Australia needs its own Dirty Work

Eyal Press recently published “Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America.” One of Press’s contentions is that coronavirus has brought the invisible workers who do our dirty jobs into view. These are now considered “essential workers” but are still subjected to the inequality and poor working conditions that rendered them invisible to the rest of society, to those who benefit from the services and products of the invisible dirty workers.

Although this blog’s theme is occupational health and safety (OHS), Press’ description of “dirty work” is an important perspective on work generally:

“The familiar, colloquial meaning of “dirty work” is a thankless or unpleasant task. In this book, the term refers to something different and more specific.
First, it is work that causes substantial harm either to other people or to nonhuman animals and the environment, often through the infliction of violence.
Second, it entails doing something that “good people” – the respectable members of society – see as dirty and morally compromised.
Third, it is work that is injurious to the people who do it, leading them either to feel devalued and stigmatized by others or to feel that they have betrayed their own core values and beliefs.
Last and most important, it is contingent on a tacit mandate from the “good people,” who see this work as a necessary part of the social order but don’t explicitly assent to it and can, if need be, disavow responsibility for it. For this to be possible, the work must be delegated to other people, which is why the mandate rests on an understanding that someone else will handle the day-to-day drudgery.”

pages 11-12, reformatted to emphasis the definition elements
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Banyan Health Group responds

Earlier this week, I paused an article on corporate burnout which used a media release from the Banyan Health Group as the catalyst. The group chose not to respond to some challenging questions but later reversed their position. Below are the responses of Ruth Limkin – CEO of The Banyans Healthcare Group to those questions. I thank Ruth and her team for their support

SAWB: The media release mentions chronic stress risk factors of “increased absenteeism, disconnected employee relationships, heavy workload and tight deadlines” and “longer hours”.  The World Health Organisation has written that “Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life”. What can an executive manager do to reduce or eliminate these factors and thereby reduce the need for personal psychological interventions? Should the businesses change the way they do business and change the expectations that they place on executives?

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OHS must understand business perspectives and vice versa

This week Forbes magazine included a peculiar article about Australian occupational health and safety (OHS) headed “If You Think Managing Worker Health And Safety Is Expensive, Try An Accident“. The article written by Susan Galer includes several curious perspectives and mentions industrial manslaughter (IM).

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“Too little, too late” but potential in primary prevention

On Australia’s Women’s Safety Summit, Wendy Tuohy contemplated, in The Age, after the first day;

“It may turn out to be too little, too late, but if there’s real commitment behind Morrison’s lines, we could conclude it’s a start.”

There are few signs of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s commitment. Women will continue to work in companies and workplaces where they are at risk of psychological harm from sexual harassment and physical harm from sexual assault. Occupational health and safety (OHS) laws offer a harm prevention option that nobody seems keen to consider.

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Revelations for wellness providers and workers

The Australian Financial Review (AFR) is Australia’s national newspaper on business issues. Recently its Editor Michael Stutchbury stated that he purposely focussed the newspaper on being business-friendly. This is understandable as businesses and employers, and entrepreneurs are the paper’s subscriber base and market, but sometimes articles can be too business friendly, and a recent article on burnout and the four-day-week may be an example. Thankfully the AFR article also included a brief mention of a more useful global survey about work in a time of pandemic.

The article, called “Pandemic burnout ignites argument for shorter workweek” (paywalled) included these quotes from a regular AFR contributor Reanna Browne on the possible mental health benefits of a four-day week:

“COVID has intensified these [mental health] issues and also given rise to new forms of workplace exhaustion such as wide-scale increases in working hours, alongside novel health challenges like digital load management and Zoom fatigue…”

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OHS seen as not up to the task on sexual harassment

Then submissions to the Senate Committee inquiry into the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill reveal some interesting perspectives on occupational health and safety (OHS) from Australian businesses and other organisations.

The Kingsford Legal Centre says this of the work health and safety approach to sexual harassment:

“WHS law is designed to manage work health and safety risks which are many and varied and are distinct from gendered violence and discrimination. Many cases of sexual harassment and sex discrimination are not an easy fit for the WHS framework. WHS legislation is state and territory based and relying on WHS legislation does not address the Commonwealth’s international human rights obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). In also not naming the gendered nature of the issue, WHS law risks overlooking keys to prevention and culture change which are central to the Respect@Work Report.
While WHS processes may in some cases run parallel to complaints of discrimination or sexual harassment, there are fundamental ways in which WHS law differs in the management of claims. Most obviously there is not a clear process for people who have experienced discrimination and harassment to be allowed to speak through a conciliation process about the impact of such behaviour on them and seek specific forms of redress. We know from our research in this regard that this process is important in resolving complaints impacting on human rights and reflects a complainant-centred process. WHS law does not approach injuries in such a way.”

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Forces amass against the prevention of workplace sexual harassment

Most of Australia’s media has cooled its reporting on the sexual harassment law reforms championed by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins. Partly this relates to revised laws being proposed in Parliament later this year and that are currently subject to a Senate Committee Inquiry. The media coverage on the proposed laws and the senate inquiry has been thin with only the Australian Financial Review (AFR) giving it any serious attention.

However, research reports on sexual harassment in Australian workplaces continue to appear and the transcripts of the Senate Committee’s public hearings are publicly available, as are the submissions made by, primarily, business and law organisations. What is missing is the involvement of the occupational health and safety profession.

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