A number of politicians on both sides have expressed their concerns about the possibility that New South Wales Rural Fire Service volunteers and Victorian Country Fire Authority volunteers could be dismissed because of their work to protect communities in trouble.
The risk of fire service or other emergency workers being dismissed because of their absence for emergency work appears minimal. A spokesperson for the Australian Industry Group said in January 2003 that ‘in our experience most employers do take a very reasonable and fair approach when fires occur and volunteers are needed to fight the fires’. While New South Wales introduced laws to protect emergency services volunteers after the January 1994 bushfires in that State, the laws have never been used or challenged. According to the NSW Office of Emergency Services, ‘generally a phone call from the local emergency services commander would sort out any problems before they escalated.’
Nevertheless, under current federal legislation, it is not illegal for an employer to dismiss an emergency services worker for being absent from their place of work when responding to a disaster situation. In January 2003, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) lodged a claim with the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) to vary two federal ceramic awards to protect the income, employment and entitlements of emergency volunteer workers. A CFMEU representative noted that ‘a hotel employee in Victoria lost his job the other day because he was fighting a bush fire’.
Apart from NSW, laws to protect emergency services workers exist in most other States and Territories. There are some limitations to the protection provided under such legislation. In NSW, for example, protection against ‘victimisation’ for being absent on emergency relief work appears to be available only when the Premier directs, through an order published in the State Gazette, that the relevant provisions apply to particular emergency operations. In Tasmania and the Northern Territory a person engaged in relief work only receives protection against dismissal or loss of other ’employment rights’ during a formally declared ‘state of disaster’ or ‘state of emergency’. In Queensland, protection against dismissal or loss of other employment benefits is only provided where a ‘state of disaster’ has been declared or the employee is directed to assist in an emergency situation by a police officer.
In addition, there is no legislated protection for the employment rights of emergency services workers in Victoria or Western Australia.
In October 2002 the ALP introduced a Private Member’s Bill – the Workplace Relations Amendment (Emergency Services) Bill 2002 – ‘to provide employment protection to employees who take part in emergency operations as members of an emergency services organisation’. The Leader of the Opposition, the Hon. Simon Crean, MP, stated that the Bill ‘will make sure that federal award employees have the same level of protection as their counterparts working under State and Territory laws’.
According to the Minister, the current Bill is intended to have a wider scope:
At present, there is no specific federal legislation protecting volunteers who are temporarily absent from work undertaking emergency management activities. While there is some legislative protection in some states and territories, not all workers are covered and the protections differ. This bill will protect all workers who are absent from work on legitimate volunteer emergency management duties.
The Explanatory Memorandum notes that ‘the Bill does not create a right or entitlement to pay for the time the employee is absent’. In its application to the AIRC, the CFMEU argues for an entitlement to two weeks paid leave to fight fire or floods. According to National Assistant Secretary Stephen Roach, many volunteers are ‘currently penalised because, unless the boss is very generous, their pay is docked for time off the job’. In contrast, the chief executive of Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria, Allan Woodward, does not support payment for volunteers:
When people volunteer their time, they are making a gift. When you start to require payment to be made, then it’s no longer a gift and it’s against the spirit of volunteering.
It appears probable that the current Bill will be supported by the ALP. As the Minister noted:
this bill deserves to be marked because it is one of those bills that has come forward into the parliament as a result of some initiatives and statements from members opposite, as well as from some of the instincts and impulses of members on this side of the House.
In February 2003, when the Minister foreshadowed the introduction of the current Bill, the Leader of the Opposition stated specifically that ‘we can guarantee support for that because we introduced a private member’s bill on it last October’.
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Guide for employers with NSW RFS volunteers
The NSW RFS produced a document titled “guide for employers with NSW RFS volunteers”, this document is a useful resource for employers and volunteers. Click on the image (below) to view or download the entire document in a pdf format.