Friday, February 19, 2010

Decision Unfair For Employer

Concern has been expressed about a ruling from Fair Work Australia that a paper mill in Albury should reinstate a former employee, and pay him compensation, even though his dismissal was justified. At a time when unfair dismissal laws are once again the subject of vigorous political debate such a decision seems to not only defy logic, but to risk discrediting the principles of providing protection from unfair treatment in the workplace. The whole concept of a “fair go” is central to the Australian way of life, but it is, and should always be a two way street. Unfair dismissal laws must provide fairness not only to workers, but also to employers.

At the Norske Skog Paper Mill, Paul Quinliven repeatedly removed his safety glasses and was told repeatedly by his supervisor to put them back on. His response to management was described as disdainful and abusive. Fair Work Australia ruled that his behavior was “relatively serious misconduct”, and that the employer was entitled to have employees take safety regulations seriously. The tribunal also recognized that “the obligations imposed on employers by state occupational health and safety legislation are onerous.” The fact is that New South Wales law is more onerous than any other state, and it would have been potentially illegal for the company not to take action.

Despite all this the tribunal found the sacking to be “harsh”, and ruled that Mr. Quinliven should be reinstated and paid $16000 compensation. The reasons for this had nothing to do with anything that occurred in the workplace, nor with anything over which the employer has any control. The reasons related purely to the employee’s personal circumstances, namely his age, level of education, family and financial commitments, and the high likelihood that he would be unable to find other employment. All these things might be “unfair”, but the employer is not to blame for any of them. In fact, in any kind of common sense world, they amount to a compelling reason for Mr. Quinliven to be less argumentative with his boss in the first place.

Nevertheless, this is the ruling of Fair Work Australia, and although it means that Mr. Quinliven gets a second chance, what does it mean for employers? On the face of it, it appears that it means bosses can do every thing correctly, obey all the relevant laws, comply with safety regulations, and still get penalized. It leaves employers in New South Wales especially with an apparent conflict in choosing between complying with the strictest OH&S laws in the country, or the seemingly nebulous requirements of Fair Work Australia.

I have always supported the need for appropriate protection for workers from unfair treatment. It should be a fundamental right to have an avenue available to seek redress when a person has been sacked for no good reason. But for that right to have any substance, for it to mean anything, it must strike the right balance by offering fairness to the employer as well as the employee. This sort of dubious decision runs the risk of strengthening the argument of those who wish to tear such protections down.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Chook Raffle Would Have Been Better

Four dead, 87 confirmed house fires, an estimated 1000 or more homes with electrified roof spaces, allegations of up to 40% of homes fitted with substandard worthless insulation materials, and $2 450 000 000 of taxpayers money spent so far. That’s the running total for the Federal Government’s home insulation subsidy scheme. Now, on top of that, it has emerged that there are also serious concerns about another government scheme also run by Peter Garrett’s department. The Clean Energy Council has warned that as many as 2000 homes could be at risk of fire as a result of poorly installed roof top solar panels.

At the height of the Global Financial Crisis, it seemed like a great idea to pump money into the economy and create jobs, while at the same time providing a lasting benefit by having a million homes fitted with insulation. It would improve the energy efficiency of those homes, reduce their ongoing energy costs, and improve their property values, while at the same time jobs and the economy would be suitably boosted. It certainly seemed like a good idea at the time. In fact, it still is a good idea. Unfortunately, it has been very badly implemented.

The failure of the government to respond to early warnings about safety, from the industry, from unions, from statutory authorities and from independent experts, represents either arrogance or ignorance, or possibly both. The failure to act swiftly after those safety concerns became reality and workmen began to die is terribly close to negligence. The attempt to pass the buck by blaming irresponsible contractors is a pathetic excuse which insults the people whom they were elected to serve.

It appears that neither Peter Garrett, nor the Prime Minister, really grasps the damage that has been done to the reputation of the Australian Government. Every Australian citizen should be entitled to expect that any program funded and endorsed by our government will meet the appropriate standards, both for safety and for quality. This whole debacle makes them look like a pack of shifty con men who couldn’t organize a chook raffle. In fact, a chook raffle would have been a better idea for boosting the economy because it would have been less likely to burn down anybody’s house.

It really doesn’t matter if Peter Garrett is sacked or not. Either way it won’t bring back the four dead workers, it won’t undo the damage of the 87 house fires, and it won’t undo the damage that has been done to the reputation of the Australian Government.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Mixed Messages

This week has seen the tragic death of a 12 year old schoolboy after being stabbed at his Brisbane School. A 13 year old student has been charged with murder as a result. Another student in Sydney has been charged with assault and being armed with intent to commit an indictable offence. He is 11 years old. In recent years there have been other similar incidents reported. In fact it appears that reports of such events are increasing. According to a report from the New South Wales Department of Education the number of serious incidents reported by school principals has doubled over the five years since 2005.

Everything about this phenomenon is disturbing: the increasing numbers of kids who think it is normal to carry a knife; the earlier age at which they seem to do so; the apparently increasing level of violence involved in such confrontations; the apparently falling level of consideration for the safety and wellbeing of others. The most natural question to ask is “why is this happening?” Answering that question is not simple or easy.

One factor which has been identified is the increasing level of violence displayed on television and in video games. While debate might continue about the link, if any, between virtual and real world violence, there is rising concern that young people are developing a less empathetic nature and a more aggressive attitude. It’s hard to say whether their attitude is influenced by their choice of entertainment, or their choice of entertainment is influenced by their attitude. One view is that people don’t become violent because of TV and games, but already have a predisposition to violence anyway. But even if that is true, doesn’t that mean that the growing popularity of graphically violent entertainment must indicate an awful lot of people who might be harboring such a predisposition?

One expert has come forward to suggest that community concerns about sex and nudity in television have received considerable prominence while violent content has been ignored, and even considered to be normal and acceptable. In the view of psychologist Dr Jan Hall, it is the amount of violence on TV, and not the level of sex, which is the more troubling issue. Dr. Hall is quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald as saying that “Research has shown… that when we watch violence we model from it and are more likely to be violent in our own lives. It also desensitizes us to the impact violence has in real life.”

It’s a complex topic, and one which requires far more examination than can be addressed in this small space, but we know from decades of research that entertainment is not just a reflection of real life, it is also an influence upon it. For that reason, it is not just a matter of whether or not sex and violence is depicted, but also how they are depicted. The obsession with censoring sex scenes from television means that our society is constantly being sent a message that sex is dirty and bad and something to be ashamed of, while at the same time brutal violence is a normal part of life. It is a dangerously twisted message to send.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

It’s Not A Promise, It’s A Threat.

At a time when the Federal Government is gradually losing ground in the opinion polls, Tony Abbott and his colleagues have dropped a clanger. No, it’s not the opposition leader’s remarks about women and their virginity, or even his comments about housewives and the ironing. The frenzy of mock outrage over those minor matters was largely manufactured by the media, because a big chunk of the real Australia holds similar socially conservative views. It really would have been outrageous if he had said the opposite and encouraged girls to shed their virginity at the earliest opportunity. But no, the statements from the opposition which should be ringing alarm bells are the pronouncements on workplace relations policy.

Despite insisting that Work Choices is dead, Tony Abbott and his colleagues have been wheeling out a series of announcements which would seem to indicate otherwise. Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop has called for the removal of the recently reinstated weekend penalty rates. She said, “Bringing back inflexible working conditions such as the weekend penalty rate regime is costing employers more, it is making many workers worse off.” Apparently on her planet, paying people more somehow makes them worse off.

Tony Abbott has spoken about bringing back Australian Workplace Agreements, without any mention of a safety net to guarantee minimum pay or conditions. He said, “The next Coalition Government will ensure that once again employers and employees are able to negotiate their own working arrangements where they genuinely agree.” Of course the whole problem is that the contracts offered under Work Choices were neither negotiated nor were they “genuinely agreed”. Instead, they amounted to “take-it-or-leave-it” ultimatums. Individual contracts were not individual either. They were in fact cookie cutter documents pushed upon powerless employees whose only choice was to sign on the dotted line or lose their jobs.

The Opposition Leader has also pledged to once again remove unfair dismissal laws, which he says are an imposition upon small business. What he is really saying is that in his world it should be legal for an employer to treat an employee unfairly, and for the employee to have no recourse. What he is really saying is it should be OK to fire people for no particular reason at all. What he is really saying is that if he should become Prime Minister he will bring back all the features of Work Choices except the name itself.

For many low income workers, that’s not a promise, that’s a threat.

Monday, February 15, 2010

“Creepy Crawlies” Appear To Be More Important Than Roof Safety

Some of the criticisms of Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett have been a little excessive. To suggest, as Tony Abbott did last week, that the Minister should confront charges of industrial manslaughter is extreme. But there is no doubt that he has been responsible for administering a scheme which has resulted in four tragic deaths, more than 80 house fires, and potentially a thousand or more homes with dangerously electrified roof spaces. There is no doubt that concerns about safety were raised as much as a year ago. There is no doubt that not enough was done to keep the shonks and the cowboys away from the government funded cash bonanza. There is no doubt that there are valid questions to be answered about the competency of the Minister.

Of course the Minister is perfectly right to insist that he cannot be held personally accountable for the actions of dodgy contractors who have not met safety standards. But that is not the issue. The issue is that in the face of repeated warnings about those dodgy operators the Minister, and his government, pressed on full steam ahead and now seem perplexed that they have run the ship into an iceberg. The issue is that even now, after four tragic deaths which should never have occurred, the Minister is trying to give the impression that it is all business as usual, which is an insult to those who have expressed their concerns and to those who have died. He just doesn’t appear to be taking this matter seriously.

Instead of attending a meeting in Canberra today with various stakeholders such as the Master Electricians of Australia, the Queensland Electrical Safety Office, industry groups and unions to discuss safety standards, the Minister is launching a biodiversity research project near Coffs Harbour. While researching what his own office has referred to as “creepy crawlies” in the forest may well be of great importance, and while his attendance at what has been described as a “technical” meeting may not be important in a practical sense, it is an enormous miscalculation in the political sense. It makes him look like he refuses to accept any responsibility, it makes him look like “creepy crawlies” are more important to him than roof safety, and it makes him look like he just doesn’t care.

In politics, it is not only important to take action, it is important to be seen to take action. Unfortunately, this government is rapidly developing a reputation for being all talk, and very little action. Peter Garrett’s handling of this present dilemma is only adding to that reputation.