Building and construction unions have been the target of a Queensland government overhaul of regulation which the government and employers say will crack down on militant union representatives using safety as an excuse to force their way onto worksites but which unions say places workers at risk.
Passed into legislation last week, the Work Health and Safety and Other Legislation Amendment Act 2014 requires holders of work health and safety entry permits or those assisting them to give at least 24 hours’ notice before entering a site and doubles penalties for union officials and others who breach these laws from $11,000 to $22,000.
The changes also remove the right of representatives to direct workers to cease unsafe work, eliminate the requirement for businesses to provide lists of health and safety representatives to the WHS regulator and allow for national codes of practice adopted in Queensland to be varied without national consultation.
In a concession to workers, however, the legislation increases maximum penalties against employers for breaches of electrical safety laws from $4,400 to $33,000.
In a statement, Attorney-General and Minister for Justice Jarrod Bleijie said the changes restore balance to a system previously abused by unions.
“Under these reforms, construction unions will also no longer be able to use loopholes in the system to force their way onto work sites and lock workers out,” Bleijie said, adding that the previous system allowed unions to enter and shut down sites using ‘trumped up’ safety contraventions.
“We are protecting workers from unsafe practices and protecting employers from militant industrial activity.”
Building unions slammed the new laws, accusing the government of putting large business ahead of safety and arguing the need to give prior notice before entering work sites will give employers time to cover tracks and hinder investigations.
Such concerns were acknowledged by the Office of the Queensland Parliamentary Council, the body responsible for drafting the amendments, which admitted in explanatory notes to the legislation that the requirement to provide prior notice before entering to investigate safety breaches would remove the ‘surprise’ element of existing protections, while removal of representatives’ right to direct staff to cease unsafe work would further weaken protection – especially for workers from non-English speaking backgrounds who may not understand their personal statutory right to cease such work.
“This is a green light for dodgy builders to cover up health and safety issues and will see the vast majority of builders putting profit over the safety of their workforce,” divisional branch secretary of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union - Construction and General Qld and NT Michael Ravbar said.
“Jarrod Bleijie you should be ashamed of yourself. The blood of injured workers will be on your hands.”
Such claims were denied, however, by Master Builders Association of Queensland executive director Grant Galvin, who said the changes would instead stop unions using safety as an excuse to abuse right of entry provisions.
Galvin says workers with genuine concerns can still talk to their onsite safety representative or safety committee or contact a state government Workplace Health and Safety inspector.