The Guardian June 20, 2001


Defend Workers' Compensation

by Anna Pha

Unions in NSW began an indefinite statewide protest on Tuesday this week 
against the Carr Labor Government's WorkCover workers' compensation 
legislation. Unions began a blockade of Parliament House at 6am on Tuesday, 
requesting Members of the NSW Parliament and staff not to enter the 
building. Public transport workers refused to collect fares and the Police 
Association called on its members not to issue fines for speeding and other 
traffic offences.

Angry workers and union officials chanted "Hands off Workers' Comp" as they 
stood on the picket line outside Parliament. The aim of the blockade is to 
stop Labor MPs from taking part in a Legislative Assembly vote on 
amendments to the workers' compensation legislation.

In particular, they are calling on 43 Labor backbenchers to honour a 
previous pledge to oppose the legislation until "sensible amendments" had 
been negotiated with the unions.

Far from negotiating "sensible amendments" with the trade unions, the Carr 
Labor Government has reneged on previous undertakings and is trying to rush 
through legislation that would deny workers fundamental rights to basic 
common law and adequate compensation.

The Bill changes the method of assessing workers' injuries, using American 
Medical Association assessment guidelines.

The right to common law (suing the boss for negligence resulting in injury) 
would be denied to workers with less than 25 percent whole person 
impairment as a result of their injury.

Under the American Guides, the 25 percent level is the equivalent to 
permanent brain damage with loss of memory and inability to self-care or to 
ever again be employed.

Those with lesser impairments, even though they might never be able to 
return to their former employment, would be denied common law rights.

In addition to its denial of basic justice, these provisions amount to 
outright discrimination against workers, depriving them of the rights 
available to every other person who may suffer similar injuries.

As well as denying the majority of injured workers the right to pursue a 
claim in the courts, the Bill severely restricts their right to appeal 
against the decisions of a new Workers' Compensation Commission.

When Industrial Relations Minister John Della Bosca first produced his Bill 
in February this year, unions were horrified and disgusted at its anti-
worker content.

There was a huge uproar in trade union and Labor Party ranks, trade union 
protests and marches, public transport workers refused to take fares and 
other actions.

The Bill was then withdrawn and a secret agreement negotiated between the 
Government and Labor Council. This agreement, adopted on May 21, was used 
by the Labor Council and union leaders to calm the situation and throw cold 
water on opposition to the proposed changes.

Under the deal, negotiations were to continue and the Government was to 
proceed with new amendments, but only on matters where there was agreement. 
Areas of disagreement were to be omitted from the Bill and reviewed by a 
judicial inquiry.

This latest Bill, which Della Bosca only showed the union negotiating 
committee last Friday  without prior consultation, let alone agreement  
contains many of the items that were not agreed upon. This is in flagrant 
breach of the agreed process and an act of utter contempt for the workers 
and their unions by Della Bosca and his Government.

In fact, the "new" Bill is remarkably similar to the original one. The 
rights of workers have not been restored in the Bill. In addition, there 
are frightening provisions that would permit the Government to make further 
changes to workers' compensation provisions by regulation, without the need 
for legislative amendments.

Further inflaming the situation, an arrogant Della Bosca last week 
announced that the Bill would be presented to Parliament and passed through 
the Legislative Assembly on Tuesday this week, leaving unions very little 
time to mobilise members.

A meeting of Labor Council affiliates held on Monday morning (June 18), was 
unanimous in its opposition to the Bill. The meeting called on the 
Government to withdraw the Bill and allow negotiations to proceed. It also 
called on the ALP Parliamentary Caucus to support its withdrawal.

The meeting called for its own Workers' Compensation Committee to convene 
and develop a campaign of industrial action.

There is considerable pressure on the right-wing dominated Labor Council  
from affiliated unions to fight this one all the way. The stakes for 
workers are extremely high. The Government is attempting to cut workers'  
compensation insurance costs for employers by denying workers their basic 
rights.

The Bill acts as a disincentive to employers to take workplace health and 
safety seriously, let alone put in place measures to prevent injuries.

The Bill should be thrown out and in its place measures should be taken to 
address the question of making workplaces safe  in the long run it would 
save on costs and protect the health and safety of millions of NSW workers.

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