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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Repeat OHS offender but you wouldn’t know it

Recently WorkSafe Victoria successfully prosecuted Midfield Meats International over an occupational health and safety (OHS) breach described as:

“a labour hire worker was hit by a reversing forklift as he was stacking cardboard sheets against a wall. The worker’s legs were crushed between the forklift and a steel barrier. He was taken to hospital and suffered nerve damage to his lower legs.”

The company pleaded guilty and was ordered to pay costs of $2000. In a media release, WorkSafe’s Executive Director of Health and Safety, Julie Nielsen, said

“This incident should serve as a wake-up call to this company and to others that it is simply unacceptable for pedestrians and mobile plant to mix…..”

But as OHSintros noted on a Facebook post about the prosecution, the Midfield Group is well known to WorkSafe, with OHS prosecutions going back to at least 2004 which attracted around $280,000 in fines, the largest penalty $95,000 in 2019. So it is worth a brief look at the OHS profile of the Midfield Group.

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“safety theft” in the gig economy

An opinion piece by Dr Elliot Fishman, of the Institute for Sensible Transport published in the HeraldSun newspaper on January 3, 2021 mentions Industrial Manslaughter in relation to food delivery drivers. (The article appears to be unavailable online) The link is tenuous and seems outside of Dr Fishman’s main area of expertise, but that seems to be the nature of Industrial Manslaughter penalties, they pop up in all sorts of discussions, many unrelated to the point being made.

The point Dr Fishman seems to be making is that the delivery of food on two-wheeled vehicles is dangerous, as shown by recent deaths of several riders in Victoria and New South Wales, and he poses several questions and suggestions to improve the situation:

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In cases of wage theft, who investigates the OHS issues?

In August 2017, the ABC Four Corners program reported on the dysfunctional glass recycling industry. Following this various media looked at the issue and in September of that year, one recycler, Polytrade, allowed some media into their worksite. The focus was on the “recycling crisis” and occupational health and safety (OHS) did not get a look in but two years on and OHS is now mentioned, but perhaps not as prominently as it could be.

On October 5 2019, The Age newspaper reported on accusations by the Australian Workers Union that workers at Polytrade were underpaid around $40,000 each year. There are many elements to this story such as migrant workers, “wage theft”, which have tapped into topical issues of several years, but the health and safety of the workers has received much less attention.

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Better jobs should also be safer jobs

The impending election in Australia has started to generate various position statements and discussion papers from various lobbyists. The Australian Industry Group (AiGroup) and the Business Council of Australia (BCA) are the latest of these.

The AiGroup released its Productive and Fair Workplace Relations statement in late March 2019. Surprisingly there is no mention of occupational health and safety (OHS) even though its contribution to a productive workforce is well established. Its omission is doubly surprising given the political stink in some States about the introduction of Industrial Manslaughter laws.

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Labour Hire licencing scheme to be rolled out in Victoria

Labour Hire Authority Commissioner, Steve Dargavel,

Labour Hire is almost always seen in purely commercial terms of salaries, business costs, production rates, labour availability, migrant workers, and more. Occupational health and safety (OHS) is often seen as an add-on, a term that is included in a media story because it should be, not because the author has really thought about it or sees OHS as legitimate.

Australian States are beginning to introduce certification/regulations schemes for the Labour Hire industry as a result of the exposure of workplace abuses in this labour supply process. Not all States though. Queensland has one that has been running a year or so, Victoria’s is open for registration applications at the end of April 2019 and full operation before the end of 2019; South Australia began its system, but an election changed the political priorities and that scheme is in limbo. The other States are unclear on their preferences, but it is clear that there will be no national labour hire scheme.

Victoria’s Labour Hire Authority (LHA) Commissioner, Steve Dargavel, has just started his roadshow for explaining what the regulations are all about, how to apply, what it will mean and what it will cost. Importantly OHS and workers’ compensation are integral parts of the scheme and therefore part of what the LHA Inspectors will be looking at and enforcing.

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