millions each year attempting to reduce those figures, while as a nation we hardly notice industrial accidents and diseases. Internationally, it is estimated by the International Labour Organisation that each year more than two million people die as a result of occupational accidents and work related diseases. Death and injuries at work come at great cost. Aside from the tragic human cost, workplace fatalities and injuries, as reported in the Australian, are estimated to cost the Australian economy over $34.3 billion a year or around five per cent of GDP.

World Day for Safety and Health at Work, which stresses the need for the prevention of illness and accidents at work, fell on 28 April this year. So what are the Howard government doing to reduce workplace accident and the cost to the community? They take the backward step of reintroducing provisions designed to make Australian workplaces less safe and do nothing to stop deaths, reduce injuries and reduce the cost to the community and to business.

This bill has only one possible reason for being before the Senate today, and that is to remove trade unions from various aspects of occupational health and safety in the workplace. How will all this come about? The Howard government has attacked one of the cornerstones on which occupational health and safety legislation has been built for more than 30 years, the Robens model of OH&S, by seeking to remove the unions from the original model. Lord Robens’s recommendations were for their time revolutionary. The centrepiece of his proposal was that parties—management, labour and trade unions—were required to talk to one another on equal terms. In modern management parlance the stakeholders were to come together in a common purpose for the common good. Robens knew full well that good OH&S practice required cooperation and dialogue, not hostility and silence. This exciting new workplace safety model was supposed to take the politics out of OH&S and replace previously adversarial models with a model based upon cooperation. Robens recognised the employee was clearly disadvantaged when it came to discussion between employee and employer. To quote my colleague in the other place Mr Stephen Smith:

... the Robens model recognised the role unions play as employee representatives. As such, the principle of freedom of association was an important part of the Robens approach.

Robens recognised and acknowledged that freedom of association was vital if the employees were to be adequately represented, as they do not have access to the knowledge and resources that management does. Employees cannot be expected to be across the vast array and at times complex information and skills that are required to provide a safe workplace in 2006 and beyond without access to union resources. It is exactly these sorts of resources and current knowledge that the Howard government now seeks to deny Australian workers.

The primary planks of the Robens approach have never been seriously challenged before, as far as I am aware. It is true that Canada and Britain have both made changes to the model. However, those changes were designed to strengthen the model by introducing the concepts of industrial manslaughter and industrial killing. The Robens model has strong academic support. Wherever one looks in the literature one finds support for the Robens model. The National Occupational Health and Safety Commission in November 2002 said:

... there is ... strong evidence that employee participation, either direct or representative, is an essential component of effective occupational health and safety management.

If the government’s own principal advisory body thought that representative participation was essential and that employees could not necessarily represent themselves in this increasing complex industrial, medical, and legal field, on what new advice does the government base its so-called reforms? Clearly academia does not support the removal of the trade unions from the Robens model.

In their 2004 work Statutory OHS Workplace Arrangements for the Modern Labour Market, professors Johnstone, Quinlan and Walters reported on a range of international and Australian studies and stated that all the research lends:

... support to the notion that joint arrangements, trade unions and trade union representation on health and safety at the workplace are associated with better health and safety outcomes than when employers manage OHS without representative worker participation.

Johnstone et al also noted that unions provide important contributions to OH&S training. Professor Walters, in his 2003 paper Workplace Arrangements for OHS in the 21st Century, stated:

... in workplaces, in which joint arrangements were in place and especially where trade unions were involved, injury rates were considerably improved.

Walters went on to say:

Conversely, objective measurement of health and safety outcomes possibly suggest links between rising levels of accidents and the declining influence of trade unions.

In perhaps the most telling statement in his 2003 paper, Professor Walters stated:

What all this evidence suggests is that where worker representatives are supported by trade unions directly ... they are more likely to be able to engage meaningfully ... in ... dialogue with employers ...

In fairness to the government, I have read not only previous Senate reports and the work of experts in the OH&S field but also Minister Andrews’s speech on this bill. I was looking for the evidence on which Mr Andrews bases his amendments and the arguments that rebut the work of experts, but I could find none. Nowhere in any of the pages of government rhetoric could I find a single example of evidence to support their position. There was not one example to be seen anywhere in the minister’s speech.

Minister Andrews relies on long-outmoded Liberal mantras to support a false premise—that is, that employees and employers together will make for a safer workplace without trade unions. There is no attempt to provide factual examples of how his proposed changes will help anyone at work, nor is there any quoted academic research that validates the government’s position. The minister and the government have failed to produce any evidence to support the removal of trade unions from occupational health and safety in the workplace. They cannot produce any. There is not any to be found that is in any way credible.

It is clear to anyone looking dispassionately at the government’s bill that they have failed to make a case for change. However, many times government members and senators stand and argue that this bill is about freedom of choice, removing union bureaucracy and improving employee-employer communications. It just does not add up. This bill is simply another attack by the Howard government on Australian workers and the trade unions that represent them.

As if this lack of any academic support was not bad enough, the technical, supervisory and administrative division of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union have suggested that this bill could be a violation of International Labour Organisation conventions. They state:

The Amendment Bill is in breach of ILO Convention 87:

The Bill provides that any employee representative organisation can request the right to be involved in consultations by submission to a public official (the CEO of Comcare) in the prescribed form. That official issues a certificate with whatever restrictions are deemed necessary which then has validity for a fixed period of twelve months.

The proposal that a union member must seek permission from a public official (who may or may not agree) to involve his/her union representative in OHS matters is preposterous. It is almost certainly in breach of the terms of ILO Convention 87 (Freedom of Association) and/or Convention 98 (Collective Bargaining) to which Australia became a party in 1973.

These proposals, coming as they do on top of the extreme Work Choices changes, leave little doubt that the legislation lowers the standard on occupational health and safety by seeking to remove trade unions from this critical area. Section 8.5 of the Work Choices IR regulations lists various matters that are banned or deemed ‘prohibited content’ in a collective agreement or individual contract—an AWA. It states:

A term of a workplace agreement is prohibited content to the extent that it deals with the following:

                  …         …         …

(c) employees bound by the agreement receiving leave to attend training (however described) provided by a trade union;

(d) employees bound by the agreement receiving paid leave to attend meetings (however described) conducted by or made up of trade union members;

And section 365 of the Work Choices law provides that a person who seeks to include prohibited content in a workplace agreement can be subject to government fines and penalties of up to $6,000 for individuals and $33,000 for unions. Clearly, it is one unfair and repressive act used in support of another unfair and unnecessary bill—Howard’s way.

This bill is the Howard government flying directly in the face of the available evidence by tampering with good legislation based on a sound industrial and legal model. It is yet another glaring example of the long-held desire of the Prime Minister to destroy trade unions. Based on the evidence, this government is prepared to risk seeing an increase in injuries and related increases in costs. This bill is all about further diminishing the legitimate role of trade unions; it is about weakening, not strengthening, the position of Commonwealth employees.

In the case of the Commonwealth, it is worth noting that unions run OH&S courses and that these courses have to be accredited. Who accredits such courses? The accreditation is done for the government by Comcare. The Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Commission report list of accredited providers of training for health and safety representatives as at 30 June 2005 includes the ACTU/TLC, Australia Post/CEPU, the Australian Taxation Office, Centrelink, CPSU Advantage Ltd, CSIRO, the National Safety Council of Australia, Occupational Safety and Health Associates, Parasol EMT and Telstra. There are three union courses, one joint Australia Post-union course, three employer courses and three private sector courses—10 courses in all, of which 3½ are trade union based. The 10 providers in 2004-05 were also the 10 providers in 2002-03. By reasonable standards, that is a sensible balance of training providers.

This bill seeks to reduce the health, safety and welfare of each and every Commonwealth employee. Why? Simply because the Commonwealth government is obsessed by the obsolete conservative belief that trade unions are not good for employer relationships with employees and that ridding the workplace of them is a positive thing.

In conclusion, this bill tampers with the fundamental premise of the Robens model by removing the rights of a trade union, so employees will be left either to their own resources and knowledge in countering hazards and reducing risk in the workplace or to the goodwill of their employers. Australian public servants know all too well just how much goodwill this government has towards them—that is, somewhere between zero and nil. This bill will weaken long-established safe systems of work in most, if not all, workplaces.

As if this were not bad enough, this bill reduces employees’ opportunities to gain the training and knowledge that are necessary for them to work in safety. This bill will put pressure on employees to toe the line in employer dominated health and safety representative elections, as the union will no longer be able to support employees during elections for OH&S representatives.

Before senators vote, please think long and hard about the men and women who have been injured at work this year, this month, this week, this day and every other day of this and every other year. I ask honourable senators not to vote to make Australian workplaces less safe. We should not make the people who work for the Commonwealth government less safe at work. If passed, this bill will do exactly that.