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Wilson Addresses Rail And Maritime Transport Union

Hon Margaret Wilson

Speech Notes For Rail And Maritime Transport Union
Annual Conference
Police College (Porirua)
Tuesday, 3 October 2000 4PM

The campaign for fairness in New Zealand workplaces

Thank you for the invitation to address you today.

It is a good week for the labour movement.

The parliamentary Labour Party, and our Alliance partner with support from the Greens have restored fairness to the workplaces of New Zealand.

It was in 1991 that we promised to repeal the Employment Contracts Act, and it took nearly a decade to achieve it.

The National Party has promised to fight the next election on this issue.

We have responded by challenging them to do so, and to start now.

If we look back over the period of the campaign over the Bill it is clear that there were a number of problems facing us from the outset.

 First of all, there had been dramatic changes in workplaces over the last decade. New technology, up-skilling in some areas, de-skilling of labour in others. Old solutions would no longer appeal.

 Secondly, the ECA brought with it its own ideology. Individual contracts had undermined the idea of unity. Many workers came to see other workers as competitors.

Union campaigns, in that environment, tended to fail. Unionism became associated with failure.

Unions responded to some extent by modelling themselves on the employer – they fronted as suppliers of services, bought by members; an Automobile Association for the workplace, available to provide cheap wine and help with breakdowns.

And, of course, unions in many cases simply disappeared. This was often a result of their low level of financial reserves and the loss of jobs in traditional industries rather than a rejection of their policies by workers.

So our traditional base of support was to a greater or lesser extent damaged, destroyed or demoralised.

 Thirdly, while a return to the past was not an option, our vision of the future had to be able to deal with the new situation but not so divorced from what is familiar to produce fear.

Taking these in turn:

 First; I have been enormously heartened by the acceptance that we cannot return to the past. We have not gone back to the props of the old system – compulsory unionism, compulsory arbitration and national awards. And the union movement, the Labour and Alliance parties and the Greens have remained solid behind that approach. This was the right strategy. It is principled pragmatism.

 Secondly, despite the damage, destruction and demoralisation, the union movement itself worked tirelessly. They – you - to maintained a public understanding that many of the evils we see around us are the result of bad law.

It has been said that it is better to light one candle than curse the darkness. Throughout New Zealand, for the past decade, unionists lit those candles. Despite their lack of real power, they took up the cases of thousands of victims of bad employment law and fought their fights.

But, I am pleased to say, the union and Labour movement did not confine itself to the candles. They never failed to curse the darkness which had fallen on workplaces, workers and their families.

The Employment Contracts Act was condemned so utterly by so many for so long that almost no one supported it wholeheartedly.

This enabled Labour and The Alliance to campaign against it at the last election and gain strong support. Those who supported the ECA had weakened in both number and strength – those who supported a fair workplace law had increased both in number and determination.

 Thirdly, through discussion and debate within the Labour Party – and the Alliance – the form of a new law began to take shape. The ideas of Good Faith, of strong mediation, of free and democratic unions and clearly-stated worker rights and responsibilities became clear.

And above all, we were able on the basis of our struggle to identify the key principle of the new workplace in New Zealand: work and workers are not commodities to be bought and sold.

Workplace relations are not contracting relationships - they are human relationships which can thrive only on the basis of mutual trust and confidence.

The CTU, TUF, Labour, The Alliance and the Greens have all supported the new law. The Labour Movement is united.

The government's approach to osh issues

I believe we can maintain this unity as we go forward with the next stages of our programme:

- the Minimum Code

- improving our Health and Safety legislation,

- going on to build up a Labour Market strategy which will again reinforce the way in which we are looking forward and our opponents are looking back.

I know you are particularly interested in the second of those issues: health and safety. Before I go on to talk about what the government has done, let me congratulate you for what you have done. This union has played an outstanding role in bringing major issues of health and safety to the attention of the public.

I have said before that it is almost always the case that after a serious accident, or the appearance of a serious illness affecting people in a workplace, we can see what we should have done to prevent it happening.

We need to act beforehand in practice, not afterwards in theory.

And employers can't do it on their own. Neither can employees. Or unions.

That's why the OSH slogan: "together to zero" is so good.

We need everyone involved to take their responsibilities seriously and that we need, serious to aim at the goal of no accidents in any workplace.
Health and Safety legislation is one of those areas of law on which there is a wide political consensus.

Parties often disagree on how thing should be done, but not so often on whether they should be done.

But all unionists should be aware that this consensus is not complete. Some influential and active lobbyists and politicians do not support good law in this area.

I have heard the present Health and Safety law described as part of
"a new wave of stifling regulations".

And take note of this: Richard Prebble has recently mocked the OSH laws as an example of what he calls "feel good" legislation.

There were those who opposed the introduction of the Factories Act in 1891, when minimum rights to things such as air, and space and time to eat were introduced along with restrictions on the use of child labour.

They said that law would prove to be one of the greatest barriers to the introduction and fostering of manufacturing industries in the colony.

Well, of course, it didn't, and our modern reforms will also improve life in New Zealand, and contribute to good relationships and more efficient workplaces.

We are moving away from the idea of risk as something to be weighed against profit, and minimised where it is cost-effective to do so.

The present Health and Safety legislation moved a long way towards that goal. But we need to go further.

And – as I will discuss later – we need to make sure that there is as far as possible a common approach whether work is on land, on the road, at sea, or in the air.

We are moving towards a system in which there is joint employer, management, union and employee responsibility for safety.

The government has used the language of rights to describe what sort of workplace health and safety environment people can expect.

We say that people have a right to be protected from death, injury and disease.

We say they have a right to be involved in decisions which affect health and safety.

And they have a right to information which empowers them to make their workplaces healthier and safer.


The Tranz Rail report


Last month I released the results of the Ministerial Inquiry into Tranz Rail.

It is an example of careful analysis of legislative, regulatory and managerial impediments to safety,

No one with responsibility for safety can have been unmoved and unmotivated by the sad stories of the families of those Tranz Rail employees who died, and evidence of the employees who were injured.

So – what are we doing?

The government is responding to the Tranz Rail report in 2 ways:

first we are making sure that the relevant recommendations are picked up and addressed in the review of the HSE Act. I'll talk more about the general review of the Act later.

the second stage is to make sure to ensure that the other recommendations which have broader implications for transport sector are addressed and considered.

The Government has received initial advice on phase one.

This mostly deals with s6H of the Transport Services Licensing Act 1989.

This is the section that deems an operator's approved safety system to comply with the HSE Act.

The Inquiry found that this section:

- restricts the application of the HSE act to employees of rail operators;

- acts as an incentive to formulate the safety system in unduly wide and detailed terms;

- acts as a deterrent to the enforcement of occupational safety, whatever the agency;
- promotes a culture of blaming employees for accidents

and that

- practical application of the section has proved quite unsatisfactory;

The inquiry also concluded that the section is unnecessary because and I quote:

'if the employer is complying with an approved safety system, that compliance in itself would provide a ground for defence to a prosecution without the necessity to rely on the blunt instrument of the … section.'

I support the Inquiry's recommendations that s6H be repealed.

I have agreed in principle to this and to the recommendation that the HSE Act apply without reservation to rail operators.

This means that the HSE and TSL Acts would apply to rail operators, and that any overlap would be handled administratively through clear and public protocols between OSH and the Land Transport Safety Authority.

I want you to know that this matter is being dealt with as quickly as possible at the very highest levels.

Last week the chief executives of Transport and Labour met to go through the recommendations and finalise their responses.

These then come to me and the Minister of Transport.

We will then take recommendations to the whole Cabinet.


How bad is New Zealand's safety record?

The Tranz Rail deaths were among the estimated 1 point 2 million people world-wide who die of work-related accidents or diseases every year.

A further 160 million workers are injured or fall ill each year because of workplace hazards.

In the June year just ended OSH investigated the deaths of 57 New Zealanders who lost their lives at work.

Not all deaths fall under OSH’s jurisdiction and the true workplace death toll is likely to be closer to 160. It is also estimated that a further 400 New Zealand workers die each year as a result of illness associated with their work. That's a total of more than five hundred deaths a year in New Zealand that could have been prevented if in each workplace appropriate safety procedures were in place.

In the year to June OSH was notified of more than 4 thousand 3 hundred serious injuries.

In the previous year there were 29 thousand individual claims against the ACC employers account.

A conservative estimate of the financial cost of in the 1998/99-year is three point one eight billion dollars.

The Government does not believe that these social and economic costs are acceptable.

This Government believes people have the absolute right to go to work and earn a living without facing undue risks to their health and safety.

The multi-billion cost of accidents means there is the potential for significant savings for businesses which improve their health and safety performance.

But there is a reasonable challenge to be made to what I have said – is the New Zealand record any worse than the record of other countries with which we can be compared?

I am sorry to tell you that yes, the record is worse, especially in relation to the most serious accidents.

While our average workplace injury record is not out of line with that of Australia, New Zealand has a greater incidence of ACC-type claims resulting in 60 or more days off work.

New Zealand's workplace fatality record at 4 point 9 per hundred thousand employees compares to 3 point 8 per hundred thousand in Australia and 3 point 2 in the United States.

New Zealand's health and safety record is relatively poor when sector is compared with sector as well. We have higher rates of accident than some comparable countries in areas such as mining, agriculture, forestry, fishing, construction, storage and – as you know - transport.

Such comparisons can be misleading and I am not proposing to measure our success through simplistic international benchmarks. Our success will be measured by the actual reduction in avoidable illness, injury and death.


More on government action to improve safety


So let me tell you more about government action on Health and Safety.

We are reviewing the Health and Safety legislation. This is part of a wider programme, which includes ACC reform and general improvements to employment law.

ACC

This year ACC introduced a "Workplace Safety Management Practices" programme designed to help employers increase workplace safety and ultimately reduce the rate of accidents.

In return for meeting certain health and safety requirements, employers can qualify for premium discounts of up to 20%.

Financial incentives for employers to reduce workplace hazards are also provided in the re-established self-management programme where accredited employers assume significantly increased responsibilities for meeting injury-related costs in their workplace.

These measures were introduced following the introduction of the Accident Insurance Amendment Act earlier this year.

In addition, ACC doubled its budget for injury prevention overall this year.

The ERA

The Employment Relations Act which, by acknowledging the need for employees and their organisations to be listened to, and recognised, is itself an important health and safety measure.

If workers have a voice business are protected from errors in management which contribute to unsafe work practices. This makes it easier for employers to meet their legal responsibility to provide safe workplaces.

REVIEW OF HEALTH AND SAFETY LAWS

Among the specific areas being reviewed and broadly within my responsibility as Minister of Labour are issues which can be grouped into three main areas – employee participation, scope of the laws and enforcement.

If we go back to the 1989 Advisory Council on Occupational Health and Safety and Health, employee participation in workplace safety was strongly recommended not for ideological reasons but because it can be demonstrated to improve outcomes.

The ACOSH recommendations did make it through to the Health and Safety legislation, but in a much watered down form.

Employee involvement is there, but only requires employers to give employees the opportunity to be involved in Health and Safety matters. A select committee, under the previous government, supported the meaningful and enforceable involvement of employees in OSH matters.

There is enough international evidence of the effectiveness of employee involvement in improving Health and Safety outcomes to make this a priority in changing the law.

Employee participation, of course, must be developed in a way which improves business operations. I want to hear positive suggestions about making sure that Health and Safety requirements do not become a burden, or disruptive. Among the issues which the government believes will enhance participation are:

- the election of Health and Safety representatives of employees. This proposal is consistent with the with the philosophy of the Employment Relations Act and the ACC system changes. The ACC changes require employee participation for accredited employees.

- Provisional improvement notices. A provisional improvement notice would allow an elected, trained Health and Safety Representatives to stop – say – a machine or process being used in an unsafe way.

- A clearly defined right to refuse unsafe work

Under the heading of "enforcement", we need to consider the relationship between the different ways which can be used to make sure there is compliance with the Act.

The issue of how to get people to obey the law is one which troubles most Ministers – and the same broad options appear: we can inform, educate, persuade and penalise. And, if we penalise, there is the issue of how likely the person breaching the Act is to be caught, and action taken against them.

And, as in any law, there are the problems of definition – such as exactly what a 'workplace" is.

Other issues also need to be considered in addition to those under the three headings. These are issues which, if addressed, could further enhance safety.

They include an examination of hours of work, work-related stress and associated time loss.

The European Foundation's 1996 report called Working conditions in the European Union revealed that 29% of workers questioned believed that their work affected their health.

The work-related problems mentioned most frequently were musculoskeletal – 30 percent, and stress – 28%.

I know that some will hear those facts and think instantly that these are merely complaints, and do not indicate the need for firms to do anything about these issues.

But 23 percent of respondents said they had been off work for work-related reasons during the previous 12 months. The average time off was 4 days.

Somehow I think we may be better in New Zealand – but if we are not, the equivalent time lost per year in New Zealand would be something like 870 thousand work days a year.

I know what would be said if days lost through strike action approached that figure.

By comparison last year fewer than 20 thousand days were lost in strike action.

And there are two other issues which are important but not easy to classify:

 We are looking at making the Crown subject to the provisions of the Act, and the Building Act and

 It appears there needs to be change to the law to allow better coordination between agencies such as ACC and OSH in collecting and making use of injury data.

To ensure the most effective end result of the whole Health and Safety review, input from employer and employee organisations will be crucial.

I asked OSH to consult widely so that the Government’s decisions will be based on the best information available.

I hope that following this consultation I will be able to take a paper to Cabinet and that work on drafting the new law can begin before the end of the year.

This would allow the Bill to be in the house by early next year and passed mid-year. There would, of course, be an extensive select committee process which will allow further consultation to take place.

There will be a need for the new law to be passed some time before it comes into force to allow people to come to terms with their new responsibilities.

Legislation of this sort cannot be rushed, and the process of discussion itself helps to promote safety by building awareness of key issues.


Conclusion


At the last election the Labour Party went to the people with a strong policy on Health and Safety.

We said that for Labour, achieving healthier and safer work environments is a high priority.
You can see that in this, as in the Employment Relations Act and all our programmes we are keeping to our policy in concert with our coalition partner the Alliance.
When we said we saw the situation as one of serious concern, we meant it.
And we mean to do something about it.
I have explained the need for consultation and the slow progress of legislation.
But soon we will achieve improvements to our laws and safer workplaces for New Zealanders.
This will happen in the context of the Employment Relations Act.
At the heart of the Act is the aim to improve the relationship between employers and employees in the workplace.

Free and open communication between employers, managers, employees and unions and a relationship of mutual trust are key foundations of good workplace health and safety.

The Employment Relations Act has as its stated objective "to build productive employment relationships through the promotion of mutual trust and confidence in all aspects of the employment environment"

Trust and confidence are destroyed by avoidable danger, injury and death.

Through trust and confidence safety can be promoted and established in every workplace.

As I said at the outset: after an accident, or learning of a work-related health problem, everyone is wise and can identify what should have been done.

I say that "what should have been done" is what should be done now.

And I will do my best to make sure that employers, managers, unions, employees and professionals have all the legal and state support they need to make safety and health real wherever we work.

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