Unions fight back in Western Australia
The trade union movement is on the move in Western Australia. Unions are involved in a number of important struggles and face a number of serious issues. Workers' compensation, wages, collective agreements and individual work contracts, the importation of overseas labour, unemployment, occupational health and safety, industrial relations legislation and relations with the WA State Labor Government are among the issues mentioned by Stephanie Mayman, Secretary of Unions WA when she recently spoke The Guardian editor Anna Pha in Perth. Last week construction workers took strike action and this week are to hold a rally and march on the issue of workplace safety. In the public sector workers are seeking wage rises — teachers are striking this week, the police union has imposed work bans. Cleaners in public schools are fighting to retain their jobs as the State Labor Government plans to use contract cleaners. Stephanie Mayman listed workers' compensation as one of the main "hot issues" with the government. She explained that the previous Liberal Government of Richard Court had "turned the clock back about 80 years" undermining statutory benefits and common law access for workers. "We keep hearing that these issues will be addressed and that there is legislation being drafted but they've almost forgotten how to spell workers' comp. But individual workers haven't", said Ms Mayman. Workplace safety She said that the fines for employers who breach the safety laws are "horrendously low". Two weeks ago Transfield was found negligent and fined $50,000, the biggest fine previous to that was $35,000. The case, which relates to the death of Joe Guliardo, is going to be appealed by Transfield. Joe, aged 37, was killed in September 2000 at the Acacia prison, the first privately run prison in the State. The widow cannot claim for compensation for the family until the appeal is over. She has already waited three years and could wait as many more again before receiving compensation. It seems the company, now owned by transnational John Holland, is prepared to spend more than the $50,000 fine dragging out the case and delaying any semblance of justice for the family — not that compensation can replace the life of a family member. This callous disregard for the widow and family of a worker adds to the anger of construction workers who are pressing the government to take action over safety and compensation. The Construction division of the CFMEU has been campaigning for more than a year to get more work safe inspectors to prevent fatalities. This year the number of deaths in the industry in WA has reached 10 compared to 23 same time last year. The Government publicly said that it was an acceptable number given that it has been a smaller number of deaths this year. As far as the workers are concerned this is not acceptable, it is 10 too many. The CFMEU held a 24- hour strike last Monday over the safety issue and will call for a rally to involve the community this week. Last week's strike affected more than 50 construction sites around Perth and involved some 4000 construction workers. The Labor Party came to office "on the basis that it would amend the workers' compensation legislation to return benefits to workers that had been removed from them in the last decade", Ms Mayman said. Still waiting for action The Government announced that it would amend the legislation to enshrine: * A maximum fine under the Act of half a million dollars from $200,000. * That where an employer or corporate director commits a significant breach of the Act causing injury or death there is to be a jail term; * That health and safety reps will have the right to issue provisional notices and that the Government will set up an occupational health and safety tribunal. Stephanie Mayman pointed out that WA is now in the third year [of the Labor Government] and asks, "Where is it all? Where's the reform?" "With the Government as an employer there is extreme dissatisfaction. With the Government as a policy maker there is also significant dissatisfaction given all the delays that are occurring in their alleged policy reform." Public sector wages WA's public sector workers are also campaigning on the question of wages. They include the police, teachers, fire fighters, nurses and other health workers. Teachers in WA are to join teachers in NSW and Victoria this week in the first national strike of teachers called by the combined teacher unions. "We've got industrial action happening with the police at the moment and the teachers have also taken a decision in relation to action this month", said Ms Mayman. State Governments have done a deal to limit any wage increase to public sector workers to three percent per year. Foreign workers Another issue is the importation of workers from Korea and other Asian countries "paid at below award wages and kept in despicable conditions", said Stephanie Mayman. "The latest was a group of Korean welders that were brought in under the pretence of being needed. So that is a difficult issue that we are trying to confront at the moment." The Industrial Relations Commission has made a decision to establish a foreign standard rate of pay. Asked about the policy of Unions WA about foreign labour, she said, "We are absolutely opposed to it. We are currently in discussions in relation to it. [Liberal Immigration Minister Phil] Ruddock's line is shocking." "What there is in this country is a skills shortage that is not being addressed by the vocational education training system. We've got a crisis in TAFE. The average age of a lecturer in TAFE is 55 years, so we are losing valuable skills. We haven't got enough trainers now let alone what happens when these lecturers retire or resign", explained Ms Mayman. On unemployment she said that with young people it is "shocking", with Indigenous people it is "terrible". She said that the unemployment figures are irrelevant. "If you work for an hour a week then you're employed. They claim that [WA] has the lowest unemployment rates in the country. It's a claim that means nothing because there is unemployment out there." In answer to a question about privatisation, Ms Mayman said that the "Labor Government hasn't privatised anything. They are very clear on their commitment about that."