Big union gathering demands strong OHS laws

Issue 

More than 1500 workplace representatives and union officials attended the annual Victorian Occupational Health & Safety Reps Conference on October 28 in Melbourne.

Hosted by the Victorian Trades Hall and WorkSafe, it was the largest conference of its kind ever held in Australia, organisers said.

The conference size reflected the strength of feeling behind the current union campaign to ensure the Rudd government's plans to make national Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) laws do not water-down protections for workers.

Fiona Murie, representing the Building and Wood Workers International, based in Geneva, gave the keynote address to the conference. She said the world was watching the development of Australia's national model OHS laws. The laws must be "harmonised up, rather than harmonised down to the lowest common denominator", she said.

Appalling workplace safety statistics underscore the importance of the union campaign.

October 16 marked the 39th anniversary of the tragic West Gate Bridge collapse, which killed 35 workers and injured many others. In 2009, the same day marked the death of a Melbourne construction worker at the former Pentridge Prison site — the fourth Victorian work-related death in nine days.

A report commissioned by the National Occupational Health & Safety Commission estimated there are more than 8000 work-related fatalities every year. The Australian Bureau of Statistics said nearly 690,000 workplace injuries or illnesses occur each year.

A rally was held during the conference lunch hour. Speakers included Karen Batt (secretary, Community and Public Sector Union, SPSF Victoria branch); Steve Dargavel (state secretary, Australian Manufacturing Workers Union); and Martin Kingham (assistant national secretary of the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union, Construction and General division).

The final conference session passed a resolution in opposition to the mining and use of asbestos globally and a second resolution, moved by Robbie Rudd from the Australian Workers Union, demanded the state government support the union OHS campaign.

Kingham called for an ongoing campaign. He finished the conference with the words: "We had to fight to get these OHS laws and we'll have to fight to keep them."

Several hundred unionists and community members also rallied in Sydney's Martin Place on October 28 to mark Safe Work Week 2009. The rally called on the federal government to radically improve its proposed new national workplace health and safety laws.

The rally was held under the slogan: "Don't risk second rate safety." It was sponsored by Unions NSW, as part of a nation wide campaign organised by the Australian Council of Trade Unions.