WorkCover inspectors are being told to restrict union officials from investigating safety complaints amid claims of escalating political interference in the regulator.
Briefing documents given to WorkCover safety inspectors last week said they must follow new Napthine government guidelines restricting union officials’ ability to act on site safety issues.
The documents, obtained by Fairfax Media, order inspectors to block health and safety experts from work sites if they are union officials and do not hold a federal right-of-entry permit despite Victorian safety laws allowing anyone – including union officials – to be invited on site to deal with reported safety breaches.
Industrial law expert Andrew Stewart said if Victoria wanted to make it harder for unionists to access a site it should amend its occupational health and safety laws , as Queensland had done, rather than release “guidelines”. Professor Stewart, of Adelaide University, said provisions of state and federal laws overlapped.
“If the Victorian government thinks the right of entry should be narrower, then what they should do is put that up in legislation … and convince the member for Frankston [Geoff Shaw] it’s a good idea.”
A number of senior officials in the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union do not have federal entry permits, but CFMEU safety co-ordinator Gerry Ayres said there was no clear legal reason that site safety representatives could not invite union officials to deal with safety issues.
“It’s clear from this directive that pressure is being put on [WorkCover] to deliver political outcomes for the Napthine government,” Mr Ayres said.
A WorkCover employee of more than 15 years said: “This is the most politically involved we have ever seen the place”.
The employee said staff were also up in arms over the decision to scrap the recognised brand name of ‘WorkSafe’ and this month replace it with WorkCover, believing it reflected a “noticeable change” of the regulator becoming less hostile to businesses.
It follows accusations that the Victorian government has overseen other changes at WorkCover, including a decision to pull two TV safety ads, a freeze on press releases publicising prosecutions against companies convicted of safety breaches and organisational restructures that have led to large-scale staff turnover.
The government has also been highly critical of building unions, particularly the powerful Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union, condemning it for “rogue” and “totally inappropriate behaviour”. Government MPs have repeatedly drawn attention to factional links between Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews and the CFMEU. Its criticism has been fuelled by evidence at the royal commission into trade unions accusing CFMEU officials of making illegal threats, intimidation and abuse to control work sites.
A government spokesman said on Thursday it was critical for WorkCover to provide “clear and consistent advice” to its staff about how to act within overlapping federal and state laws governing a union official’s right of entry.
The spokesman also defended changing the agency’s name from WorkSafe to the Victorian WorkCover Authority, saying it “appropriately reflects the breadth of the organisation, which is responsible for providing workplace insurance, compensation and rehabilitation, return to work support, as well as overseeing workplace safety”.
A WorkCover spokeswoman said it was appropriate for management to update staff on policy matters to ensure consistency with other government agencies.
Professor Stewart said the CFMEU and the state government were both trying to stretch regulatory limits surrounding union access to work sites.
“What the Victorian government is doing is trying to achieve executively what they might not be able to do legislatively by releasing guidelines … while at the same time it sounds like the union is trying to make an argument that particular union officials or delegates are not always acting in their capacity as union officials so as to avoid regulatory requirements,” he said.
Opposition WorkCover spokesman Robin Scott said the Liberal government had a track record of undermining the state’s workplace safety regulator.
“Workplace safety must never be subverted by political agendas,” he said.
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