Posted on April 2, 2010

MFB Drops Ethnic Mix Legal Push

Ben Schneiders, The Age (Melbourne), April 1, 2010

THE Metropolitan Fire Brigade has shelved its attempt to bypass equal opportunity laws amid intense criticism of its plan to give preference to multicultural and indigenous people in pre-employment training.

Last night, MFB chief executive Ken Latta said the decision to withdraw its application to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal was due to an “extraordinary reaction” to its plans, and “misconceptions” about what it was trying to do.

He said the MFB would lodge a new application at a later date as it was not possible to change the affidavit that had already been lodged with the tribunal. The MFB was seeking an exemption from the Equal Opportunity Act so it could give preference to indigenous and under-represented cultural and linguistic groups in pre-employment training.

Peter Marshall, the national secretary of the UFU, which had opposed the application, welcomed the MFB’s decision. It comes after criticism from women firefighters at a separate plan to boost the number of women in the workforce.

“We see as this as a win for common sense–the female firefighters didn’t want any special treatment and certainly they’re the ones that know best,” he said. “And indeed, in relation to other groups within our society, we look forward to reinstating the program that we were jointly developing with the Brotherhood of St Laurence to reach out into communities where there are the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society.”

Mr Marshall said that program that the MFB had “walked away from” would have provided real assistance “without lowering standards”.

Mr Latta said there was no attempt to undermine standards or the merit process through the VCAT application.

“If people from cultural backgrounds unfamiliar with firefighting as a vocation complete the pre-application program, they must still then apply and compete with other applicants in our recruit selection process,” he said.

“They will then be placed on the order of merit. If they are high enough on the order of merit to get in our recruit program, they must then complete the full normal recruit training with all other recruits.”

Mr Latta said there were no intention to outsource training, as the union had claimed, through its pre-employment training proposal with Swinburne University.

The MFB, which has fewer women firefighters and people from non-English-speaking backgrounds than other emergency services, says it needs to change its overwhelmingly white male workforce to better reflect the community and extend the safety message to migrant communities.

Mr Latta, who retires from the MFB today, said that when it lodged its new submission, the language would be “unambiguous for all”.