At a recent breakfast seminar, Steve Bell of Herbert Smith Freehills mentioned that a Bill is with the Australian Senate that will open up the Comcare scheme to Australian businesses through the removal of the national competition test. This move has been flagged for some time with several lawyers expressing reservations. Bell mentioned this to the audience of OHS professionals as the law changes could present a substantial change to their operational knowledge base. The Bill is part of a larger debate on OHS.
In a July 2014 article, the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) warned that:
“The proposed changes to Comcare will not only throw state and territory-based workers’ compensation schemes into fiscal chaos, but will also see injured workers left out in the cold,” ALA National President Geraldine Collins said.
“If this legislation is passed, employers may move their workers into the Comcare scheme, thus leaving huge holes of unfunded liability in state schemes which is likely to result in state-based premiums soaring.”
“Opening up the Comcare scheme will be disastrous for workers. Comcare has no meaningful access to common law damages for injuries caused by the negligence of an employer. The scheme is burdensome, paternalistic, and bureaucratic for workers and employers. Its design means premiums have to go up unless benefits are slashed ,” Ms Collins said.
“Comcare also has no meaningful workplace health and safety regime. Work environments will develop where lives are lost and permanently damaged with little oversight and enforcement of workplace health and safety. It is a fundamentally flawed minimalist scheme. Migration en masse will strike at the heart of the financial stability of state schemes, which are mostly running fairly,” Ms Collins said.”
The new Andrews Government in Victoria has followed through on its election pledge to abolish the Construction Compliance Code Unit (CCCU) of the Department of Treasury and Finance. It announced this in a peculiar manner within a media release on whooping cough, a process that Senator Abetz went to town on. But Premier Andrews’ decision raises the question of, if the Code is gone, what replaces it? The simply answer is nothing.
A spokesperson for the Premier advised SafetyAtWorkBlog that
“The Andrews Labor Government has delivered on its election commitment to scrap the Victorian Code of Practice for the Building and Construction Industry and its monitoring body the Construction Code Compliance Unit (CCCU).
Contractors bidding for Victorian Government work and applying for pre-qualification on construction registers will still need to meet safety and industrial relations management criteria. Contractors must also have occupational health and safety policies and procedures to meet legislative and regulatory requirements.”
The Australian Government has announced an inquiry into workplace relations through the Productivity Commission (PC). The most obvious occupational health and safety (OHS) element of this inquiry relates to workplace bullying which is discussed in the fourth of five issues papers released in January 2015. However the purposeful separation of workplace bullying actions through the Fair Work Commission (FWC) from actions in other sectors, such as OHS regulators, limits the potential impact of the inquiry on this issue.
The PC issues paper acknowledges the lack of the anticipated avalanche of anti-bullying applications and accepts that the structure of the FWC process may be partially responsible. This lack of applications, an issue discussed elsewhere in SafetyAtWorkBlog, deserves further research and analysis. The FWC structure only allows applications from workers currently employed in the workplace about which they are complaining. It can be argued that the inability of the FWC to award financial compensation is an equal deterrent. If this is the case (and, as far as can be determined, this aspect has not been investigated) the motivation of anti-bullying applicants to FWC and OHS regulators may involve natural justice AND compensation. The role of money in bullying complaints and applications has been a taboo subject in the past but deserves some analysis, even though it may be very uncomfortable. More…
On 16 January 2015 the Australian newspaper (paywall) reported on a Fair Work Commission (FWC) decision involving an unfair dismissal claim by a worker who, as a result of a random drug test, was found to have methylamphetamine in her system “at levels four times above the minimum detection level”. The company, Downer EDI Mining, sacked the worker, Leah Cunningham, as she presented a hazard to her work colleagues. The newspaper article was called “CFMEU slammed for drugs defence” and the FWC decision is Tara Leah Cunningham v Downer EDI Mining Pty Limited (U2014/1457) (14 January 2015).
The Australian, a newspaper with no love for the trade union movement and the CFMEU in particular, focussed on the apparent absurdity of a trade union, that places such a high priority on workplace safety, contesting the dismissal of a worker who presented a hazard to herself and others at work. The newspaper quotes Commissioner Ian Cambridge:
““It was highly regrettable to observe during the hearing that an organisation, which apparently conducts campaigns which strongly advocate safety in the workplace, could contemplate a proposition which, in effect, would countenance a person driving a 580-tonne truck whilst having methylamphetamine in their body at a level four times the reportable cut-off figure,” he said in his decision this week.
“Any realistic and responsible pursuit of the case on behalf of the applicant should have been confined to the development of evidentiary support for the applicant’s explanation for the presence of the methylamphetamine. Indeed, much greater energy and focus should have been devoted to such an evidentiary position rather than any attempt to defend the indefensible.”
Whether one believes that the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption is a political witch-hunt or a genuine attempt to clean up a corrupt industry sector, the Royal Commission seems to have revealed an abuse and exploitation of occupational health and safety (OHS) – an exploitation that has received next to no attention. The release of the Commission’s interim report allows for a quick analysis of this situation.
Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard was a particular target of the Commission in relation to a “slush fund” established by her then-boyfriend, Bruce Wilson, commonly referred to as the “AWU affair“. The “slush fund”, known as the Australian Workers Union Workplace Reform Association, was developed, according to Gillard
“… to support the re-election of union officials who would campaign for workplace reforms including better occupational health and safety.” (Interim Report, Vol 1, page 99)
Today Australia’s Employment Minister, Senator Eric Abetz, released a statement concerning a change to the renewal of Comcare licences in the spirit of reducing business red tape but there are two mentions of workplace safety that are curious.
In the statement entitled “Comcare self-insurance licence change“, Senator Abetz has welcomed:
“…a reform that will see businesses save more than $1 million a year which can be reinvested in Work Health and Safety and jobs.”
“This reform will reduce the regulatory burden, remove the cost of licence extensions in years two and four, and push back the costs of audit until year eight as well as ensure safer workplaces.”
The argument on reducing OHS red tape is that the cost savings can be reinvested into occupational health and safety measures but there seems to be no independent evidence to support this belief. More…
On 25 November 2014 the Federal Minister for Employment, Eric Abetz, attacked the Victorian Labor Party over its pledge to revoke the Construction Compliance Code which, primarily, deals with industrial relations but also has some occupational health and safety (OHS) requirements.
Abetz states that
“the Victorian Shadow Industrial Relations Minister [Natalie Hutchins] falsely claimed that the Code would not improve workplace safety, despite the numerous improved safety standards that it contains.”
The claim, apparently in the Herald-Sun newspaper, cannot be verified except through a reference in a news.com.au article. The original quote seems unavailable.
It is curious that this OHS criticism has come from a Federal Parliamentarian instead of from Victoria’s own Industrial Relations Minister and Attorney-General, Robert Clark. Clark echoed Abetz’s statement yesterday but where Senator Abetz mentions the possible OHS ramifications of the Opposition’s Leader Daniel Andrews’ tearing up (page 16 of the ALP 2014 Platform) of the Construction Compliance Code, Robert Clark hardly mentions the workplace safety context. More…
As part of Safe Work Australia month, or perhaps coincidentally, the Australian Council of Trade Unions held its annual occupational health and safety (OHS) conference in Melbourne, Australia. On the morning of day 2, the conference heard from the Shadow Minister for Employment Relations, Brendan O’Connor. The Minister is from the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and had a sympathetic audience but he made several interesting points, particularly when he diverged from the scripted speech (which will be available online shortly) and when he took questions.
Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program
O’Connor supports the ALP position that the Home Insulation Program (HIP) Royal Commission was a purely political affair to target previous ALP government ministers. He emphasised that the Royal Commission was the last in a long line of inquiries into worker deaths and OHS prosecutions related to the HIP program and that this inquiry has achieved very little change. O’Connor said (ad libbed)
“…. that Royal Commission has not recommended any changes to the regulations or obligations on employers to do the right thing at the workplace. It’s almost worse than doing nothing, than to use the health and safety of the workers as a political weapon against your political opponent. That’s how dismissive this government is with respect to health and safety.
Let’s set up a Royal Commission. Let’s summons a former Labor Prime Minister and other Ministers but, of course, all of which we could accept and we supported the establishment of the Royal Commission if that’s what they chose to do, with one caveat – that was, go ahead with the eleventh inquiry into these tragic deaths but make sure that when there are findings about the deficiencies in the law that protects the interests of working people, particularly young workers, do something about it.
Well we’ve seen nothing. We’ll see nothing in terms of changing the law by this government because that was purely a political exercise. To me this underlines how cynical this government is when it comes to health and safety. It only saw it as a political exercise and, I’m afraid to say, you won’t see too many good policy changes as a result of that Commission.”
On 1 July 2014, the Victorian Government introduce a mandatory drug and alcohol testing regime for the sections of the construction industry. According to the government’s media release:
“New requirements for tighter screening of drug and alcohol use at construction workplaces across Victoria will commence from 1 July, helping to ensure a safer and more secure environment for workers.”
This decision has been made on the basis of “widespread reports of workers being intoxicated, and of drug distribution and abuse” but the rest of the media release reveals other reasons for these changes including political pressure on its Labor Party and trade union opponents in the months before a close State election. Premier Denis Napthine has indicated that the move is also about cracking down on “outlaw motorcycle gangs dealing drugs on the sites”.
But are reports of potential criminality on building site enough to introduce a drug and alcohol testing regime? It is worth looking at some of the existing research on drug and alcohol use (or its absence) in Australian and Victorian work sites.
In December 2013 I wrote:
“The Age is correct in saying that claims of workplace bullying are “set to soar”. This has been predicted for some time, even privately by members of the Fair Work Commission, but the number of claims does not always indicate the level of a problem.” (link added)
Recently the Fair Work Commission (FWC) released its first quarterly report into anti-bullying applications and the statistics indicate that there is no soaring of claims. Sadly the report does not provide analysis only facts. More…