Guest workers and rural accommodation

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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.

Politicians’ workplaces

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Western Australian Premier, Alan Carpenter, is to be applauded for stating that the Parliament is a workplace.  This sounds like stating the bleeding obvious but Parliament has often turned a blind eye to this fact.

Certainly, the Premier is in election mode so there is an additional context in this period to everything he says. On 22 August 2008, he was talking about a working bar that exists in the State Parliament and how inappropriate it is. The media reported him saying:

“Parliament House is a work place, the members of parliament should not be able to drink freely during working hours,” Mr Carpenter said.  “Having a bar serving alcohol during working hours is completely out of step with community expectations. It is completely unacceptable that members of parliament are able to sit in a bar in their workplace and drink when they should be working on behalf of the community.”

There may be good reasons for having a bar in a workplace, but it may be inappropriate for workers to use the facility during business hours.  For years, many workplaces have introduced policies concerning drugs and alcohol to, in my opinion primarily, to cover themselves against legal action.  Thankfully such policies can also have a workplace safety role in the reduction of impairment.

Impairment relates to one’s fitness for work and is easiest to understand in the transport industries where one person is responsible for the safety of many members of the public.  But I have never understood why the logical extension of impairment to decision making in other workplaces has not be made.

In a workplace, such as a Parliament, or a goverment building, where decisions are made that will affect the safety and welfare of the public, decisions should be made with no impairment,  Policies should not be decided over a couple of bottles of scotch which was reported to be done by an education minister in Victoria several years ago.  Another politician was “under-the-weather” in Federal parliament some years ago, even though the current Federal Parliament has no bar onthe premises.

Considering that Parliaments are workplaces, the governments should review other hazards that are being addressed in other Australian workplaces.  The top of the list would be reasonable working hours, fatigue and stress.  In most Parliaments, the security issue is being dealt with but workplace bullying could be applicable.

Alan Carpenter’s comments were political statements in an election campaign so they have a dubious weight but let’s start thinking of Parliaments as workplaces and start seeing our politicians as exemplars in OHS.  If safety culture starts with leaders and safety champions, then can we blame workers and business operators who follow our leaders’ examples?

Senior executive – leave of absence

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Regularly glossy business magazines and newspapers focus on the CEO or senior corporate executive who has decided to take a year or so off in their middle age. These profiles are often accompanied by an image of the executive casually dressed standing in the shallows of a beach on a sunny day.

The glossy profiles are annoying because they promote the idea that one must work excessively long hours and amass considerable wealth before stopping suddenly for a period of time, rather than promoting a balanced approach to workload and career that allows for adequate leisure. Good OHS management would advocate adequate leave throughout one’s working life to allow for a reduced risk of health problems, to minimise stress and to allow for a good amount of family time.

David van Aanholt

Too often high-profile corporate managers, and particularly politicians, need to resign to “spend more time with the family” – that’s if kids recognise them and the family dog doesn’t attack the intruder. The phrase quoted above is quickly becoming PR shorthand to cover a large range of matters.

In the Australian Financial Review on 21 August 2008, it was reported that the Asia Pacific CEO of Goodman Group, David van Aanholt, is taking a six-month sabbatical “to spend more time with his family”. This could be corporate spin but taking it as meant, Mr van Aanholt should be congratulated for sacrificing some corporate time for the benefit of the bigger picture. The article says that he intends to return to the company because of the long and strong relationship he has with the company and its founder.

The Work/Life Collision
The Work/Life Collision

Barbara Pocock, in “the Work/Life Collision” discusses a possible option of taking a pay rise in time rather than money, sort of a non-monetary salary sacrifice. She says that this concept has not taken off in the US, where it was first proposed, but felt it could work in Australia. Of course this requires the quantum leap in understanding the OHS benefits of regular leave and sensible workload expectations.

Discrimination and OHS information in languages other than English

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One of the most ignored OHS obligations in Australian workplace is to provide safety information in a language other than English. Most workplaces in a multicultural society struggle greatly with this obligation and, more often than not, rely on employees to pass on OHS information to their colleagues in the employee’s language.

This translation is an integral part of a safety management system and needs to be well-considered when developing and operating a system. OHS professionals need to be assured that the correct OHS information is getting to where it is needed and understood at that point.

A recent discrimination case that illustrated these issues occurred in the New South Wales Administrative Decisions Tribunal (Tanevski vs Fluor Australia P/L [2008] 7 August 2008). The tribunal found that Fluor had indirectly discriminated against Mr Tanevski (a Fluor employee since 2003 and with 314 years as a supervisor in rail maintenance) by placing a literacy requirement on him that he was unable to meet and that the tribunal found to be unreasonable.

A safety report had highlighted the “management of low English literacy standards of personnel” as a high priority for improvement. Mr Tanevski had been demoted from his role as a supervisor over concerns about his literacy level in relation to complying with the requirements under its OHS management system. The tribunal found that the company’s concerns were legitimate but unreasonable as

“there was a feasible, low cost alternative which did not involve any increased risk to safety…[to].provide him with training on the new HSE system, instruct him on how to complete the necessary forms and assist him with the duties, such as writing statements and reports, which he was unable to perform”.

In other words, the company needed to support the operation of the safety management system by helping the people who need to use it.

There is also another point to make from an OHS management perspective. Should not the new HSE system have accommodated the known literacy needs of existing employees? Information in the decision says that Mr Tanevski was a five-year employee with the company and there were no concerns with his work performance, indeed testimonials spoke otherwise.

The New South Wales OHS Act 2000 states

“An employer must ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of all the employees of the employer.
That duty extends (without limitation) to the following:…
(d) providing such information, instruction, training and supervision as may be necessary to ensure the employees’ health and safety at work,…”

The Victorian OHS Act is more specific:

“An employer must, so far as is reasonably practicable—………..
(c) provide information to employees of the employer (in such other languages as appropriate) concerning health and safety at the workplace…….”

The rail safety legislation may have obligations specifically to that industry. Both OHS regulators, WorkCover NSW and WorkSafe Victoria, have guidance notes on how to provide OHS information in languages other than English. WorkSafe Victoria also lists the language needs of employees as a necessary element in any OHS training needs analysis.

The Tanevski case may also have been dealt with by WorkCover NSW but that the issue came up through legal action on discrimination in a non-OHS tribunal, illustrates that OHS professionals cannot rely only on information provided by the OHS regulators.

Contributors wanted

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SafetyAtWorkBlog has received a lot of compliments since it began in Janury 2008 and I am pleased at the increased reach of the blog and the variety of regular readers.  To keep the content fresh, I am looking for people with strong opinions on workplace-related topics to register as contributors. 

You made need a WordPress account but as these are free and very easy to set-up, I hope you won’t mind.  You can open an account at http://wordpress.com/

If you think that you have the time to provide, at least, one post each week, please contact me, Kevin Jones, at jonesk99 (at) gmail.com (excuse the spam avoiodance email address)