National’s Health and Safety Reform Bill: less safety and fewer rights at work

The New Zealand Council of Trade Unions is embarking on a campaign to fight the changes that weaken the Health and Safety Reform bill.

As part of the campaign the CTU has organised vigils with the display of 291 crosses signifying the 291 people who have died at work since the Pike River mine disaster in December 2010.

On Thursday 30 July, parliament will be voting on the second reading of the Health and Safety Reform bill – on what is a significantly different bill to what was was introduced in March 2014.

The bill was originally set to address some of the issues raised in the recommendations from the Royal Commission on the Pike River tragedy and the subsequent Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety. The reform bill reflected the Taskforce’s recommendation that we should model our laws on Australia’s – which is not surprising really when you consider that Australia has a much lower rate of work related injuries and fatalities on the job than we do here in New Zealand.

The Government’s own advice in its Regulatory Impact Statement accompanying the bill stated:
A range of problems contributes to New Zealand’s poor workplace health and safety outcomes:
• the regulatory framework has struggled to keep pace with the changing nature of workplaces and working arrangements, and increasing complexity of supply chains
• there is a lack of leadership, alignment and coordination of workplace health and safety activities
• there are capacity and capability shortcomings across the system
• there is incomplete and poorly integrated intelligence on workplace health and safety, particularly in relation to occupational health
• there is insufficient oversight of major hazard facilities
• the regime for managing hazardous substances is performing poorly
• there is an inadequate focus on occupational health, including both acute and chronic harm caused by health hazards
• worker participation in workplace health and safety is inadequate
• there are inadequate incentives to comply with obligations and improve workplace health and safety.

I have deliberately emphasised the second to last point. One of the crucial parts of the Australian model  is the role of trade unions and worker participation in their own health and safety.

But this aspect clearly worried some employers as the bill has been whittled down to the point of being ineffective. Workers in businesses with fewer than 20 employees will not have to have a health and safety representative, and, for all workplaces, health and safety committees will become optional. Where there are workplace health and safety reps, it’ll basically be the employer’s decision about which group of workers they represent.

As I said last week when the bill was reported back from the Transport and Industrial Relations Select Committee, this law won’t make workers safer at work – it could well do the opposite.

The National Government has basically given in to the lobbying from some employers who got in the ear of some of the members of the Select Committee – to the point that they delayed the progress of the bill by months. The result is a piece of legislation that will be worse than anything it replaces.