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Monday, 9 October 2006
Page: 88

Senator WORTLEY (6:15 PM) —Labor is opposed to this bill in its current form. We opposed it last year during its passage through the lower house, and we opposed a very similar bill in 2000. We will continue to oppose bills that include changes that are not in the best interests of Australian workers and their families. This bill—the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment Bill 2005—could be about updating and ensuring safety in the workplace, but it is not. It could be about reducing work related death, injury and illness, but it is not—and it will not be.

When you read through it, it does not take long to realise that it is just another one of the Prime Minister’s ideological grabs on the rights of Australian workers. It is about disempowering workers and removing unions from the workplace occupational health and safety arena. If we need any more proof that this and all of the Work Choices related legislation is about ideology and not public interest, here we have it. All references to unions have been removed from this bill. The amendments to the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Act 1991 are, again, just like the Work Choices legislation rammed through this place less than 12 months ago. This is not in the best interests of Australian workers and their families, and not in the best interests of the more than 256,000 Commonwealth employees covered by the act.

However, it is not just a change in who will be involved in occupational health and safety in the workplace but a change in how the involvement will occur. The proposed management agreement in this bill essentially eliminates the requirement for government agencies to negotiate occupational health and safety agreements with unions. The bill shifts from what is regarded as a formal approach to occupational health and safety agreements—developed through tripartite processes between employers, employees and unions—to so-called health and safety management arrangements.

Under this bill, employee representatives who become involved in developing the management arrangements must be issued with a certificate to do so by the CEO of Comcare. This certificate will be valid for only 12 months. The bill before us today also empowers employers to conduct the election of employee health and safety representatives—a role previously conducted by a union or person specified by the former National Occupational Health and Safety Commission.

There is a very serious problem with this type of scenario. The keyword central to the problem is independence. You could potentially end up with a situation that sees the employer regulating its own observations and actions. In this case, that poses a problem in itself. It does not end here. It lacks independence not only on the corrective side but also on the preventative, when all of the independent information pertaining to incident prevention has the potential to be ignored and overlooked. And when there is a health or safety problem in the workplace, a worker will need to request that the relevant employee representative—the one with a 12-month certificate—ask that Comcare initiate an occupational health and safety investigation. Currently a union, acting on behalf of affected workers, is able to make this type of request direct to Comcare to investigate a workplace.

So what is the difference? What is the real impact of the changes? The difference is in going from a situation where the employee who raised the issue is not required to be named and, therefore, risk retribution to one where the employee’s identity is not guaranteed protection. And what of the employee who fears retribution for raising occupational health and safety concerns? What of the employee who fears that under the government’s new Work Choice legislation he or she can be dismissed without reason? Raising a workplace safety issue may be just the trigger for the boss to initiate such a sacking—maybe not the next day, but soon after. And how does the employee prove that this was the reason for the sacking? With great difficulty. It would be an unfair sacking without a genuine pathway to unfair dismissal provisions and without a real pathway to the possibility of reinstatement.

It has been argued that in cases where the employee considers it preferable to remain anonymous, as they currently can, there are provisions in this bill to enable this to occur. But the provisions to remain anonymous are really only a smokescreen. The provisions in this bill that are supposed to enable a representative to represent employees during discussions with the employer, without revealing their identity, will not satisfy employees’ concerns. Why? Under the changes proposed by the government, the employee representative must apply to the CEO of Comcare to issue a certificate to keep confidential the identity of the employee so that they can remain anonymous.

However, before the Comcare officer can issue such a certificate to keep the employee’s identity confidential, the employee’s representative must satisfy the officer, firstly, that they were in fact asked by the employee to represent the employee in consultations, and secondly, when that has been satisfactorily established, that the employee has requested that his or her identity remain confidential. So how does an officer establish these two points without revealing the identity of the employee? And what happens in the case where the Comcare officer decides not to keep anonymous an employee’s identity? The employee who raised the issue will then have to rely on the integrity of their superiors and, of course, this government’s draconian Work Choices legislation. And there is no prize for guessing where that can leave Australian workers.

The very existence of this requirement will result in less reporting of workplace occupational health and safety concerns and workplace incidents and, consequently, more injuries and illness. These changes demonstrate a total lack of understanding by those across the chamber of the concerns and issues facing workers in Australia today, and specifically of occupational health and safety issues, procedure and the reality of how some workplaces operate.

The current Occupational Health and Safety Act is based on the Robens model. The state of South Australia was the first to adopt this model. It was developed in the UK in the early 1970s and was seen as a revolutionary step in the advancement of workplace accident prevention. Aside from many other important guidelines, the model recognises the role that unions play as employee representatives. It considers them to be very much a part of the collaborative approach. The value of the Robens approach was maintained by the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission when it stated in November 2002:

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

The proposed amendments contained in this bill will weaken the whole process, reducing the amount of control held by the employee over their own wellbeing. An employee knows full well that some employers are potentially not going to be receptive to issues relating to occupational health and safety. Therefore they rely on their representative body to assist them when there is an occupational health and safety issue that they feel needs addressing but fear ramifications from their employer or from a manager for having raised the issue. This legislation just leaves them on their own. It denies them the right to be organised and unified and simply gives them one more thing to worry about at work.

I would encourage all senators to consider this when deciding whether union involvement in workplace safety is to the advantage of employers, including the Commonwealth. In the winter session of 2005, at around the same time as the bill was being debated by the House of Representatives, a workplace incident occurred on a building site in Narrabeen and was reported by the media. A young labourer was airlifted to hospital after falling from a two-storey building site. Immediately after he was removed from the site with both of his shoulders broken, two broken ribs and wounds that required stitches, the work colleagues left behind scrambled to erect a makeshift barrier before safety inspectors arrived. Pictures accompanying the article showed the makeshift scaffolding being held together by a few nails at one end and a piece of rope at the other. The reporter wrote:

There is no toe barrier at the bottom and no middle rail, allowing anyone to slip through. The whole barrier can be swayed a foot from side-to-side.

While being interviewed later in hospital, the young labourer injured in the accident—speaking about his employer—stated that his bosses were ‘good people for sure’. The comments by the victim that he quite liked his employer, and I am sure he did, highlight that there is nothing personal about occupational health and safety. It is not about friendship; it is about common sense displayed by both employer and employee and about strong input from unions representing workers. It is about everyone doing their bit for a central cause. Yet this bill has the potential to compromise safety, not improve it; the potential to hinder the reporting of workplace health and safety issues, not encourage it—and the losers once again, just like with the Work Choices legislation, are Australian workers and their families.

We have seen throughout this country’s history that unhealthy workplaces can engulf a generation and, unfortunately, become the most defining part of one’s life. The devastation resulting from the mining and milling of blue asbestos at Wittenoom in Western Australia and the suffering of the James Hardie victims and their families are marks on our nation that should never be repeated and never be forgotten. Australia has the highest rate of asbestos related disease in the OECD, and by 2020 the number of deaths relating to asbestos in Australia is expected to exceed 40,000. Who comes to the assistance of these people? Who are the ones who have stood by them all the way? It is not the Howard government. It is certainly not James Hardie. It is the unions that have stood up for them and represented them.

The prevention of accidents and deaths in Australian workplaces should be a joint responsibility of employers, workers and unions. And, of course, government has a significant role in ensuring that the best possible legislation is in place so that, at the end of each working day, workers return to their families without being affected by workplace injury or illness. This legislation does not do that. We need to recognise that, when it comes to workplace safety, every person who can help and who can be accountable should have the right and be duty-bound to do so.

This bill puts a burden of responsibility on the shoulders of all who vote on it in this place. To vote in favour of this bill and the changes it contains is to vote against safer workplaces. It is merely another example of the Howard government getting its extreme agenda up at any cost. It is a bill put forward by an arrogant and out-of-touch government—a government out of touch with the needs of working Australians and of their families who wait for them to return home at the end of each working day. Workplace safety is paramount: it is not negotiable; it is not for sale; and it should never be compromised.

Sitting suspended from 6.29 pm to 7.30 pm