Guest workers and rural accommodation

Free Access

There is a debate in Australia at the moment about easing the labour shortage by allowing “guest workers” into the country on temporary visas.  Australia has a bit of history in migrant labour but not as much as those nations who share land boundaries and have not been saddled with the White Australia Policy that Australia held onto for decades.

It is time for Australia to accept its geographical and political position in South East Asia and the Pacific, but how does this relate to workplace safety?

The current debate is about easing the labour shortage in agriculture and, specifically, fruitpicking.  For the guest worker scheme to work, Australia needs to show that guest workers are trteated with respect and are not being used as cheap labour, an accusation that is being bandied about.  Respect means good working conditions as well as a proper salary and part of those conditions with be accommodation.

Greens Senator, Sarah Hanson-Young, emphasised this on 18 August 2008:

Greens Senator, Sarah Hanson-Young
Greens Senator, Sarah Hanson-Young

“While it is pleasing to see the Government provide much needed assistance and training for our Pacific neighbours, especially with the injection of money back into their respective communities, we must ensure that the guest workers are not exploited,” said Senator Hanson-Young.  “Poor housing and contentious pay deductions are two issues that the Greens will be keeping a close eye on.”

The State of Victoria has a strong and large fruitgrowing area which. like most, relies on seasonal workers who reside on the property.  The accommodation needs of farm workers is neatly summed up in the Victorian guidelines for shearing.  Part of the guidelines state

In workplaces where accommodation and amenities are provided by the employer for employees, as is the case with shearers’ quarters on a property and amenities at the shearing shed, the amenities provided are regarded under the OH&S Act as part of the workplace. In this situation the general duty of care of the employer to provide and maintain for employees a working environment that is safe and without risks to health extends to the accommodation and amenities provided and to travel between the quarters and the shearing shed. (WorkSafe’s emphasis)

As has been proven in the past, migrant labour is frequently exploited, which is part of the trade unions’ concern with the scheme.  OHS regulators, farmers and rural employers need to be assessing these facilities now (if it is not too late in the season) so that new employees can begin work confident that they will be well looked after and amply rewarded for their work.  Even if there is no specific amenities compliance code or guidelines for this agricultural sector at the moment, there is plenty of information that indicates the decent way to treat guest workers.

Why are many of China’s coalmines closed?

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Safety At Work magazine has been reporting on the seemingly endless deaths in the Chinese mining industry for many years.  Many of the mine fatalities are of multiples that would generate huge investigations in the west.  Many deaths are compounded by the attempts of mine managers to minimise the scale of the disasters by delaying reporting the incident, not reporting at all, or disposing of the bodies. 

These incidents have occurred mostly in privately-run mines and over the last couple of years the government has had regular crackdowns on the industry.

China is a good example of a country that manages safety in reaction to disasters.  Poor safety management is often ignored as long as production is guaranteed.  This is evident in its manufacturing sector as much as it is in mining.

John Garnaut in The Age newspaper on August 4 2008 reports on the actions of the Chinese government in the mining sector in the lead up to the Beijing Olympics.  Garnaut reports that migrant workers were sent home weeks ago without pay.  At one mine he attended, work was stopped by management, ostensibly due to his presence as a journalist.

The closure of these mines has had a heavy impact on the coal supply and coal prices and Garnaut says that the action of the government has come about to

“prevent the Olympic Games from being marred by embarrassing reports of mine disasters.”

China’s decision shows how sensitive it is to criticism from other countries. The mess over internet access is a further example.

China does not only manage safety reactively, it manages through diversion, concealment and censorship.

What Garnaut’s reporting and China’s censorship shows is that safety of workers, and accountability of business owners can be improved through the attention of outsiders.  For over seven years, in my experience, China has been experiencing almost monthly fatalities in its coal industry.  I have been publishing whatever reports I can obtain (legitimately) from the wire service, however similar reports have not been appearing in the mainstream, or event the trade, press.  The community is generally unaware of the cultural negligence that the Chinese system of production and regulation allows. 

Perhaps it is a truth that few of us really care but one of the major threats to any management process is hypocrisy.  The Chinese government may be comfortable with that but our own governments should not be hypocrites in our trade negotiations with partners like China.

UPDATE

The Associated Press has reported a gas explosion in a coal mine in at the Baijiagou mine in the northeast of Liaoning province on 18 August 2008. Twenty-four workers are trapped but fifty-six other miners escaped without injury. The story came through the Xinhua News Agency in China, so it will be worth seeing, during this Olympics fervour, what attention this disaster receives from the West