Here’s an unwelcome stat if you’re Maori or Pasifika. It confirms that you’re more likely to be injured at work than your Pakeha or Asian colleagues. Workplace injuries are prompting 111 Pasifika employees per 1,000 full-time workers to make claims. Next it’s Maori at 93. Then down to 87 for Pakeha. And way down to 55 per 1,000 for Asian workers.
It’s not just a matter of the risk of injury either. The stats also show that, if you’re Maori or Pasifika, you’re also more likely to die at work. Maori are the most vulnerable, and Pasifika come second. Since 2008, more than 30 workers have died in our forests and a disproportionate number of them were Maori. Like Charles Findlay, the Tokoroa loader who was killed because of poor safety practices at his workplace. Or Eramiha Pairama, the unsupervised 19-year-old tree feller who lost his life in a Bay of Plenty forest.
It’s cases like these that prompted the government to review and reform our health and safety laws - which didn’t seem a bad move. And there was an encouraging hint of resolve when, shortly after announcing the reforms, the Prime Minister promised that the law would take “no steps backwards”. But the reform bill that came back from the select committee is a step back. It’s actually a weaker version of the current law.
Rather than take the opportunity to prevent further death and despair in the work-place, the government appears to have caved in to pressure from a small group of irresponsible employers. After sustained pressure from small business and the prospect of a caucus revolt, the government has delivered an exemption clause for businesses with fewer than 20 employees. So, if you work in a small business, there may be no protection for you.
Yet there’s one important qualification. Businesses in “high risk” industries are to be barred from taking advantage of the exemption. But it’s an empty qualification because the definition of high risk is left to regulation. That means we have to trust the government’s guarantee that dangerous businesses won’t be able to exploit the exemption. This is the same government that was promising there would be “no steps backwards”.
And what about industries we would usually consider low-risk? Like hairdressing? Well, the reality is that hairdressing isn’t low risk at all. It may not look high risk because the work is normally carried out in a reassuringly calm environment. But there are significant dangers from arthritis, for instance, and chemical poisoning – and there’s potential for the problems to build up over time.
So the opponents of the bill coming up before Parliament see it, essentially, as a dog. Labour and the Greens are fiercely opposing it, but Peter Dunne and the Maori Party seem to have made no firm commitments as yet. The Maori Party supported the bill at first reading, as per their policy which is to send everything for select committee scrutiny. But Marama Fox says the Maori Party support at the next stage isn’t guaranteed – and we’ll find out their final position when the bill is up for its next reading on Tuesday.
One concern among the bill’s opponents is that the Maori Party may be indulging in some political manoeuvring here, and could be thinking that voting for the bill will mean winning the privilege to exact concessions or improvements.
It’s a dangerous game though. They would do well to bear in mind those injury and death stats – and consider the cost so far to Maori and Pasifika workers when our health and safety laws have fallen short.