Experts: Laws may slash volunteer numbers
CHURCHES are rallying for change amid concerns they will lose their elderly volunteer base as a result of new workplace health and safety legislation being implemented across Australia.
The national laws, which took effect in NSW and the ACT in January and are expected to be implemented in Victoria and Tasmania in about 12 months, mean each congregation is considered a “person conducting a business or undertaking” because ministers will now be defined as paid workers rather than “servants of God”.
In South Australia the laws have not passed the Upper House and Western Australia has raised concerns about some aspects of the legislation.
The changes will mean new and more rigorous obligations and duties of care for volunteers at churches, Scout halls and some amateur sports clubs.
Uniting Church NSW workplace safety manager Bill Tobin, who co-ordinates 100,000 volunteers across the State, said church charities had raised concerns.
He is working with other church groups to lobby the Federal Government for change.
“Most of our volunteers are elderly people in their 70s and 80s and their mobility is not great,” he said.
“Their obligations under the new laws will be far more significant than the public liability issues we dealt with previously.
“The existence of an ordained minister in placement at a congregation will extend the full weight and obligations of the new law to all volunteer workers undertaking any form of work on behalf of or influenced by the person conducting a business or undertaking (in this case the congregation).
“These are potentially extremely onerous obligations for Uniting Church congregations, who are unlikely to be equipped to meet such risks.”
Workers, including volunteers, who breach the occupational health and safety requirements could attract penalties of up to $300,000.
Occupational health and safety experts have warned the shift might dramatically affect volunteer numbers.
Safe Work Australia Chair Tom Phillips said he was concerned at claims the new laws could discourage volunteering.
He said in Queensland, the Northern Territory and the ACT occupational health and safety legislation already specifically applied to volunteers.
Volunteering Australia chief executive Cary Pedicini said the harmonisation of laws would mean a higher level of protection for volunteers applied consistently, no matter where they gave their time.
“We will continue to work with Safe Work Australia to address any concerns that arise as we have done for the last 12 months,” Mr Pedicini said.
Discussing ‘way forward’
WORKPLACE Relations Minister Bill Shorten said the new occupational health and safety laws simply codified existing common law obligations.
“We don’t want to place unnecessary administrative burdens on volunteering organisations,” he said.
“The laws do not apply to volunteer associations which do not employ anyone to carry out work for the association.
“I have met with Volunteering Australia and a range of charitable and not-for-profit organisations to further discuss the way forward.
“If you give communion in a church, bake cakes for a charity, help out Meals on Wheels, look out for swimmers at the beach or clean up in your community after a storm, you are not going to face jail or fines.
“You should safely and sensibly get on with your efforts and be congratulated for it.”