The public submission phase for the Victorian Government’s inquiry into labour hire and insecure work closed last week. Public hearings have occurred this week and will continue in February 2016. One industry association, the Australian Industry Group has released its submission. Its discussion of occupational health and safety (OHS) of labour hire workers and suppliers is very disappointing.
The AiGroup says, in its submission that
“The interests of both groups [labour hire companies and users of labour hire], as well as the interests of the broader community, are best protected by ensuring that a competitive market is maintained for the provision of labour hire services, and that impediments to competition are removed.” (page 4)
It could be argued that the competitive market has allowed unscrupulous labour hire suppliers to succeed as they have been offering the cheapest labour. These suppliers have succeeded, mostly, because there is a ready market for opportunities to maximise profit by reducing the legal rights of workers. A competitive market may help fix the problem but it is also a problem that it helped create.
Currency of data
In one section of the submission the AiGroup quotes research that it commissioned about ” the changing nature of employment in five industries – one of which was labour hire.” (page 12) Positive experiences of working in casual labour are quoted but the information is over 14 years old and fails to address the recent issues that have spurred the government to instigate this inquiry.
Missing the point
On the section in the submission specifically addressing Work health and safety issues, AiGroup is very general in its statements:
“Sophisticated labour hire companies are well-placed to provide support and assistance to smaller organisations into which they place their workers….”
“The best cooperative systems effectively work together to ensure that all issues are addressed…”
“Labour hire arrangements should not, in themselves, reduce the safety of workers.” (page 22)
This blog supports looking at safety differently and acknowledging what works rather than what fails but the Victorian inquiry has been established as a result of failures. The media statement of the Industrial Relations Minister, Natalie Hutchins, announcing the head of the inquiry stated that the inquiry
“… will investigate the practices of rogue labour hire companies, insecure work, sham contracting and the abuse of visas to avoid workplace laws and undermine minimum employment standards.”
On OHS, the AiGroup seems to ignore the evidence presented by academic researchers in the area of labour hire, precarious work and insecure work. The submission states:
“There is a misguided view that labour hire workers are more vulnerable to safety risks.” (page 22)
In a submission to the 2010-11 Inquiry into Sham Contracting in the Building and Construction Industry Dr Elsa Underhill stated:
“Labour hire workers’ injuries are more severe, in part, because they are reluctant to report minor injuries for fear of job loss. They work with injuries, often until they are unable to work at all. Once they have lodged a workers’ compensation claim, they are more likely to be dismissed than direct hire employees. Hosts are unwilling to take back labour hire workers on light or modified duties; and labour hire employers advise workers that no placements are available, effectively dismissing them because they have or have been injured.” (page 3)
The AiGroup may be correct about risk likelihood but of those injured at work, the injuries are more severe and the number of work-related injuries are likely to be under-reported as workers are fearful to report due to the nature of the work relationship. Underhill, Michael Quinlan and others would argue that the structure of labour hire adds complexity to the OHS relationship. It seems that the aims of the current Victorian Labour Hire Inquiry has been to look at that structure.
The AiGroup did itself no favours for completing the rest of the OHS chapter with a discussion of the Work Health and Safety laws that do not apply in Victoria or by quoting WHS case-law from other Australian States.
The submission from the Australian Industry Group is very disappointing in its discussion of the workplace safety needs of insecure workers in Victoria. The industry association was well-placed to provide stories from its members on labour hire successes and failures but seems to have included a discussion on OHS because it felt it needed to it rather than giving the issue serious consideration.
The AiGroup has been influential in industrial relations and OHS policy development in the past and has achieved many positive outcomes for its members and for workers generally. We can only hope that other submissions to this inquiry bring better suggestions.