Dollars vs deaths: IR reforms focus on pay over worker safety

Workplace safety and the federal government’s industrial relations bill are currently hot topics, with divisions emerging across government ranks and various sectors as to the legislation’s effectiveness.

Last month, Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke was keen to articulate his belief in what he says is a fundamental principle – “workers should never have to choose between their safety and their pay”.

The Albanese government’s industrial relations reform also includes new concessions on casual employment. Mining giant BHP (ASX:BHP) has chimed in saying the plan will add to inflationary pressure and undermine global competitiveness.

However, while debate about pay rages on and some argue the workplace health and safety elements of the bill should be split off, what’s not in dispute is that workplace fatalities are all too common in Australia.

One workplace death every few days

Year-to-date (as of 9 November 2023), some 132 Australian workers have been killed at work, Safe Work Australia data shows.

That equates to about one workplace death every few days.

Safe Work Australia says year-to-date, the transport, postal, and warehousing sector has the worst record for workplace fatalities (42), followed by construction (29), and agriculture, forestry, and fishing (19). Mining (7) is at the lower end, but there have been 2 more fatalities in 2023 compared to the previous corresponding period. 

This time last year, the transport, postal, and warehousing sector again topped the list, with 56 deaths in the workplace – about a third of the 163 deaths recorded across all sectors as of 9 November 2022.

Safe Work Australia, which is an Australian government statutory agency, develops national policies to improve work health and safety (WHS) and workers’ compensation arrangements.

The Minerals Council of Australia commends the Senate for voting to split the federal government’s industrial relations bill and passing what it calls ‘vitally important legislation’ to protect vulnerable Australian workers.

Minerals Council Chief Executive Officer Tania Constable says the passage of 4 private senate bills that deal primarily with workplace safety is a credit to Senator Jacqui Lambie and Senator David Pocock. 

She has joined a chorus of those who argue the workplace health and safety elements should be split off.

“They are matters that should never have been conflated with the government’s reckless re-writing of the industrial relations law; changes that will wreak havoc on Australia’s small and large businesses, and the broader economy.  

It is crucial the House of Representatives urgently passes these separated bills that simplify compensation for first responders, expand the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency, improve protections for employees subjected to family and domestic violence, and provide clearer rules around small business insolvencies.” 

Constable says to delay their passing will leave vulnerable workers at considerable risk, which would be particularly disappointing for first responders, given the extreme fire risk the nation faces heading into summer.

Failure to give first responders the immediate surety and confidence in their compensation arrangements “would be to fail them”, she adds.

Concerns have been raised about mining projects in Western Australia, with almost 150 enterprise agreements in place across the Pilbara that could see a raft of companies struggling to navigate the new industrial relations laws.

The same job, same pay aspects of the bill are causing most of the robust discussions, however the workplace safety elements appear to be taking a backseat.

Safety overlooked amid pay focus

Minister Burke notes last year’s Secure Jobs, Better Pay legislation also attracted plenty of publicity, but not a lot of attention was paid to the workplace health and safety elements.

“Prohibiting sexual harassment at work. Introducing world-leading compensation reforms for ACT and Commonwealth firefighters with work-related cancers. Setting up the National Construction Industry Forum to ensure safety in the building and construction industry.

All of these reforms were aimed at making sure workers don’t have to choose between their safety and their pay – passed with support of the crossbench last year.

All of these reforms were aimed at making sure workers don’t have to choose between their safety and their pay – passed with support of the crossbench last year

A little earlier this year I introduced the next stage of the government’s workplace relations reform, the Closing Loopholes legislation. It’s aimed at closing the loopholes that undermine pay, security and safety for workers.

The legislation contains 4 main elements – making wage theft a crime, introducing minimum standards to make sure gig workers aren’t ripped off, closing the loophole that’s used to undercut the pay and conditions of labour hire workers and properly defining casual work so casuals aren’t exploited.

It will also criminalise industrial manslaughter, set minimum standards in the road transport industry, introduce better support for first responders diagnosed with PTSD, include silica-related diseases and safety within the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency, as well as strengthen family and domestic violence protections for workers.”

Burke says the legislation was only recently introduced but already the government is facing calls to split the bill. Some argue the workplace health and safety elements should be split off – specifically elements such as the silica measures, protections for victims of family and domestic violence, and the PTSD support for first responders.

“But the rest of the bill is also about safety.  The criminalisation of industrial manslaughter is about ensuring that employers take workplace safety seriously. Closing the labour hire loophole is a safety measure too.

Some of those asking us to split the bill have the best of intentions. They have legitimate concerns about safety in workplaces around the country. I get that. But others – who have never supported any of these measures before – are now asking us to split the bill as well. Not because they’re concerned with safety, but because they don’t want to give more rights to workers. That’s why they’re calling for delay. 

The government doesn’t want to see any of this delayed – we want to deliver wages, security, and safety. That way workers won’t have to choose between their safety and their pay.”

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Written By Adam Orlando Editor-in-Chief Adam Orlando has more than 20 years’ experience in the media having held senior roles at various publications, including as Asia-Pacific Sector Head (Mining) at global newswire Acuris (formerly Mergermarket). Orlando has worked in newsrooms around the world including Hong Kong, Singapore, London, and Sydney.