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Monday, 4 September 2006
Page: 109

Senator STERLE (8:25 PM) —I concur with Senator Murray’s comments. Well done, Senator Murray—I cannot pick one argument with your list of reasons there. I rise to speak against the OHS and SRC Legislation Amendment Bill 2006. Since the Howard government came to office, more than 10 long years ago, we have seen a systematic undermining of work safety standards and conditions in Australia through the changes to Commonwealth legislation. There have been a number of pieces of legislation through which the government has sought to diminish or remove the ability of trade unions to be or remain involved in work safety issues at the workplace.

The minister claimed that this bill seeks to create a uniform national OH&S regime. At one level this appears to be a sensible housekeeping measure, but, seen in the context of the anti-union measures contained in the OH&S Commonwealth employees bill, it becomes clear that this bill seeks to extend those anti-union measures to private employers with operations in multiple jurisdictions. With this bill the Howard government is seeking to take over the occupational health and safety laws of this country by stealth. At present, former Commonwealth authorities and licensed private sector corporations operate under the Commonwealth workers compensation regime but are covered by state and territory occupational health and safety legislation in the jurisdictions in which they operate. This bill will allow these licensed private sector corporations to self-insure under the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Act, which is administered by Comcare. That means that under this bill any company that used to be a Commonwealth authority or that is in competition with a Commonwealth authority—or ex Commonwealth authority—can apply to become part of Comcare and thereby opt out of the coverage of state OH&S laws.

For my former industry, the transport industry, this bill will have significant shockwaves. It is a blue-collar industry that does have a lot of workers compensation claims and issues. In transport nearly all general transport operators would be able to apply to opt out of state OH&S coverage because they are in competition with the likes of Australia Post. To name a couple of companies, Linfox and K&S Freighters—two major employers of transport workers in this country—already have Comcare authority. So when this bill comes into effect they will be beyond the reach of state OH&S laws. This is of concern because state OH&S laws are clearly superior to Comcare. The very recent chain of responsibility regulation for trucking in the NSW OH&S regime, for example, has no counterpart in the Comcare system. Major employers covering thousands and thousands of transport workers will be exempt. Unfortunately, most companies have very poor records when dealing with workers comp claims and issues. While this may be a shock to those on the other side of the chamber, most of union officials’ time is taken up with OH&S and workers compensation issues.

The ideas contained in this bill were discussed in the last session of parliament, but the small business community had severe reservations about it. If large multistate employers opt out of state workers compensation regimes, the likelihood is that premiums will need to rise for those businesses that remain in the schemes. That would have two consequences. Firstly—an obvious consequence for smaller businesses—premiums will go up and, secondly, it would put pressure on those state schemes to reduce the compensation paid to those unfortunate enough to suffer injury or illness in their occupations. If the premium pools are smaller, that puts more pressure on those funds and, as a result, state governments will come under greater pressure to reduce compensation to those workers who are injured or who suffer illnesses in the workplace.

From my experience, the majority of small businesses comprise decent hardworking men and women who have put everything on the line to give their children a better future and to build an asset for them in their retirement. In my experience out there dealing with small businesses, I can honestly say that those employers want their employees to be safe. They want their employees to go home each and every night with everything still intact. They want them to go home to their families and they want them to come back to work next day, healthy, fit and ready to do it again. In talking about small businesses, where is Mr Peter Hendy from the ACCI? Where is Ms Heather Ridout from the Australian Industry Group? Normally, they are screaming from the roofs of the tallest buildings about any law, regulation or amendment that will assist business. I must say the silence is deafening—there is nothing coming from those two institutions or from the two leaders of those employer bodies. I put it to you, Mr Acting Deputy President, that they do look after the big end of town and only the big end of town.

We know that the government cannot get on with the states, so they want to take control of them. Where state systems can be harmonised through cooperation and negotiation, they should be. That would achieve what the Productivity Commission has sought to achieve: reduced compliance and administration costs. The answer to the problem should be sought through the harmonisation of state arrangements, rather than through the Howard government seizing control. You will not get the best ideas or the best practice from each jurisdiction; instead, the Commonwealth will say, ‘We know best.’ This will be to the detriment of the state systems, to the detriment of small businesses and to the detriment of injured workers. Workers compensation schemes and occupational health and safety regulations have been developed over many years by various state and territory governments in a manner that reflects the industry mix, the economic activity, the population and the various legal structures that operate in a particular jurisdiction.

We need to look at this bill in relation to other amendments that the Howard government has made to the Commonwealth occupational health and safety laws. Amendments have already been made to the Commonwealth’s occupational health and safety laws that remove all reference to unions. These changes to the Commonwealth occupational health and safety laws also require the individual employee to invite employee representatives into the workplace. While unions were previously allowed to request, for instance, a visit from Comcare to investigate a matter, it now falls on an individual employee to initiate such requests. These changes are aimed at creating an environment in which it is particularly difficult to get people who have a degree of expertise in considering occupational health and safety issues in the workplace.

Just by way of example, when I was an organiser with that fantastic blue-collar workers union, the Transport Workers Union, I received a phone call one day from a worker on a work site as I was travelling to another work site whose organiser was on leave. They said, ‘Can we bug you for a second?’ I said, ‘Sure, what is it?’ They said, ‘If we’re handling stuff with a skull and crossbones on it, do we get paid any more money?’ I was—I am not anymore—a licensed dangerous goods driver and that licence expired some 15 years ago, but it did not take long for me to work out that, if stuff had a skull and crossbones on it, the chances of it being a poison were pretty close to the mark. So I went straight round to that site and these guys were in a container—it was a stinking hot day in the middle of summer in Perth, in our state of Western Australia, as you would know, Mr Acting Deputy President Lightfoot—unloading a container full of bags of chemicals. There were split bags, dust and powder everywhere with a skull and crossbones on them. They had their water bottles in the container and there was a lunchbox. They told me that, halfway through unloading the container, they had sat down, had their lunch and drunk the water. Immediately, as a union organiser, who had the care of workers foremost in my mind, I contacted my union, which had some 20,000 material safety data sheets on file. They could give me a run-down of exactly what they were handling. If this is interference that the Howard government believes that unions contribute to in the workplace, it is a very sad day going forward from here.

We found out, once we received the material safety data sheet, that these guys had no idea. All they were worried about was whether they would get paid any extra money. They were handling a class 2B carcinogen. It had gone from a class A, a possible cause of cancer, to a probable cause of cancer. The leading hand of the transport company was a gentleman who had the company’s interest at heart, and no doubt he knew how to instruct men how to unload containers, put the load on trucks and then redistribute it around the Perth metropolitan area. But he had absolutely no idea about occupational health and safety. He knew that in the lunchroom there was a silver cabinet—he did not know where the key was—and that there was some form of protective personal equipment in there but he had no idea what it was to be used for. That is a classic example of what union officials do from day to day. They are out there, they know all about occupational health and safety, they are all trained in occupational health and safety. These changes are aimed at creating an environment in which it is particularly difficult to get people who have a degree of expertise in considering occupational health and safety issues in the workplace.

These laws are also aimed at making it as difficult as possible for union representatives to bring concerns to the attention of the relevant authorities. They are aimed at ensuring that individual employees have to take sole responsibility for initiating everything, a change probably developed with the secret hope that no individual employee would run the risk of jeopardising their future employment by raising occupational health and safety concerns. Employee representatives involved in developing OH&S management arrangements must be issued with a certificate by the CEO of Comcare, which is valid for only 12 months. Also, employers are allowed to conduct the election of employee health and safety representatives, a role previously conducted by a union or a person specified by the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission.

In my great state of Western Australia it is clearly stated in the Occupational Safety and Health Act 1984 that, if a secret ballot is conducted to elect a health and safety representative on a site, within 12 months of their election they must receive training to be an occupational health and safety officer and the employer must also be allowed to choose whom they want to train them. If there is any fear that the baddies from the union will teach the occupational health and safety officers all the wrong things which can bring an employer undone, the employer can send the elected representative to their choice of training arrangements.

Under Work Choices, the onus has now shifted from the employer to the employee to prove that there is a risk to his or her health in the workplace. Part 9, division 1, section 420(4) of the Workplace Relations Act 1996 places the burden of proof on an employee to prove that any industrial action taken was because of a reasonable concern about an imminent risk to his or her health or safety. And, in a further slap to the legitimate concerns of employees about their workplace safety, they can be hit with a $6,600 fine if they are unable to prove what that work safety concern was.

I have yet to see a legitimate argument that the number of injuries and deaths will be reduced as a result of changing to a national regime, particularly a noncompulsory, opt-in national regime. I have yet to see any real argument that safety conditions on the job will be improved by bringing the various state regimes into a single national arrangement, particularly when those arrangements are of a voluntary, opt-in nature.

Trade unions and their officials do have, and should have, a central role to play in workplace safety in this country. It is through the tireless work of the trade union movement that we are today able to enjoy safer workplaces than would otherwise have been the case. That is why Labor will always support the role of trade unions in helping to ensure that our workplaces are safe.