New Zealand Unions Defend Health And Safety

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TODAY a widow and a mother sit together in the High Court in Wellington fighting for justice for the men that were killed at work in the Pike River Mine disaster of 2010, at the same time the government contemplates weakening proposed changes to make work safer, said the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions (CTU) on Tuesday.

President of the CTU, Helen Kelly is worried about what impact the government’s possible changes will have.

She said: ‘At the beginning of the review of health and safety (as a direct result of the tragedy at Pike River) the government promised that our laws would take “no steps backwards”. It seems the government is intent on breaking that promise by creating these exemptions.

‘We owe it to the workers who have been killed at work, the 29 men at Pike but also the other workers who are hurt or killed on the job to have a better law, a stronger law. A good health and safety system needs an effective regulator, workers able to influence health and safety in their workplace and businesses showing positive leadership.

‘Both the Pike River Royal Commission and the Independent Taskforce emphasised the crucial importance of strengthening New Zealand’s weak worker participation. It is backed by international evidence.

‘Workers electing their own health and safety representatives is of benefit to the workplace, regardless of the size of firm or the industry they work in. Everyone should be able to participate in their own health and safety at work.’

The Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU) also expressed its concerns. The EPMU said: ‘The government must not water down changes to health and safety legislation which are vital for New Zealand workers.’

Bill Newson, EPMU national secretary, said: ‘The Prime Minister has hinted he will back down on health and safety if it’s “overly onerous” on small businesses. This is the wrong thing to do.’

The health and safety legislation arose from the findings of the Pike River Royal Commission and the government’s own Health and Safety Taskforce. ”After the disaster at Pike River, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get this right,’ added Newson.

‘Both the Royal Commission and the Health and Safety Taskforce recognised the importance of strong worker participation in improving health and safety. Independent, genuine worker participation leads to better health and safety. Worker-elected health and safety representatives and worker-focused health and safety committees keep workplaces safe.

‘Our current health and safety systems aren’t good enough. They need to be fixed. For the Prime Minister to say it’s just too hard to keep workers safe and healthy is unacceptable.’

• Health workers who provide radiation treatment to cancer patients went on strike over pay on Tuesday.

The strike involved 65 workers who operate $2 million machines delivering doses of radiation to people with cancer. They were refusing to do overtime at Canterbury, Southern and Auckland District Health Boards (DHBs), while at Mid Central they cut back on using some of the technology.|

The specialists are members of the APEX union. APEX rep David Munro said: ‘The DHBs are the target here. We want the DHBs to front up to the fact that these people need to be paid more to retain them. We don’t want to harm patients’ interests.

‘There may be some inconvenience for patients but there won’t be any clinical consequences. The protocols in the health sector ensure that life and limb cannot be compromised by strike action and the physicists are committed to that as anybody else.’

The APEX union argued that compared to the $16 billion health budget, it was not demanding huge sums of money from the hospitals. It said the cost of the wage increase for its 65 members would come to $450,000 dollars in the first of a three year wage increase campaign.

The DHBs said they would contact patients if their treatment was affected by the industrial action.

The Cancer Society’s chief executive Claire Austin said: ‘The Cancer Society of New Zealand values the cancer treatment workforce very highly and the important role these health professionals play in ensuring that people affected by cancer receive timely treatment.

‘We also note the importance of retaining and building a stronger cancer care workforce. We hope that a resolution is found between the parties soon so that services are not disrupted so that cancer patients are faced with any additional unnecessary distress.’

The strike at the four DHBs is due to end this weekend. After that, there will be an overtime ban and a refusal to work in the evenings, or through the night, at Capital and Coast and Waikato DHBs for seven days.

But action could escalate to an all-out strike in early July if a resolution isn’t reached. Meanwhile, the Public Service Association (PSA) has said it supports the decision by New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO) members to reject the settlement offer made by DHBs in their Multi-Employer collective agreement, announced earlier Tuesday.

Ashok Shankar, PSA national organiser, said: ‘We support the decision by NZNO members to reject the offer made to them by the DHBs. The PSA has over 18,000 members working in the health sector in a very wide range of occupations entering into bargaining this year. 10,000 of these members are in bargaining now.

‘Yet again the government has released a budget that effectively means a cut to the health sector.

‘The Council of Trade Unions (CTU) has estimated a 3.8% increase is needed to maintain the status quo in the health sector.

‘Over 4,500 people have already signed a petition asking DHB CEOs to come to the table with a reasonable offer that fairly compensates members for their work. The last few years have resulted in very poor settlements across the health sector. Our members expect to be made a fair and reasonable offer this time. We are campaigning for fairer funding. Our members care about delivering quality services to their communities – and they are worth respect.’

Nurses, midwives and health care assistants working in the 20 District Health Boards (DHBs) around the country have voted overwhelmingly not to accept the DHBs’ proposed multi-employer collective agreement.

NZNO industrial adviser, Lesley Harry, said: ‘26,000 DHB staff belong to the New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO) and they have made it very clear that the DHBs need to step up and propose a fair deal.

‘On Thursday we will be taking our members’ issues back to the negotiating table and we hope the strong vote against the offer will result in the DHBs reconsidering their offer.’