The misuse of OHS in industrial relations campaigns

Workplace safety and industrial relations are undeniably tied together in terms of policy development, legislation and implementation.  This week the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) used the occupational safety record of the Australian construction industry to criticise the Australian Building & Construction Commission (ABCC).  

wilcoxreportmarch2009-coverIt should be stated here that SafetyAtWorkBlog does not support the ABCC.  The Commission is a travesty and a political construct of the conservative side of politics.  That the Rudd Labor government has allowed the Commission to persist is atrocious.  However, the ABCC was established because of the perception that the Australian building and construction industry was corrupt, regardless of the absence of evidence through the Cole Royal Commission.  Has the construction unions addressed this perception? No.

In the 3 April 2009 media statement issued by Dave Noonan, CFMEU Construction Division National Secretary, there are the following comments

“The right of construction workers to have a safe working environment is a glaring hole in the report. Justice Wilcox has skimmed over the issue of safety, which is a basic right of construction workers.

Safety was not part of the scope of the inquiry for Justice Wilcox.  Action may have been taken by the ABCC on union representatives who were on construction sites to discuss safety but it is the presence on the site and the way that presence was achieved that is the issue, not whether the site is safe or not.

“It is shameful that the two employers used to prop up arguments for the retention of the powers of the ABCC, BHP Billiton and John Holland, have had a worker die on site in the last fortnight,” said Dave Noonan.

SafetyAtWorkBlog has elsewhere mentioned the poor safety record of BHP Billiton and the campaign on worker safety by the unions against John Holland.  However, these two companies are operating within their legal rights even if one does not agree with their decisions.  The focus of attention should be given to the current government which has chosen to act slowly on the ABCC, an organisation the Australian Labor Party, in opposition, opposed.

The difficulty for the union movement is that the ALP requires the ongoing support of the Australian labour movement to provide it with membership and finance (not to mention a career path for the trade union secretaries).  The trade unions need the political influence of the ALP and are obliged to criticise politely but not too overtly.

“The 154 page report does not mention the safety record of the construction industry or the fact that one worker dies on average each week.”

Safety was outside Justice Wilcox’s terms of reference.

“The so called ‘industrial harmony’ brought about by the ABCC and heralded by Justice Wilcox comes at the expense of the lives of construction workers.  We have deteriorating safety on construction site across Australia. At the very time Justice Wilcox was finalising his report, BHP and John Holland had a construction worker killed on their project,” said Mr Noonan.

Noonan does not offer evidence of the link between the operation of the ABCC and “deteriorating safety”.  It is suspected that such research would indicate that the correlation is not that clear and that there are many other factors affecting safety management.

“Industrial harmony” is an unfair description as even totalitarian regimes can claim harmony.

“The report also fails to deal with breaches to International law by the building and construction laws. Australia has been criticised by the International Labor Organisation six times for undermining workers rights.”

This is again outside the inquiry’s scope.  The ILO criticism is valid but the capacity to change is not with Justice Wilcox or the ABCC but with Australia’s politicians, who should be the union’s real targets.

“Australia’s construction unions will continue with the campaign for rights on site, using the full strength of the union movement.”

This is no more than what the union movement was established for.  The union movement needs to remind itself that it is a member organisation and that worker rights are not necessarily the same as union rights.  Not all union activity benefits its members.

“Workers rights to a safe workplace and equality before the law are core Labor principles. Construction workers, their unions and 10,000 working Australian’s will continue to campaign for rights on site, so all Australian worker [sic] are equal before the law,” said Mr Noonan 

There are two issues here that Noonan has lumped together – workplace safety and worker equality.  Regardless of union action or union presence, every Australian worker has the right to a safe and healthy work environment.  Equality is harder to achieve but just as much a human right.

Above, the perception of corruption in the construction industry was mentioned.  The exploitation of OHS in an industrial campaign against John Holland and the ABCC is unfair and insulting and may indicate that the union movement is not gaining traction on the industrial campaign.

It may just be that the media statement from the CFMEU is an expression of frustration and disappointment with the government that the union movement campaigned hard to bring to power and who is not providing the expected return on investment.

The union movement in Australia needs to realise that the industrial relations environment, like the upcoming OHS legislation, cannot be wound back but that a new future is possible.  There is no vision in Noonan’s media statement only a complaint that the Rudd government is breaking its promise and, in the general populace,  noone outside the union movement seems to care.

Kevin Jones

UPDATE ON ABCC – 6 April 2009

The Australian Greens issued a statement in early April 2009 questioning the government’s choice to retain industrial relations rules introduced by the previous, conservative, government.

Senator Rachel Siewert said

“We do not, however, support his recommendations for the separate division within the Fair Work Ombudsman to retain compulsory interrogation powers and the ability to deny workers their right to silence.”

“There is no justification to continue this discrimination against building workers. The building industry must be regulated just like any other industry – in a fair and just manner that balances the needs of productivity and the economy with the health, safety and democratic rights of workers.” 

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