Over the next few weeks, many Australian law firms are running information seminars on the government’s Fair Work Bill. This legislation will change the way that workplaces are managed, particularly in the area of personnel management.
The overlap with OHS will come through the increasingly contentious issue of “union right of entry”. Frequently unions request access to a site in order to investigate an OHS matter. This is a legitimate part of the tripartite consultative structure that underpins workplace safety.
Given that the National Review into Model OHS Law has already flagged Victoria’s OHS Act as a useful template, it is worth noting that Victoria went through the same right-of-entry concerns in the development of its 2004 OHS Act as the Fair Work Bill is generating now.
Victoria established a system of licensed union OHS delegates through the Court system in 2005. Earlier this year the CEO of WorkSafe Victoria, John Merritt said
the ARREO system had been working well since it was introduced in mid 2005.
Mr Merritt said only eight matters involving ARREOs have been reported to WorkSafe since this section of the Act (Part 8 – Sections 79 to 94) took effect in mid-2005.
In seminars prior to the 2004 Act, workplace lawyers, some who have gained considerable prominence since, warned that “the sky was going to cave in” once unions gained this level of access. It didn’t, but the law firms gained some new clients. This type of scaremongering is being repeated currently in the Australian press at the moment.
Yes, under the Fair Work Bill, unions can access a broader range of company data than ever before, including salary information of senior executives, as asserted in The Australian Financial Review, but there are considerable safeguards and limitations in place within the legislation. These safeguards have worked in relation to Victoria’s OHS laws and they will in industrial relations.
In terms of safety management, the establishment of a cooperative relationship with employees is the best way to minimise union involvement. It is also the best way to minimise the visits of the OHS regulators.
Remember that those who complain loudest are those with the most to fear.