SPEECH TO THE NATIONAL DAY OF MOURNING CEREMONY
NATIONAL WORKERS MEMORIAL, CANBERRA
I acknowledge that we are meeting on the land of the Ngunnawal people, and pay respect to their elders past and present. On a beautiful, clear Canberra morning like today, you can really tell that they were on to something in making this land their home.
Thank you to the CFMEU for organising today’s ceremony and inviting me to share in today’s commemorations.
It wouldn’t be news to anyone here that the CFMEU has a reputation for toughness. You would also know that this toughness and willingness to take a stand is directed to the best possible end: protecting workers’ rights, their safety at work, and ultimately their lives.
These aren’t things that our community should compromise on, no matter how much some of those in the parliament may want us to. Thank you for always holding the line.
On this date each year we come together to reflect on all the lives that have been lost at work, and the lives changed forever because of injuries sustained on the job.
We pause to think about the fathers and husbands, the sons and mates, the daughters and wives who went to work and did not come home.
One loss of life at work is too many. One broken limb or blinded eye is too many. Sadly, more than 40 Australians have already been killed in workplace accidents this year alone. Hundreds more have sustained serious injuries.
So many of you here today know someone that has been affected by a workplace tragedy. We mourn your loss and stand beside you in your grief. We also share your anger at deaths and injuries which should never have happened.
All workplace deaths are preventable.
It is of vital importance that government, unions and employers acknowledge this fact and work together to stamp out unsafe practices, minimise risks and send workers home safely. Every worker, every day.
When this site was planned, it included a Voluntary Honour Roll linked with the memorial. This is a public record where families and friends can pay a simple tribute to loved ones who have died in workplace incidents.
Their stories warm these cold pillars.
Amongst the names listed on the Honour Roll are four from my own community of Canberra. Anthony Johnston, Gerard Willey, Wayne Vickery and Ben Catanzariti.
Each of these men were individuals: loved by their families, held dear by their friends. But their stories – their lives and their deaths – also combine to remind us of some important, universal truths.
Ben Catanzariti was only 21 years old when he died on a worksite just across the lake from here at Kingston Foreshore. His family described him as a boy who: “worked and played hard. And if work was hard to come by, he didn’t sit on his bum. He went out there and found it.”
Ben was killed in an accident that also left two co-workers in a serious condition. He died during a concrete pour when a 39-metre pouring boom collapsed on top of him at a Canberra building site. Ben loved life, loved his family and friends, and he loved his job. It should not have cost him his life.
Wayne Vickery was 45 and working on a road construction site for a new residential housing estate when he was killed just two weeks before Christmas in 2011. He was working on foot, checking ground levels for a colleague driving a large grader. He was crouching down to conduct a check when the grader began reversing towards him.
Wayne’s colleagues could see what was happening, and they shouted out to warn him. They could not be heard. The injuries Wayne sustained as the grader hit him proved fatal. He left behind a wife and two young teens who will now go through the rest of their days without him.
Anthony Johnston and Gerard Willey’s stories are no less affecting, and their deaths no less unnecessary.
Ben, Wayne, Anthony and Gerard should still be here with us today. The fact that they are not reminds us just how important it is for us to all continue the fight to keep workers safe.
It goes without saying that our Labor party values unions and understands the importance of workers joining unions. Nowhere is your value more obvious than when it comes to workplace health and safety. The work you do on a daily basis to identify risks and mitigate against them saves lives. This deserves to be acknowledged and should not be forgotten amidst the bad press thrown your way.
The rights and protections Australian workers enjoy today are the product of long decades of struggle by unions in the past. One of the best ways we can pay respect to those we are remembering today is by holding firm against moves to erode or dilute those protections now and into the future.
There is a Bill currently before the Parliament – the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Legislation Amendment Bill 2014 — that proposes serious, negative changes to the Comcare scheme.
This Bill will directly and indirectly risk the workplace health and safety of Australian workers. It will also remove the rights of Australian workers to fair and reasonable cover when they suffer the misfortune of a work-related illness or injury.
As my colleagues Brendan O’Connor has pointed out, these changes were not flagged before the last federal election and did not form any part of the government’s election policy. They did not consult. There is no mandate for these changes.
The main purpose of any workers’ compensation scheme is to prevent work-related illness and injury from occurring in the first place. The second purpose is to provide adequate benefits to assist and compensate workers who are unfortunately injured or made ill as a result of their work.
This Bill would do the opposite.
The proposed legislation takes away rights from injured workers. And it provides that companies should be allowed to exit State workers’ compensation schemes, stop paying premiums to State schemes, and instead self-insure and pay license fees to Comcare.
This Bill might save a bit of money for today but it will create huge costs in the future by effectively creating high-risk gaps in health and safety monitoring in this country. This legislation strikes a blow against all Australian workers, and it hits the most vulnerable the hardest.
If this Bill goes ahead, two employees with different bosses, working side by side and suffering similar injuries, will have different workers’ compensation rights and different health and safety standards applied to them.
The worker that is covered by Comcare will have lesser rights and fewer health and safety protections.
Employers who choose Comcare will not have to comply with state health and safety laws including specialized arrangements in high-risk industries such as the mining industry.
The Comcare scheme is in need of reform to make it fairer for the injured workers it was designed to protect. But what the Government proposes is not reform. It is a series of exclusions from compensation that will make Comcare an outlier in Australia for the harsh and unjust way that it would treat injured and deceased workers.
We owe it to Anthony, Gerard, Wayne, Ben and all the other workers remembered here today to push back against these changes. We have real concerns about a range of other so-called reforms the Government is pursuing on workers’ rights and safety too.
Amongst other things, they are attempting to weaken the safety of Australian workplaces by watering down the Model Occupational Health and Safety Act. They are also looking at scrapping the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency.
They can keep chipping away at workers’ rights and protections, but I can assure you that Labor will keep pushing back. I know that the unions represented here, and those right around Australia, will join us in that fight.
Last year the CFMEU launched a national awareness campaign to promote workplace health and safety. I have long admired the campaign’s key message because it speaks to both the rights and responsibilities that Australian workers have. Stand up. Speak out. Come home.
Every Australian worker has a right to stand up and speak out for their own safety.
Each of us also has a responsibility to stand up and speak out when we see risks and dangers that would affect others: whether that’s dodgy scaffolding on a worksite or harmful legislation undercutting workers’ rights in Parliament.
Every Australian worker has the right to come home in one piece at the end of the day.
And each of us has a responsibility to ensure that our mates, our employees and those in our community do make it home safely.
So I want to join with the CFMEU in calling for all Australian workers to stand up, speak out and come home safely. Every worker, every day.
MEDIA CONTACT: JENNIFER RAYNER 0428 214 856