Union News

October 27: VTHC HSR Conference

The registrations keep coming in: there are now over 1200 people who have registered to attend our 2020 VTHC OHS Conference on October 27th 2020. We invite HSRs and DHSRs to register now, remembering that HSRs are entitled to a day's leave with pay if they register and inform their employer at least 14 days in advance.  

Remember that this year, the theme is Risks to Psychological Health, and it’s being held entirely online. Read more about the conference on this page of the website. 

With uncertainty regarding restrictions in Melbourne and across Victoria due to COVID-19, this year the conference is going to be held entirely online - but it's still going to be a great experience.

We’ll be mailing everyone out everyone a parcel with everything you’ll need to make the day a success - so make sure you register well in advance so there’s plenty of time for yours to arrive. Find all the details and register here

Coronavirus (COVID-19) -  update  

According to the latest official figures, there are 26,957 cases of coronavirus disease diagnosed in Australia - just 179 more than last week. After almost six weeks under Stage 4 restrictions, the numbers are steadily decreasing in Victoria, with only 15 diagnosed yesterday. The total number of COVID deaths is 859. Read more on the Victorian situation here.

The international situation continues to be extremely concerning, with many countries now clearly in a 'second wave': the cumulative number of infections is 31,765,063. Last Wednesday it was 29,715,706this is over 2 million more infections in just one week. There have now been 974,611 deaths around the world. The USA has now had over 7 million cases, and over 205,000 fatalities. 

Many countries in Europe are now clearly in the grip of 'second wave' infections. Spain and France have already been mentioned, and the UK government has now decided to re-introduce restrictions as the numbers of new infections continue to soar. The announcement comes after Prime Minister Johnson, who had been resisting a 'lockdown', admitted that Britain was at a "perilous turning point" and had to act now. The new restrictions, which involve wearing masks in public, reducing the size of public gatherings, urging people to work from home, and limiting hours restaurants and pubs can open, will be in place for six months. However many predict that stricter restrictions will be needed to control the second wave. Read more: ABC online 
For more information on Coronavirus and COVID-19, go to this page on our site. 

Ask Renata  

Hi Renata 

I'm in Melbourne and work at a retail establishment that has a 'click and collect' service for customers. Lately, it has been my duty to stand in the carpark as a 'lollipop man'. The only protective equipment I have been given is a high-visibility vest and a slow/stop sign. I have not received any training for this particular job, nor hold any traffic controller qualifications/permits. I was almost hit by a car yesterday performing this role. Is my employer allowed to make me do this or can I refuse?

While you don't need to have qualifications/permits to do this task, your employer is in breach of their duties under the OHS Act by just plonking you there are not giving you training, and not having an adequate traffic management plan in place to eliminate or at least minimise the risk to you and other workers. Under s21 of the Act, your employer has a duty to provide and maintain a working environment that, so far as is reasonably practicable, safe and without risks to health. This includes ensuring there are safe systems of work in place, and also provide employees with as much information, instruction, supervision and training as they need. 

So your employer should have, in consultation with any elected HSRs - if no HSRs then with affected employees - identified any hazards and risks and then taken actions to eliminate or to minimise these risks - something they did not do, obviously, if you were almost run over. Now that this has happened, the employer needs to implement controls and a traffic management system - for example with separate and special lanes marked out and barriers in place. There may need to be more workers placed outside, but it's important to ensure that any worker is separated from traffic.

With regards to whether you have the right to refuse to do this job - legally you do. Under both common law and under the Fair Work Act, workers can refuse to do anything which puts their health or safety at risk - especially if it's an immediate risk. This is difficult to do, however, as many workers will feel pressured by their employers to do the job, particularly if they are employed as casuals. 

Please remember: if you have any OHS related queries, then send them in via our Ask Renata facility on the website. 

Attention Gig workers: what changes do you want to see?

Back in July, a major report into the gig economy was handed down and the Dan Andrews State government is now willing to take action to better regulate gig platforms. After years of workers bravely speaking out, this a huge opportunity to finally fix the wage violations, dodgy employment arrangements, and unsafe working conditions plaguing the gig economy in Victoria. 

There isn’t much time  before the State Government decides what recommendations it plans to pursue, and it is crucial to ensure that those changes are in line with what affected workers want. So the VTHC’s Young Workers Centre has released a Gig Economy Survey for any worker who currently or has previously used online apps and platforms to find work; from transport and delivery platforms like Uber and Deliveroo, to health and caring work on platforms like Mable and Care.com, to ‘odd jobs’ platforms like Airtasker.

If that’s you - fill in the survey to tell the government how you want your working life to be improved, and together the VTHC will fight to make sure it happens.

Asbestos news  

ACT: Almost 70 public schools contaminated by lead or asbestos

ACT Education Minister Yvette Berry has revealed that there were 69 Canberra schools built before 1985 that had been identified as containing either asbestos or lead. However, not all of the 69 schools will have the hazardous materials removed now. Although ACT Labor pledged a $15 million fund to clean schools up in the past election, Ms Berry said the money would go towards the schools with the most urgent need of removal. However, each school that had hazardous materials on site had management plans in place. "None of the materials are unsafe if they are managed appropriately, and the Education Directorate has managed them appropriately based on expert advice," Ms Berry said. Source: The Canberra Times

NSW: Major developer charged just $563 after allegedly dumping tonnes of asbestos-contaminated waste

Major property developer, Maas Group Properties, has been penalised just $563 as an “administration fee” after being accused of dumping tonnes of asbestos-contaminated building waste at a site it was developing in Dubbo.

The incident, allegedly involving tonnes of building waste from Sydney being dumped at the newly developed Southlakes housing estate illustrates the difficulties of enforcement of the environmental laws.  In April the New South Wales Environment Protection Authority issued Maas Group a cleanup notice – to which they complied. The decision by the EPA not to prosecute has puzzled local EPA staff and some members of Dubbo regional council. Read more: The Guardian

More information on Asbestos: In the workplace and In the Home

International union news

UK: Weak labour law linked to high Covid death rates

The “lamentable” state of workplace rights in Britain is directly responsible for the devastating impact of Covid-19, a TUC Congress fringe meeting has heard. Professor Keith Ewing told the Institute of Employment Rights (IER) meeting: “It is no coincidence that we have one of the worst health outcomes in the developed world and one of the most highly deregulated labour law systems.”  He said that coronavirus had exposed the failure of government to guarantee secure incomes, safe working or even the inspection and enforcement of the rights that do exist.

TUC senior policy officer Janet Williamson pointed to the super-exploitation of the “key workers” who kept the country running at the height of lockdown. She noted that “80 per cent of key workers are paid less than £10 (AD$17.70) an hour, two-thirds are women. Black workers are literally dying on the job with significantly higher mortality - in part due to poor working conditions.” CWU general secretary Dave Ward said the record of trade unions in defending workers’ safety and jobs this year showed they “don’t have to wait for legislation” to act. “If we can organise in sectors of the economy where unions are strong, working together we can build that into a mass mobilisation of workers,” he said.
Read more: IER commentMorning Star. Source: Risks 965

UK: NHS staff forced off work due to testing shortages

According to hospital bosses, lack of coronavirus tests for NHS staff is leading to staff absences and services being put at risk. NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts in England, said staff are having to self-isolate rather than work because they could not get tests for themselves or family members. The government's testing system - part of its test, track and trace operation which prime minister Boris Johnson promised would be "world-beating" - has faced criticism in recent weeks. An increase in demand for coronavirus tests has led to local shortages - with some people being directed to test sites hundreds of miles from their homes. NHS Providers said hospitals in London, Bristol and Leeds had raised concerns about staff absences because of a lack of testing. Read more: NHS Providers news release. NHS Confederation news release. BBC News Online. Source: Risks 965

DR Congo: At least 50 killed DRC gold mine collapse

At least 50 people are believed to have been killed when an artisanal gold mine collapsed near Kamituga in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The cave-in occurred on the Detroit mine site on 11 September following heavy rains, said Emiliane Itongwa, president of the Initiative of Support and Social Supervision of Women. “Several miners were in the shaft, which was covered and no one could get out. We are talking about 50 young people,” Itongwa said. Photos on social media showed hundreds of people gathered on a hillside around the mine-shaft entrance. The mine was not located on the Kamituga gold concession owned by Canadian miner Banro Corporation, the company’s chief executive said. Mining incidents are common in unregulated artisanal mines in Congo, with dozens of deaths every year in mines where often ill-equipped miners burrow deep underground. A landslide at a disused gold mine killed 16 in October last year, while 43 clandestine miners died in another landslide at a copper and cobalt mine in June 2019. In 2016, Amnesty International warned that children as young as seven were working in perilous conditions in the DRC to mine the cobalt that ends up in smartphones, cars and computers sold by big name brands. Read more: Aljazeera. The Guardian. Source: Risks 965

USA: Worker safety abandoned under Trump

An editorial board statement in the New York Times has expressed dismay at the the Trump administration's lack of protection for US workers. “Even as the dangers and virulence of the coronavirus have become more glaring, infecting 6.5 million Americans and killing nearly 200,000, the nation’s top worker protection arm has been asleep at the wheel.”

“The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued only guidelines, rather than establish enforceable rules, for businesses that rushed to reopen when they were deemed essential early in the pandemic, putting hundreds of thousands of employees in workplaces where the virus could easily spread. Now, after six months of near silence on the issue, OSHA has begun issuing fines for the meatpacking industry, which is responsible for some of the nation’s largest coronavirus outbreaks. But if the agency’s first major actions are meant to chasten corporate America, executives aren’t likely to get the message.”

Smithfield Foods, which was forced to close one of its plants in April to contain an outbreak that killed four workers and infected about 1,300, was fined only US$13,494 – the company last year took in US$13.2 billion in sales. It plans to contest this tiny penalty. The editorial board noted that the problem stems from the Trump administration’s determination to protect commerce, not workers. “Amid a growing number of reports of coronavirus outbreaks at meat processors, Mr Trump in April ordered the plants to remain open,” it noted. On 12 September, OHSA fined another multibillion-dollar company, JBS Foods, US$15,615 for Covid-19 infections at its Colorado plant that led to eight worker deaths and over 200 infections.

Marc Perrone, president of the US foodworkers’ union UFCW, said: “The failure of the federal government to protect American workers and our nation’s food supply has reached new lows. With this latest ‘so-called fine,’ OSHA and the Department of Labor prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they do not care about holding irresponsible corporations accountable for the lives lost or worker safety.” JBS said it would contest the fine. 
Read more: New York Times. OSHA news release. UFCW news release on the Smithfield Foods and JBS fines. Source: Risks 965

Ukraine: Miners protest on wages and safety  

On 3 September, miners at Zhovtnev mine owned by Ukrainian Kryvyi Rih Iron Ore Plant (KZRK), started an underground protest, demanding a wage increase and an end to workplace safety assessment breaches, improved working conditions and pension preferences due to difficult working conditions. The protests spread to three other mines, Gvardiiska, Ternivska and Batkivshchyna, including almost 400 miners. Since 18 September, 170 protesting miners still remain underground. The protesters' health is deteriorating due to the unhealthy environment. Family members have held solidarity protests in Kryyi Rih and Kyiv, and there are reports on the pressure put on the miners and members of their families. To support the miners, go to the LabourStart page, here.


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