||Issue No. 304||28 April 2006|
Canaries in the Coalmine
Interview: Head On
Unions: Do You Have a Moment?
Industrial: Vital Signs
Economics: Taxing Times
Environment: It Ain’t Necessarily So
History: Melbourne’s Hours
Immigration: Opening the Floodgates
Review: Pollie Fiction
Poetry: The Cabal
The Locker Room
Answer is Easy
Canaries in the Coalmine
One hundred and fifty years later miners are still dying - an industry worth billions each year still failing to secure safe methods of extracting coal.
But beyond the Beaconsfield tragedy, morbidly coinciding with the international day of remembrance for workplace dead, is a growing push by the business lobby to wind back safety laws.
Exhibit One: we have a federal government gearing up for WorkChoice Mark II where the Commonwealth will take over the state occupational health and safety laws.
A benign proposal on paper, the real agenda is malignant - attacking the powers vested in state laws that grant accredited union officials rights of access to workplaces to police safety and, in some states, to close down unsafe sites.
These powers, life saving though they have proven to be, are hated by the ideologues in Canberra because they recognise the central role unions continue to play in the workplace.
Exhibit Two: the growing chorus from the business lobby to end the strict liability for employers to ensure a safe place of work.
This principle has been the real impetus for behavioural change by employers around safety because it determines that an accident is in and of itself evidence of a failure by the employer.
This means there is no wriggle room for a boss whose worker is killed - overturning this principle will create a market for lawyers to construct defences in abrogating responsibly.
Exhibit Three: The neo-conservative newspaper The Australian has commenced a campaign against NSW safety laws that allow unions to launch prosecutions for breaches of safety and receive a moiety where that case succeeds.
In a campaign choreographed from Canberra, the Oz wants unions out of the courts, arguing that these prosecutions are bad for business and bad for workers too. Try saying that to the victim of an armed hold-up whose employer has constantly refused to improve security.
Exhibit Four: Finally, strategies to bypass the penal regime that have been put in place are close to becoming a specialised field of law. From phoenix companies that fold when a worker dies (only to reconfigure and reopen for business once the prosecution is over and the fine has defaulted) to James Hardies breath-taking play to walk away from its asbestos responsibilities by moving to another jurisdiction, dodging what is due on safety has become smart business practise.
Which leaves us with a dangerous disconnect - between the reality of unsafe workplaces, exposed so forcefully in this week's Sydney Morning Herald and a business community using their new-found political power to shed itself of accountability on safety.
This is the pursuit of flexibility in the name of profit writ large - and it is the thinking that drives workplace rights back down the coalmines from where they surfaced so many years ago.
On this International Day of Mourning for Deaths in the Workplace we need to pay tribute to the lost miners - and all those needless victims of workplace accidents - by committing to fight these attacks on safety laws.
Because, right now, the budgie is belching ...
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