New Zealand: Health and safety reform bill passes, amid division over worker representation

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Controversial health and safety legislation, which does does not classify farms as high risk, has passed in Parliament.

The Government claims the changes will address New Zealand's workplace safety standards, while Labour claims a watering down of the legislation will lead to additional deaths.

Five pieces of legislation which have been debated as the Health and Safety Reform Bill, completed its third and final reading in Parliament this afternoon.

The legislation passed by 63 votes to 59, with National, the Maori Party, ACT and UnitedFuture supporting the legislation, while Labour, the Green Party and NZ First opposed it.

In the early stages of the bill, prompted following a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Pike River Mine Tragedy, there was widespread support across Parliament.

However changes following the select committee process, and changes brought in as a result of an internal debate within National, broke the consensus.

The major dividing issue was around requirements for health and safety representatives in small businesses, with fewer than 20 employees.

Changes announced in August meant small businesses in industries not defined as "high risk" would not have a requirement to offer health and safety representation where requested.

Although agriculture is responsible for a large proportion of workplace deaths and serious injuries, dairy farming and sheep and cattle farming both escape being defined as high risk. Initially at least worm farming and minigolf were defined as high risk, while explosive laying was not.

Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Woodhouse said the legislation marked a "major step in addressing New Zealand's unacceptable workplace death and injury toll", and the first significant reform in 20 years.

"It delivers a system that strikes the right balance between safe workplaces for workers and unnecessary red tape on businesses," Woodhouse said in a statement.

"Under the new law, the duty for all businesses, regardless of size and risk level, to have effective worker engagement and participation practices has been strengthened. However there will be some flexibility in how a business can choose to do this, to suit their size and need."

But Labour's Iain Less- Galloway said stronger legislation would have saved more lives.

"Deaths that could have been prevented by a more robust piece of legislation could well occur because of weakening of the legislation," Lees Galloway said.

"Health and safety representation is one of the most effective ways to improve health and safety in the workplace" and the Royal Commission into the Pike River Tragedy had recommended that representation should be required where employees requested it, Lees-Galloway said.

Labour claimed that the figures which defined what was high risk were set at a level to deliberately exclude farming. Lees-Galloway said that another five serious injuries in dairy farming would have seen it cross the 25 serious injuries per 1000 workers which defined a 'high risk' industry.

"I think this is a direct result of a revolt within the National Party caucus who have been deeply divided over this for some time."

The Council of Trade Unions (CTU) said the bill was a "failed opportunity" which would add to the unnecessary deaths in New Zealand workplaces.

"When the Bill was introduced, it had the support of all political parties, workers and business," CTU general counsel Jeff Sissons said.

"It was a foundation to rebuild New Zealand's broken health and safety system. Sadly, the Government lost its nerve in select committee and the bill came back bearing dozens of cuts and compromises to appease National's backers. The law will be less effective and more workers will die and be hurt as a result."

SOURCE: Stuff.com.nz, 27/08/2015, http://www.stuff.co.nz/business/farming/71522468/health-and-safety-refor...