Many Australians expressed concerns over the potential workplace health and safety impacts of various free trade agreements Australia has entered into over the last few years. Those concerns may be starting to manifest if a report in The Age newspaper on 4 June 2016 is correct.
According to the article titled “Dodgy safety certificates under China Australia Free Trade Agreement“, the mandatory Construction Induction course provided in English was apparently completed on-line and successfully by several workers who only speak Chinese. The provider of the on-line course, Dominic Ogburn of ABE Education, stated that
“It’s not the correct interpretation. It’s not what I was trying to convey.”
It must be emphasised that the accusations made in The Age article are from unnamed sources which weakens the strength of the claims.
The Australian Labor Party’s Senator Penny Wong released a media statement on 4 June 2016 (not yet available online) reiterating many of the claims made in The Age article without adding much substance but she did state that
“It is also deeply concerning that workplace occupational health and safety obligations are reportedly being ignored. Workplace safety is a top priority of Labor and if safety on worksites is being compromised then Mr Turnbull must immediately consider options to ensure that it is not.”
According to the ABE Student Handbook, the company’s aim is to
“To provide expert advice and first class customer service to clients as they set out to obtain the skills and knowledge required to complete a successful building project.”
Passing a course that, from other training providers, takes a full day’s classroom training in two to three hours on-line is a curious strategy.
The Australian Government’s website of national training competencies provides a comprehensive list of the knowledge that is required to pass Unit CPCCOHS1001A that is the “white card” course provided by ABE Training. The course outline lists the following required skills of participants:
“Communication skills to:
- clarify OHS legislative requirements
- verbally report construction hazards and risks
- ask effective questions
- relay information to others
- discuss OHS issues and information
comprehension skills to:
- explain the basic OHS legislative requirements which will be applicable to own work
- explain the meaning of safety signs and symbols
- identify common construction hazards
- discuss the basic principles of risk management.”
There is an extensive list of required knowledge also but a major weakness in this course may be that only one type of assessment method is required. A combination of examination methods would likely provide a better level of competence.
There has been long-standing debate in the Australian occupational health and safety (OHS) sector about the integrity of on-line training, particularly as the knowledge gained is vital to satisfying the legislative obligations for, particularly, an employee’s obligations to work safely and without risk to others.
The inclusion of a discussion on wage rates and jobs adds to the political topicality of the article as Australia is in the middle of a federal election campaign. However the issue of OHS training and the veracity of various certificates of competency has been a sleeping issue in the OHS sector and with safety regulators for some time.
The issue of on-line training, although not related to construction safety training, appeared in the recent Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption over the completion of on-line right-of-entry tests by people other than the intended entry holders (Interim Report Volume 2, page 1571 onwards).
Any unsupervised safety training has the potential to be rorted. Providing training courses on-line makes this possibility more likely and contribute to the employer’s burden of having to verify the competencies. This double-handling would not be accepted in production processes but is widely accepted as an unavoidable business cost because employers feel as if they have no influence over the external training providers. The verification of competencies is a poor excuse for accepting substandard training qualifications.
The vocational and education training sector that largely provides safety training is getting good support from political parties who are stressing the need for an educated and skilled trade workforce. But for the sector to thrive, it needs policing by a suitably-resourced regulatory body. It also needs employers to be more picky on the types of certificates that they determine acceptable. Many companies have prerequisites for suppliers and some of these prerequisites include suitably trained personnel. Employers need to better enforce these contractual standards.
If, as seems inevitable, Australia will be increasing its overseas labour supply, the enforcement of OHS standards in this labour sector will become even more important. A free trade agreement should not mean that Australia is obliged to accept substandard products and services, particularly as these increase the risks to workers and the community.