Building a better future but maybe not a safer one

Cover of ACTU Blueprint 2015The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has a strong commitment to safe and healthy workplaces in Australia and would likely assert that nothing is more important than the safety of workers. However the latest submission to government on economic and social reform, “Building a Better Future – a Strong Economy for All” (not yet available online), has missed the chance to bring occupational health and safety (OHS) into the current policy debate on economic and productivity reforms.

The National Reform Summit was a roundtable organised by various media and business groups in September 2015 to assist government in reviewing a range of policy areas. On October 1, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull met with the Summit participants directly.  The ACTU’s submission focussed on the following areas.  Those with particular relevance to OHS are emphasised.

  • “Recognising the role governments must play across all sectors of our economy to ensure we
    generate the jobs, skills and innovation we need to build a better and fairer Australia
  • Address productivity growth in Australia by having a comprehensive industry policy
  • Review the tax system to ensure adequate revenue, including closing tax minimization loop
    holes for individuals and companies and superannuation tax concessions for the wealthy.
  • Support and fund research and development in innovation (including renewable energy) that
    drives Australia’s competitiveness.
  • Urgent action to close our current national infrastructure deficit
  • Government investment in public services to support a productive community and public
    assets to build economic growth
  • Increase government investment and support for schools, higher education, TAFE and VET
    including fully funding Gonski recommendations.
  • Address climate change including increasing Australia’s current emission reduction target”

Good safety management practices are proven to improve the mental health of workers and reduce the likelihood of injuries.  These also contribute to improving labour productivity, company profitability and sustainability and in growing safe, skilled workforce. (It is important to note that labour productivity continues to improve while the multifactorial (the one favoured by most business experts) declines, see graph below)

Productivity data 2015

The ACTU states that

“The goal for economic reform must be to continue to support a decent standard of living for all Australians by creating quality jobs with decent wages.” (page 4)

It has been pointed out before that a “decent standard of living” and “quality jobs” are not possible without good OHS practices.

Key Recommendation 4 specifically mentions the need for “a healthy and safe working environment” (page 7) but there is no mention of how this is to be achieved or why.  The full Recommendation is:

“A fair and prosperous society must be built on the foundation of decent jobs, where workers have:

a) Fair and predictable wages and conditions;

b) A say in work organisation and change and better work, life and family balance;

c) Access to important conditions like annual leave, carers and sick leave, long service leave, paid parental leave, penalty rates, overtime and redundancy pay;

d) Quality skills development, training and career opportunities; and

e) A healthy and safe working environment.”

It is hard not to view these bullet points as listed in order of priority however one can make a case that OHS is integral to “conditions”, “work organisation”, “better work, life and family balance”, “sick leave”, “skills development” in safe work practices, as well as “a healthy and safe working environment”.  The ACTU makes no such case in this submission even though the lack of OHS in each of these elements will also affect productivity, job creation and economic growth.

The four paragraphs relating to Key Recommendation 4 fail to emphasise the important role that OHS plays in achieving the recommendation’s goals.  There is a mention of “insecure work” and “precarious employment” but no mention of the evidence that such work arrangements lead to a higher rate of stress, suicides and other psychosocial issues that are often under-reported in official workers compensation statistics, or that work-related injuries are often hidden.

The paragraphs also mention that

“Insecure work ….. makes it tough for working families to plan for their future when they cannot rely on regular incomes…”

It is also tough on families when an income earner is fighting for adequate and effective workers compensation from a labour hire firm, or is being exploited by vegetable growers or poultry processors who do not care about workplace injuries, or who rape their casual workers.

Work safety is integral to the working conditions of all Australian workers but it is omitted from the lists of the effects of poor working conditions in this submission.

Occupational health and safety is not the most important element of Australia’s industrial relations agenda or reforms but it does exist and it is important and it does have a direct effect on those issues about which the government is seeking advice – productivity, job creation, economic growth.  All the ACTU needed to do was include “safe” when talking about jobs, and “safe” when it mentioned conditions, and the role of safe and healthy work in continuing the growth of labour productivity and economic growth.

As the start of this article says the ACTU has a strong commitment to OHS but it needs to make this commitment more visible in its negotiations with government and the business sectors.  It should start by bringing its good OHS policy work into its industrial relations programs, publications and submissions and not leaving OHS as the last bulletpoint (e).

Kevin Jones

One thought on “Building a better future but maybe not a safer one”

  1. This is an appaling oversight by the safety administration at the actu and slap in the face for every worker. The lack of an substantive mention of safety or worker’s compensation anywhere in this document is alarming. Can I expect a reduction in my union dues if unions will no longer advocate for my safety – I don’t think so!! Why should we put up with such mediocrity?

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