"We are all diminished by every workplace death and injury," said Ron McCallum, Professor of Industrial Law at the University of Sydney at a Unions NSW meeting this week.
He’s right — and union delegates and officials are bristling with anger across Australia. The Rudd Government’s friendship with big business has alienated their historical mates in the unions and now the harmonisation of national occupational health and safety laws looks like becoming the new WorkChoices. The government would do well to remember the effectiveness of the union campaign against the Howard government over WorkChoices.
A national review into model occupational health and safety laws has been underway since April 2008. Unions and government are both satisfied that under the national arrangements as presently drafted, all "business undertakings" now have a duty to provide a safe place of work for their employees.
The main point of disagreement between unions and government — especially in NSW — concerns the abolition of the current right held by unions to prosecute employers over safety matters. For over 60 years, NSW unions have been able to prosecute employers where the regulator refuses to act — and they have done so very successfully.
Dawn Chamberlain, a Finance Sector Union member, survived five separate bank robberies in which guns were pointed at her face. She told a Unions NSW meeting this week the story of another FSU member who was also confronted by an armed robber. He pointed a gun at her and told her to open the safe. She replied that she couldn’t, as the safe was on a time lock. So the money was safe, leaving the employees to face the dangers. The union prosecuted successfully and banks installed screens to protect their employees.
Unions have a lot of power in this argument. Every time speakers talk about workers who have lost their lives or been injured at work, a hush descends on a listening audience.
Andreia Viegas has addressed audiences at union meetings, as well as the ACTU rally at the National Conference of the ALP. She now represents the Workplace Tragedy Family Support Group. Big boofy construction workers shed tears when she speaks. Why? Because she received the phone call no wife ever wants to answer back in 2002. Her husband was electrocuted on a building site because someone didn’t turn off the power. It took her an hour and a half to cross town to reach her husband. When she got to the hospital, he was dead, lying cold under a sheet on a hospital trolley. She lost her husband that day, and her children lost their father. Hardened political operatives spoke about her case on the rowdy floor of the ALP National Conference, and a rare quiet descended on the delegates.
The Resolution passed unanimously by the Union Officials and Delegates at this week’s Unions NSW meeting starts with the following words: "All Australians have the right to go to work and come home safely. Yet around 8000 Australians die and almost 700,000 suffer serious injury, illness or disease each year as a consequence of their employment" — and that includes the innocent wives and children of men who work with asbestos.
The Resolution seeks to ensure that the harmonisation delivers the highest standards of protection for all workers. No worker should be left worse off than they are now.
Specifically, the new laws must guarantee an unqualified obligation and onus of proof on employers to provide a safe and healthy workplace. They must protect the ability of workers and their representatives to independently pursue legal action under health and safety laws and require that employers must consult their employees about all work-related matters that affect health and safety. Furthermore, the rights and roles of elected workplace health and safety representatives must be fully protected. Finally, the regulatory framework must be genuinely tri-partite and independent.
Dave Gerke, an Australian Metal Workers delegate at the Transfield operation at Caltex Kurnell, warned recently that the current draft of the national harmonisation laws will compromise his capacity to represent his members in the workplace. Unions in that workplace have long demanded asbestos remediation. This is a workplace where every time there is a strong wind, there is a danger of asbestos fibres blowing across the site.
Caltex, who make multi-billion-dollar profits from high prices charged to the consumer at the bowser, are refusing a full asbestos remediation of the site on the grounds that it is "not cost feasible".
Gerke noted that the current draft national harmonisation laws provide for employers to decide which delegates go for occupational health and safety training and when. Under existing occupational health and safety legislation and regulations, delegates must be trained in certain areas to raise concerns that the employer is required to take seriously and act on. If the employer decides who goes to what training, there may be an opportunity to avoid safety concerns being raised by delegates in the workplace. Gerke argued strongly that workers alone should decide who represents them on safety issues.
Federal and state politicians have been warned. The natives are restless. The temperature is rising. Even mild mannered Unions NSW officials are demanding that the NSW Government refuse to cooperate in the national harmonisation of occupational health and safety laws if they do not meet the conditions outlined above.
And behind them, there are a lot of angry unionists.
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