The union effect
Hazards shows why safety is better organised.
LEGAL RIGHT OF ENTRY TO WORKPLACES FOR WESTERN
AUSTRALIAN UNION OFFICIALS
[January 2002 briefing document, Unions Western Australia[
Western Australia is currently undergoing changes to the industrial
relations system and laws that facilitate working arrangements
for all workers in this state. One aspect of these changes deals
with proposed statutory rights for union officials to enter upon
workplaces, whether there are members of their union working or
not, to check and ensure that the onsite workers are being paid
their correct entitlements, that the working conditions they are
being expected to work under are of an acceptable standard and
most importantly that the states occupational safety and health
laws are being complied with.
The former conservative Liberal Government passed anti worker/anti
union legislation in 1997 (known as the third wave) which severely
restricted the rights of unions to organise workplaces and ensure
that wages, working conditions and health and safety were maintained
according to the law.
They also made significant changes to the Occupational Health
and Safety laws which had the effect of diminishing the rights
of unions to become involved in workplace processes and attempted
to excise them from the important role of assisting in the resolution
of health and safety issues at the workplace.
Since then the conservative were thrown out of office and were
replaced with a Labor government who had expressed sympathy for
workers issues and who had expressed a willingness during their
election campaign to repeal the "third wave" legislation
and restore some balance in the workplace.
In numerous worker surveys conducted nationally, health and safety
continued to rank 3rd in importance behind wages and conditions
and job security. The importance on health and safety arises from
workers experience that workplace safety has been steadily declining
under conservative government rule and had reached a point where
a concerted focus was necessary to improve safety standards.
WorkSafe Western Australia, the government agency responsible
for policing the safety laws, has limited resources in its inspectorates
resulting in many thousands of workplaces being denied a visit
from an inspector.
Elected workplace safety and health representatives face a continuing
battle to improve, or even maintain legislated standards of safety
and often "throw in the towel" through frustration and
lack of support from the authorities leaving no-one to ensure
that safety issues are dealt with appropriately.
It is expected that safety and health representatives will be
granted the right to issue provisional improvement notices in
the workplace this year as a consequence of amendments to the
Occupational Safety and Health Act 1984. These changes are expected
to result from a statutory review of the legislation conducted
by Bob Laing in 2001 and follow a call by Unions WA to insert
the provision to facilitate more eyes and ears in the workplace
to ensure safety standards are met and to close the gap in workplaces
that do not receive a visit from a WorkSafe Inspector.
Roving Union Officials:
There are many industries that will significantly benefit from
having roving union officials capable of legally entering workplaces
to check on the effective application of safety laws, check that
workers are receiving their correct entitlements and other conditions
such as superannuation workers compensation insurance coverage
and the like.
For example, high profile industries like building and construction
have been hard hit by declining safety standards. Much of the
substandard safety performance derives from the competitive nature
of the industry and the reluctance of industry players to embrace
occupational health and safety as a mainstream management issue.
Unfortunately, the notion of maintaining a "level playing
field" in OH&S performance has not been achieved.
When union officials have a statutory right to enter workplaces
to check on how workers are being treated there will be a much
higher likelihood that acceptable standards of safety will be
enforced across the whole industry and that under performing employers
will be identified and dealt with. Workers will be encouraged
to speak up once they become aware of a problem knowing that they
will have the support of the collective.
Union officials who have a responsibility for many workplaces
will be in a better position to establish the "level playing
field" and ensure that employers do not profit from taking
safety shortcuts. Safety should be a common denominator equally
applicable on all worksites without compromise in order to secure
the protection of workers health and safety. It is totally unacceptable
for the trade union movement to countenance work practices introduced
by some employers that have the consequence of undermining those
employers who are prepared to do the right thing and spend additional
time and money to have the work carried out safely. Roving officials
will have a good appreciation of what is available, practicable,
achievable and acceptable to the workforce. The "state of
knowledge" within the industry will be enhanced to the point
where employers will not be able to argue that they didn't know
what they were supposed to do.
Unions, who operate on a collective basis find it difficult to
accept that their members, or other workers for that matter, doing
exactly the same work get treated differently for no other reason
than they are employed at a different workplace. This can even
occur where the same employer is working on several different
jobs at the same time.
Another phenomenon, which seems to apply to many workplaces is
that the employers who have been educated in the correct methods
at one workplace don't "stay taught". Often, the same
employer will repeat the mistakes over and over again on different
worksites only putting it right when they get pulled up again.
The frustration that workers experience from this recurring behaviour
usually manifests itself in the form of industrial action designed
to capture the employers' attention and get action to rectify
the safety issue without further delay.