Forest firefighters employed by the Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) have been battling the Andrews government for recognition as emergency services workers.
Hundreds of the firefighters, who work in state forests and national parks, are paid $12 an hour less than a first year forest firefighter employed by other fire agencies for doing the same work and are denied equal levels of death and disability insurance.
They have accused the state government of contempt for the men and women who risk their lives in emergencies and work year-round conducting bushfire-prevention operations.
in the past few months DELWP fire workers have refused to carry out planned fuel-reduction burns across Victoria, as the battle over a new workplace agreement drags on.
The dispute has become yet another industrial headache for the Labor government, which faced weeks of public transport chaos during strikes by Metro and Yarra Trams workers in Melbourne.
Australian Workers Union state secretary Ben Davis said the firefighters' decision to launch wide-ranging industrial action, including bans on planned burning, came after lengthy attempts to advance negotiations.
"It is simply reprehensible that the matters these negotiations raise have not been made top priority, particularly when we are facing an above-normal fire danger in the coming season," he said.
DELWP fire crews carry out dangerous work for 10 months of the year, including bushfire-prevention operations and front-line fire fights, in addition to being deployed to interstate natural disasters.
Davis said it "defied belief" that that forest firefighters' work was not classed as an emergency service "given their history of defending the state at the worst of times", including Black Saturday.
DELWP fire workers include firefighters, maintenance teams, look-out observers and expert "rappel crews", who abseil out of helicopters to battle blazes in otherwise inaccessible forest areas. Five forest firefighters have lost their lives in the line of duty in the past 12 years.
But first year firefighters are paid a base rate of only $22.16 an hour. Forest firefighters receive significantly less in superannuation contributions, and death and disability insurance than all other government employed emergency services workers in Victoria.
Approximately 95% of the bushfires that occur across Victoria take place on public land, where forest firefighters are the first to respond.
Forest firefighters are required to be on standby to work on most weekends between October and May, including a number of public holidays like Christmas Day, New Year's Day, Australia Day, Labour Day and Easter.
Forest firefighters are often called away from their families at very short notice for periods of up to ten days at a time. During these “attack shifts”, firefighters may work continuously for between 12 – 24 hours, with only 12 hours' break to sleep at base camp before their next shift.
DELWP firefighters are also expected to perform a range of highly skilled duties in public assistance areas such as missing person searches, pest control, biosecurity incursions, marine pollution management, flood and heatwave, mine rescues and disruption to water or energy supplies.
You can support forest firefighters by signing their petition here.