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Issue #1443      17 February 2010


A dangerous, fast buck program

The Rudd government denies responsibility and Abbott’s Opposition has turned the tragic deaths of four young workers into a political football. The workers were installing home insulation under the government’s stimulus package when they lost their lives. The intent of the two-year insulation program was to generate jobs and conserve energy. As worthy as its aims might be, the program’s implementation was nothing short of criminal on the part of unscrupulous employers and governments alike. In addition to the deaths, at least one resident has suffered an electric shock and is lucky to be alive and there have been a number of house fires reported.

The home insulation scheme became a multi-billion dollar rort for the private sector. Fly-by-night operators sprung up everywhere, recruiting workers with little or no training or experience. Just stick the insulation in the ceiling and move on to the next home, they were told. There are reports of workers being paid cash-in-hand, no superannuation, no workers’ compensation or other entitlements. A fast buck program if ever there was one. It was not hard to get on the government’s approved list for the $1,200 rebate. The government did not prepare for or police the exponential growth in the industry, let alone inspect their work.

The government now admits that it received the first of many warnings from industry experts and trade unions about safety issues 12 months ago. It did nothing. It took the fourth death before it was forced to put the program on hold and talk about inspecting work that had been done. It was told that foil insulation is inherently unsafe, that metal staples were dangerous. The Queensland government eventually, to its credit, banned them, but that did not stop their use. Live electric wires touching foil insulation creates live ceilings and risk of fire. Coating around wires can perish or be chewed by rats. There are dangers associated with other insulation products such as fibres, high temperatures in hot weather, etc.

“It’s people actually breaching the guidelines as installers, not properly following the rules and regulations that we’ve put in place, and exposing their employees, in some cases, to a terrible risk and death,” said Environment Minister Peter Garrett shrugging off any responsibility.

Yes, it was employers who exposed their employees to dangerous conditions. Garrett, Workplace Relations Minister Julia Gillard and other government members have a responsibility to ensure employers do not expose their employees to such terrible risks. It is no secret that employers left to their own devices chasing maximum profits put workers’ health and safety risk. That goes without saying under capitalism. That is why we need, not just rules and regulations, or legislation, but government action to enforce them and strong penalties for breaches.

The enforcement measures are just not there at the federal or state level. Whenever there is an attempt to legislate for heavy penalties for employers who cause death and injury, the likes of Tony Abbott are the first to oppose them. The only inspectorate that regularly checks out workplaces is the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), now operating under the Fair Work Australia umbrella. But its role is not to make workplaces safe or fine employers for breaches of rules and regulations. Its $32 million annual budget is directed to shutting trade unions out of workplaces and fining unions and workers who take action to protect workplace health and safety. The only force genuinely attempting to inspect and enforce health and safety in the workplace is the trade union movement.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott shamelessly and hypocritically fires shots at Peter Garrett and the stimulus package, ignoring the contribution of employers and the former Howard Coalition government in which he was a Minister. The Coalition brought in the ABCC, which has overseen an increase in workplace deaths and injuries. It abolished the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission in 2005, replacing it with a toothless committee, now called Safe Work Australia. The Coalition’s WorkChoices subjected trade unions and workers to huge fines for industrial action over safety issues. Labor, despite its election promises, has not changed this.

Australian workers are paying a high price, some the highest price of all, for labour market deregulation. State and federal governments have a responsibility to provide trained and qualified inspectors in sufficient numbers to not only properly police the insulation program, but all workplaces. They also have a responsibility to put in place and enforce tough laws that treat employer breaches as criminal offences, including the offence of industrial manslaughter, carrying jail sentences. Only then will employers take occupational health and safety seriously. 

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