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Q+A: Workplace Relations & Safety Minister Michael Woodhouse

Q+A: Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Woodhouse - Workplace safety process: hasn’t “started’

Q + A

Episode 826

MICHAEL WOODHOUSE

Interviewed by MICHAEL PARKIN


PARKIN Welcome back. And let’s go to Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse, who joins me from Dunedin. Minister, that target of 60,000 – or that new record that we’ve hit now of 60,000 in net migration – are you comfortable with that? Or do you need to take steps to restrict that to get within your 45,000-55,000?

WOODHOUSE Well, look, I think the discussion you’ve just had shows quite how complex and how many moving parts there are to the immigration story. For me, I think, the popular perception is of 60,000 people coming and staying, and that’s simply not true. We have a residency programme that targets between 45,000 and 50,000 permanent residency places every year. And that hasn’t changed in the last 10 years or so.

PARKIN So being over that doesn’t concern you at all?

WOODHOUSE Well, it’s not over that. That’s the point I’m making. Permanent residency peaked at 52,000 about 10 years ago, and then dropped by 20%. Now, it’s going up now. It’s probably around 45,000 or 46,000. That’s the permanent residencies. What’s creating the volatility as was described by your panel is the temporary migration – those labour-market tested work visas we need to rebuild Canterbury, the extra working holidaymakers that are coming, and the quite strong growth in tertiary education.

PARKIN And if they are pushing up interest rates, exchange rates, house prices, I mean, is that really good for anybody?

WOODHOUSE Well, I think what you heard is there’s some contest about whether or not those things are occurring.

PARKIN Do you believe they’re occurring?

WOODHOUSE I think there are a number of factors at play in both the interest rates and the housing story, and the government has a number of measures to address, particularly, the Auckland housing market. But I think what we’ve got is two things going on in immigration. Firstly, we have a skills requirement, and also we have a labour requirement.

PARKIN Let’s talk about that skills requirement, because the 149 checkout operators, 227 shelf fillers– I mean, are those settings really right for an essential skills visa?

WOODHOUSE Well, you’ve described them as essential skills, but actually they are what’s known as labour market-tested work visas. Now, it’s been a while since I’ve had a look at the checkout operators, but when I last did, there was one visa of that group that had been awarded in Auckland. The overwhelming majority of them are going to the South Island in places like Queenstown and Wanaka where there is virtually zero unemployment. And, indeed, we have quite a strong mismatch between where the labour need is and where the people are. And one of the things I would say is that anybody who wants to seek work should head south. There’s plenty of it.

PARKIN All right, let’s get you to put your health and safety hat on here, because I want to quote you from February, where you said, ‘The death and injury rate behind the farm gate is simply unacceptable. Someone is killed nearly every fortnight. This needs to change.’ Your words, remember. How could you leave farmers out of these reforms?

WOODHOUSE I was speaking at the launch of the Safer Farms safety programme. That’s a five year body of work where Worksafe has teamed up with Federated Farmers and Dairy NZ and Sheep and Beef. And this is a very comprehensive programme to improve health and safety on our farms.

PARKIN But by telling farmers now that they are low-risk, that they don’t need to be part of this reform that you have introduced, isn’t that just instilling complacency in them?

WOODHOUSE I think we need to just recalibrate what’s been said over the last week, because people are describing worm farms and dairy farms as if we’ve come to the end of a process. We haven’t even started that process. Now, what I did last week was agree to disclose the taxonomy that would be used to describe the upper quartile of high risk and the criteria that we would apply to work out who would fall into that category for the small businesses that may be able to say no to a health and safety rep when asked.

PARKIN But why leave them out? Why not give them the option? Why not give those farmers – whether two, three, five, 10, whatever – why not give the guys on the ground the option if they wanted a health and safety rep to say, ‘Yeah, I’d actually like one of those,’ and the legislation being in place for them to allow that.

WOODHOUSE And the legislation will be but the current requirement is for that now. And the majority of our farms don’t have them. Now, I think what we need to do is compare what the current legislation says, because the whole section on worker participation in the Health and Safety Employment Act, our present act, talks about the election and powers of a health and safety rep. The new bill has comprehensive extra requirements on everyone in our workplace to participate in health and safety, whether you’re a worker, a manager, an owner or a director. And I think through all of this what’s been lost is the significant reform that we’re putting in place through this bill. Now, yes, health and safety representatives are important, but they are not the only way to deliver health and safety. And what this reflects–

PARKIN And how much lobbying did you receive from the farming industry, from your Caucus colleagues to get you to buy into that line?

WOODHOUSE There’s been quite a bit of discussion in the Caucus, but I can tell you that not a single farmer has approached me as minister about this issue.

PARKIN So you got bullied by the Caucus and the Caucus alone, was it?

WOODHOUSE Look, it was a pretty robust discussion, as you can imagine. But I am confident-

PARKIN You wanted farmers in there, didn’t you?

WOODHOUSE No. What I’ve wanted is the facts to determine risk. And the facts are these. Although the death and injury rate in our farms is high, they’re also our largest industry. So when you compare that on a per 1000 or per 100,000 basis, they fell below the threshold that was set.

PARKIN But now they’ve got the signal that the way they have been going is okay because you’ve made an exemption for them under this reform.

WOODHOUSE I don’t think that’s true at all. In fact, the farming community are very aware of my expectations for them to lift their game. The point is health and safety reps are not the only way to do that. There are many other ways to do that. They’ve been doing that in other organisations and in other industries.

PARKIN I want to quote you again from February. ‘120 people have been killed working on our farms since 2008, with four times as many fatalities last year compared to the forestry and construction industries.’ How is that a guy who doesn’t think that farming should be in his bill?

WOODHOUSE They are probably about five times bigger than the forestry industry, and on an equalised basis, the fatality rates are lower than forestry. Now, I want to take forestry as an example of an industry that has really picked up its game. There’s been a 95% reduction in death rates in the last 21 months and a halving of the serious harm rates. Why? Because they have picked up their game in terms of participation and cooperation across the sector. And that’s my expectation for farming.

PARKIN Let’s talk about the worm farms, lavender farms, catteries, curtain hanging, that sort of thing. Who dropped the ball here and didn’t spot those?

WOODHOUSE Look, I was focused on the high risk in advance of a conversation we haven’t even started with industry yet.

PARKIN But you knew this was going to be gone over with a fine-tooth comb. You should’ve pulled this stuff out. You shouldn’t have left yourself wide open to attack on this, should you?

WOODHOUSE I had the comb ready for the consultation process, which hasn’t started yet, Michael. So, sure, if you want to have a conversation about whether worm farms are riskier than dairy farms, that’s a conversation that will start. And I have no doubt, thanks to the attention that’s been raised on it, there will be an exemptions regime. But the important thing is we need to have a robust taxonomy and let the evidence guide us.

PARKIN When are you going to exempt those things so this point of mockery, now – because that’s what it’s become – is going to be eliminated from what you’re trying to do here?

WOODHOUSE We’ve got to get the bill through first, and I hope that happens next week. The consultation will start once we’ve got the legal ability to do that–

PARKIN You don’t need consultation to pull out something like a worm farm, do you? You can go through and pick out these things now.

WOODHOUSE Yes, I’ll do that when there’s a chance to do that. As I say, we haven’t even started the process, and, yes, it does seem a bit silly, but as I say, we haven’t even started that conversation. So let’s get the bill through. I offered the house to give them guidance. People have taken that and seen that as an opportunity to attack it. Fair enough. But I don’t want this to distract from the very important message that that is this reform bill is a significant improvement on the status quo, and I’m confident–

PARKIN But were you naïve to leave that in there? Because you’ve undermined your own messaging around this. I mean, you should’ve caught this, shouldn’t you?

WOODHOUSE Well, I mean, look, perhaps. I’m not going to resign from the fact people have had some fun around it. This is serious stuff–

PARKIN Were you let down by your officials on this?

WOODHOUSE No, not at all.

PARKIN Do you take full responsibility for those items being in there?

WOODHOUSE Well, they’re not in there. That’s the point, Michael. We haven’t started the process. So they are part of a group of industry classifications where there is high risk. So, laugh if you like, but the category that has worm farming in it killed 11 people and injured more than 1000 in the five years that we analysed the data.

PARKIN How did it do that?

WOODHOUSE So, sure, we can have fun about that– Well, they were obviously in the other occupations that made up that industry.

PARKIN How were those people killed on the worm farm?

WOODHOUSE No, I didn’t say that they were killed on the worm farm, Michael. What I said is the other industries that make up that grouping which is called other livestock farming – remember, that’s horse breeding and pig farming and alpaca farming and a number of others – had a high rate of death and injury. And I don’t think it’s something that we should be laughing about.

PARKIN You had the Pike River families obviously come down to Wellington earlier in the week. The bill wasn’t ready. That wasn’t a good look, was it?

WOODHOUSE What I did was the House leader made a commitment in the previous week that we would make progress on the health and Safety Reform bill that week. We did. Nobody ever nailed down 4 o’clock on Tuesday as being the time that the bill would start to be debated. And I regret that a number of people came down and didn’t get to listen to the start of the committee stage, but that wasn’t intentional.

PARKIN Are they wrong to feel let down by the bill? Those families?

WOODHOUSE I think they will– I can completely understand their desire, which is mine, to make sure that nobody else goes through what they’ve been through.

PARKIN And you haven’t met that desire in their view.

WOODHOUSE I’m confident that this bill will do that. But I’m also sure that we can write all the rules and regulations we like. What is going to make the step change in our workplaces is different attitudes and different behaviours. And that’s going to involve all of us, not just the health and safety rep with the high-vis vest. Every single person in the workplace has got to contribute to that.

PARKIN Just finally, in the first year of these reforms being in place, if we don’t see the number of workplace deaths dropping, will you resign as minister?

WOODHOUSE The government has set a goal of 25% by 2020–

PARKIN But in the first year of your reforms, this thing you’re now running through the House, would you be prepared to resign if it doesn’t work?

WOODHOUSE It’s already dropping, so we’re making progress. But our target is 2020–

PARKIN So you will?

WOODHOUSE Our target is for 2020, and I’m committed to reaching that.

PARKIN Minister Michael Woodhouse, thank you very much for your time this morning.

WOODHOUSE Thanks, Michael.

ENDS

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