The Victorian commemoration of International Workers Memorial Day has held on28 April 2015 and was a major improvement on previous memorials. The politics was muted by the speakers. There was no tray truck of angry unionists yelling through tannoys and heading off half way through the event to a protest rally that they see as more important than remembering the dead. There was a good level of dignity and solemnity …… finally.
— Kevin Jones (@SafetyOz) April 28, 2015
Some speakers were very optimistic which probably related to having a Labor Government that is sympathetic to trade union causes of which occupational health and safety is one. In fact one can say that the government offered a surfeit of support as the Minister Responsible for WorkCover, Robin Scott (pictured above), attended and spoke. He was accompanied by Natalie Hutchins, Minister for Industrial Relations. The acting CEO of Workcover, Clare Amies attended as did one of the executive directors (recently resigned) Len Neist.
Luke Hilakari, secretary of the Trades Hall Council, spoke well, giving a focus to the social and personal impacts of asbestos-related diseases, in particular, that many of the speakers following curiously failed to mention.
Robin Scott’s speech covered a lot of old ground but did promise an increase in WorkSafe’s inspectorate by 21 in May 2015 with two further intakes in the next 12 months. Scott’s speech was not overly inspiring, it was not a call-to-arms but he said what needed to be said on a day of remembrance and with minimal clichés. He emphasised the importance of having a suitably resourced OHS regulator in WorkSafe and that achieving safe workplaces was a cooperative effort. Sadly this effort seemed to be limited to the traditional tripartite structure but, although a broadening of OHS consultation is preferred, a balanced equitable tripartite consultation should be the base of any policy strategy.
It is difficult to visualise the number of deaths at work at memorials. There is always a reading of the deaths and sometimes worker’s names but this year Trades Hall used work boots to symbolise the loss. This was an effective symbol for attendees but it also generated an increased media attention on previous years. Everyone’s eyes were drawn to the baby booties representing the death of a nine-month old in a forklift incident. Where the symbol failed was in representing traumatic death and excluding those who have died due to occupational illness, disease or work-related suicide. This will need work for next year’s memorial service.
John Setka, Secretary of the CFMEU, presented the most political of all the speeches. This was not unexpected and Setka did speak, off-the-cuff and genuinely, about the pain and other social effects of workplace deaths. Missing from his speech was any mention of those construction workers who have died from asbestos-related disease or diseases related to silica and other construction risks. There is no doubt that he is well aware of these deaths, and did speak of other injuries, and the CFMEU is campaigning hard on these hazards but the omission echoed the absence of occupational illness and disease in most of this year’s speeches.
Other than asbestos and silica, this year’s ceremony was silent on issues related to psychosocial health, mental illness, and workplace suicides. Topicality has much influence on memorial speeches but worker memorials are often reminders of the broad spread of workplace hazards.
Given that the Latrobe Valley is continuing to have health issues from the Morwell mine fires and the Victorian Government has just reopened an inquiry into the disaster, it may have warranted a mention. The increased attention being given to mental health in workplaces could have justified a mention, particularly as the union movement was instrumental in bringing attention to workplace stress and bullying.
Odd omissions all.
Victoria should also consider refreshing the workers memorial monument, currently, on the corner of Victoria and Lygon Sts. The memorial stone has a colourful back story but one can assert that if OHS is a cooperative effort and covers all workers in Victoria, as was stated this morning, the prominence of a crucifix in the monument is peculiar. When Death visits a workplace, it does so regardless of race or religion.
Also the position of the memorial stone within the grounds of Victoria’s Trades Hall should also be reconsidered. The cliche goes that safety is everyone’s responsibility so should not a memorial be in an apolitical position, as has occurred in other Australian States and territories? South Australia has a forest walk, the Australian Capital Territory has a lakeside (national) monument (pictured), New South Wales’s memorial is in Reflection Park. Victoria’s memorial offers little opportunity for reflection as it sits in the cold shade of Trades Hall each April on a very busy intersection. It also has restricted disabled access.
Consideration should be given to relocating the Victorian memorial to an apolitical location that encourages quiet reflection, has no religious symbolism and is able to be easily accessed by the disabled. This would encourage more people to attend as, although trade unionists continue to be instrumental in improving Victoria’s OHS performance, a new memorial will be seen as for the people rather than for union members, as the current memorial implies.
International Workers’ Memorial Day is an important day in the OHS calendar but, in Victoria at least, it has very little presence outside the trade union movement. Certainly the memorial day originated from trade union activity but the trade union focus is also a limitation on communicating the importance of occupational safety and health to the whole community.
Today’s Victorian memorial was the best for a long time, having the appropriate level of solemnity and dignity. But now is the time to spread that dignity beyond the trade union movement and to encompass and acknowledge the increasing variety of Victorian workers, all of whom have the potential to be injured or killed at work.