Trade unions enter debate on profits vs safety

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has issued a media release aimed at addressing or countering some of the concerns over new OHS laws expressed by the business community and some politicians recently.

Ged Kearney

ACTU President Ged Kearney has said

“Attempts by employer groups to weaken the new regulations are yet another example of business putting profits before safety….. Employer groups called for a national set of health and safety laws, and we would have thought that business would welcome a tough approach to OHS regulations.”

Sympathy for business is unlikely from the union movement but some sympathy is warranted.   Australian business was promised that new work health and safety laws would reduce the business costs of complying with laws that differed from across a number of jurisdictions.  As companies begin to assess the impacts of new laws on their own business operations, as all companies surely must do, they are noticing additional costs for compliance.

This assessment process is, not unexpectedly, narrow as it focuses on individual companies’ needs. Kearney has said

“This renewed opposition from big business has emerged despite a regulatory impact statement by highly-respected independent consultancy, Access Economics, which found the new regulations would not increase compliance requirements or costs…”

The Regulatory Impact Statement referred to is sound, as far as it goes, but there is growing evidence that to achieve compliance with the new work health and safety laws, additional resources will be required to support the additional obligations of, for instance, communication, consultation, senior executive involvement and increased risk management needs.

Kearney accuses the business community of running a scare campaign but there are few indications of a campaign, as such.  At the moment, various businesses are simply expressing fears and concerns.  Of course a formal campaign of the type similar to those against mining taxes, carbon taxes, cigarette packaging and gambling, is always a possibility but OHS usually follows the industrial relations paths of accessing government decision-makers through tripartite consultative structures and lobbying.

Kearney’s media release ends with this “call to arms”

“Academics can guide our thinking on safety, OHS specialists can measure hazards and Governments can make laws for safety, but the truth is workplaces will only get safer when workers have a collective voice…. It’s only through unions that they can find that.”

The new laws provide health and safety representatives greater authority in OHS matters than previous in most Australian States.  This is one of the concerns expressed by businesses, although increased HSR roles are likely to be very positive in improving the work environment.  Whether that collective voice can only come through the trade union movement is arguable but union membership continues to decline across Australian industries so the collective voice continues to reduce in size, if not in volume.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

3 thoughts on “Trade unions enter debate on profits vs safety”

  1. I am quite frustrated with the Business lobby!

    First they CALL for National OSH laws to \’cut red tape\’, now they are whingeing and bellyaching that only 99% of OSH law will be harmonised.

    Sure – WA is holding out on 4 points – which, with a change of Government, will be changed to match the National OSH Act content anyway.

    It was promised that the content of the National OSH Act would be the best and toughest content from all existing Acts, then the Business Lobby arced up over the NSW content allowing unions to take employers to court over OSH matters.

    The business lobby bellyached about this as if the sky was falling! Business Lobby – give it a rest!


    Bruce Campbell

  2. Employers have been dragged kicking and screaming to the table for over a century for all manner of issues relating to the welfare of workers, so what\’s changed?

    If every bit of legislation had a clear sunset clause or regular major review clauses then maybe all parties will have a fair and reasonable say in matters that strike a workable balance for all concerned.

    Industrial relations and OHS are moving feasts that need very regular reviews and tidying up to move with technology and the faster pace of change.

    compliance with law is required otherwise why bother to legislate.

  3. Hi Kevin

    I have the all important page count!

    According to the Productivity Commission in its April 2010 research report on “Performance Benchmarking of Australian Business Regulation: Occupational Health and Safety” (excluding the Comcare jurisdiction) there were 1,068 pages of primary OHS legislation and 2,324 pages of OHS regulations. As for Codes of Practice there were 276 nationally.

    So when business decries the 580 pages of regulations, and the current draft and proposed COPs, let’s keep it in perspective.

    Undoubtedly there are areas where the Model WHS Regulations and COPs impose additional costs, compared to what some businesses faced, in some jurisdictions. But the major costs business faced were in complying with the differing requirements of the different regimes. So I hope the business evaluation of costs is not like the page count process (which is actually a net reduction of thousands of pages). That is, is business simply looking at the extra costs added, but not the costs saved? It may well be a case for some of the larger national businesses that what they are facing is not added cost, but lower cost savings than they had anticipated.

    I am not saying we should automatically accept the costs imposed under the Model WHS Regulations and COPs. Any unnecessary costs created should of course be addressed. But the proposed laws should be evaluated on their ability to achieve their goals, including their clarity, costs and benefits. Based on the submissions there is still a lot of work to be done, but shouting about page counts is simplistic and wrong – there is far less “law” under the model, not more.

    As for the added cost of \”senior executive involvement\” I don\’t think it is fair to even count that. It should be there already. Do executives count the cost of governance processes in place to ensure they are complying with the myriad of obligations under the Corporations Law, Tax laws and National Competition and Consumer laws (formerly the Trade Practices Act). Ensuring the business is run in accordance with all laws goes with the territory.

    Kind regards

    Graham Dent

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