|Issue No. 142
|28 June 2002
Interview: Safe as Houses
Safety: Ten Steps to Safety
History: Staying Alive
Unions: Choose Life
International: Seoul Destroyers
Corporate: Crash Landing
Activists: The Refusenik
Review: Dumb Nation
Poetry: Helping Out The Rich
The Locker Room
Week in Review
Good News from the Pilbara
Go Mark, Go
The Royal Commissioner seems to want building workers to surrender the right to stay alive on the job. Perhaps he should acquaint himself with the way workers have had to campaign for any protection from danger at work for two centuries.
The current economic doctrine of letting the markets rule is re-asserting itself in the occupational health and safety area, after a brief interlude from the early 1970s to now where the rights of people to their lives and health was at least partially to the fore over the rights of companies to make a profit no matter what the cost.
Neil Gunningham pointed out in Safeguarding the Worker that the conflicts between manufacturers and advocates of factory reform in the 19th century which shaped early factory acts, are the same sort of conflicts that continue. Employer's claimed then stringent legislation would result in factory closures, widespread unemployment and threats to withdraw investment. It wasn't true then and isn't true now. Tony Abbott trots out the same sentiments about unfair dismissal legislation.
Most Australian laws have been modeled on British legislation. The first attempts to regulate work in the UK was the Regulation of Chimney Sweeps Act of 1788. Factories legislation was born in 1802 with the aim of protecting children in the form of the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act. This restricted their hours to 12 per day on 6 days a week. This didn't help all that many children however, as the enforcement mechanisms were severely lacking.
Working class agitation for better conditions began to get broader middle class support from 1815 (after the Napoleonic wars) and the next major legislation came in 1833 - the Factories Regulation Act. This actually managed to establish an Inspectorate to enforce the legislation. The working class was also agitating for the 10 Hours legislation and greater protection of children. The other major English social movement, the Chartists were also nearing their peak of influence at the time. Some larger manufacturers had introduced some measures of their own at the time, which no doubt was helpful in getting reforms through.
The guarding of machinery was omitted form the act after opposition from manufacturers. The importance of laws on this was to be seen through the streets of English manufacturing towns. Engels in his description of 1844 described conditions as "like living in the midst of an army just returned from a campaign." The emphasis had been on protecting children, not safety for all at work.
In 1844 the Act was significantly reformed. This extended conditions beyond cotton mills and placed limits on women's hours at work. The conservative press expressed support for the laws, with broader concerns in mind - "Tell the British labourer that he must fight all is battles and make all his own conditions without help from the State, and what sort of feeling is he likely to have towards the State".
Biggins sees this reformist legislation as the beginning of the end of laissez-faire capitalism. The state could now legitimately interfere in the workings of the market. The earlier laws were seen as an extension of the Poor Laws, as a way of getting the working class accustomed to factory discipline. The 1844 laws seemed to signify that the working classes accepted the industrial system, but were now working to change it in their own image.
In Australia the first legislation was coal mining legislation in 1854 in NSW. This came about because of union action throughout the Newcastle coalfields. In manufacturing, Victoria was the major manufacturing colony and agitation in clothing factories was the catalyst for legislative action. Whilst there was no official union there was considerable public outcry and a campaign through the Ballarat Courier for and by sewing girls. The Supervision of Workrooms and Factories Statute was enacted in 1873. Again it focused on limiting the number of hours of women's employment, and to regulate ventilation, cleanliness and sanitation. Smaller employers sought evade these less than onerous regulations.
Unions were made legal entities in the 1880s in Australian colonies. This was in response to the growth of the union movement, and factory legislation was an important focus of union action.
The Melbourne Typographical Society was a major force in early action (see Jim Hagan's history of the Printers Union). They were concerned to protect their own trade as much as anything else, but they did seek to limit children's hours and control apprenticeships. Also women in clothing factories had a well-publicised strike in 1882 that received broad support. Eventually the Victorian Parliament passed the Factories and Shops Act in 1885. It was much diminished by opposition from manufacturers, but it did set the basis for much later legislation.
Biggins notes that "the Act prohibited employment of children under 13 years of age in factories, limited working hours of women and people under 16 years to 48 hours per week, and included provisions for cleanliness, ventilation, sanitation and adequate working space." 1896 amendments were aimed at "sweated labour" and were the result of agitation by the Anti Sweating League, with support from unions (driven by their opposition to Chinese labour).
In fact the legislation was based on the English 1844 legislation, and was the guide for all legislation until the shift of emphasis brought in by the Robens Committee Report of 1972 in the UK, which has been the model for British and Australian law since that time. Gunningham says there are "striking parallels between the NSW Factories, Shops and Industries Act of 1962" and the 1844 UK law.
The safeguarding of workers up to 1974 is based exclusively on "the economic convenience of the employers" and the laws are "patently incapable of preventing industry from externalizing some or all of its safety-related costs and passing them on to injured workers and society generally." (Safeguarding the Worker p74)
The Robens Committee in the UK took the approach of removing preventive legislation and regulation, which prescribed precautions to be taken, in favour of what is called "enabling" laws which set out general duties and establish mechanisms for fleshing out these duties at the workplace level as technologies and industrial practice allow. Robens and his Australian followers made the assumption that apathy was the main problem in the OHS area. The feeling was that employers and workers have common interests in preventing accidents and needed encouragement to work together to solve problems. Gunningham feels strongly that this is the fundamental flaw with this approach - employers often "do not have an interest in minimizing work hazards." With employers able to externalise costs it is cheaper to allow accidents than to install safety equipment or do safety training. Safety and profit are not on the same side of the fence, and its up to unions to keep safety in the forefront.
The CFMEU represents workers in mining and construction, two industries where there is a greater risk than most that workers won't make it home at the end of the day. Keeping building sites organised and making sure that OHS standards are met and enforced earns them the ire of the Royal Commissioner, Old King Cole. He wants a construction industry unhindered by unions who import such extraneous concerns as the life of the workers on the job. He won't get it.
(Next week we will outline the development of OHS laws in the 20th century, with more detail on how Robens style reform has been introduced in Australia.)
Neil Gunningham. Safeguarding the Worker: Job Hazards and the Role of the Law. (North Ryde, NSW: Law Book Co, 1974)
Breen Creighton and Neil Gunningham (eds). The Industrial Relations of Occupational Health and Safety (Sydney: Croom Helm, 1985), especially chapter 2 by Gunningham and chapter 4 W.G. Carson.
David Biggins. The Social Context of Legislative Reform: Part 1 Nineteenth century origins of health and safety legislation; in; Journal of Occupational Health and Safety - Australia and New Zealand, vol. 9, no. 3, 1993, pp217-22
Lord Robens. Safety and Health at Work: report of the Committee 1970-72. (London: HMSO, 1972)
John Mathews. Health and Safety at Work: a Trade Union Safety Representatives handbook. 2nd edition (Annandale, NSW: Pluto Press, 1993)
P.B. Beaumont. Safety at Work and the Unions. (Beckenham, Kent: Croom Helm, 1983)
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