Worker democracy reappears and OHS needs to be ready

Tripartite consultation of occupational health and safety (OHS) is largely a relic of the past. It remains in the structure of government policy formulation and in workplace safety legislation but, largely due to the decline in trade union presence in Australian workplaces; OHS consultation occurs more linearly than through formalised tripartism.

A recent example of contemporary consultation, that is likely to include OHS, was reported on in The Guardian newspaper on 17 July 2016. The incoming UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, wants to encourage the inclusion of a worker on company boards.  It is a curious suggestion from a Conservative Prime Minister which has been leapt on as “workplace democracy” by some commentators. The workplace democracy or “industrial democracy” push is not a new idea and was once seriously proposed in 1977 but, according to an article in The Conversation, the political time was not right.  Whether that time is now is debatable.

It is also worth considering this recommendation in terms of the push for holacracy.  Workplace democracy is much less threatening to existing companies but has similar power-sharing and decision-making aims.

The decline of trade union membership, if not influence, allows such proposals to be put forward. Significantly, although the unions are likely to say “Me! Me! Me!”, the suggestion for worker inclusion is about a worker representative not necessarily a trade union representative.  This reflects the current state of labour affairs in most workplaces.  The Guardian article illustrates how the representation works in a unionised workplace like the railways.

“Now all of [First Group’s] main British businesses – 12 bus firms and the two rail franchises – have their own employee director, elected by the staff. Those elected directors also vote one of their own to the group board, which is how Barker went from driving First Capital Connect trains to discussing shareholder revolts over the course of a few months in 2012.”

“First Group says that the role is complementary to the work of unions and its own HR department. Employee directors cannot be trade union officials (though Barker was once an Aslef rep), an exclusion designed to ensure that pay negotiations and grievances are still held with unions, rather than to weed out the lefties.”

This exclusion is a clever strategy that allows for trade union support for the initiative by maintaining trade unions’ comfort zone.

A Bloomberg article on the existing worker representation on Boards illustrates the OHS opportunities in terms of productivity and workplace welfare.  It pointed out that

“Employees worry about more than the stock price…” and

“…it’s not preposterous to think having a say helps motivate workers, which benefits shareholders and employees alike”.

It is very early days in the term of Theresa May, UK Prime Minister, and it is likely that, once more details of the proposal emerge, it will be amended, watered down or targeted (close which term you prefer). That May is considering such a change so early though provides hope that some sort of worker representation is now feasible.  Clever and forward-thinking companies should already have been considering ways of expanding its consultative base beyond the limitations of tripartism – if not in terms of better OHS decision-making, perhaps in the spirit of diversity.

Kevin Jones

4 thoughts on “Worker democracy reappears and OHS needs to be ready”

  1. Kevin – interesting article and comments which will no doubt bring a lot of calls on both sides of the issue. For “must” to succeed, will likely involve many groups wanting their own specific 50 cents worth, and more to the point, all of which are employees.

    So effectively if that were to occur it could in reality kill the process stone dead as companies would probably decide they don’t need all the hassle for separate interest groups vying for roles – after all how many new directors does each company want??

    Perhaps all the interested worker groups need to have their own democratic process of inclusiveness to cover all the employee groups and raining relevant issues through the elected employee director!

    1. Stephen – Why use the term ‘MUST’?

      The obligation under the laws is for the PCBU to consult with workers. The WHS legislation does not identify or specify ANY role for ‘safety professionals’.

      I see this approach to include a worker on the Board is another step closer to complying with the obligations under the Act and would welcome it. The Board can, if necessary, call on technical specialists if and when they deem it necessary.

      It is this insistence from ‘safety professionals’ that ‘safety professionals must….’ – as if we are the only ones with the answers – that gets in the way of safety being a truly workplace collaborative approach.

      I know of many ‘safety’ situations where supervisors and workers were quite able to resolve acceptable safe approaches without interference from ‘safety professionals’. Often their solutions are referred to me for review and comment but I rarely need to recommend different approaches.

      Maybe the role of the Safety Professional is in educating and mentoring managers, supervisors and workers to be more self-reliant in risk management?

    2. Stephen, I support Les’ comment. “Must” is an off requirement given that there may already be sufficient knowledge resources within companies. These can be supplemented by OHS professionals but these professionals have never been essential to achieving safety and/or compliance. In fact OHS guidances and regulatory publications have been specifically aimed at the non-professional since Robens advocated Codes of Practice.

      I think we need to work harder in establishing our relevance to businesses as there are many businesses that are still “making do” with a part-timer, a role tacked on to HR, or relying on the Health and Safety Representative. Businesses have to feel they need us rather than seeing us as an imposition.

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