Transcript: Marama Fox and Jeff Sissons

  • 22/08/2015
Transcript: Marama Fox and Jeff Sissons

Lisa Owen: Welcome back. It started as a push for safer workplaces after the Pike River disaster, but is now bogged down by worm farms and mini golf. Under the Government's proposed Health and Safety bill, most farms won't be considered high-risk, but curtain installing and cat breeding apparently will be. It matters because risky industries have to have health and safety representatives if workers ask. Well, Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox is supporting the legislation, and she's in the studio now along with Jeff Sissons, who's the General Counsel for the Council of Trade Unions. Good morning to you both.

Marama Fox: Morning.

Jeff Sissons: Morning.

If I can come to you first, Mrs Fox, you were claiming credit for this law a couple of days ago. Now it's become a laughing stock. Why are you still supporting it?

Fox: We're not claiming credit for the law. We're claiming credit for the changes that we've been able to get through; changes that people thought would not get through, had no faith that the government would release the list of high-risk industries, had no faith that the government would do something about work groups and the structure of those. And so, actually, we've worked really, really hard to try and fight on behalf of the worker, because we care for workers. And the myth that we don't is an absolute myth.

Did you drill down into that list of high-risk occupations, though?

Fox: Absolutely. Absolutely. So, I'm disappointed, because the conversation—

So you knew that worm farmers were covered, but farmers were not?

Fox: Well, the conversation that I had with the Minister was around agriculture. So we're happy to see mining, we're happy to see forestry; those things are important. And so when I spoke to him, he said that agriculture won't all be covered, but if you work with livestock, it would be. So I'm disappointed that there's not dairy and those things in there, but we do have a commitment that there will be further consultation on this list. So I'm going to be making sure that this government lives up to those commitments that they've given us.

What exactly— when you say it's open for consultation, what exactly are the commitments that you're wanting to live up to?

Fox: Agriculture. I do not understand that you cannot have sheep farming, dairy farming, beef farming, cattle farming included in this. I don't understand that, and that is something that we would like to see strengthened up. I am grateful that we do have a list, because we weren't going to get one, and condition of our support was on seeing what that list was.

Jeff Sissons, the Maori Party saying there that this is strides forward; this is a better law than what we've got. They're right, isn't it? It's better.

Sissons: New Zealand has one of the worst health and safety records compared to comparable countries. We have twice as many fatalities as Australia; we've got more than three times as many as the UK. We're starting from a really low base here, and I think that we will see some tiny gains from this law, but as it was introduced, we would've got some real change. The Government's promised us a limousine, and they've given us a Skoda.

Do you think it's going to be too intimidating? Because the people are going to have to ask for a health and safety rep if they're in high-risk, or 20 or more workers, they can ask for this. But do you think in some situations that it would be too intimidating to get that rep in the workplace?

Sissons: I think that's probably right, because it's really important to realise that this exclusion of low-risk industries is a step back. Under current law, if workers ask for a health and safety rep, then they can have a health and safety rep. But what we've seen in lots of the worst, most risky industries is that that those health and safety reps aren't there, and I think that is partly about employer intimidation.

Mrs Fox, there we have it — the most disempowered, they're the ones who are going to miss out. They're the people that you want to do the right thing for, though.

Fox: Exactly, and those were our concerns. And so when we took those—

But you're still voting for it.

Fox: But when we took those to the Minister, our concerns about being able to one, ask for health and safety rep, two, be able to structure the work group that your health and safety rep will be assigned to, we were given some assurances. So if you are unfairly treated because you've asked for a health and safety rep or you disagree with your employer, you can go to WorkSafe and be backed up about that. You cannot be — be law, under this law — penalised for asking for health and safety for ensuring that you are safe. And so if employers are acting that way, then they can be held to account. Now, I asked Jeff the other night — I wanted to know, 'Do you think that this piece of legislation is a better piece of legislation than what is currently there?' Because under the current law, we have had all of these deaths, all of these injuries, and that has not helped our workers. This law, I feel, is a better law. It's not the best that we can do, and Jeff, you're response to me was that it's like the three-legged stool. We've strengthened this leg around the state, we've straightened this leg around the employer, but we may have weakened this leg around the worker. But as a total, you told me that you feel it could be a stronger law.

Sissons: And let's talk about the three-legged stool, because I think that's really important. So, all of the best health and safety laws have a balance between the workers, the employers and the government as a regulator, and countries that do health and safety much better than us, they respect the right of workers to insist on good health and safety. And what this law does is makes it so that employers have the call as to the health and safety systems. This law is fundamentally disempowering of workers in terms of how they set up health and safety systems. Normally, evidence shows that that's going to lead to worse outcomes. It's going to lead to more deaths, and it's going to lead to more injuries.

But Mrs Fox, I just want to step in here, because you've said this is an improvement. But at the same time, you've still got more than 100 deaths in the last five years in the farming industry, and I know you want change, but it doesn't seem like you're going to get farms on that list. Have you prepared to wear that? To turn a blind eye to those hundred families who don't have their family member?

Fox: See, I don't think that I'm turning a blind eye, because I could vote against it. I could turn around tomorrow and vote against this law, and it will still get through. It will still go, because they have the numbers, and so we put that on balance about whether or not we vote for it, and how can we get better gains? And we get better gains by fronting the minister, looking him in the eye and saying, 'Minister, we don't think this is good enough.' And I agree with Jeff — we need to protect our workers. So I've been given assurances that in this legislation and as it reads, there must be worker engagement. Our SOP helped strengthen that worker engagement.

But do you really think this is a good law, or are you just being pragmatic and taking what you can get?

Fox: I think it is about pragmatism. I think it's a better law than the current one. I don't think it goes far enough. I do believe that the Government have cut back on some of the things that need to be there, and so we've pushed them on that. We've been able to get a couple of concessions from them, which I think are major concessions, and that's why we're supporting it through, because it's actually better than what's currently there.

Jeff, I just want to bring you in here. Helen Kelly is actually tweeting at the moment that the CTU will try for a judicial review if farming is excluded at the end of the day.

Sissons: That's right, because the law says that high-risk industries will have health and safety reps. So we think that any regulations that exclude agriculture are excluding some really crucial high-risk industries. Almost a quarter of workers on farms, according to the latest ACC statistics, make a claim every year for workplace injuries. And I was reading an Otago study that said only a third of workers on farms who are injured claim to ACC. Farming is a high-risk industry, and I think law that doesn't include it is making a mockery of the term high-risk.

I think you both accept that farming is a high-risk industry. It's not on the list here, though. But in terms of practicalities, I was just speaking to a farmer yesterday who said, 'There's three people on this farm — the farmer, the farmer's wife and another person.' And so do you think they should really have a health and safety rep? That's bureaucratic overkill, isn't it?

Sissons: I think that Andrew made a good point in the earlier story, which is that a health and safety rep is there if the workers ask for them. And a worker is going to ask for them when there's a big problem. And we know that small businesses are less safe than large businesses. And a health and safety rep gets trained in health and safety, so it's a way to get knowledge into some of the businesses which need health and safety knowledge the most.

Fox: What the law also says, as it currently stands, that everybody must be engaged— you still have to have health and safety standards. If you've got a place of three people, your health and safety rep will be your employer, surely. And you have to have health and safety standards. They can't get away with doing nothing. That's not what this law says. It doesn't say have a health and safety rep or nothing. It says you must have health and safety regulations, you must have standards, but if you're in a small business and there's only you and a couple of people, that person may be the employer and we do this together. But in high-risk industries — and I agree — it should be standard.

So, Jeff, there's no blanket exemption here.

Sissons: Marama's using an argument that the minister uses quite a lot, where he says that there's a need for worker engagement in all businesses. Now, there's a need under the current law for worker participation in all businesses, but that's a law that's never been enforced by WorkSafe. This is the system that is failing us, so there's nothing new in there.

The minister is saying cajole farmers into making changes.

Fox: No, well, I agree about the WorkSafe thing, and this is the conversation that I've had with the minister. And part of the communication that we've had to try and strengthen this up is — how do workers know? How does WorkSafe become an advocate for health and safety rather than that person at the end of a tragedy or at the end of an accident who comes and investigates? How do they become proactive to assist workers to get the best out of their health and safety? And that's what we're going to be asking them to do, to ensure that they aren't just the big stick at the end of the line, but actually be proactive, get into those small industries — and all industries — and assist workers to establish good, strong health and safety practices.

Sissons: WorkSafe needs to do both. It needs to be the stick and the carrot. But the government has underfunded WorkSafe. Ernst & Young said it should be 100 million.

We're out of time, so let's leave it there. But before we go — 20 seconds, Marama. What do you think of Tainui's claim in respect of Auckland? Is this all about the Government taking surplus land for housing?

Fox: I do think it's in response to Government taking away the land for surplus housing. And there's something that the government needs to fundamentally understand, that Maori have been dispossessed of land; Maori have had that stripped away for a whole lot of dubious reasons. And if at any time land becomes 'available', then they will always put their hand up, no matter what their Treaty claim has said, because they see it as an opportunity to be able to get something back of what has been taken, and also to participate in providing social housing for their own people. That's what they're asking for. And I do think that this claim by Tainui is partially in a response to that, and I think the Government needs to get it right here.

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