Unions, corporate self-regulation and safety: Is it a Dreamworld?

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The Dreamworld deaths have shone a spotlight on systemic corporate negligence of safety issues, set to worsen if the ABCC Bill passes, writes John Passant.

LAST WEEK a simple fun ride at Dreamworld killed four people. 

The accident at the theme park has been in the media every day since, not least because of the incompetence of Ardent Leisure, the company that owns Dreamworld, in handling the disaster.

Why has this incident been front page news for days when the 143 workers that Safe Work Australia has preliminarily identified as killed at work so far this year are not? The Safe Work Australia figures show that 23 construction workers have been killed so far this year. For transport, postal and warehousing workers, the figure is 49 dead.

The four killed at Dreamworld were not workers. They were customers and it could have been any of us. They contributed revenue to Ardent Leisure and their deaths will undermine its future profits.

According to Carolyn Cummins in the Sydney Morning Herald, as well as the reality of Ardent Leisure’s falling share price,

‘... analysts predict a 75 per cent profit plunge after this week's Dreamworld tragedy and speculate about future implications for the embattled theme park operator'.

For the mainstream media, it appears that tragic events which undermine profit are more newsworthy than deaths at work because workers’ deaths are "part and parcel" of earning profit. Workers are replaceable, customers are not.  

For example, despite workers raising safety concerns before it happened, at the beginning of the month two construction workers were killed on a building site at Eagle Farm racecourse. Apparently, their deaths are less newsworthy or perhaps not as worthy of being examined in detail than the four killed at Dreamworld.

Among ordinary people, there has been an outpouring of grief over the deaths at Dreamworld. Our sense of community has forced Ardent Leisure to pretend to care about people rather than profits. So much so, that Ardent Leisure CEO Deborah Thomas has announced she will donate her $167,500 cash bonus (out of total bonuses of nearly $843,000 for all the "good work" she did last year as CEO) to Red Cross. So she still gets nearly $700,000 in non-cash bonuses despite the deaths of the four.

Thereby hangs a tale. The deaths may have been the result of inadequate safety standards at Dreamworld, either in terms of the inadequacy of the government imposed safety standards themselves, or in terms of the company’s compliance with those standards. If it is the case that the deaths were a result of Dreamworld’s concentration on profit at the expense of safety, then that occurred in, among other years, the financial year 2015/16 — the very period for which Thomas is being granted $843, 000 in bonuses for her good work.

Could there be problems with Dreamworld’s safety regime? Certainly the relevant union thinks so.

As Candace Sutton and Emma Reynolds wrote in The Mercury

‘Workers at Dreamworld endured a “culture of fear and intimidation” and issues around adequate staffing of rides, according to the Australian Workers’ Union.’ 

It appears that Dreamworld has a history of not cooperating with the union on safety issues.

As Jackson Stiles wrote in The New Daily

‘AWU Queensland secretary Ben Swan accused Dreamworld of “organisational arrogance” for refusing to cooperate with the union on safety since November 2014.’

Stiles also revealed that the union has been developing a dossier of safety disputes with Dreamworld, including a report by an independent auditor in 2012 who failed the ride in question for safety reasons. Since the four deaths, others have come forward with numerous tales of safety lapses.

A history of safety issues at Dreamworld

The Queensland Government has now ordered a "safety blitz" on all theme parks in the State and an audit of all Workplace Health and Safety processes. It is too little, too late. Like companies, capitalist governments of any persuasion put profit before people unless we agitate and organise against this "Grundnorm", or basic law of capitalism.

Campaigning for a safer workplace is what many unions do, especially the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union. The CFMEU is one of Australia’s best unions, fighting for safety on site, in defence of jobs and for better wages. It is why the ruling class vilifies them.

From Dyson Heydon’s political witch hunt of a Royal Commission into unions to Malcolm Turnbull’s "lawless" libel, the bosses and their politicians slander the CFMEU because it wants to eradicate deaths and injuries on building sites, and get better pay for its members. These actions challenge the supremacy of profit.

The Union has beaten back, to a small extent, the total dictatorship of capital on building sites. It puts people before profit and that is why employers and the Turnbull Government will do anything to hamstring or destroy it.

This Coalition Government is so wedded to putting people before profits that it called a double dissolution on the reintroduction of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) — a Spanish Inquisition for building workers. The real aim of the Turnbull Government is to smash the one union that fights to defend its members’ safety and their living standards, sometimes through "unlawful" industrial action. In Australia, "unlawful" industrial action is industrial action carried on outside the bargaining period. That bargaining period is normally a few months every three or so years.

The ABCC is nothing new either. In the words of the 'Ballad of 1891', ‘where they jail a man for striking, it’s a rich man’s country yet'.

There is a real possibility that the ABCC Bill will be passed with the support of the anti-working class crossbench Senate of Derryn Hinch, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and the Nick Xenophon Team, plus the tainted vote of building boss and debtor to the tune of $37.8 million, Bob Day from the "Putting Families Last Party". Grumpy reactionary (AKA "Libertarian") David Leyonhjelm may also vote against it, if he comes out of his fugue about being dudded by the Turnbull Government on the Adler shotgun issue.

If the ABCC is passed it will further restrict the ability of the CFMEU to in any way enforce safety standards on building sites. Deaths and serious injuries will go up, just as they did the first time the ABCC was introduced. 

According to the NSW branch of the CFMEU, deaths on building sites went up

‘... from 3.14 per 100,000 workers in 2004 – before the ABCC started – to 4.8 per 100,000 workers in 2007 and 4.27 in 2008.’

How can we protect workers – and the public – from being killed at work or while enjoying themselves? Some governments are discussing introducing negligent manslaughter rules. Popping a few CEOs into gaol might stop some companies putting profit before people. Compare that to the "slap on the wrist" $250,000 fine building giant Grocon received for lax safety at a building site in Carlton which killed three pedestrians.

A more systemic solution is to give workers and their unions the ability to enforce strict safety standards. That would require a challenge to the idea of profit as the be all and end all. Workers and their unions have done that before; they can do it again.

Their lives, and ours, depend on it.

Read more by John Passant on his website En PassantYou can also follow John on Twitter @JohnPassant.

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