The Guardian 16 November, 2005

Government abolishes
National OH&S Commission

Anna Pha

In the midst all the furore over the terror, social security and workplace relations Bills, legislation abolishing the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission (NOHSC) slipped through the Senate last week, almost unnoticed. In its place will be a new and substantially downgraded and under-funded body, the Australian Safety and Compensation Council.

The NOHSC is a statutory body, an independent Commission accountable to Parliament and with considerable powers to hold inquiries, issue summons and carry out its other duties. It has 18 members including three nominated by the Australian Council of Trade Unions; three nominated by the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry; and one member nominated by the Premier of each State.

The Australian Workplace Safety Standards Bill 2005, which was passed last week, does not specify any number of members for the new Council. Nor does it require that these members will be nominated by organisations or State Governments. It will be, according to the Bill, "an advisory body which represents the interests of governments, employers and employees".

The new Council will be established administratively by the Minister who will have control over its activities and Council membership, including determining who represents the interests of employees!

The legislation establishing the original Commission in 1984 detailed more than 25 specific functions. These include:

  • formulate policies and strategies relating to OH&S matters

  • recommend action by governments and employers

  • recommend action for Australia to comply with the provisions of international instruments

  • recommend and review laws relating to OH&S matters

  • declare national standards and codes of practice

  • evaluate the effectiveness and implementation of policies, standards, codes of practice

  • conduct of inquiries in respect of OH&S matters

  • publish reports, periodicals and papers relating to OH&S matters

  • provide, and assist in training in knowledge and skills relevant to OH&S matters

  • carry out, arrange for, or assist research on OH&S matters

  • establish and award fellowships and scholarships for training in the knowledge and skills and for research on, occupational health and safety matters

  • carry out, arrange for, or assist testing of matters and things relevant to OH&S matters

    The Commission has a whole division devoted to research, statistics, testing, training and other matters.

    When carrying out inquiries, a Commissioner may take evidence under oath and summons a person to appear before it and to produce any documents required as evidence. The penalties for non-­compliance reflect the importance of the Commission — fines or up to six months imprisonment.

    The financial assets, decisions and documents of the Commission will be transferred to the Council, but no mention is made in the Bill or by the Minister of what will happen to the staff — their jobs, their wages and conditions and other entitlements.

    Its title includes "Compen­sation", as it will be expected to advise on workers’ compensation matters as well as occupational health and safety.

    The function of the new Council is "to declare national standards and codes of practice relating to occupational health and safety maters". That’s it. The Minister may confer additional functions. The Council does not have the statutory powers or many other functions of the Commission it is replacing to carry out research, inquiries, etc. It involves a massive downgrading of the Commission, consistent with the Federal Government’s contempt for the health and safety of workers.

    It is answerable to the Minister, not Parliament.

    The Commission has had its funding substantially cut over the past nine years from $19.78 million to $15 million in 2004-05. This funding will not be increased, even though the Council will be expected to advise on workers’ compensation as well.

    In Australia an estimated 4,900 people die from and around 480,000 workers experience work-related injuries or illness each year. Even in cold economic it reportedly costs the economy an estimated $20 billion each year.

    Liberal Senator Minchin, in his second reading speech, pointed to a change in approach expected from the new Council. He said that "Standards and codes declared by the Council provide nationally consistent frameworks in which safety can be managed by employers and employees in certain industries or in relations to certain hazards".

    The emphasis on "employers and employees" has a similar sound to it as in the WorkChoices legislation where it means excluding "interference" from government authorities and trade unions. If this is the case, then it won’t be long before individual workers are required to sign on each day stating that their workplace is in a safe and healthy condition.

    The Work Choices legislation, with its restrictions on right of entry, industrial action, promotion of individual contracts, non-union agreements and stripping of awards is a recipe for increasing workplace injuries and illness. So, it is not really surprising that the Government wants to remove the national body that would be monitoring and reporting on such developments in the workplace.

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