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.
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.