I too rise to speak on the Workplace Safety Legislation and Other Matters Amendment Bill 2021, and it is with great pride that I do so. Over the many pieces of legislation that we have dealt with in this place during my time, I can say that our focus, our attention on the rights of workers to go to work and, importantly, to go home at the end of their working day, however long that is, regardless of occupation, has been something that has been very prevalent in this government’s reform agenda over the last few years, and it is a very proud record. What we have before us today with this omnibus bill continues that proud record.
It is no secret that a few of us on this side of the house have worked for unions. That is amongst other occupations we have had, but I know people like to focus on that. Certainly workplace safety, worker safety, is not the purview of the union movement, but I have got to say that the union movement do a lot of heavy lifting in this space. All of us who have worked in the union movement have seen the devastation of workplace injury on working people and their families, particularly when those injuries could have been avoided, when something could have been done to prevent that injury happening in the first place. We have all got those stories in our knapsack.
Mr Ondarchie: Be careful with the heavy lifting, that’s all.
Mr GEPP: Yes. We have all got those stories in our knapsack, and they are not stories that you want to revisit too often in your mind because a lot of them are stories of tragedy. In my own time with my union, the CPSU, when I was the national divisional secretary for community services and employment we had Centrelink workers in my portfolio. The workplace abuse that Centrelink workers used to confront and the complexities of the social security scheme that they had to administer and what that brought about for them in the workplace—you might think, ‘Well, what could possibly have gone wrong?’, but there were incidents with distraught people who were really trying to get ahead and just keep their noses above water but were running into obstacle after obstacle in terms of the Social Security Act 1991 and resorting to desperate measures in order to demonstrate their plight. The impact that that had on the workers that I was privileged to represent for a quarter of a century was extremely difficult. Customs workers, immigration workers, meat inspectors—all of those—are not occupations that you would necessarily normally associate with workplace injury, but nonetheless it was there.
It permeates throughout our state and our nation. Every worker at some point is confronted by either an injury to themselves or perhaps an injury to a colleague. It could be physical or it could be a mental health injury. It can take on many, many different forms. Any advance from my perspective, in terms of advancing the cause of workers to ensure that workers go to work and come home safely to their private lives, whatever that private life looks like, is very, very important.
I think a lot of people in this place would have grown up with a system that was designed to put obstacles in front of you. If you were injured in the workplace, not only did you have to confront whatever injury you had incurred in terms of carrying out your job but you then had all of the added obstacles put in place to make life even more difficult for you. As I said, I am very, very proud that our government has been focused completely differently on this issue of workplace safety. We have been about prevention and support.
I think it was Ms Terpstra who in her contribution said that even if it is things like nurse-to-patient ratios, these things have an enormous impact on the health and wellbeing of nurses. So it can be an omnibus bill like this or it can be other measures that we put in place—laws that are put in place where employers who do the wrong thing are held to account. As I said, for too long in the workplace safety system it was the worker who was presumed to be the guilty one, and when they were injured they had to try and navigate a system that was particularly difficult. This bill again continues our very proud area of reform by advancing some of those issues.
Many of the matters covered by the bill have been talked about by others, but there are a couple that I just want to touch on. Silica—who knew, as Mr Melhem said, what the outcome of kitchen stone would lead to? It is a devastation that we now know exists in the injury and the horrible, horrible, horrible disease, silicosis, that results, and the impact on the workers who contract this horrible disease and their families as well—their children, their partners, their parents, their brothers and their sisters who have to stand by and just watch their loved one suffer. I am proud that the Andrews Labor government unveiled in 2019 our nation-leading comprehensive silica action plan.
Tragically, as has been mentioned already, four people have died from silica-related illnesses since the beginning of last year, and WorkSafe Victoria, I think, has something in the order of 60 claims for silica-related diseases.
We have got to do better. We have to do better in this space; we have got to do better. We cannot say that for our kitchens to look better, it is okay for workers to die and suffer terrible health problems—all in the name of aesthetically pleasing kitchens. We have got to do much better. And we have got to support—and this bill will support—our OH&S laws to provide more support to those workers affected by silicosis and other similar occupational diseases.
We of course know that the bill will also make amendments to the Accident Compensation Act 1985 and the Workplace Injury Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2013 to improve compensation arrangements for workers with silicosis and, as I said, similar diseases, and these amendments will also allow injured workers with silica-related diseases to make a common-law application for damages where they suffer a subsequent silica-related disease. I would find it difficult to think that anybody in this place could possibly object to or oppose that.
I am very pleased that in the last 20 years part of the conversation that has gone on, not only in this place but across the nation, when it has come to workplace safety has been on the impact on families. It is so important that we are able to support families with benefits where they have had a loved one that has died because of a workplace injury or incident. I am pleased that this bill does that. Mr Melhem touched on the prohibition notices and directions, so I will not go into those.
Very briefly on the firefighter presumptive rights amendments, I was the senior adviser to government when that work was done. I commended at the time the firefighters union and the firefighters who had campaigned for many a long day to be recognised for the risks that they face in their everyday work. That was the focus of the work that we did back then, but it was also apparent to everybody when that bill was introduced that there are other workers in the firefighting system who are also exposed to the risk of particular types of cancers in carrying out their duties. It was clear I think and inevitable that at some point there would be more of a deep dive into the potential impacts on those workers.
As has been said, there are about 90 in addition to the firefighters. This is not a diminution of rights for firefighters—far from it. There is no loss of benefit, no loss of right, no loss of entitlement for firefighters, and nor should there be. We absolutely stand firm and committed with our firefighters to ensure that their workplaces are as safe as we can make them, bearing in mind the difficult work that they do. So there is no reduction in entitlement for our firefighters at all. And indeed, even with the extension of this legislation to the other 90 workers that this would cover, they still have to make a claim under the act, as does a firefighter. And let us not forget that for them to make a claim they have to have been diagnosed with cancer, and if a medico points to their duties as being the presumptive cause of their cancer, then we should be looking after them.
I will conclude my remarks there. As I said, I am very proud of the bill. I am very proud, and I commend the minister for her work on this bill, and I commend the government more broadly in terms of its focus—our focus—on the rights of workers to go home every day after their work is completed to their loved ones. I commend the bill to the house.