Unions launch scare campaign on OH&S reform

ACTU set to launch TV ads that claim big business is backing changes to national OH&S laws in bid to bolster bottom line

September 14, 2009

The ACTU will tonight launch new TV advertisements that claim big business is backing proposed changes to national workplace health and safety laws that put workers at risk of injury or illness because they want to cut costs and red tape.

ACTU Secretary Jeff Lawrence says it is unacceptable for the changes to health and safety laws to lead to increased profits for businesses at the expense of workers’ safety.

He says unions are determined to prevent any reduction in workplace safety and will campaign hard against the proposed new laws unless they are changed.

"Business lobby groups are pushing for changes that would reduce the health and safety rights for millions of workers," Lawrence contends.

"The changes would prevent workers in NSW and the ACT from taking court action against an employer for breaches of health and safety laws. This is a right NSW workers have used sparingly but effectively for nearly 70 years.

"Workers in Queensland and NSW would also lose out because the proposed new laws remove the onus on employers to prove they provided a safe workplace.

"Victorian workers would also be seriously affected with lower rights and protections for workers who take on the responsibility of being the health and safety representative of their workmates.

"This is despite employer groups like the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry admitting in a recent research brief that Australia is failing to meet self-imposed targets for reduced workplace injuries and that there are valid estimates of up to 7,000 fatalities occurring each year from work-related injuries and diseases."

Last week unions directly raised their concerns with federal and state workplace relations ministers that it is unacceptable to see standards reduced just to cut red tape for business.

"Workers’ health and safety is too valuable – these are people’s lives and wellbeing we’re talking about. Unions are determined that the new laws provide the best standards for all workers," Lawrence adds.

Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry CEO Peter Anderson counters that the union ad campaign is trying to overturn independent recommendations in favour of punitive and pro-union OH&S rules.

"It is completely wrong for the ACTU to suggest that employers are looking to use the national harmonisation process to water down OHS regulation. Our goal is improved OHS outcomes," he says.

"Fair OHS laws need a balance of carrot and stick. The ACTU campaign is almost all stick. Punitive approaches to OHS work in a few cases but the real difference in workplace safety is made when employers and employees accept mutual responsibilities for prevention and openly communicate about OHS issues.

"Behind the emotive message of this union campaign is a push for laws that would give union officials the right to prosecute for OHS breaches, a law that makes an employer guilty of unsafe work practices unless they prove their innocence, and more rights for shop stewards elected as OHS representatives to stop work in a business."

Much of this is at odds with draft national laws recommended by an independent panel, and endorsed by the nation’s workplace relations Ministers, Anderson notes.

"While industry and employers should take a leadership role, the move to national laws must establish workable new regulation for the private sector, including small business, if it is to be effective and durable. Unless OHS laws are workable, balanced and well targeted they won't last," he says.

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