OHS and wage theft

Australia is several years into a scandal of underpayment of workers referred to, by some, as wage theft. Occupational health and safety (OHS) would not normally figure in a wages and industrial relations (IR) scandal but the scandal has a legitimate OHS context.

The previous, and ongoing, scandals are not going to be summarised in this article as there are plenty of articles elsewhere in lots of different media but there is a common thread in many of the scandals. Workers are not being paid for some of the time they spend at work, work that is commonly described as unpaid overtime. This unpaid overtime extends the working day, for a variety of reasons, and OHS may not accommodate these additional hours (as they are “not official”) or OHS may be “stretched”, or risks downplayed.

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Take a good hard look at your business and do something about it

The Medical Journal of Australia (MJA) published an opinion piece on January 20, 2020 concerning working hours in the medical profession and the risk of mental health and suicide from working excessive hours. It uses the Japanese problem of “karoshi” to illustrate the severity of the workplace risks but it misses a couple of points.

It references the amendments to Victoria’s Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) legislation that introduced an offence of Industrial Manslaughter but implies that this amendment changes the duty of care expected of employers and changes a worker’s right to a safe and healthy workplace.

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Looks good but could be better

The Australian Financial Review on October 1 2019 contained an exclusive report on consulting firm (paywalled) Deloitte’s approach to mental health at work matters coinciding with National Safe Work Month. The original document is unlikely to be publicly released but Edmund Tadros‘ report provides some quotes and insights. The initiative seems very positive until you consider it in light of organisational changes recommended to control and prevent this psychological hazards from Safe Work Australia (SWA) guidance.

Tadros quotes Deloitte’s Australian CEO Richard Deutsch:

“Mr Deutsch said in the message that individual differences could mean “what I find stressful you may find motivating, and vice versa. I don’t want anyone to feel their health and wellbeing is compromised because of work”.

This broad statement fits with the employer’s duties under occupational health and safety (OHS) laws, so it’s a good start. But doubts about the strategy start to emerged when Deutsch mentions workload, a contentious issue for Deloitte’s junior staff:

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WorkSafe acts on allegations of gruelling workplace conditions in a Victorian law firm

On October 12 2018 the Australian Financial Review (AFR) published an exclusive article about an investigation by WorkSafe Victoria into excessive working hours at an Australian law firm, King & Wood Mallesons (KWM). The article was later expanded on line.

There are several curious elements of this report that could reflect other workplaces that may experience sudden high workload demands and fatigue.  Some seem to see the significance of this article as being less about the workloads and fatigue but more about WorkSafe Victoria’s involvement in an industry sector where it does not usually play.

The Australian Government announced a Royal Commission into the Banking and Financial sectors in 2017.  It was created urgently and given only 12 months to conclude its investigations.  As a result banks and financial institutions

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OHS needs to accept the influence of neoliberalism and rebuild

Many have been claiming that the era of neoliberal economics and the associated politics is over or, at least, coughing up blood.  However, occupational health and safety (OHS) is rarely discussed in terms of the neoliberal impacts, and vice versa, yet many of the business frustrations with red tape, regulatory enforcement strategies, reporting mechanisms and requirements and others have changed how OHS has been managed and interpreted.

One of the most readable analyses of neoliberalism in Australia comes from

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