In June the Liberal-National government in New South Wales launched a huge attack on the rights of injured workers. Schemes like the one administered by WorkCover NSW function as insurance schemes that provide compensation in the case of a workplace-related injury. Compensation may be in the form of weekly wage replacement payments, lump-sum payouts for permanent impairment or medical and rehabilitation benefits. The WorkCover NSW scheme is funded by premiums paid by employers.
Under the changes to the injured workers compensation system people will no longer be covered for injuries received while travelling to and from work. Also medical expenses will be capped and generally cut off after 12 months and weekly payments will be reduced and cut after two and a half years.
Families of workers killed will no longer be eligible for payments for nervous shock and entitlements to lump-sum compensation for impairment have been abolished for most injuries. This prevents claims being made for common injuries such as industrial deafness and most back injuries. On top of all this, the changes are almost entirely retrospective.
Since any worker can be injured at even the most seemingly innocuous workplace, this can only be described as an attack on all workers. The negative ramifications will impact much further afield than just NSW, as other governments and employers will be looking to follow suit by slashing other workers’ insurance schemes. The stage has been set not only for a race to the bottom, but also for the future privatisation of the scheme.
The NSW state government has justified these changes – rushed through parliament after a sham inquiry – by pointing to an artificial $4 billion deficit and linking this to fears of a European-style state-debt crisis.
The government’s slanderous claim is that workers are ‘rorting’ the system. Yet WorkCover’s last annual report shows that of the 80,000 claims lodged just 9 people were prosecuted for fraud. While ‘management’ fees per serious injury grew 16 times faster than inflation between 1997 and 2010, in June 2008 WorkCover’s balance sheet was still $625 million in surplus.
According to a government-commissioned PriceWaterhouseCoopers report, half of the $4 billion deficit was due to losses on speculation during the financial crisis!
In mid June 2000 trade unionists rallied in Sydney against the government’s changes. Scandalously, the ALP-dominated leadership of Unions NSW told those workers that they should wait until 2014 to vote the Liberal-National coalition out!
There is no guarantee that the ALP would reverse the changes. They have a long history of saying one thing in opposition and doing another once in power. Instead the unions should mobilise their members and build upon last September’s 40,000-strong demonstration against austerity and anti-worker policies.
Fire fighters showed the potential to beat back these changes when they went on strike in June and protested outside the parliament. This action forced the government to exempt them from what is really now the most draconian workers compensation system in Australia.
Rather than pinning our hopes to the failed strategy of waiting for the ALP, unions need to develop a fighting strategy aimed at reversing the changes to workers compensation, reinstating the job cuts in the public sector and ensuring all workers are afforded pay rises that keep up with increases to the cost of living.
A struggle along these lines would also necessitate the development of a genuine political alternative for working people. It would highlight the need for workers to build their own party rather than relying on the Liberal/Labor duopoly.
By W. van Leeuwen