The first workers’ compensation harmonisation meeting a sham: unions

“The conference inside is a bit of a sham” claimed Brian Boyd, Victorian Trades Hall Secretary at the first meeting into the harmonisation of Australia’s workers compensation laws.

“It’s really another hidden agenda about trying to harmonise workers comp after we fully know already, they’ve messed up harmonisation of OHS.”

Boyd (above right) and Geoff Fary (above left), Assistance Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, are both convinced that the OHS harmonisation process has not worked and therefore argue that the Government should not proceed with workers’ compensation.  The OHS process has yet to be completed and the trade union movement has been an integral part of the process since the very beginning, as they are with the process for workers’ compensation.  It would be interesting to find out the reasons for the “failure”.

The unions have complained to the conference about limited access to closed sessions.  The consultation process should be open, transparent and inclusive but it seems a little precious for the unions to complain about limited access when they are already at the big table.  There are many others interested in the reform process who were not included or not invited.

Geoff Fary stated that a condition of continuing union involvement is that no worker will be worse off under any new workers compensation regimes (see below). This is reassuring and, in other political spheres within the last five years, has managed to gain support for IR and OHS reforms.  However, the commitment seems doomed before it starts.

Workers have as many workers compensation jurisdictions as they did with OHS.  Each State provides differing levels of cover, care, support, rehabilitation services and premium.  Which one do you choose for the benchmark?

In OHS the unions chose New South Wales and it is only the unions who are continuing to push for NSW OHS components at a national level.  The negotiation is finished in the eyes of the Federal Workplace Relations Minister, Julia Gillard, and the leaders in all States other than Western Australia. [Gillard is spending this week in WA talking with her political colleagues]

Boyd spoke in support of the comments from Dr Helen Sutcliffe who said in the conference that workers are often subjected to a stigma over their injuries and that argy-bargy on workers’ compensation can compound this issues.  Sutcliffe apparently spoke about the complexity of the return-to-work (RTW) process, the absence of risk assessment in the RTW process and the risk of being re-injured by returning to work too early.

Fary spoke to the crowd following Boyd and was more political in his views.  He said that the trade union movement would not be

“…railroaded into a position where we are seen to be participating and supporting a flawed process that would result in a reduction in workers’ benefits and workers’ entitlements.”

Fary provided some statistics that should give pause for thought to many in the OHS and workers’ compensation sectors, as well as the union movement itself.

“…. seven hundred thousand of our fellow Australians suffer an injury, illness or disease as a result of going to work but the vast majority of those do not seek, and are not granted, workers’ compensation benefits as a result of that injury, illness or disease.”

Without knowing what is meant  by an injury it is difficult to get a clear perspective on these statistics.  Injuries could include first aid incidents or some other minor short-term condition.   Hopefully more information on the category of injury will be forthcoming.

Fary stated there are two conditions for continuing union participation in the negotiations.

“For us to be in discussions…. two things are pivotal and critical. The first is that we want from all governments…an absolute, cast-iron guarantee that no worker… would be worse off as a consequence of moving [forward on workers’ compensation harmonisation].

Number two is that there needs to be a full, frank and open process of consultation with the people most concerned… workers…and unions.”

The difficulty of a “cast-iron guarantee” on worker benefits is discussed above and is, frankly, a big ask even though the aim is understandable and worthy.

The second condition is an easy one for SafetyAtWorkBlog to support – an open consultation on the harmonisation of workers’ compensation.  At today’s union protest, the closed and secretive nature of the conference was criticised but no justification for the secrecy has been provided?  Names of those attending have not been released.  No schedule for further conferences has been made public.

The Federal Government is well aware that workers’ compensation is a politically charged issue.  Recent experience in the South Australian election has shown that.  Perhaps this is why they are exercising such tight control on information to the public, stakeholders and media.  The risk with this strategy is that for harmonisation to work the government needs a broad “buy-in” to the consultation process and support for the aims (whatever they may be).   This current strategy risks generating a debilitating “conspiranoia” that could jeopardise the process.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

8 thoughts on “The first workers’ compensation harmonisation meeting a sham: unions”

  1. Hi Kevin, Thanks for the comment. My understanding is as follows: The number of workplace inspectors in South Australia to cover over 60,000 businesses many of them quite small but nevertheless employing the greater majority of our work force is minute, less than 20 and none that I am aware of, employed full time in a proactive preventative inspection program.

    Most inspections take place as a result of either a reportable accident or an independent complaint usually made by a worker or visitor to the place of business.

    Having the legal capacity to apply on the spot fines is one thing but actually providing the practical capacity to do so is another. I doubt the veracity of any statement that says they have evidence to state that punitive preventative action does not work in this environment. You mention other measures, I have yet to see any successful measures that have had a dramatic effect on the reduction of the number of injuries in the workplace across Australia, in fact, the increase in unfunded liabilities says otherwise.

    I am all for research, education and preventative initiatives to cover the more difficult and elusive answers to causes of workplace injury, but the need for consistent \”in your face\” policing at the shop floor is absolute and should be the foundation of safety in the workplace. If we can\’t fix it there it is forever broken.

    1. Tony

      OHS law has been based on shopfloor enforcement since the Robens review in the 1970s. The importance of each employer being responsible for providing a safe and healthy work environment is well-established and continues to be reinforced in Australia legislation. Each set of OHS legislation has actively supported the presence and influence of health and safety representatives in each workplace. Both of these responsibilities exist and operate without official inspections.

      Inspectors, and the government more generally, are not responsible for workplace safety. This is clearly the responsibility of employers and employees to varying degrees. OHS regulators have a role to promote the prevention of injury and to provide advice on how businesses can achieve this.

      One control measure that may not be in place in South Australia is the ability to impose Provisional Improvement Notices (PIN) on specific workplace hazards. These are imposed by employees and/or HSRs and can be verified, or resolved, with the assistance of OHS inspectors, however it is the workplace participants who work to the lifting of the PIN. I have seen these used very effectively in Victoria to identify a hazard and to introduce a control measure within a specified time frame. Frequently PIN notices are followed up by OHS inspectors to ensure compliance. But the power to impose and resolve a PIN sits within the workplace.

      I have a concern that OHS law is becoming increasingly vague and complex and that the effectiveness of the control measures listed above – employers and HSRs – will be reduced and replaced by expensive and, often, unnecessary legal advice. This runs contrary to the aims of the dominant OHS laws in the Commonwealth since Lord Robens\’ inquiry in the UK.

  2. Get the workplace safety laws harmonised and have significant on the spot penalties for non compliance supported by a fully funded and adequate inspectorial force to ensure compliance.

    It would seem that all the issues surrounding workers compensation are predicated on cost to the system and making sure that workers do not get appropriate support as a result of their injury. Anything less than the wages and benefits a worker would enjoy by normally attending his/her work place is an unacceptable impost. Injured workers are not on holiday and they have been injured, hopefully through no fault of their own so why should they be penalised given they are in the main suffering ongoing pain.

    Injured workers see themselves as put upon by the system very early in the process and if you are trying to establish a combative relationship then just continue with the system as it is and costs will continue to escalate, primarily because of the lack of ethical and moral management of cases, where there is a consistent lack of empathy driven by bureaucratic policy and reliance on legalistic interpretations by case managers of the various Act\’s to thoroughly confuse injured workers who have no idea where to turn. Given the very poor record of the Unions in representation on the shop floor, injured workers can\’t rely on them for substantive help on a one on one basis, so where else do they go.

    1. Tony
      You often mention on-the-spot fines. My understanding is that most States have had the capacity for these enforcement measures for some years but many are hesitant to apply them as they have evidence that they are not as effective as other measures.
      The harmonisation of OHS laws also calls for a consistent national enforcement policy so it will be interesting to see if on-the-spot fines are applied nationally

  3. The first workers’ compensation harmonisation meeting a sham: unions

    Kevin Jones has hit the nail on the head. It is secrecy that always clouds public issues, and the area of workers compensation is no exception. OHS harmonisation has and continues to be a drawn out process, but reflects an openess to comment that contrasts with the closed door silence of the workers comp proceedings.

    OHS and compensation, risk management and return to work rightly become interwoven, as they should. If this complicates the original plan/process put in place then all the players need to step back, breathe and set up a new new game plan. A fair go should be the starting point, open discussions the method.

    Get out of the bunkers and let in some fresh air and fresh thoughts and do, and be seen to do, the right thing.

    Graham Scott someoneontheground PROJECTS

    1. What we see as secrecy may be the manifestation of the desire for the control of the consultative process but it shows an insecurity about the process. Open consultation and communication can be managed well if there is a clear aim to the project. This first meeting, seems to be either fishing for ideas or operating like a focus group, testing the waters of \”public\” opinion. May be I am expecting too much at this early stage.

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