Dignity and solemnity at Workers’ Memorial Day

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.

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.

IMAG0707_BURST002It 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.

Psychosocial Health

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.

Monumental Review

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.

Kevin Jones

4 thoughts on “Dignity and solemnity at Workers’ Memorial Day”

  1. Many cases cancer caused by asbestos exposure. Asbestos is a substance that kill thousand people. All uses of asbestos must be banned immediately. This is the only way to put an end to the ongoing tragedy of asbestos illness and death.

  2. There may well be a weakening of the WHS laws if the law reforms being pushed in Canberra come to fruition. There are at least 2 proposals currently being agitating at federal level.

    The push to reduce personal liability on directors (where an ‘officer’ of a company is a director) is the focus here. Apparently company director’s want to be free to take calculated risks … and these arguments gather some momentum when the ‘slowing economy’ is at the heart of the drive.

    The Australian Institute of Company Directors have submitted a very broad defence of what they term the “The Honest and Reasonable Director Defence” — although this proposal would be limited to the Corporations Act / ASIC Act and the equivalent common law liabilities – so is less likely to impact OHS legislation and their liabilities in the states.

    On the other hand, Dr Bob Austin (former NSW Supreme Court Judge) proposes a less radical defence per say, but the scope is cross jurisdictional. It is in effect a defence used to interpret liability … and if his idea is adopted, then WHS Acts will also be affected by the interpretation – particularly since his proposal of a ‘business judgement’ appears a great deal broader than what is currently under the ‘Business Judgement Rule” s 180(2) Corporations Act …

    I am inclined to suggest that we stay one step ahead of any weakening of personal liability for fear the corporate veil will be given a metal shield through some aggressive lobbying in Canberra.

  3. Thank you Kevin, pleasing to hear that the focus was more about the opportunity to honour and remember.
    I was also pleasantly surprised to see media coverage featuring in the evening news in Adelaide.

    However, The Greens MCL Tammy Franks took the opportunity to mention the introduction of a Bill to introduce new laws related to industrial manslaughter during the coverage on Nine.

    I am incorrect in thinking that the current legislation allows for the equivelent penalty, albeit watered down. Is the problem that it is extemely difficult to apply to the full extent of the laws due to an inadequately resourced prosecution system?

    Happy for someone to set me straight here.

    This is the experience my family witnessed.
    Over the course of 2 years we were consistently reassured that the most serious charges were applied and would be difficult to defend – gross negligence.
    The result was an 11th hour change of heart from the defendant to admit vague responsibility, not as an individual but as a company director.
    This was enough for Worksafe WA, it seemed any sort of admission of responsibility was the requirement.

    Our politicians spending tax payers money to discuss and debate new legislation appears a ridiculous waste.
    Spend more giving the prosecution system the support to successfully prosecute, not negotiate plea bargains.

  4. Here in Adelaide we planted 18 Memorial Trees in the Deceased Workers Memorial Forest, there are no speeches -though today we did have a specially written prayer written by an injured worker who was to ill to attend after having a heart attack so his daughter read the prayer.

    Tragically today’s plantings brings the number of Memorial Trees and Memorial Ground Covers to 283 since the Deceased Workers Memorial Forest started in 2003.

    Plans are underway for a Memorial Wall to be built and in place for next year.

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