Australian unions are being distracted from OHS 2


The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has illustrated several matters in a recent media release – the safety of migrant labourers and the unacceptable rate of fatalities in the Australian Construction industry.  Sadly these issues were mentioned in a media release protesting about the continuation of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).

The media release was published on the eve of a new head of the ABCC and clearly wanted to piggy-back on media attention of the appointment.  The new head has been announced to be a lawyer, Leigh Johns, who has a political pedigree that should make him more palatable to the union movement.  (Johns is the author of several published legal articles including one in 1998 on “the obligation of mutual trust and confidence” and a 2002 article on “Bribery and Networking“) His appointment could be interpreted as part of the Labour Government’s plan to gently ease the ABCC into an inspectorate that is integrated within the government structure.  The trade union ideology seems to require a continued animosity to this strategy, particularly as there is no resolution yet on ABCC action against Ark Tribe.

The media release criticises the ABCC in relation to the high fatality rate of the construction industry.  This criticism is misplaced and the question would be better posed to Safe Work Australia, particularly as the agency is gearing up for it’s annual OHS week at the end of October.

The matter of Korean labourers is more pertinent to industrial relations but again the ABCC is not necessarily the most effective target for criticism. Safe Work Australia, the Department of Immigration and the Workplace Relations Department all have a hand in the management of this labour movement issue that was of even greater concern during the Howard Government earlier this decade.

The establishment of the ABCC was a purely political initiative of the Howard Government.  It’s continued existence under a Labor Government is ideologically offensive to the union movement and continues to create political attention.  But the Labour Government indicated at the 2007 election, not in these terms, that the ABCC will continue until the union movement “behaves”.

The Australian union movement has changed considerably in the last few decades in response to political, economic and social pressures.  The heavily unionised construction unions are one of the slowest to change because, arguably, it has one of the strongest and proudest histories.  They seem to be in a process of trying to change, trying to retain a relevance whilst not denying their justifiably proud history.

The continuation of an organisation like the ABCC, one with a questionable legitimacy, should be objected to but this should not distract the union movement from other issues that have a more direct impact on people’s lives – the continuing high rate of fatalities in the construction industry and the exploitation of migrant labour.

Kevin Jones

2 comments

  1. As a proud member of the Plumbing Trades Employees Union (Victorian Branch) I would like to assure your subscribers that Australian trade unions and construction unions in particular have certainly not taken their “eye off the ball” in relation to workplace safety.
    I believe the ACTU’s media release quite rightly pointed out the fact that since the inception of the ABCC (established by the Howard Liberal government due to it’s rabid hatred of organised workers standing up for themselves) construction workplace fatalities have risen. Construction site OHS reps trying to deal with builders who have little or no regard for workers safety are being constantly reminded of the spectre of the ABCC hanging over them should they take any action on site that may disrupt the jobs progress.
    OHS reps working in any other industry in Australia do not have to function with the threat of prosecution by a government body established specifically to intimidate and prosecute construction workers who dare to demand a safe workplace. Calls to the ABCC regarding site safety concerns are routinely ignored whilst their workplace inspectors respond to unscrupulous builders requests to deal with “unauthorised” safety meetings.
    The ACTU’s criticism of the ABCC is NOT misplaced and unions in the construction industry are certainly NOT being distracted from OHS.

  2. Fred, I can’t see the ACTU linking an increase in construction industry fatalities with the existence of the ABCC. It may be that the threat of action by the ABCC has reduced the effectiveness of safety supervision and enforcement on building sites but that is not a direct link between the ABCC and workplace deaths.

    I would suggest that it could equally be argued that the construction industry safety levels could be due to the increasing complexity of OHS obligations and contractor management, or maybe the increase of migrant labour, or increased casualisation of the workforce.

    I have great respect for HSRs and believe that they are an under-utilised safety resource. People tend to forget that they were a pivotal element of on-site OHS enforcement since before Lord Robens formalised their role.

    In response to workplace fatalities, I think the ACTU would be more effective in holding the OHS regulators to account for failing to reach the ten-year target on reducing fatalities. As I have written elsewhere, the State regulators are almost inevitably NOT going to reach the National OHS Strategy target that was trumpeted as a crucial commitment in 2002. WorkSafe Victoria has already begun preparing the ground for putting the best face on a clear failure to reach the 2012 target.

    On the eve of Safe Work Australia Week, the impending failure to reach this benchmark, the failure to reach a target that ALL governments in Australia set, is where the ACTU and individual unions should be emphasising. Is the failure due to insufficient resources? Is it due to inadequate enforcement? Which States were the worst performers? And, perhaps most importantly, what penalties are there for failure?

    In the next few weeks and months, watch for the spin, the rationalisations and the finger-pointing that the regulators will apply to this failure. For the excuses the governments can apply can equally be applied to corporate OHS failures.

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