Thursday, September 3, 2015

Karl du Fresne: Workplace safety debate reduced to farce

Opportunistic grandstanding on one side, incompetent political management on the other. That was my take on last week’s furore over workplace health and safety legislation.

It’s probably not necessary, but let’s revisit the background to this stoush.

Twenty-nine miners died in the Pike River mine explosion in 2010. A subsequent Royal Commission exposed shocking deficiencies in the way the mine was managed.

Warnings of dangerous methane levels went unheeded and there was no second exit from the mine. Production took priority over safety and monitoring by the Department of Labour was scandalously slack.

Following the commission’s damning report, the government set up an independent taskforce to review workplace health and safety more generally. It found that safety standards, monitoring and accountability were lax across the board in New Zealand industry and recommended a comprehensive rewrite of workplace health and safety laws.

As if to underline the message, in the year the taskforce report came out (2013), 10 men died in forestry accidents.

Out of that came the Health and Safety Reform Bill. Everyone supported the legislation – not just unions, but the government and business groups too. Pike River seemed to have shocked all the players into a rare state of accord.

But last month something unexpected happened. The National Party, having previously given the impression of being fully committed to workplace safety reform, watered down what the Labour Party and the unions saw as a key provision.

Under the amended bill, businesses with fewer than 20 employees in industries deemed to be lower-risk were to be excluded from an obligation to have elected health and safety representatives.

Why National had second thoughts isn’t entirely clear. Most political commentators put it down to last-minute lobbying by farming interests, worried that the new law would impose too great a burden.

Others said it was an act of defiance by stroppy National backbenchers and pointed the finger at disaffected former Cabinet ministers Judith Collins and Maurice Williamson.

The Left worked itself into a fine old lather, angrily protesting that the change meant the new law would be worse than the one it replaced.

You could understand why unions felt betrayed by the government’s back-pedalling, but that was a wild overstatement.

Certainly the bill was weakened, especially when you consider that 97 per cent of workplaces employ fewer than 20 people. But the majority of those workplaces are not high-risk, so the outcry was a bit theatrical. So was the carefully orchestrated presence at Parliament of widows and families bereaved by workplace accidents.

It was only to be expected that the unions would extract maximum leverage from the situation. After all, they don’t get many opportunities these days to put runs on the board. But there were moments when I felt those widows and families were too blatantly being used in pursuit of a political agenda.

As Workplace Safety Minister Michael Woodhouse pointed out, larger workplaces – which, although relatively few in number, employ 75 per cent of the labour force – will still be subject to the requirement to have elected health and safety representatives. And all the other provisions of the legislation will still apply to smaller workplaces, so they’re not “off the hook”, in the minister’s words.

It was on the question of risk that the workplace safety debate descended to the level of farce. National’s support parties, sensing an opportunity to assert themselves, refused to simply wave the amended bill through. They wanted more certainty on which industries would be defined as high-risk and therefore required to have elected health and safety representatives, even in small workplaces.

The government appeared not to have anticipated that complication and was forced into last-minute negotiations. In its haste, it adopted existing, arbitrary classifications of risk that were riddled with bizarre anomalies, much to the media’s delight. 

That was how worm farms and mini-golf ended up being defined as high-risk while livestock farming conveniently (from National’s perspective) escaped the net. A smarter minister might have seen the potential for embarrassment in advance and had a Plan B ready, but Woodhouse doesn’t give the impression of being the sharpest knife in the drawer.

In the end, I don’t think anyone emerged from this imbroglio with a lot of credit. The government not only appeared to have pandered to special interests, but looked incompetent politically. A case of third term-itis, perhaps.

For their part, opposition parties and the unions overplayed their hand, accusing the government of putting profits before people and failing to acknowledge that even in its slightly watered-down form, workers should be much safer under the new regime than the old. And in all the fuss over the "watered-down" provision, no one explained how a system of elected health and safety representatives would work where farms are run by only one or two people, sometimes father and son or husband and wife. 

Some of the news media deserve a slap too, for playing heavily on the emotional scars of bereaved Pike River and forestry families when the debate had moved on and their experiences, painful though they undoubtedly were,  were no longer strictly relevant.

Karl du Fresne blogs at published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard.

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