Red Alert

Archive for the ‘Health and Safety’ Category

As long as you cut the tree right you won’t die

Posted by on July 12th, 2013

So, says Minister of Labour, Simon Bridges, who continues to insist that his updated Approved Code of Practice for Forest Operations (ACoP)  has all the answers and if workers, employers and contractors just follow it, forestry will no longer be a dangerous industry.

Problem with that is that Simon developed the ACoP without asking the people who actually have to do the work and whose families continue to worry whenever their beloved husbands, sons, brothers and uncles go off to work.

It follows the previous ACoP which was signed off by the Hon Max Bradford (shudder) in 1999, and also developed without involvement with workers, unions or communities. Both are full of good advice about how to cut trees, safety gear, working with equipment and machinery etc. Both are voluntary, non-binding codes which state that :

An approved code does not have the same legal force as a regulation, and failure to comply with a code of practice is not, of itself, an offence”

Both ignore the underlying issue in this industry of the impact of the deregulation of the labour market in the early 1990’s when work time and rest breaks requirements were gutted.  The 2013 ACoP says :

Worker Health

Working hours shall be agreed (my emphasis) so as to provide all workers

  • adequate opportunity to manage fatigue, including regular rest breaks
, a meal break
, a daily or nightly sleep period.

The 1999 ACoP says :

General Health :

Working hours shall be arranged so as to provide adequate opportunity for rest periods, which shall include:

  • Short breaks during work hours, Sufficient breaks for meals, Daily or nightly rest.

So, in 1999 it was “arranged”  and in 2013 it is “agreed”.

Neither are strong. Both ignore the reality that limits on working hours in this highly dangerous industry don’t exist.

You can’t tell me that long working hours, pressure to deliver on piece rates or low pay, working in bad weather on dangerous terrain, in the dark, with exhausted workers is safe.

But Simon Bridges prefers to ignore that. He says he has all the answers. The answer is his updated non-binding voluntary code of practice that he continues to flaunt in parliament – oh and to cut any requirement to have rest and meal breaks for all workers.

Open your ears Mr Bridges and agree to the growing calls for an independent inquiry into this industry before more workers die.

“The fact is that a lot of bad things happen to people at work in NZ”

Posted by on May 5th, 2013

That’s a direct quote from the report of the hard hitting and comprehensive Independent Taskforce on Health and Safety, which was released last week.

And here’s another :

Labour market liberalisation in the 1980s and 1990s resulted in a sustained fall in union membership and growth in casual, part-time and short-term employment relationships. This has had enduring implications for the capacity of workers and representatives to engage with employers in managing workplace hazards, and presents ongoing challenges for the regulatory framework. It is likely that this factor influenced omissions from the HSE Act, including the failure to establish a tripartite body and to set obligations requiring employers to have formal worker-participation systems.

The Independent Taskforce members (made up of business, community and union representatives) have done an excellent job. Their report is very challenging, not least for the government, who say they will respond in June.

The report calls for tripartite involvement in the new health and safety agency and proper recognition of the role of unions and worker participation.  It says there needs to be stronger rights for workers who raise health and safety concerns and protection for vulnerable workers, including new workers and those in precarious work.

I’m waiting for Simon Bridges to admit his labour law amendments, announced just a few days before are incompatible with the recommendations of the Health and Safety Taskforce.  The government’s proposed changes to labour law essentially rebadge the Employment Contract Act changes from last century and they will exacerbate the problems identified by the Taskforce. They are even as petty as cutting rest and meal breaks and letting an employer decide if and when they can be taken.  How does that help health and safety?

It’s time to join the dots Simon.

Workers’ rights and health and safety at work go hand in hand. We all agree our workplace death and injury toll is a disgrace.

Please don’t make it worse.


Kiwirail: Don’t say you weren’t warned!

Posted by on March 13th, 2013

This column (written by me) appeared in the Dunedin D Scene newspaper today

A parliamentary inquiry into manufacturing heard this week in Dunedin there are no quality checks on the manufacturing standards of the rail wagons imported from China – a contract which sounded the death knell for the Hillside workshops.

Common themes emerged at the day-long hearing with Hillside, NZ Aluminium Smelters, Oamaru’s Summit Woolspinners and the unions representing workers at those plants questioning tenders awarded to offshore companies over local providers based purely on lowest cost, rather than the true value to the whole of the economy; the impact of the high dollar on exports and indifference of government to keeping and building a skilled workforce in our communities.

One of the most chilling revelations was that there are no quality checks being undertaken on the standard of manufacture of the Chinese imported wagons.

The inquiry, initiated by Opposition parties heard that welding on both wagons and locomotives was substandard and that no checks were undertaken to ensure they met New Zealand standards.

I have since been told that a directive has been issued to Kiwirail staff that no-one is to stand on, or ride in the controversial IAB wagons imported from China in 2011. That directive does not apply to New Zealand built wagons. These wagons also have a speed restriction placed on them due to the systemic flaws with their design and construction.

The Rail, Maritime Transport Union has recently sounded a sobering warning through its latest journal that Kiwirail culture has dangerously shifted towards services over safety.

Clocks have been installed in Kiwirail workplaces and performance is being measured on minimising time delays.

The pressure from within Kiwirail to meet Government policies for profit on its freight business and to reduce cost on other parts of the organisation is a time bomb waiting to go off.

The union likens it to the period in the late 1990s when a series of fatalities stimulated a Government inquiry in rail health and safety.

Kiwirail and its political masters should be warned that the country is watching closely the impact of lowest cost tendering, cuts to rail maintenance and the pressure to put time-keeping over health and safety issues. You can’t say you haven’t been warned.

What killed Ken Callow?

Posted by on February 19th, 2013

Forestry is the most dangerous industry in New Zealand. In 2013 there have already been two deaths. Since 2008, 23 workers have died and almost 900 have been seriously injured. 

A New Zealand forestry worker is 6 times more likely to die at work than a UK forestry worker, and twice as likely as an Australian forestry worker. 

Each death is a family, community, workplace losing someone who was loved. Each injury is someone’s life being changed forever by something that happened at work. 

We need the government and the industry to step up and stop this from happening.

Read more about Ken Callow here. 

A hard day

Posted by on November 5th, 2012

Our thoughts are with the families of the 29 men killed at Pike River Mine two years ago as the Royal Commission of Inquiry delivers its report.

Some things are bigger than politics

Posted by on September 16th, 2012

The Minister of Labour, Kate Wilkinson has been coming under fire in some quarters for not pushing through changes to employment laws – the people who think all National needs to do is smash unions and everything will be back to its rightful place in the world.

Labour will mount strong opposition to any changes to the Employment Relations Act that undermine collective bargaining and wage setting. The already signalled employment law changes are designed to undermine the role of unions as standard setters for hundreds of thousands of New Zealand wage and salary earners – whether they are union members or not. Simply put, it will help drive wages lower.

Many reports about growing inequality, including those from the OECD and IMF, acknowledge the decline of collective bargaining and unions as a contributor to the growing gap between rich and poor. Labour will stand up for unions as the internationally recognised partner in collective bargaining, because there is no other proven method or system to help working people receive decent wages, safe working conditions, or a voice on the job.

But I want to give credit to Kate Wilkinson who believes that tackling our awful death and injury toll in the workplace goes beyond politics and there should be cross party work on it. Labour agrees and has taken up her offer to be consulted about the Independent Taskforce on Health and Safety. The Taskforce’s consultation document was released today.

The deaths of 29 miners at Pike River and subsequent industrial disasters have shocked us all. The memories of those who died at work demand we work together to ensure that these kind of losses never happens again – no matter who the government is. 100 workers die every year in New Zealand’s workplaces and this is one workplace statistic we beat Australia at  – to our shame.

There will be areas where Labour will disagree and we will say so. We will have differences about workplace rights and their interface with health and safety. We cannot expect people to speak out about dangerous work practices if they are on a 90 day trial, for example.

And I’m sure that saying nice things about the Minister won’t help her with the puerile campaign from CrestClean and their supporters.

But some things, such as tackling our appalling record of  workers dying or being injured on the job every week, are just more important than politics.

Every now and then……

Posted by on June 6th, 2012

Every now and then, the government does something Labour agrees with.

We agree with increasing Health and Safety in the budget, and today’s announcement from Minister Kate Wilkinson of a Health and Safety Taskforce which will conduct a “wide ranging strategic review” of our Health and Safety laws, including legislation, regulation, incentives and enforcement is welcome. It’s a big step up from a couple of years ago when the government seemed to view health and safety as a “nice to have“.

I believe the Minister is genuinely concerned about our awful health and safety statistics, as we all should be.  Labour proposed a Commission of Inquiry into Health and Safety as part of our election 2011 policy, so I’m pleased the government agrees that the current system needs a comprehensive review. We believe that New Zealand’s high workplace death and injury toll should be given the same ‘status’ as that given to the road toll – maybe the government agrees with that as well, because they’ve included former national manager road policing Paula Rose on the Taskforce.

So, a bouquet for Kate.

But she and her government continue to show a weird disconnect between the link between workplace health and safety and workers’ rights. They just don’t seem to get that a healthy and safe workplace goes hand in hand with a good workplace culture, effective worker participation and respect for the fundamental rights of workers. They don’t seem to understand the growing pressure in workplaces as jobs are cut to the bone, where workers are working longer hours than ever and taking shortcuts are often encouraged as a way to improve the stressed bottom line.

Our laws now allow sacking within 90 days for no reason, the government plans to weaken collective bargaining rights and introduce workplace experience ratings in ACC, which all discourage accident reporting. We might cover up our stats, but we won’t improve them, unless the government is prepared to fund an army of health and safety inspectors to enforce the law.

The Taskforce will be consulting the public.  I hope everyone gets to have a say.

A few sad words on Workers Memorial Day

Posted by on April 28th, 2012

It’s six months since Charanpereet Singh Dhaliwai, aged just 21 died from head injuries after a horrific assault on the job.

He was on his first night working as a security guard watching over the Fulton Hogan site in West Auckland, and he was working alone.

He’s just one on a shameful list of workplace deaths and injuries as we mourn our workplace toll on Workers Memorial Day today.

Every year, I hope things will be better and we will see a different approach to protecting workers who go to work, expecting to return home safely to their families at the end of the day.

So what’s the government’s plan?

MOBIE – that’s the unfortunate acronym for the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, which will incorporate the Department of Labour and its Health and Safety roles from 1 July this year.

The least the government could have done was to wait until the Royal Commission on Pike River Mine reports back in September, because there are likely to be significant recommendations for change to protecting the health and safety of workers in New Zealand.  I think our treatment of health and safety has become so negligent we should be considering whether we need a standalone agency.

An announcement from the government that they are putting the merger of the health and safety functions into MOBIE on hold pending major change to tackling our death and injury rates on the job would have been a nice message for the families and workmates mourning today.

Won’t happen though.

Postscript : Sincere condolences to the family and workmates of Herman Curry, bus driver, who died at work in Friday night.

Bon voyage to more whanau in 2012

Posted by on January 19th, 2012

There’s been a lot of baloney in the media recently about the role (or control) of unions in Labour and a view that by supporting fairness at work means Labour must be anti-employer or anti-business. Mind you, none of this is new, but it’s reached a new peak of hysterical comment from some on the right with the PoAL dispute.

There’s no mystery about Labour’s values when it comes to working people. Our  founding values are about decent Kiwi jobs, the right to a fair day‘s pay for a fair day’s work, the right to join unions and bargain collectively, the right to have a voice at work and the right to be protected from unfair or unsafe treatment at work. We believe that there must be a balance between work demands and family/community responsibilities.

This doesn’t mean business is harder to do – in fact decent wages and effective employment relations should enable New Zealand business to lift productivity, to perform well and to grow.

Labour supports decent work (which is also supported by the National government at the ILO) and fair incomes for all New Zealand working people  – whether in low or middle income jobs, dependent contractors or self employed.  I know that constructive workplace relationships are important and good management is crucial. I don’t believe all employers are “bad” and all employees “good”.  You may be surprised how much sympathy I have with sole operators and small business who can barely make ends meet.

Some of the workers who get the rawest deal are those who are not in formal employment relationships, or in unions, such as self-employed and dependent contractors. Labour has been active in trying to make improvements for these Kiwis, but there’s nothing on the government’s agenda that makes any difference to them and a whole  lot that will impact on all working Kiwis.

Consider these comments from backbench National Party MP Jami-Lee Ross :

Unions still occupy a privileged position in New Zealand’s employment law; a relic of the last Labour administration which has not seen significant overhaul for some years. Few non-government organisations can boast clauses in legislation specifically designed for their benefit. Despite only 18 percent of the nation’s workforce being unionised, trade unions can look to whole sections of the Employment Relations Act written exclusively to aid union survival through legislative advantage.

My question to Jami-Lee is whether the Minister of Labour, Kate Wilkinson, who likes to present her government’s approach to employment relations as “pragmatic” and “what works” agrees with Jami-Lee’s views.  I want to know if she thinks unions are “privileged” and “relics”.  If she does, she better tell Kiwi workers soon, and fess up to the ILO at her annual sojourn in Geneva this year that she doesn’t believe that unions are social partners anymore, leaving only employers and government – and that our government is opposed to international labour conventions and human rights conventions. That will be interesting.

National’s manifesto already boasts “reforms”, such as :

1. Minimum wage : consultation on the annual review has been completed and we can expect an announcement in February.  $15 an hour?  Don’t think so.

2. The government’s plan for a “starting out” rate for 16 and 17 year old workers and also for 18 and 19 year olds who have been on a benefit may be one of the early pieces of legislation in front of parliament.

3. National’s policy commitments to weaken collective bargaining – no requirement to conclude, no requirement for workers to be on the terms and conditions of a collective agreement for 30 days where one exists, and the effective abolishing of multi employer agreements, along with allowing pay reductions for “partial” strikes – such as go-slows, work to rule etc and a review of constructive dismissal.

Then there’s all of the rest :

Bills carried forward from the last parliament : Meals and rest breaks legislation (Kate Wilkinson said this was urgent a couple of years ago, but it’s been bumped) and Tau Henare’s Secret Ballot for Strikes members’ bill, which is neither needed nor wanted. The hardy annual of Easter Sunday Shop Trading will also be up again, via a National members’ bill.

The inquiry into the treatment of workers in Foreign Crewed Vessels in NZ waters and the Pike River Mine Commission of Inquiry will report back this year  – both shameful NZ scandals that arose because of deregulation and declining standards for workers.

The ACC portfolio and the “opening up to competition” will be a big issue; Labour MP Andrew Little will take that on for Labour.

And I’m becoming more suspicious about another agenda – not spelled out in the National Party’s manifesto.  The recent productivity commission report, for example, made some recommendations that, if taken up by this government, would have a huge impact on New Zealand working people.

Bottom line : none of this will help the wages of Kiwi workers catch up with Australia. None of it will stop the weekly exodus across the ditch.

I’m sorry, but unless we see some something other than the old hoary chestnuts of cutting workers’ rights and pay from National soon, you should get ready to say goodbye to more of your whanau.

Labour and the POA

Posted by on January 18th, 2012

There’s been some chatter around about Labour’s position on the Ports of Auckland dispute.

At our core Labour believes that all Kiwis deserve decent jobs with fair pay, that they should have certainty around their work hours and conditions and their families need to know that they will come home safe and sound at the end of the day.

And while I’m at it, Labour will strongly oppose any suggestion that the Ports of Auckland be privatised. It is a public asset belonging to the people of Auckland, and needs to be kept for the benefit of future generations.

Sure, employers can seek reasonable efficiencies, effective labour utilisation and a fair return on investment. The Ports are an important part of our transport infrastructure and they need to be operating as productively and efficiently as possible.

But good faith bargaining and working together to find common ground is the way to achieve this, not wholesale redundancies and contracting out.

Labour is concerned about the increasing casualisation of the workforce in New Zealand. What this does is create uncertainty and stress for workers and their families – and, as we have seen, can cost lives.

Surely, we’ve learned something from the Pike River Mine tragedy about the folly of recruiting inexperienced workers and contractors into highly dangerous jobs and cutting corners on health and safety?

I’m worried that the pursuit of greater returns at the Ports of Auckland through contracting out will mean we could all be learning another tough lesson in a couple of years.

Stevedoring is difficult and sometimes dangerous work, and that should be recognised.

Three deaths at the Ports of Tauranga in the last 15 months should make us all question the safety of contracted out stevedoring firms who compete with each other for business.

No worker has died at the Ports of Auckland for 18 years.

Contracting out and competitive tendering is often used as a means to lower labour costs, through cuts to wages, reduced staff numbers, casualising work hours and cutting “red tape” such as health and safety.

Deregulation, short cuts and disregard for safety has already taken a terrible toll in some of our workplaces.

Let’s learn the lessons.

Yellow Ribbons

Posted by on November 19th, 2011

Today we remember the men and families of Pike River Mine.

Twelve months ago, 29 men went to work in the Pike River Mine and never came home. Their families and community are still waiting for answers. The whole country is.

On the anniversary of their deaths, we join together with the families and the wider West Coast community to commemorate their loss.

Phil Goff says it has been a particularly difficult time for all those affected as they wait to see whether their loved ones can be recovered and it is important that we do everything humanly possible to give them closure.

“I have had the privilege of spending time with some of the families over the past year and I know today will be extremely difficult for them.

“On behalf of Damien O’Connor and all of my Labour colleagues, I would like to pay our respects to all those affected in this time of grief.

“I know the process of the Royal Commission investigating the disaster is a terribly difficult one for all involved. But I hope that it will allow us to learn from what has happened and avoid a tragedy of this nature occurring again.

“On this day, our thoughts and our hearts are with those affected by the terrible loss of the men and the impact it has had on the lives of all those who knew them.”

Two minutes silence at 3.44pm.  Mourn the dead, but together we must resolve to fight for the living so this never happens again.

Comments Off on Yellow Ribbons

Some things better not given publicity

Posted by on November 13th, 2011

The Sunday Star Times has given artist Sam Mahon’s stupid game unnecessary publicity.

Bloggers have added to that by linking. I’m not.

I’m generally in favour of a pretty liberal interpretation of what it is appropriate for media to cover. But a game that is based on killing the PM is not.

Many politicians who have been in the spotlight get threats. Most are not serious and the vast majority are from people with psychiatric conditions that are unlikely to follow through.

Notwithstanding that, I think it is better for media to if there is any doubt just to ignore stuff like that.

No more tick the box on health and safety

Posted by on November 3rd, 2011

I’m on the West Coast today with Damien O’Connor talking about the high rate of death and injury in New Zealand workplaces, and what Labour intends to do about it.

We announced our policy on mine safety back in August, where we will re-regulate the industry along the lines of the Queensland system, and reinstate check inspectors.

But this is not just about Pike River Mine, awful though that was. The loss of life in the Onehunga Gas explosion, the Tamahere Coolfire and the fact that 85 New Zealand workers lost their  lives last year in workplace accidents is a real wake-up call. Then there’s the nearly 500 extremely serious injuries and the tens of thousands of other workplace injury claims every year.

For every person who is killed or injured at work the loss and impact on families, workmates and friends are enormous, but why don’t we talk about it?  Not only does it cost families, but it costs New Zealanders in health, ACC, and productivity.

Despite improvements in workplace technologies, including safer machinery and equipment and greater employee involvement in workplace health and safety following Labour’s amendments to the Health and Safety Employment Act, New Zealand’s workplace accident rate remains far too high.
Self-regulation has too often led to a lack of standards and recent funding cuts to key health and safety inspectorate positions means even less oversight of the limited regulations that we do have.
We need to ensure that workers and employers are encouraged to be open and honest about workplace safety. The introduction of workplace experience ratings in ACC is a step backwards which will discourage accident reporting.
There needs to be a fundamental change in how we approach workplace health and safety. It has to be more than just a ‘tick-box’ exercise for employers.  It must become part of our everyday thinking and planning. It should be part of the national conversation in the same way the road toll is talked about and campaigned on.
Labour is committed to creating safer workplaces, preventing accidents by raising standards and ensuring that injured workers are entitled to compensation and assistance.
Labour will elevate public awareness and responses around workplace deaths and injuries to where they are taken as seriously as our Road Toll.
Labour will establish a Commission of Inquiry into New Zealand Workplace Health and Safety, which would be tasked with examining why New Zealand’s record of workplace accidents and injuries is not improving, what measures are needed to them, how other comparable countries are able to have a lower per worker rate of injury and death and how changes should be implemented.
This could mean moving to a regulatory framework where legislated standards are required, but as a minimum, worker participation, involvement of recognised health and safety representatives and effective enforcement in the workplace will be fundamental to any change.
Labour will also ensure that any regulatory framework provides for a properly resourced occupational health and safety inspectorate that has the technical expertise to enforce the legislative requirements.

While there’s been improvement in workplace technology, safer machinery and equipment and greater employee involvement in workplace health and safety following Labour’s amendments to the Health and Safety in Employment Act, New Zealand’s workplace accident rate remains far too high. Our system of self-regulation is falling short and recent funding cuts to key health and safety inspectorate positions and training of health and safety reps means even less oversight of the limited regulations we do have.

There needs to be a fundamental change in how we approach workplace health and safety. It has to be more than just a ‘tick-box’ exercise for employers. It must become part of our everyday thinking and consciousness in the same way the road toll is talked about, campaigned on and targeted for real improvements.

Labour’s Health and Safety policy, released today, is about elevating public awareness and responsiveness around workplace deaths and injuries to where it gets the attention it deserves.

We will establish a Commission of Inquiry into New Zealand Workplace Health and Safety, who will examine why New Zealand’s record of workplace accidents and injuries is not improving, what measures are needed to improve them, how other comparable countries are able to have a lower per worker rate of injury and death and how any changes should be implemented.

This could mean moving to a regulatory framework where legislated standards are required, but as a minimum, worker participation, involvement of trained health and safety representatives and effective enforcement in the workplace will be fundamental to any change.

We will also ensure that any regulatory framework provides for a properly resourced occupational health and safety inspectorate that has the technical expertise to enforce the legislative requirements.

Bottom line. Self regulation isn’t working. If that takes more prescriptive legislation, Labour will do it.

Something has to change.

Rena and Leadership

Posted by on October 16th, 2011

When I was doing Vote Chat with Bryce Edwards at Otago University on Friday he raised the good question of the political balancing act that surrounds how opposition political parties respond to a disaster, in this case the Rena. As an Opposition there is the risk that people will see criticism of the government as politicising the situation, being opportunistic etc. Equally part of the role of an Opposition is to hold the government to account, whatever the horrendous circumstances might be.

To get one thing out of the way straight up, no one is saying the Government is to blame for the Rena hitting the reef. I am also sure that John Key, Steven Joyce and Nick Smith are as disturbed as I am by the images of the oil on beaches and the death and injury of wildlife. Every New Zealander will want to see the damage from the accident mitigated and the environment cleaned up. What is a legitimate question though is whether faced with the incident the government showed the leadership that we should expect of them and acted as swiftly and effectively as they should have.

My take is that the government were flat footed and to keen to sheet blame and responsibility elsewhere rather than take the leadership role we want our government to take in times of crisis. Someone I worked with once said that people mostly want the government out of their way when things are going well, but they want them there yesterday when things go wrong. I think National got that wrong in the first few days of the Rena incident.

And criticism of this is not just coming from Labour, but also from people who might normally be described as friends of the government like John Roughan, Paul Holmes and even Matthew Hooten. Here is part of Hooten’s NBR column which is not on-line. (h/t Liberation)

Joyce failed totally to comprehend what the Rena grounding meant to the Bay of Plenty’, and ‘He did not see that, as transport minister and arguably the most powerful figure in the government after Mr Key, his role was to lead and improve the quality of the response, and ensure it was sufficiently empowered and resourced. When he spoke publicly, he demonstrated little empathy with locals, telling them there was no point going to the beach to clean up the oil, saying more was on its way and that it could take years to resolve anyway

Then there is the question of whether the government had done the work over the last three years to have us planned for a disaster like this. There are questions here too, with the freeze on funding for Maritime NZ and the failure to put in place the mechanism that would see more of the costs of dealing with the disaster fall on the ship company and less on you and me.

So, in the face of this disaster, we join with all New Zealanders in wanting to protect our beautiful coastline and all those, human and animal who inhabit it. But we also take our role seriously to raise the question- Where was the leadership?, and in this case it was sadly lacking.

Has Kate been shafted again?

Posted by on September 21st, 2011

Yesterday, the Government announced a review of rules and regulations for the use of agricultural vehicles, including working-time regulations, requirements for safety inspections of farm vehicles and the relaxing the restrictions on the use and standards of farm vehicles. They told us they have been listening to the industry.

But wait, hasn’t the Minister of Labour identified the agriculture sector as one of her “priority sectors” for action and resources in her Health and Safety Action Agenda? And rightly so, because farm vehicle accidents account for 23% of work related deaths and injuries in New Zealand.

Now the lowly-ranked Associate Minister of Transport (outside Cabinet) describes safety rules for agricultural and farm vehicles as “red tape”. Yep, he mentions the safety of the public, but not the workers. That, to me, says a lot about the Government’s attitude to workers’ health and safety. Sure, the farmers want to get their crops in on time. But I’m just as sure that the workers would like to work reasonable hours for fair pay and not have to put their life and those of others on the line.

We’re not talking unreasonable rules here. 13 hour days – just one break after 5.5 hours – no rights to breaks, and most employed as contractors, which means few rights in law.

The  families whose loved ones have been affected by accidents in this industry because of short cuts, long working hours, a lack of rights and cutting corners will not see these regulations as “red tape” or too “inflexible” as the contractors have described them.

The question is:  has the Minister of Labour been shafted again?  Was she consulted about this review?

Just another example where the health and safety of workers has become a “nice to have” for this Government.

Health and Safety – “nice to have”?

Posted by on September 10th, 2011

I have to admit to being seriously worried. Something’s happening in our workplaces where some employers have decided that health and safety is a “nice to have” rather than an essential part of our duty as a society to ensure workers are safe when they go to work.

The recent tragedies at Pike River Mine and the Tamahere Cool Store Fire have highlighted a culture and attitude to workplace safety that I hoped we had left behind. There are real horror stories emerging and I understand there is worse to come.

I have been at pains to say that Labour didn’t do everything it should have done in relation to Pike River Mine, but I think the situation has deteriorated further under this government and the so-called leadership of Minister Kate Wilkinson.

Health and Safety enforcement in the Department of Labour has been systematically run down. The Department is struggling and it’s led to the axing of two crucial roles – chief advisor in Health and Safety, and chief advisor Occupational Health who have been replaced by junior information officer positions in the DOL call centre.

There are now simply not enough OSH staff to enforce regulations or to carry out prosecutions. Training for workplace health and safety representatives, who are a key part of our health and safety system has been slashed as well, with ACC Minister Nick Smith describing the roles as ‘touchy, feely, nice to have’. He’s banking on the introduction of ACC “experience ratings”, which provide financial incentives to employers to reduce accidents – but he’s ignored international evidence (and for that matter, our own) that this is just rubbish. It’s not a prevention strategy, it’s a cover-up plan.

Time and again, I’ve been hearing contemptuous comments about the role of employee participation in health and safety.  This is despite international research showing that workers who are engaged, active and vigilant help reduce accidents and injury.

Our erstwhile Minister says health and safety is an employers responsibility, so she’s set up a CEO forum who apparently, after a year’s work, have come up with – guess what – a strategic plan!  Sure, CEOs need to take leadership on this issue, but let’s be honest – they are not the ones who face losing their lives or serious injury where there is systemic failure in workplace health and safety.

The government, through its cuts to Health and Safety expertise and training for workplace representatives have sent a very clear signal to employers which many are now embracing.  Health and Safety, with employee participation is “nanny state” and a “compliance cost”.

As I said, I’m seriously worried.

Labour and the miners

Posted by on August 19th, 2011

Phil Goff got a great reception at the CTU conference this morning.

His speech was inspiring – while it is available on line, you had to be there to really get a sense of how well Labour’s message is going down with workers.

There’s much more to come on savings, skills, jobs, wages and social policy, but today’s announcement was for the miners.

Two days ago, the Minister of Labour announced she was implementing a High Hazards Unit in the Department of Labour which will double from two to four the number of Labour Inspectors in the Mining industry. Everyone is pleased about this, even if it took a lot of pressure to get the Minister to do anything.

But there is more to Mine Safety than having a well-resourced inspectorate. There also need to be strong regulations and worker check inspectors on the job.

Today, Phil announced that we will reinstate check inspectors and model new NZ regulations on Queensland’s mining safety regulations.

Queensland’s regulations are very comprehensive, and the underground section contains provisions for emergencies, rescue and communication, electrical equipment and installations, explosives and explosive power tools, gas monitoring, mechanical, mine design, mining operations, ventilation and working environment. 

Until they were removed by the National government in 1992, check inspectors were democratically-elected miners, responsible solely for the safety of workers with the power, amongst others, to order the immediate withdrawal of miners from a mine or part of a mine that the check inspector deems dangerous. Check inspectors were (and are in Australia) experienced senior miners who have the trust of their fellow workers. Unlike company employed health and safety staff, check inspectors are responsible to the miners, not the company.

This is a great announcement. It was well received today, particularly by the Miner’s Union, the EPMU, who have pushed hard for real change to mine safety in New Zealand.

And before anyone goes there, yes Labour didn’t reverse National’s changes to mine safety. We made significant change to National’s awful Health and Safety laws, but it wasn’t enough. We know that. And that’s why we will do something about it.

The findings of the Royal Commission into the Pike River disaster won’t be released until 2013.  Labour doesn’t believe we should wait until then to take action.

Is Kate Wilkinson’s job on the line?

Posted by on July 19th, 2011

If not, it should be.

Read this story today on the Commission of inquiry into the Pike River Mine tragedy and you will understand why.

This isn’t new evidence.  There have been questions asked of the Minister, both in the House and in Select Committee about the Minister’s rejection of the 2009 recommendations. Both Damien O’Connor and I have tabled letters from her or her department specifically rejecting a regulatory change to introduce check inspectors, and an improved code of practice for employee participation in the mining sector.

The Minister told the Transport & Industrial Relations Select Committee just a couple of weeks ago that one of the recommendations she did take up was improving employee participation in mining health and safety. Yet her department confirmed that two and a half years later, they have yet to begin any work on this.  And this is at the same time, the budget for training workplace health and safety representatives has been slashed.

We also asked the Minister asked about the number of mining inspectors. Turns out there are two; one based in Dunedin, and one based in Westport, and they cover the South Island between them, as well as North Island mines.

I’m not demanding perfection here. Mistakes were made. But the thing to do is own up and ensure they never happen again.

Not our Kate. The Minister is now hiding behind the Commission of Inquiry to refuse to answer direct questions in the House.

That’s not good enough.  If the Minister isn’t prepared to do her job, she should resign and let someone else do it who will put the safety of miners first.

What a week

Posted by on June 24th, 2011

It’s been a full-on week.  So much happening and so many issues : Ministers in Select Committees, long debates in the House on the Telco Bill, announcements in Christchurch, the Te Tai Tokerau by-election and of course dear Alasdair. Here’s a few extra snippets from question time this week that you may not have picked up.

John Key ruled out implementing the Queensland regulatory standards for mine safety as an interim measure despite mouthing off to an Australian newspaper about Pike River and  family members of Pike River miners calling for increased mine inspection.

Paula Bennett repeated that she thinks any job is a good job, citing the example of ayoung woman, who at 52 years of age was proud to be a checkout chick”, while at the same time revealing she’s up to her neck in the government’s revisiting of youth rates.

Annette King asked the PM why he was prepared to wine, dine, chauffeur, change the law and suck up to Warner Bros to save jobs in the movie industry and now the gambling industry, but but has turned his back on hard-working railway workers who can build wagons and carriages in New Zealand and keep their jobs?  Guess what, no answer.

Kate Wilkinson told Jacinda Ardern that the government has a cogent plan, which when probed, said it was basically about building a stronger economy.  Doh.

Nick Smith told us that training workplace health and safety representatives was a “touchy feely notion”, despite his government expressing concerns about NZ’s high workplace deaths and injuries and saying employee participation in health and safety is critical.

Kate Wilkinson said she was aware that for “those people on the minimum wage we are aware budgeting is tight”, but ruled out increasing the minimum wage calling $15 an hour  “a high minimum wage”.

David Cunliffe asked if the PM thought the public would be pleased to learn that without any mandate, his government has budgeted $6 million to spend before the election on preparing to sell assets.

Oh and I was at a dinner on Monday night where a certain Alasdair Thompson had been invited.  But that’s another story.

Uh oh – here it comes

Posted by on June 8th, 2011

John Key told the Seafood Council today that if National is re-elected in November, further changes will be made to employment law. 

I’m guessing they won’t be good changes for workers, especially when he boasted “trade unions won’t like them.”

He claims a flexible labour market is good for employers and workers.  Does he mean the one in five women employed in the public sector who work overtime for no extra pay as reported today by the PSA?  Does he meant the contribution they make of an estimated 2.5 million hours of unpaid work a year, worth about $54.5 million and equivalent to 1360 full-time jobs?

What I’m hearing repeatedly from John Key’s National Government now is that working people make no contribution to the economy – they have no role in productivity, should have no say in the workplace and most of all, should not expect either to have rights or to know anything about them.

Although the government has made some pretty hideous changes to employment rights, I thought we’d got past the real ideological crap of the past. 

But it’s heading our way in force.  Cuts to workers rights, low pay, asset sales and welfare changes – to name just a few things. 

Sounds like a government with no plan to me.