‘Unpalletable’: Scott Morrison hits reverse on plan to allow under-18s to drive forklifts

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Piroschka van de Wouw/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Piroschka van de Wouw/Reuters

Scott Morrison has abandoned a proposal to allow children to drive forklifts after it was rejected by states and territories and criticised as a dangerous “brain fart” by unions.

As reported by Guardian Australia, the prime minister took the idea to Thursday’s national cabinet meeting with state and territory leaders, as part of a package of measures to tackle staff shortages caused by the Omicron wave crippling supply chains.

But the plan was unanimously rejected by the states and territories, the ACT chief minister, Andrew Barr, said in a statement.

Morrison said on Wednesday that “there are changes that we need to make around the age of forklift drivers, to get quite specific,” to help reduce regulations and increase labour supply.

On Thursday, Morrison said that national cabinet had “agreed to proceed no further with the issue of 16-year-old forklift drivers”.

“We had a good discussion about that today and it is not something we believe, collectively … we should be pursuing at this time,” he said.

States appear to have been blindsided by the proposal, with a spokesperson for Queensland’s minister for industrial relations, Grace Grace, revealing Morrison had not raised it with either the minister or the department.

Staff in the office of Victoria’s minister for workplace safety, Ingrid Stitt, were also unable to find evidence of communications from the commonwealth on the issue.

Due to the dangers of operating a forklift, in Victoria, NSW and Queensland driving one requires a special “high risk work” licence only available to people 18 and over.

Spokespeople for Grace, Stitt and NSW’s minister responsible for workplace safety, Victor Dominello, told Guardian Australia they had no plans to allow minors to drive forklifts.

“Forklifts can be extremely dangerous machines to operate and we have no plans to lower the age at which a high risk work licence can be obtained,” Stitt’s spokesperson said.

“We take workplace safety seriously and understand that large technical machinery requires highly skilled operators with specialist knowledge and training to operate.”

In Victoria alone, since 2019 eight people have been killed at work in incidents involving forklifts and state regulator WorkSafe has accepted 419 claims for injuries caused by the machines.

The assistant secretary of the Queensland branch of the CFMEU, Jade Ingham, said the backflip on forklifts came after Morrison had failed on vaccines, rapid antigen tests and support for vulnerable workers.

Ingham accused Morrison of wanting to use “child labour to fill the gaps on the frontline”.

“What next? A return to children leading pit ponies into coalmines and sweeping chimneys?” he said. “If ever there was any doubt that the Morrison Liberals view workers as nothing more than an expendable commodity to be used and discarded, this desperate brain fart should make clear their utter contempt for workers’ health and safety.”

Godfrey Moase, an executive director at the United Workers Union, said the age limit should not be lowered because forklifts were dangerous machines that needed to be treated with respect.

He said in his career as an organiser he had been involved with the aftermath of two forklift fatalities.

Morrison’s proposal “reflects an idea that workers should be kind of seen and not heard” and that “we need to lower protections,” he said.

“[But] it’s those health and safety [laws] that have got us through and will get us through if we start treating people with proper respect and dignity in the workplace.”

Federal Labor’s industrial relations spokesperson, Tony Burke, described the idea as a “ridiculous proposal” and a “dangerous thought bubble from a desperate prime minister who has run out of ideas”.

He said warehouse and distribution workers who had put in long hours and worked in insecure conditions were “heroes of this pandemic”. “They should be rewarded with secure jobs, not dangerous workplaces,” Burke said.

Online, the proposal was met with both horror and hilarity.

Tim Lyons, a former union official who conducted a review for the Queensland government that resulted in it introducing industrial manslaughter laws in 2017, said that “letting kids whizz around on forklifts is insane”.

“They are not dodgem cars,” he said in a Twitter post. “The kids are very likely to kill or injure themselves or someone else.”

Shirley Jackson, of left-of-centre thinktank Per Capita, said he was “baffled” by the announcement.

Satirists and cartoonists complained that the announcement rendered their crafts superfluous, with satirical website the Chaser choosing to reprint Guardian Australia’s original post on the idea rather than attempt a joke.

However, others found that jokes were possible.

The Australian of the year, Grace Tame, compared the concept to online word-guessing game Wordle.

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