The Guardian April 19, 2000

WorkCover overhaul begins

Under pressure from an eight-year union campaign, the Bracks Labor 
Government in Victoria has reintroduced the right of injured workers to sue 
negligent employers under common law. However, the Government has baulked 
at backdating the right to sue to November 1997  when it was scrapped by 
the then Kennett Government  backdating it instead only to the time of 
its own election last October. This will exclude around 5,000 injured 
working from seeking just compensation through the courts.

Common law rights are part of the unions' campaign to overhaul the State's 
WorkCover system and restore the many rights of injured workers that were 
stripped by the Liberals.

Employers will now pay higher premiums, an average of 2.18 percent of 
wages, but still less than the 2.3 percent the unions are after. 

The unions continue to oppose the Government's plan to put a cap on premium 
payments at the 2.18 percent.

An average of 2.18 per cent of wages still compares poorly to the over 2.8 
per cent in NSW, SA, WA and Tasmania.

A mass meeting of union delegates last month voted unanimously for:

* the restoration of the position prior to the extinguishment of common law 
rights in 1997, including full retrospectivity to that date and a threshold 
in the form of 30 percent whole person impairment level or a level of 
serious injury determined on a narrative test;

* restoration of fair and equitable compensation for permanent impairment 
with reasonable and just threshold levels;

* improvement of the weekly payments to injured workers, basing them on 
actual earnings (inclusive of regular overtime, shift work loadings and 
other appropriate allowances) and increasing the step-down period from 13 
to 20 weeks;

* restoration of the right of workers to choose their own rehabilitation 

The Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC) called these initial changes "a 
major step forward for injured workers after seven years of benefit cuts 
and excessively low premiums".

"For too long employers in this State have enjoyed the most miserly 
premiums and inflicted the most miserly compensation benefits on workers in 
Australia", said VTHC Secretary Leigh Hubbard.

"The return of common law rights is a major return of fundamental rights to 
injured workers. This represents a significant victory for the union 
movement which has been campaigning for the return of these rights since 
November 1997.

"However, we see these announced improvements as the first instalment in 
repaying the debt owed by employers to injured workers", he stressed.

Unions are dissatisfied that the Government has not backdated the common 
law rights to 1997.

They are also concerned that the Government has not made the right to sue a 
negligent third party retrospective to 1997, a move which would be without 
cost to government or employers.

There was also disappointment at the minor improvements in lump sum 
payments for permanent impairment: while those with whole person impairment 
of more than 10 percent will get an extra $5,000, those with injuries 
between 35 and 70 percent will have their payout reduced.

Adding further to this inequity is the threshold of 10 percent, below which 
no compensation is paid.

The unions have won an improvement in weekly benefits which will now be 
calculated on regular income, including overtime. Previously injured 
workers suffered income drops of up to 60 percent.

"Victorian unions have been campaigning on WorkCover issues since 1992", 
said Leigh Hubbard. "For seven years we held out against savage cuts by the 
Kennett Government and now we can see a shift in direction towards the 
betterment of injured workers.

"We have never expected all the problems with the system to be fixed in one 
go, but we see this as an opportunity to continue negotiation and dialogue 
with the Government to improve on outstanding issues."

The Liberal Party, which still holds a majority in the Upper House, has 
threatened to block the legislation from being passed.

"This reform package is a step towards improving the WorkCover system  
blocking this package will be an act of bastardry which will be resisted at 
all costs", said Mr Hubbard.\

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