Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is on a pathway to an election. On March 21 2016, the Prime Minister wrote to the Governor-General to continue a convoluted process sparked by the Senate’s refusal to pass laws that will allow the reintroduction of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC). One of the justifications for the need to pass the laws is to improve workplace safety, as in the excerpt below for the Prime Minsiter’s letter. This position is unjustified.
Bernard Keane wrote in the Crikey newsletter (paywalled) on March 22 2016:
“Under the Howard-era ABCC, workplace fatalities in the construction sector rose from just over three per 100,000 workers to nearly five per 100,000 workers before falling again to around four. After the “neutering” of the ABCC, the fatality rate fell to just over two. Getting rid of the ABCC coincided with a significant fall in the number of workers being killed on building sites.”
The reason for the statistical change is not clear but one could posit that union Health and Safety Representatives (HSRs) may have been able to relax from an Industrial Relations fight to focussing on their original OHS role of site safety monitoring and education.
The trade union movement has also claimed that a reason to oppose the ABCC is workplace safety but this also is not the case. The trade unions are advocating for the continued role of union HSRs, part of whose duties is identifying and fixing workplace hazards. Safety is not the issue, enforcement of safety is the issue and this is the role of the HSR and the crux of the trade union objections.
A complication to the union objections comes from the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption (TURC) that has identified many cases where union HSRs and Organisers have muddied OHS and Industrial Relations issues into site visits that were allegedly generated over OHS concerns. Australia’s Conservative Government has used the TURC findings to justify the reintroduction of the ABCC. Trade unions dispute the legitimacy of the Royal Commission.
At the moment, in Australia, OHS is a classic example of the political football. And no one seems to be sticking up for the football.
The relatives of workers have a belief in the intrinsic worth of OHS. Without OHS and the laws and the enforcement, the public believes that, workplace deaths, injuries and illnesses, will increase. Workers need OHS to be seen as in the interest of, and for, the workers, rather than big business, government or trade unions.
Industrial relations was always going to be a major part of the Federal election that was due to occur sometime in late 2016 but both political extremes are misrepresenting OHS for their own political purposes. This potential was always possible but now is the time to ask who will defend OHS against this political abuse?