Worm farming is a dangerous industry, according to the Government's health and safety reform bill. The Labour Party has certainly captured public attention with its discovery of that anomaly. If nothing else, it proved the Opposition had read the bill's schedule more carefully than the minister in charge of it, Michael Woodhouse, Minister of Workplace Relations. But it left the impression the bill is too harsh. Labour's view is the reverse, and it is right.
The bill should not exempt small workplaces from the obligation to have a work and safety representative if their staff request one. In its original form, it did not contain an exemption but the National Party clearly came under intense lobbying from small business interests while the bill was before a select committee. It emerged with an exemption for workplaces with fewer than 20 employees, unless the industry was on its schedule of high risk. This would be a marginal improvement on the present law, which exempts employers of up to 30 people, but there is no good case for any exemptions. If there was, the Government would be making it. In the absence of a compelling reason, it can perhaps be assumed National MPs were persuaded the bill as originally drafted would have exposed small employers to external unions, giving them a foot in their door as health and safety representatives.
That might well be what would happen, and it would be a proper service for unions to provide. Many of their traditional functions were perhaps not well suited to workplaces in an open, competitive economy, but workplace safety is not something that can simply be left to employers, or often enough to employees.
In the first flush of market reforms, worksite safety was thought to be best left to managers and workers to resolve, as were building timber standards and much else. Since it was in the interest of a business to keep its staff safe and its products reliable, external regulation was considered needlessly costly and probably inefficient.
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Experiences such as leaky homes and the Pike River Mine disaster have been a reminder that quality and safety cannot always be left to self-regulation. The health and safety reform bill is a direct, though belated, response to Pike River. It could be argued to be an inadequate response since Pike River had designated safety representatives and the royal commission into the disaster found their concerns about methane in the mine were not sufficiently heeded.
Lobbies that resist worker representation ought to think about the alternative form of regulation. They are exposing themselves to a regime of paperwork, and fees for inspections and certificates. Bureaucratic oversight may be more onerous and costly than negotiations with staff representatives, and much less effective. Risks are best recognised and avoided by people on the ground. Small employers do not have to listen to their staff under this bill, but they would be wise to listen anyway - and act to allay any reasonable fears.