Monday, August 31, 2009


“We are all diminished by every workplace death and injury” Ron McCallum, Professor of Industrial Law, Sydney University, Former Dean of the Faculty of Law, 2002-2007 at Unions NSW Meeting, 31 August 2009.

Union Delegates and Officials are bristling with anger. The National Harmonisation of Occupational Health and Safety laws is becoming the new Workchoices. The Rudd Government’s friendship with big business has alienated their historical mates in the unions. The Government would do well to remember the effectiveness of the union campaign against the Howard Government over Workchoices.

Unions and government are happy that under the national arrangements as currently drafted, all “business undertakings” will now have a duty to provide a safe place of work for their employees. The primary point of departure between unions and government, especially in NSW is over the abolition of the current right of unions to prosecute employers over safety matters. For over 60 years in NSW, unions have been able to prosecute employers where the regulator refuses to act, and unions have done so very successfully. Dawn Chamberlain, a Finance Sector Union member survived 5 bank robberies, where guns were pointed at her face. Interestingly, she related to a meeting at Unions NSW on Monday 31st August 2009, another FSU member who faced a bank robber with a gun in her face, was asked by the robber to open the safe. Her reply was that she couldn’t, as it was on a time lock. So the money was safe, but the employees at the time, faced the dangers. The union prosecuted successfully and banks installed screens to protect their employees.

Unions have a lot of power in this argument. Every time a tale is related of a worker’s life is lost, or a worker is injured at work, a hush descends on a listening audience. Andrea Vegus spoke at the Unions NSW Meeting, and at the ACTU Rally at the National Conference of the ALP. She now represents the Workplace Tragedy Support Group. Big boofy construction workers cried as she spoke. She received the phone call no wife ever wants to receive, back in 2002. Her husband had been electrocuted on a building site, because someone didn’t turn off the power. It took her an hour and a half to cross town to reach her husband. When she got to the hospital, he was dead, lying cold, under a sheet on a hospital trolley. She lost her husband that day, and her children lost their father. Hardened political operatives spoke about her on the floor of the ALP National Conference, and a hush descended on the Delegates.

The Resolution passed unanimously by the Union Officials and Delegates at the Unions NSW Meeting starts by saying “ All Australians have the right to go to work and come home safely. Yet around 8,000 Australians die and almost 700,000 suffer serious injury, illness or disease each year as a consequence of their employment,” and that includes the innocent wives and children of men who work with asbestos.

The Resolution seeks to have the harmonisation deliver the highest standards of protection for all workers, with no worker being left worse off than they are now. In particular, the new laws must ensure:

1. An unqualified obligation and onus of proof on employers to provide a safe and healthy workplace;
2. The ability of workers and their representatives to independently pursue legal action under health and safety laws;
3. A requirement that employers must consult their employees over all work related matters that affect health and safety;
4. The rights and roles of elected workplace health and safety representatives to be fully protected; and
5. The regulatory framework to be genuinely tri-partite and independent.

Dave Gerke, an Australian Metal Workers Delegate at Transfield, Caltex Kurnell, warned the Unions NSW Meeting that the current draft of the national harmonisation laws will disempower his right to represent his members in the workplace. Unions in that workplace have long demanded asbestos remediation. This is a workplace where every time there is a strong wind, there is a danger of asbestos fibres blowing across the site. Caltex, who make multi -billion profits from high prices charged to the consumer at the bowser, have deemed the cost of a full asbestos remediation of the site “not cost feasible.”

Dave Gerke warned that the current draft national harmonisation laws provide for the employer to decide who and when a delegate goes for training. An untrained delegate may be acting illegally. He spoke strongly in favour of workers only deciding who represents them on safety issues.

Politicians, Federal and State, have been warned. The natives are restless. The temperature is rising. Even the mild mannered Unions NSW Officials are demanding that the NSW Government not co-operate in the National Harmonisation of Occupational Health and Safety Laws if they do not meet the five points above. Behind them, there are a lot of angry unionists.

Jenny Haines