Workplace bullying gets Australian media attention

Victoria’s OHS regulator, WorkSafe, was in the Sunday Age and Herald-Sun on 10 April 2011 over formal bullying complaints made by some workers in their telephone advisory services. The pressures of working in a call centre or telephone services are well-known as can be seen from the 2004 “Good Practice Guide for Occupational Health and Safety in Call Centres” that, it seems, WorkSafe was involved with developing.

Michael Birt of WorkSafe told the Sunday Age that

“The fact that from time to time people do raise concerns is positive; it confirms people are comfortable raising issues and know they’ll be investigated.”

He is right that reporting of any OHS incident is an important first step to controlling the hazard but that such a hazard exists in WorkSafe, a leading adviser on workplace bullying in Australia, illustrates just how difficult and fraught workplace bullying is to address.

Karen Batt of the Community & Public Service Union acknowledged that workplace bullying has a range of causes including “work overload, excessive demands, under-resourcing”.

Bullying has been a particularly hot topic in Australia’s media at the moment due to the introduction of Brodie’s Law and reports of abuse coming from the Australian Defence Forces. I wonder how the debate would be running if the Australian government’s OHS harmonisation process had already released its draft code of practice on bullying which is due in a couple of months.

The misuse of OHS in industrial relations campaigns

Workplace safety and industrial relations are undeniably tied together in terms of policy development, legislation and implementation.  This week the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) used the occupational safety record of the Australian construction industry to criticise the Australian Building & Construction Commission (ABCC).  

wilcoxreportmarch2009-coverIt should be stated here that SafetyAtWorkBlog does not support the ABCC.  The Commission is a travesty and a political construct of the conservative side of politics.  That the Rudd Labor government has allowed the Commission to persist is atrocious.  However, the ABCC was established because of the perception that the Australian building and construction industry was corrupt, regardless of the absence of evidence through the Cole Royal Commission.  Has the construction unions addressed this perception? No.

In the 3 April 2009 media statement issued by Dave Noonan, CFMEU Construction Division National Secretary, there are the following comments

“The right of construction workers to have a safe working environment is a glaring hole in the report. Justice Wilcox has skimmed over the issue of safety, which is a basic right of construction workers.

Safety was not part of the scope of the inquiry for Justice Wilcox.  Action may have been taken by the ABCC on union representatives who were on construction sites to discuss safety but it is the presence on the site and the way that presence was achieved that is the issue, not whether the site is safe or not.

“It is shameful that the two employers used to prop up arguments for the retention of the powers of the ABCC, BHP Billiton and John Holland, have had a worker die on site in the last fortnight,” said Dave Noonan.

SafetyAtWorkBlog has elsewhere mentioned the poor safety record of BHP Billiton and the campaign on worker safety by the unions against John Holland.  However, these two companies are operating within their legal rights even if one does not agree with their decisions.  The focus of attention should be given to the current government which has chosen to act slowly on the ABCC, an organisation the Australian Labor Party, in opposition, opposed.

The difficulty for the union movement is that the ALP requires the ongoing support of the Australian labour movement to provide it with membership and finance (not to mention a career path for the trade union secretaries).  The trade unions need the political influence of the ALP and are obliged to criticise politely but not too overtly.

“The 154 page report does not mention the safety record of the construction industry or the fact that one worker dies on average each week.”

Safety was outside Justice Wilcox’s terms of reference.

“The so called ‘industrial harmony’ brought about by the ABCC and heralded by Justice Wilcox comes at the expense of the lives of construction workers.  We have deteriorating safety on construction site across Australia. At the very time Justice Wilcox was finalising his report, BHP and John Holland had a construction worker killed on their project,” said Mr Noonan.

Noonan does not offer evidence of the link between the operation of the ABCC and “deteriorating safety”.  It is suspected that such research would indicate that the correlation is not that clear and that there are many other factors affecting safety management.

“Industrial harmony” is an unfair description as even totalitarian regimes can claim harmony.

“The report also fails to deal with breaches to International law by the building and construction laws. Australia has been criticised by the International Labor Organisation six times for undermining workers rights.”

This is again outside the inquiry’s scope.  The ILO criticism is valid but the capacity to change is not with Justice Wilcox or the ABCC but with Australia’s politicians, who should be the union’s real targets.

“Australia’s construction unions will continue with the campaign for rights on site, using the full strength of the union movement.”

This is no more than what the union movement was established for.  The union movement needs to remind itself that it is a member organisation and that worker rights are not necessarily the same as union rights.  Not all union activity benefits its members.

“Workers rights to a safe workplace and equality before the law are core Labor principles. Construction workers, their unions and 10,000 working Australian’s will continue to campaign for rights on site, so all Australian worker [sic] are equal before the law,” said Mr Noonan 

There are two issues here that Noonan has lumped together – workplace safety and worker equality.  Regardless of union action or union presence, every Australian worker has the right to a safe and healthy work environment.  Equality is harder to achieve but just as much a human right.

Above, the perception of corruption in the construction industry was mentioned.  The exploitation of OHS in an industrial campaign against John Holland and the ABCC is unfair and insulting and may indicate that the union movement is not gaining traction on the industrial campaign.

It may just be that the media statement from the CFMEU is an expression of frustration and disappointment with the government that the union movement campaigned hard to bring to power and who is not providing the expected return on investment.

The union movement in Australia needs to realise that the industrial relations environment, like the upcoming OHS legislation, cannot be wound back but that a new future is possible.  There is no vision in Noonan’s media statement only a complaint that the Rudd government is breaking its promise and, in the general populace,  noone outside the union movement seems to care.

Kevin Jones

UPDATE ON ABCC – 6 April 2009

The Australian Greens issued a statement in early April 2009 questioning the government’s choice to retain industrial relations rules introduced by the previous, conservative, government.

Senator Rachel Siewert said

“We do not, however, support his recommendations for the separate division within the Fair Work Ombudsman to retain compulsory interrogation powers and the ability to deny workers their right to silence.”

“There is no justification to continue this discrimination against building workers. The building industry must be regulated just like any other industry – in a fair and just manner that balances the needs of productivity and the economy with the health, safety and democratic rights of workers.” 

Australia’s OHS Law Review

Last week, the release of the final report of Australia’s review into National Model OHS Law was touted by many as immediately after the meeting of the Workplace Relations Ministers Council (WRMC).  This occurred with the first report in 2008.  WRMC met in a teleconference yesterday.  When the report is released officially (rumours are that the report is already doing the rounds of the unions and the employer associations), SafetyAtWorkBlog will provide a link to the report and some initial commentary.

However, as reported yesterday, the Australian Financial Review obtained a copy of the report and highlighted several issues of interest.  The AFR report held no great surprise for safety professionals but the union movement is going to be ideologically tested.

Early in the review process, the New South Wales union movement was very vocal about the risk of losing their right to initiate prosecutions over OHS breaches.  The right was rarely applied and could be a very costly exercise.  Since that time there has been silence from that quarter, perhaps because they realised that its contentious right was out-of-step with the rest of the country and the review process is all about legislative harmonisation.

According to media reports this week, the Review Panel’s final report recommends the omission of the right to prosecute but allows an option to instigate prosecutions through the OHS regulators.  In effect it keeps the power where it is most cost-effective and through which a similar outcome could be achieved.  It gives the unions a seat at the table, just not the same seat but still with a comfy cushion.

Prior to the WRMC meeting,  Sharan Burrows issued a media statement on several matters, the source of the ACTU quotes in today’s AFR article, in which she said

Media reports also suggest that the Ministers will tonight discuss the final report of the National Review of OHS Laws.

“It is vital that the national, harmonised health and safety laws are based on the highest possible standards.  This should include providing workers with the right, through their unions, to initiate prosecutions against employers when there are serious health and safety breaches.

“In the past, union prosecutions have been few in number but have secured important improvements for employees who work in potentially dangerous situations.  We also need a truly tripartite, well resourced national workplace health and safety watchdog that is able to set, monitor and upgrade health and safety standards,” said Ms Burrow.

It seems that Ms Burrows may, pragmatically, welcome the cushion.

Also, the union movement would be well aware of the potential boost to the revenues of OHS training providers, a status many unions and union bodies enjoy.  A national five-day training course for Health & Safety Representatives could be financially useful.  Also the courses have always been a very good recruiting opportunity.

Kevin Jones


Sharan Burrows speaking at the 2008 Workers' Memorial in Melbourne
Sharan Burrows speaking at the 2008 Workers' Memorial in Melbourne

OHS as an agent of change

Tom Bramble is a Queensland socialist academic who recently published a history of Australian trade unionism.  I attended his book launch in Melbourne and found it partly inspiring and partly disconcerting.

Tom (pictured here) was an excellent speaker and seemed to be a knownbramble-book-launch-0011 entity to the strongly socialist audience.  It was the audience that I found disconcerting.  I had not been in so overtly socialist circles for over a decade and although disconcerted, the atmosphere was refreshing due to the level of passion in the speakers.

I regularly write about the industrial relations context of workplace safety  so I was disappointed that Tom did not mention OHS as an agent of change.  I went back to his book and looked for mentions of workplace safety knowing that there have been disputes over OHS in the trade union movement and often workplace fatalities have generated politic pressure and outrage.  

There were some mentions of of safety or health conditions but these were often as an add-on to the more industrial issues such as wages.  Perhaps this is where OHS should be but I can’t help thinking that safety and health can be important elements of emphasising the importance of a dispute by appealing to basic worker and human rights.  One example in Tom’s book is the Mount Isa Mine dispute in 1964 where the state of amenities block was a source of tension.  Given the devastating effect of asbestos, lead and other industrial illnesses, I expected health and safety to have a much higher profile.

Perhaps, my expectations were too high as I had been reading a history of the Queensland Fire Service where the safety and safety equipment were important elements and even motivators for disputation.  Indeed, the issue of PPE in the emergency services remains a hot issue even in 2008.

Arguing for improved safety equipment is a useful example of OHS as an agent of change because of the direct relationship of PPE as a hazard control mechanism.

I don’t accept the position that firefighting is riskier than working in construction. Construction faces a constant presence of hazards whereas firefighting is highly intermittent even though the risks may be more intense.

Australian workplaces have a sad history of fatalities, falls, poisoning, suicides, amputations, crushings, runovers and drownings.  Each of these issues have generated change in specific workplaces.  Some have generated political, organisational and cultural change.  It seems to me that a history of workplace safety in Australia may be needed to show people how the little brother of industrial relations affects change from an, arguably stronger moral position.

Kevin Jones

Deaths in isolated work camp from tropical storm

It is relatively easy to manage a workplace in an urban environment.  The buildings stay in one place, the neighbours are almost always the same and the weather bureau provides plenty of warnings.  But in isolated areas, particularly in Australia, it seems the work environment is often more exposed.  Certainly this was the case in mid-March 2007 when Cyclone George hit a railway construction camp killing several workers and injuring twenty.

The camp accommodation of demountable units, called dongas, were supposedly cyclone-proof.  At the time, the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union said that administrative staff were evacuated but construction workers were directed to the dongas.

The owner of the worksite, Fortescue Metals Groups said on 11 December 2008 that it will fight 40 charges brought by Worksafe WA under the West Australian Occupational Health and Safety Act.

According to one media report:

“The charges include the failure to provide a safe work environment, failure to design and construct temporary accommodation and other buildings capable of withstanding a cyclone and failure to properly instruct and train workers.”

The installer of the demountable buildings, Sunbrood, had all charges dismissed.

The court case will continue in Western Australia in February and March next year.

A history of Australian trade unionism

Occupational Health and Safety in Australia is invariably related to the role of the trade union movement.  OHS legislation legislates a presence for the Health and Safety Representative in most jurisdictions and historically, the HSR has been a union member.

I suspect that union members still make up the largest proportion of HSR training courses.  HSRs are the shopfloor OHS enforcers.  Lord Robens acknowledged that a constant worksite presence was an important element of safety compliance and the union movement jumped at the chance of formal legislated presence.

Tom Brambles, the author of the article on the right, has just written a book entitled “Trade Unionism in Australia – A history from flood to ebb tide” (pictured below).  The book covers the union movement over the last 40 years and details some of the political campaigns that may have contributed to their decline. 


Significantly for Australian workplaces, Bramble points out that union membership now lies at just under 20%.  In May 2008, Tasmanian Premier Paul Lennon resigned as his personal approval rate hit 17%.   Brendan Nelson hit a 17% approval rating in August this year while he was Opposition Leader.  17% is a political benchmark for change and the union movement is approaching that figure.

For years, I have been questioning whether the political influence of the Australian trade union movement is justified; whether tripartism is of more historical relevance than contemporary; and how workplace safety can be adequately policed on the shopfloor when there are so few police.

Tom Bramble’s book is not about OHS but about the waning of an important societal element that was very important to OHS management systems.  Yes it’s about industrial relations but it is also about human resources and social campaigns and may provide some tips on how the  safety profession should, and should not, go about building a national presence and spreading its influence with key decision-makers.

Kevin Jones

This post first appeared in a slightly longer version in SafetyWeek – Issue 166 in early October 2008

A transcript of short piece that Tom Bramble read for Australia’s Radio National is available at