The lobbying for “control” impedes corporate and OHS growth

“When we look at global trends it’s clear that Australia’s labour laws are not the primary cause of the contraction in manufacturing.”

Shelley Marshall, a Monash University researcher and Fair Wear Australia spokesperson made this statement at an Australian Senate inquiry on 2 February, 2012.  The statement, reported in The Australian Financial Review (not available online), was used to illustrate the complexities of outworker protections under the Fair Work Act but it is, occasionally, worth looking a broader context.  If one accepts that workplace safety is a subset of industrial relations laws (as SafetyAtWorkBlog does), Marshall’s comments help cut through some of the recent hyperbole from the industry associations and lobbyists about the significant economic and productivity costs of OHS law reform.

Marshall identified the extension of supply chains as affecting productivity.  The issue of supply chain responsibility has an established OHS context as it relates to the issue of “control”, a matter raised as an objection to the implementation of new Work Health and Safety laws.  OHS laws have always extended an employer’s, or principal contractor’s, safety obligation along the contractor chain, a requirement that takes up considerable time of safety managers but has established an important precedent.

Peter Nolan, the Director of Workplace Relations for the Australian Industry Group, is reported in the AFR as questioning, at the Senate inquiry,

“…why companies should be held responsible for those employed further down the chain when they had “no control or knowledge, over practices.”

Clearly the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility is not as accepted in Australia as it is elsewhere.

The issue of contractor management and supply chain responsibility for work heath and safety should not still being debated.  Those who benefit from the labour of others should be assured that the labour was undertaken safely and without harm.  It is not unreasonable to hope for a statement on our products saying “no one was harmed in the making of this product”.  We have similar statements on our shampoo bottles and our films but we seem to give a higher significance to animals than humans.

The argument of “control” has the potential to stall OHS reforms but it also distracts from what the new OHS laws are trying to push – everyone has a responsibility for safety.  One’s safety, or safety obligation, is not tied to the actions of another.  Certain OHS expectations can be included in a contract but the principal contractor should be able to trust the contractors and suppliers to abide by their contractual and legislative (and moral) obligations.  Control implies interference and distrust.  Perhaps the new OHS laws reflect a maturity that some industrial and political sectors are afraid of.

Kevin Jones

2 thoughts on “The lobbying for “control” impedes corporate and OHS growth”

  1. If the issue is competitiveness then the answer is the re-jigging the so called level playing field. Currently we are stuck in Lake Eyre and who wants to live there.

    We have sold out competitive balance down the river with our insatiable consumerism greed that demanded the cheapest the world had to provide. Now we suffer the consequences of high personal debt and a total reliance on off shore supply of more and more critical elements of our daily basic needs. We no longer control our own destiny in many aspects of our lives and choice is being strangled by monolithic organisations who will dilute local competitiveness more rapidly as time goes on.

    The effect on work place safety will be substantial as small to medium sized industry tries desperately to keep its head above water and safety compliance will be seen as a cost than can be reduced without effect. Morality disappears when the death of a business is more than a probability. We need to live in the real world, the effects I have described are happening as I write.

    I don’t have the answer and I am convinced the current crop of politicians certainly don’t and I doubt their successors will be any better. Evidence is in the time workplace safety has been a hot topic and the abject failure to offer any substantial improvement over many decades.

  2. I fully agree that “…the principal contractor should be able to trust the contractors and suppliers to abide by their contractual and legislative (and moral) obligations.” – but also that; contractors and suppliers should be able to trust that principal contractors abide by their contractual and legislative (and moral) obligations. And not palm it off to the subby.

    I think a major flaw with WHS is that it will distort the natural divide of responsibility in contract law by creating abnormal expectations and ambiguty of who is ‘in control’, therefore distorting who is the best party to control a risk. Under WHS you will see more PPE by subbies and less redesign by owners.

    And that ambiguity can be taken advanage of by a clever and unethical contractors coupled with the popular ‘argumentum from authority’ fallcy: “Sorry mate, but the law says you were responsible for that.” In a nut-shell, more powerfual parties in a contract negotiation (usually principal contractors, especially with monopsony power) can mis-use ambiguity about WHS things like the “PCBU” to unreasonably dump safety and commercal risk onto to less powerful parties.

    Could it be that this is an ‘intended consequence’ by some in the inner circles of legislation writing?

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