In May 2013, Workcover Queensland supported the government’s intention to change the definition of worker to match that of the Australian Taxation Office (ATO). The definition re-emphasises the significance of the employer/employee relationship. Workplace health and safety laws through most of Australia have recently changed to remove the reliance on the employer/employee relationship with the intention of clarifying the lines of responsibility for preventing harm. The diversity between workers’ compensation and OHS definitions unnecessarily complicates the management of a worker’s health through the linear experience of employment.
The government believes such changes will reduce “red tape” but only in the narrow context of workers compensation. The Work Health and Safety Act expands the definition of worker but another piece of legislation in the same State restricts it. Inconsistencies of concepts are likely to lead to duplications, confusion and arguments that may generate as much unnecessary business and legal costs as the initiatives were intended to save.
One example of confusion of worker definitions can be found in the licenced brothel industry. For years the brothel owners and their lobbyists have clung to the ATO definition of worker refusing to acknowledge the broader definition of worker under OHS laws. Issues, such as safety and worker welfare, are seen as non-monetary and therefore of secondary importance.
There is also a focus on various types of business insurance, of which workers compensation is the most relevant here. Insurance compensates for injury and does not prevent harm but insurance is an accepted, or unavoidable, business cost. It can be managed, minimised or, sometimes, manipulated but it “stays on the books” and the accounts. The cost of workers compensation is not enjoyed but it is understood by business.
Keeping the worker defined by an economic relationship allows a business owner to have their closest professional relationship with their financial officer rather than with operations or, heaven forbid, the safety manager (if they have one). It allows for some to see workplace injury as an SEP, “someone else’s problem”. That someone else could be the Return-To-Work Coordinator, the Workcover agent, the human resources officer, the part-time paymaster, but most commonly, the worker.
The brothel worker case discussed in an earlier SafetyAtWorkBlog illustrates how a focus on workers compensation, instead of on the harm prevention of OHS, can lead to extended pain and disruption to the worker, legal costs, reputational damage and workers compensation costs. Most of these business costs can usually be avoided by good safety management and the valuing of workers, what many describe as a business’ most important asset.
By hanging on to an ATO definition of worker because it fits how one wants to manage one’s personnel and ignoring other legal and social obligations is an unsustainable, short-sighted and immoral stance. The Queensland Government may think it is helping businesses and reducing red tape by applying the ATO definition of worker to its workers compensation arrangements but it is also encouraging the business sector to look at managing an incident instead of managing a hazard. It weakens the authority (such as it is) of the recently introduced Work Health and Safety laws.