Tensions rise as unions pledge continuing workers' comp action

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Tensions rise as unions pledge continuing workers' comp action

NSW unions vowed today at meetings around the state to carry on industrial action if the Government ‘betrayed’ them over commitments it has made regarding new workers’ compensation legislation

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NSW unions vowed today at meetings around the state to carry on industrial action if the Government ‘betrayed’ them over commitments it has made regarding new workers’ compensation legislation.

At a meeting in Sydney’s Town Hall, broadcast to unionists at 200 sites throughout the state, NSW Labor Council secretary John Robertson said while not happy with the Workers Compensation Legislation Amendment Bill 2001 he accepted the political reality that it would pass through the Upper House this week.

He said unions had won significant assurances from the Government on the legislation earlier this week, but warned further action would be forthcoming if the Government reneged on those agreements, that:

  • Parliament, not the Industrial Relations Minister, would vote on medical guidelines, and thresholds determining the amount injured workers get paid;
  • Workers had rights of legal representation before the new Workers Compensation Commission.

Robertson told WorkplaceInfo the unions this morning also decided to continue campaigning on the two major outstanding issues seen as ‘critical’:

  • The issue of thresholds. Unions were especially concerned with Government plans to introduce a 25% whole-of-body injury before common law compensation, rather than the existing 25% part-of-body injury. Some experts have said the new move would require a worker to be paraplegic before recompense. Robertson said guidelines on thresholds were being developed by a medical expert working group, including Labor Council-recommended doctors. An important consideration was recognition of psychological damage, he said;
  • The common law inquiry, to be headed by former Land and Environment Court Justice Terry Sheahan. This inquiry is expected to report within three months on the question of thresholds of how seriously injured a worker must be before they can sue at common law.

While a Labor Council monitoring committee would keep an eye on how these were progressing, in the meantime unions had developed 'the largest email tree in the nation', and were encouraging workers to email politicians of all persuasions to ensure reforms weren’t detrimental to workers.

The Bill was introduced by Minister John Della Bosca the week before the Easter break was due, with the intention to pass the legislation in that same session (see previous story, 72/2001). Its aim was to narrow the scheme’s deficit of more than $2billion (growing by $1 million a day according to the Premier, Bob Carr) by encouraging injured workers to stay out of court. By making the basis of the system administrative, rather than legal, the Government expected to save $165million a year by introducing:

  • binding medical panels to determine injuries;
  • increased thresholds;
  • US-style medical assessment guidelines which unions say have been shown to lead to lesser pay-outs to injured workers;
  • No recognition of psychological injury.

When the new Bill is passed, while thresholds and guidelines are still being decided, the way disputes are handled will be changed, with a new Workers’ Compensation Commission replacing the Compensation Court (see previous story, 120/2001). Employers have been keen to keep premiums down and have supported the changes (see previous story, 84/2001).

While most unions today stopped work just for the meeting, the construction union, electrical trades union, plumbers’ union, manufacturing workers’ union and workers in the Hunter Valley went on 24-hour strike. Wollongong workers have vowed a political campaign aimed at MPs, and to have a mass rally when the Premier next visits the region.

Meeting with the Government since Easter, the unions thought they had agreed on a package of legislation dealing only with the model for handling disputes about injuries. When the Government took what unions said was a different Bill to Parliament last week, including the guidelines based assessment (rather than the existing Table of Disabilities), which will now not come into effect until after the Sheahan inquiry, a damaging week to union-Government relations followed.

Union members refusing to collect fares or fines, blockaded Parliament House, and called for a special state conference on the issue. The Speaker closed down Question Time, fearing there were not enough Government members who had made it through the blockade; the Premier accused unions of attacking democracy; the fire brigade employees’ union disaffiliated from the ALP, and was followed by the northern branch of the Australian Workers’ Union.

But at a State Advisory Council meeting with the Premier on Monday, the unions agreed with the Government that:

  • Parliament, not the Minister, would vote on medical guidelines, and thresholds determining the amount injured workers get paid;
  • Workers had rights of legal representation before the new Workers Compensation Commission;
  • New compensation limits would not be retrospective;
  • Issues of workplace safety and employer non-compliance would be dealt with as part of the WorkCover reform process.

Meanwhile, WorkCover has announced it will crack down on compo cheats, especially those in the construction, labour hire and taxi industries. WorkCover plans to audit companies who underpay premiums, and expect up to $165 million in savings, equal with the amount expected from the reforms in the Bill.

A jurisdictional comparison  of how NSW stacks up against the other states can be found at the Heads of Workers’ Compensation Authorities website, at: http://www.hwca.org.au/

 

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