Social change through worker dignity

The need for food parcels for those on workers’ compensation seems to continue in South Australia according to a 3 July 2010 report in Adelaide Advertiser.  SafetyAtWorkBlog mentioned the service being offered by Rosemary Mackenzie-Ferguson and others in March 2010.

There are many areas of society that are supported by privately provided social services and this situation is likely to persist but just as soup kitchens illustrate a problem of poverty, so the food service mentioned above indicates a problem with workers’ compensation.

As each Australian state reviews its workers’ compensation laws ahead of a national harmonisation, it seems absurd to focus on the laws but not on the social impacts of those laws.  It is common to refer to a “whole-of-government” approach to issues but “whole-of-society” seems to be a slower concept to embrace.

Much is being made in Australia’s OHS harmonisation process of the need to look at the enforcement policies that support new legislation.  There is also a (flawed) reliance on Courts to provide clarity to the legislation rather than producing clear laws in the first place.  But rarely does government look beyond the law, the Courts, or the enforcement policies to assess the potentially negative social impacts of the OHS and workers’ compensation laws.

This may be due to the private sector role in workers’ compensation insurance where the profit motive is imposed between the law and the citizen.  In South Australia there is only one workers’ compensation insurer, EML, which has been heavily criticised by many in the system.  Other Australian States have multiple insurance providers on the understanding that competition provides better service or, at least, consumer choices if dissatisfied.

A recent meeting in South Australia heard from Workcover South Australia that injured worker satisfaction levels with EML have fallen sharply in the last 12 months to their lowest level since 2006.  The satisfaction level with Workcover SA has also dipped since May 2009.

Significantly, employer satisfaction levels  with EML have not met the benchmark level set in 2006 and have fluctuated a lot in each survey period.

But consumer choice is only available to premium-payers not to the end-user.  The end users are those who may contact Rosemary Mackenzie-Ferguson and feel they have been the victim of a heartless system – victims of circumstance who cannot work through no fault of their own.

Some years ago, Melbourne hosted an international symposium on social security and work which had around 5,000 attendees from around the world.  That symposium stamped in this author’s mind the place that workers’ compensation insurance plays in the health of the citizenry and of society generally.  In the majority world, injured workers struggle on through the support of extended family networks.  The minority or Western world has seen an erosion of the extended family and insurance has become a defacto carer for injured workers but without the “blood link”, without the ownership and without the love.

One cannot legislate for love but one can legislate respect and dignity.  Such legislation should be on the same agenda as the harmonisation of OHS and workers’ compensation laws.  Australia has a model or information source to follow in the work of Dame Carol Black in the United Kingdom.  It is also possible to look before Dame Black to the 2001 Irish task force on the prevention of workplace bullying where dignity at work was a centrepiece.

One should also not rely solely on government to provide such long-lasting reforms.  The “Respect Agenda” moves of past UK governments and the current Victorian Government have been revealed to be little more than salves for short-term political pain and this political spin has removed any option for government-generated reform in the future on respect or dignity.

However, as history has shown elsewhere, cultural change that lasts usually originates from the people rather than career politicians.  It is here that true leadership can be demonstrated by safety professionals and their associations or from those corporations who genuinely embrace the social obligations of corporate social responsibility (CSR).

It seems that there is a confluence of issues that can be applied to support such a movement – workplace bullying, the litigious society, the “compensation culture”, CSR, mental health…….  All that is needed is a spark of (true) leadership to improve the lot of the worker and through this specific aim, society as a whole.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

2 thoughts on “Social change through worker dignity”

  1. What is more frustrating about all of this is knowing just how simple it is to fix and not being able to do anything other than continue to beg for support to be able to feed the injured workers of South Australia.
    Please do not think that this is just an issue in South Australia, because it isn\’t. I have had calls from all over the country wanting to know just when it will be that the \”Bags of Love\” project will arrive.

    A few weeks back I did ask a senior staff person if when the agenda for the Combined Stakeholder meeting was sent out if it would be alright to ask the attendees if they would mind bringing a bag of non-perishable foods.
    I was not surprised but saddened when the response came back that it would not be right to ask for such donations.

    There is no room for dignity, respect or compassion in the current WorkCover process. People beg for help just to gain their rights and are threatened with dire consequences if they should complain.
    It is no wonder that people loose their ability to cope when they are combatting their compensible injury and the WorkCover system at the same time.

    Just recently I took about 2 wheelbarrows of fire wood to a family, it was the first time they had been able to heat their home that week.
    With tempreatures falling to 3C over night, and only hot water bottles to keep them warm the fire wood was more precious than gold.

    Another family had not been able to afford fresh fruit for the children so the gift of 2kgs of crisp apples made all of us cry.

    And the list goes on and on.

    I am not surprised that the satisfaction survey for the system fell, it would have fallen a lot more if there was the ability to use 0 as a starting point instead of the lowest rating being a 1.

    My heart breaks, I end each day exhausted and each Saturday I do try to sleep till 6am.
    As Tony Harrison has already pointed out, there is no help from the very people who should be helping.
    There has not been any contact from any of the professional strangers who make a very good living out of the injuries.
    Injured workers are the dirty unspoken and unclean requirement of an industry that has built itself around the suffering of others.
    Tony said every member of Parliament should hang their heads in shame, and I would agree with the exception of Ann Bressington MLC who is the major sponsor for the \”Bags of Love\” food relief project.

    For now the saddest part is that no one who can help change the way the system is wants to talk to me.
    I have had numerous well wishes, but not one call to find out what it is that I know.

  2. There is very little that can be added to this blog unless it is to heap criticism on the those charged with case management, who on the face of it, are tutored in the art of frustration and coercion using the myriad of sections of the OHSW Act to bamboozle and intimidate workers who are uneducated in the ways of the shockingly flawed and managed system.

    It is easy for those charged with managing the compensation system to make unconscionable decisions without fear of repercussion given the protection afforded by the Act, remove significant elements of that protection and see how the story would change.

    I understand that Rosemary has zero assistance from Workcover or the government in providing assistance to injured workers who have nowhere else to turn. The Minister, the Government, every member of parliament should hang their collective heads in shame and the Union movement is no better.

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