Labor's new OHS laws will kill more workers

September 13, 2009

On September 1, thousands of people rallied in Melbourne for safe workplaces. The rally was in opposition to the federal government's proposed national occupational health and safety (OHS) laws.

During the rally, a woman came up to our stall and asked me if she could have one of the Socialist Alliance "Jail bosses who kill" placards. She told me that she had lost her son in a workplace accident many years ago.

"When bosses get away with murder, there is no justice", she said as she joined the march with the placard held high. Unfortunately, it's not a unique story.

Maitea Medina, a widow and mother of five young children, spoke bravely of her husband Tony who died last year of mesothelioma, an asbestos-related cancer, at the age of 43.

Many of us had worked with Tony Medina, either in international solidarity campaigns or in the trade union movement. Tony's first job in Australia was the removal of asbestos. The lack of regulations around the handling and removal of asbestos cost him his life.

Every year, around 8000 workers die from work related accidents and 700,000 workers suffer injuries on the job. Surely such alarmingly high figures should propel the government into a national emergency response mode?

However, staying true to its big-business loyalties, PM Kevin Rudd's ALP government has something very different in mind.

Standardising the hugely varied OHS laws across the country could be a worthwhile exercise if it led to safer workplaces. But the government is using it as a pretext to weaken protections for workers in many states.

In Victoria, for example, OHS representatives have the right to annual OHS training. Under the proposed new laws, the boss decides when and how OHS training should happen.

Current Victorian laws allow an OHS representative to ask for help from anyone — inside or outside the workplace — to solve a workplace safety issue. This right includes enlisting union officials for help. The new law tries to change this on the grounds that current laws allow unions an unofficial right of entry to workplaces.

The new laws stop an OHS representative from issuing Provisional Improvement Notices or direct a "cease-work" until they have completed their training. Current laws allow representatives to use these powers to fix safety problems as soon as they are elected.

This change will make workplace accidents more likely, especially as bosses will have the power to delay OHS training.

The ALP's plan to standardise workplace safety laws mirrors the sell-out it delivered with its Fair Work Australia industrial relations laws.

Instead of improving workers' rights as promised, Rudd's "Fair Work Australia" has betrayed workers and left much of John Howard's hated Work Choices laws intact.

Just like Work Choices, under Fair Work Australia a worker can still be jailed for defending their rights. Workers can still be fined for taking industrial action and unions can still be deregistered. Unions still face barriers when accessing workplaces to represent members. Workers can still be sued for taking industrial action in solidarity with others. Industry-wide agreements are still outlawed.

But it's even worse in the building industry. Under Labor's IR regime, the notorious Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), which acts as secret police force in the building industry, keeps most of its draconian powers.

South Australian building worker and Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union member Ark Tribe faces a possible six months' jail term for not attending an interview as ordered by the building industry watchdog.

The ABCC wanted to question Tribe after he drew up a petition calling for safety improvements at his workplace.

The big majority of ABCC cases and prosecutions have been against trade unionists, like Tribe, who have taken action on OHS.

At the same time, Labor is silent on the large number of workplace deaths. Tribe could end up in jail, but bosses whose negligent practices lead to workers' deaths walk free. What hypocrisy.

The Socialist Alliance is active in the campaign to abolish the ABCC and win better workplace safety laws. We also support calls for industrial manslaughter to be made a crime. Bosses who kill should be jailed.

If we don't build on the September 1 mobilisations and mount a real industrial campaign now, Labor will take away our hard won safety rights and even more workers will die.

Workers will join unions and actively support them if they dare to struggle. When we fight we can win. We want better safety laws, not worse — regardless of what Labor wants.

[Margarita Windisch is the Socialist Alliance's Victorian trade union convener.]

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