Government unveils anti-firefighter law

Issue 
The federal government has proposed a law to ban enterprise agreements covering emergency services.

The federal government has published a proposed law to restrict the rights of firefighters and other emergency service workers.

The new law will amend the Fair Work Act to ban enterprise agreements covering workers employed by a “designated emergency management body” from containing “objectionable” terms — including requirements for management to consult with the relevant union.

The law also gives “volunteer bodies” the right to make submissions to the Fair Work Commission objecting to an enterprise agreement. This will enable an organisation such as Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria (VFBV), which claims to represent volunteer firefighters associated with Victoria's Country Fire Authority (CFA), to object to the proposed enterprise agreement covering professional firefighters employed by the CFA.

VFBV claims that the enterprise agreement adversely affects CFA volunteers, even though it includes a clause saying that the role of volunteers “is not altered by this agreement”.

A United Firefighters Union (UFU) bulletin has warned that “the legislation as proposed will result in ongoing protracted litigation which is designed to make the agreement unworkable”.

The government does not like the proposed CFA enterprise agreement because it contains clauses that limit management's unilateral decision-making power. There are clauses requiring consultation with the union on a range of issues. There are also clauses specifying minimum staffing levels and safe work practices.

One example is a clause requiring that, in “integrated” fire stations (those with both professional and volunteer firefighters — usually those in large regional towns or in the outer suburbs of Melbourne), seven professional firefighters must be dispatched to every fire. Opponents of the agreement have falsely claimed this means that if volunteers arrive on the scene first they must wait for the professionals to arrive before starting to fight the fire.

Employment minister Michaelia Cash has claimed that the agreement would amount to a “takeover” of the CFA by the union. UFU secretary Peter Marshall responded that: “there are no clauses in the firefighters' agreement that give over control of the CFA”.

He added that volunteer firefighters would actually benefit from the clauses requiring management to consult the union: “Parts of the agreement that relate to career firefighters being consulted are there to protect both volunteer and career firefighters who have learnt they cannot trust the CFA with their welfare.

“Currently there are thousands of firefighters waiting on tests to determine whether they are carrying life-threatening toxins after exposure at the CFA [training] facility.

“Sadly, Minister Cash has done nothing to support the thousands of volunteer firefighters exposed to toxic contaminants at the Fiskville CFA training site.

“The victims of Fiskville who were exposed to chemicals like benzene, toluene, xylene, phenol, arsenic, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, zinc, and other cancerous substances during training activities can't even get proper blood tests and diagnosis…

“Rather than whipping up fear based on lies, the minister could be acting to make sure this kind of life threatening toxic exposure never happens again”.

The Victorian Labor government is now supporting the proposed CFA enterprise agreement. But this is only after a long delay. The last agreement expired more than three years ago. Labor has been in government for two years, but it was only a few months ago, after a long campaign of protests by the UFU, that the government agreed to support the agreement.

Former emergency services minister Jane Garrett refused to accept the agreement and was forced to resign. The media has reported that there is talk in Labor circles of a possible leadership challenge to Premier Daniel Andrews by members of parliament unhappy with his handling of the CFA dispute.

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