WorkSafe Victoria has been heavily criticised in the media over recent days about “revelations” of workplace bullying within the authority, a government authority that has the role of regulating workplace safety, a role that includes reducing the risk of bullying.
It would be easy to only look at the newspaper articles of this week but the issue has been bubbling away for some time. WorkSafe has always struggled with addressing workplace bullying in its own staff, the community and other government agencies. But this is not unique. A 2010 report on bullying in the Victorian public sector showed a high incidence of workplace bullying across the public service going back to 2005. What makes the WorkSafe situation different is that the hazard of workplace bullying is being alleged in the organisation who should know best how to control it.
The Age has reported previously on bullying in the public service previously in 2005. The Age reported then that
“The Government’s own research, based on a survey of 14,000 public sector workers, found that more than one in five had been bullied or harassed by colleagues or managers in the past year. A further 40 per cent had witnessed others being abused.”
Karen Batt, a long-serving State Secretary of the Community & Public Sector Union (CPSU), has been outspoken on workplace bullying every time the matter has been raised in survey reports and the media for many years. The recent Age articles quote her extensively and The Age’s publisher, Fairfax, has even posted recent audio of Batt’s opinions.
But it is important to ask why the issue of workplace bullying at WorkSafe has reappeared, now, in late September 2011.
The (recent) attention on workplace bullying seems to have started with a 30 August 2011 opinion piece in the Australian Financial Review (AFR – a Fairfax newspaper) by Josh Bornstein, a lawyer with Maurice Blackburn, entitled “Time to outlaw toxic bullies“. (Curiously this article is one of the very few AFR articles that is freely accessible outside of the subscription paywall.) Bullying at WorkSafe Victoria is not mentioned. Bornstein’s opinions also appeared in Lawyers Weekly on 29 August 2011 based on the media statement his law firm released. The media statement encourages readers to visit a Facebook page supported by the Maurice Blackburn law firm.
The articles and statements listed above make no mention of WorkSafe however on 3 September 2011 an article appeared in a rival newspaper, the Herald-Sun, about
“Former WorkSafe health adviser Jillian Ramsden, 46, lodged the claim on July 27 after months of alleged workplace bullying….”
In the Herald-Sun article, Josh Bornstein is quoted:
“Maurice Blackburn lawyer Josh Bornstein said WorkSafe – which is running a poster campaign encouraging employees to report workplace bullying – was unfit to fulfil its charter.
“I can promise that this case will be a long, instructive and difficult journey for WorkSafe,” Mr Bornstein said.
“If there is to be fundamental cultural change at WorkCover, it will be first necessary to expose its behaviour in this case to sustained external scrutiny by Fair Work Australia and the Federal Court.”
The media articles do not specify whether Josh Bornstein, or Maurice Blackburn, is representing Ramsden in her Federal Court action but Bornstein has appeared with Ramsden in a video report on SBS news on 19 September 2011. In a 19 September 2011 radio interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Bornstein mentions many similarities in the case he is representing to that of Ramsden. (Following publication of this article SafetyAtWorkBlog received confirmation that Josh Bornstein is representing Jillian Ramsden)
(Coincidentally, the man who Karen Batt is talking with in the SBS video is a former employee of an earlier incarnation of WorkSafe Victoria, as is the author of this article, Kevin Jones.)
But a timeline of media statements, social media initiatives and mainstream media attention seems to have begun shortly after Jillian Ramsden lodged her dismissal claim in July 2011 based on allegations of bullying at WorkSafe. The Bornstein media release appeared just over a month later as did his AFR opinion piece (both significantly without mentioning WorkSafe) and, three weeks following that, Bornstein is commenting publicly and repeatedly on the accusations of bullying at WorkSafe, often without naming Ramsden.
The front page attention given to the WorkSafe bullying allegations by The Age are unlikely to affect Ramsden’s Federal Court action but it could increase community awareness and, perhaps, sympathy for her allegations. It is difficult to not see this recent timeline as part of an orchestrated media strategy. If this is the reality, there should have been some declaration, particularly in the August and early-September pieces, that the writer or advocate was actively involved in bullying-related actions and actions against the OHS regulator.
SafetyAtWorkBlog is in no position to question or confirm Ramsden’s allegations and, should the allegations be proven, we wish her all the best in regaining some quality of life.